May 13, 2005

A Last Word on Abu Ghraib

Suzanne Nossel closes our exchange over how the prisoner abuse scandals by reiterating a point no one can argue with: that these make it harder for the American government to implement its policies overseas. No doubt about it (though see Suzanne's comments for an amusing sidebar on the alleged Koran-flushing incident. Maybe if you put it on a CD, and crumpled it up...). About this aspect of the prisoner abuse scandals I have nothing more to say, and only one thing more to say about foreign perceptions of the United States in general.

This is that, sometimes, part of the problem when other people suspect you of not being what you purport to be is what you purport to be. If American officials from the President on down continually present the United States primarily as a beacon of freedom and champion of democracy -- because they are speaking primarily to their domestic audience -- inconsistencies and betrayed ideals will all but leap out at foreign audiences. The fact is and always has been that the United States is a nation with national