As to the simmering nuclear crisis with Iran, there is yet another big contradiction on display. Much pressure is being brought to bear to prevent nuclear proliferation; but Tehran knows that Washington still persists in its efforts to bring an end to the mullahs' rule. A nuclear deterrent is probably seen by most Iranians as their only insurance against an American campaign aimed at regime change. Thus the logic of this difficult situation calls for a concession -- not more coercion in the form of tighter sanctions. It could take the form of agreeing not to overthrow the Iranian government in return for the end of the covert nuclear weapons program. This sort of compromise (i.e., an American pledge not to invade) worked to get Russian missiles out of Cuba half a century ago.
The contradictions of American foreign policy extend even to the cyber realm. There has been a drumbeat of criticism of Chinese cyber snooping and theft of intellectual property in recent years, yet the world's perception is that the United States was behind the Stuxnet attack on Iran. This incident was, and remains to date, the world's most spectacular example of cyberwar -- or at least "cybotage." For the United States to excoriate others for their offenses in the cyber domain while at the same time being seen, rightly or wrongly, as the perpetrator of cyber attacks of its own, is a real head-scratcher of a policy problem.
This long list of inconsistent behavior in and toward the world flies in the face of the dominant American self-image of fairness and forthrightness. But even at home the Dorian-Gray-like picture of our country conveyed by maps of gerrymandered Congressional districts is there to see, growing ever more hideous with each decennial redistricting. We see it in our popular culture, too. We once had both iconic heroes and anti-heroes roaming our screens -- though the former were more prominent. Take John Wayne's Sergeant Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima, or Bruce Willis's John McClane in the Die Hard franchise. Not anymore. Now all too many protagonists are monsters, like Bryan Cranston's Walter White in Breaking Bad. And what heroes we have left, we lampoon as muscle-headed has-beens in movies like The Expendables.
Where are the voices to counter all this? Even across the bitter partisan divide, Thomas Jefferson's voice may still resonate. In a letter to fellow Founding Father and future President James Monroe on New Year's Day, 1815, ex-President Jefferson tackled the issue of how the United States should be perceived in the world. He wanted American presidents always to be believed, and so enjoined Monroe to hew to "the naked truth always, whether favorable or unfavorable." America should have a reputation as a straight shooter. Refreshing. So too are some of the voices heard today. In the academy, Andrew Bacevich is perhaps the most articulate critic of America's meandering, too-militarized foreign policy -- see his Washington Rules at the very least. And in Congress Senator Rand Paul has energized the public discourse along Jeffersonian lines, calling for limited government and less foreign adventurism.
But the best solution to the problem of hypocrisy may come from Emerson, who stirred up a "consistency debate" back in the 19th century. At the end of "Self-Reliance" he calls upon all of us to wage this battle for our souls, to "enter into the state of war, and awake Thor and Woden, courage and constancy." Indeed, these are the truest aspects of what we think of as heroic. And as far as heroes go, at least there's been a recent movie about Thor -- a sure sign of hope.