Ignatieff Eats Crow
Source Sabri Oncu
Date 04/06/27/23:47

New York Times Magazine
June 27, 2004
Mirage in the Desert

It has been a charged and burdened time -- the D-Day
commemorations, the death of a president, the daily
carnage in Iraq, the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison,
a July 4 just over the horizon -- the sublime and the
squalid, the decent and the desperate in American life
so overlaid upon one another that it is hard to
reconcile the high rhetoric of one moment with the
terrible reality of the other. As Americans remembered
the boys of Pointe du Hoc and the president who
immortalized them, they had to read reports of
government lawyers telling their superiors that ''the
infliction of pain or suffering per se, whether it is
physical or mental, is insufficient to amount to
torture.'' The discordance between the high sentiments
heard at President Reagan's funeral and the lawyers'
attempts to justify the unjustifiable left you unable
to determine whether the rhetoric of the funeral was a
moment of spiritual reaffirmation or just an exercise
in organized amnesia. The memoranda from White House
counsel, and from Department of Justice and Department
of Defense lawyers, gave new meaning to Robert
Lowell's phrase ''savage servility.'' Their argument
that ''the president's inherent constitutional
authority to manage a military campaign'' rendered the
United States' obligations under the Torture
Convention ''inapplicable'' to interrogations
conducted pursuant to his command left you wondering
if they had ever heard of the Nuremberg tribunal. You
might have thought that after Justice Robert Jackson's
great opening speech at the war crimes trials of Nazi
leaders in Nuremberg, no American lawyer would ever
dare to use obedience to superior authority as
justification for inhuman acts of abuse. In the memos
that filled the pages of our newspapers, there was
more than servility. There was also a terrible

You will say: Remember the departed president. Don't
stain his memory with painful associations. But this
is just not possible. The clash between the rhetoric
of American democracy and the reality of American life
is eternal. Indeed, it is the very essence of the
American story. Ask the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board
of Education how long they had to wait for ''separate
but equal'' to be overthrown. Ask the teachers of
segregated American public schools if the promise of
Brown has been realized even today. America has never
been equal to its rhetoric, and sometimes it can
sustain belief in itself only by forgetting.

Only willed blindness could maintain the magic moments
of presidential mourning. At the funeral service in
the National Cathedral, former Senator John C.
Danforth evoked the Puritan vision of John Winthrop:
''The eyes of the world would be on America because
God had given us a special commission, so it was our
duty to shine forth.'' The eyes of the world these
past months would not have been on Winthrop's city
upon a hill, but instead on a hooded figure standing
on a box in a prison cell. At the funeral, President
Bush's father spoke of an America that was made in the
departed president's image: ''hopeful, bighearted,
idealistic, daring, decent and fair.'' Iraqis have met
Americans like this, but their reputation has been
blackened by the grinning few in Abu Ghraib.

To deflect their own accountability, American leaders
confidently proclaim that the guilty ones are just a
few rotten apples in an otherwise sweet American
bushel basket. We are told that the abusers do not
represent America. The reality, as always, is more
painful. Go out and ask Americans what they think
about Abu Ghraib. An ABC News/Washington Post poll
recently found that 46 percent of Americans believed
that physical abuse short of torture is sometimes
acceptable, while 35 percent thought that outright
torture is acceptable in some cases.

Again, you will say: Let's not exaggerate. Let's not
lose our nerve here. But no other democracy is so
exposed by these painful moral juxtapositions, because
no other nation has made a civil religion of its
self-belief. The abolition of cruel and unusual
punishment was a founding premise of that civil
religion. This was how the fledgling republic
distinguished itself from the cruel tyrannies of
Europe. From this sense of exceptionalism grew an
exceptional sense of mission. President Reagan's
funeral was a high Mass of rededication to that
eternal mission. The question is whether these
reaffirmations still inspire Americans to be better
than they actually are, or whether the nation's
rhetoric has degenerated into a ritual concealment of
what the country has actually become.

Yet concealment is not altogether possible, because
even America's most haunting symbols have a duality
that reminds its citizens, at first, of the matchless
traditions of American leadership, and then, lest
sentimentality take hold, forces them to recall its
equally matchless traditions of political violence.
Who, thinking back on the week of mourning for Ronald
Reagan, will forget the riderless horse, the empty
saddle, the boots reversed in the stirrups? In that
image, it was so easy to conjure one president, the
smiling cowboy in the California sun, and forget the
other one, clutching his throat, pitched forward in
the Lincoln, death already on his face.

Theodore Sorensen, who as a young man wrote President
Kennedy's best speeches, gave a commencement speech of
his own recently that was not so much an address as a
cry of anguish. He remembered a time when you could go
overseas and walk down avenues named after Lincoln,
Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Hardly anyone is naming streets after Americans in the
cities of the world these days. ''What has happened to
our country?'' Sorensen exclaimed. ''We have been in
wars before, without resorting to sexual humiliation
as torture, without blocking the Red Cross, without
insulting and deceiving our allies and the U.N.,
without betraying our traditional values, without
imitating our adversaries, without blackening our name
around the world.''

Sorensen's anguish was genuine, but it was forgetful.
He forgot Vietnam, the stain that formed on his
martyred president's watch and went on to blight
American prestige and power for decades. Iraq is not
Vietnam, but still it is salutary to remember Vietnam
and to recall that America does not always prevail in
the end. It is time to admit that America's story
includes defeat and failure. For if the country needs
anything as it faces up to Iraq, it is to put away the
messianic and missionary oratory of presidential
funerals and learn some humility while there is still

At Abu Ghraib, America paid the price for American
exceptionalism, the idea that America is too noble,
too special, too great to actually obey international
treaties like the Torture Convention or international
bodies like the Red Cross. Enthralled by narcissism
and deluded by servility, American lawyers forgot
their own Constitution and its peremptory prohibition
of cruel and unusual punishment. Any American
administration, especially this one, needs to learn
that in paying ''decent respect to the opinions of
mankind'' -- Jefferson's phrase -- America also pays
respect to its better self.

Abu Ghraib and the other catastrophes of occupation
have cost America the Iraqi hearts and minds its
soldiers had patiently won over since victory. To say
this is to say that America has lost the power to
shape Iraq for the better. Accepting this will not be
easy. America has as much trouble admitting its
capacity for evil as for recognizing the limits of its
capacity to do good.

This does not mean Iraq has been lost, as Vietnam was
lost before it. The new interim government is
struggling to convince Iraqis that it serves them,
rather than the Americans. As the Iraqi government
acquires legitimacy, the hateful resistance -- which
has killed many more Iraqis than Americans -- will
lose its standing. If the interim government, together
with the United Nations mission, can guide the country
toward a constitutional convention in 2005 and free
elections by 2006, Iraq will become what Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani says it should be: a country
ruled by the will of the people.

The modish cynics who take failure in Iraq for granted
underestimate the people of Iraq. The country is not a
failed state, the United Nations adviser Lakhdar
Brahimi reminds us, but a powerful nation with a
trained middle class and huge potential oil wealth.
Even the disasters of the past year have taught all
Iraqis a harrowing lesson in the necessity of prudence
and restraint. Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds now have
objective reasons, even if they distrust one another,
to avoid the descent into civil war -- and there now
exists at least a path to elections that may lure the
gunmen into politics.

Iraqis may not have full sovereignty yet, but America
needs to understand that Iraqis, not Americans, are
already sovereign over events there. America would be
a better nation-builder if it acknowledged this, but
its history does not encourage humility. During the
D-Day celebrations, the old newsreel footage of dusty
G.I.'s riding into Rome and Paris in 1944 burnished
America's incorrigible mythology of its own
omnipotence. In Iraq, even the locals succumbed to it,
expecting that the world's most powerful country must
be able to get water, electricity and security running
in no time. It was a rude surprise to discover how
chaotic, incompetent and downright violent the godlike
liberators turned out to be. America had the Bradleys
and the Abrams, but it knew next to nothing about
Iraq, and soon ignorance -- of the language, tribal
alliances and family and clan networks -- left U.S.
soldiers ambushed and outwitted in the deadly
alleyways of Falluja and Najaf.

Ordinary American ignorance was compounded by the
administration's arrogance. Gen. George C. Marshall
began planning the postwar occupation of Germany two
years before D-Day. This administration was fumbling
for a plan two months before the invasion. Who can
read Bob Woodward's ''Plan of Attack'' and not find
his jaw dropping at the fact that from the very
beginning, in late 2001, none of the civilian
leadership, not Rice, not Powell, not Tenet, not the
president, asked where the plan for the occupation
phase was? Who can't feel that U.S. captains, majors
and lieutenants were betrayed by the Beltway wars
between State and Defense? Who can't feel rage that
victorious armies stood by and watched for a month
while Iraq was looted bare?

Someone like me who supported the war on human rights
grounds has nowhere to hide: we didn't suppose the
administration was particularly nice, but we did
assume it would be competent. There isn't much excuse
for its incompetence, but equally, there isn't much
excuse for our naivete either.

Still, the United States did one thing well in Iraq,
and nobody else could have done it -- it overthrew a
dictator. Everything else was badly done, and some of
what was done -- Abu Ghraib -- was a moral disgrace
and a strategic catastrophe.

The United States has only one remaining task in Iraq:
to prevent civil war and the dismemberment of the
country. Sending in more troops will only turn them
into targets and delay the day when Iraqis are
required to defend themselves. The troops should be
there to train enough Iraqis loyal to the national
government to prevent Kurds from turning on Sunnis or
Shiites from turning against both. America cannot
defend Iraq from its demons of division: it can only
help Iraqis do so. When there is a freely elected
government, the United States should come home.
January 2006 is the date for return set by the United
Nations resolution. By then the oil should be flowing,
the coffers of the Iraqi state should be filling up
and what Iraq will do with the money will be up to the
Iraqis, not us. America may not be able to shape Iraq
for the better, but it cannot abdicate its
responsibility to prevent the worst. Intervention
amounted to a promise. The promise -- of eventual
peace and order -- needs to be kept.

The signal illusion from which America has to awake in
Iraq and everywhere else is that it serves God's
providence or (for those with more secular beliefs)
that it is the engine of history. In Iraq, America is
not the maker of history but its plaything. In the
region at large, America is not the hegemon but the
hesitant shaper of forces it barely understands. In
the Middle East, it stands by, apparently helpless, as
Israelis create more facts on the ground and
Palestinians create more suicide bombers. All this
shows that the world does not exist to be molded to
American wishes. It is good that the United States has
wanted to be better than it is. It is good that the
death of a president gave it a week to revive its
belief in itself. But it cannot continue to bear this
burden of destiny. For believing that it is
Providence's chosen instrument makes the country
overestimate its power; it encourages it to lie to
itself about its mistakes; and it makes it harder to
live with the painful truth that history does not
always -- or even very often -- obey the magnificent
but dangerous illusions of American will.

Michael Ignatieff, a contributing writer for The New
York Times Magazine, is author, most recently, of
''Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror''
(Princeton University Press).

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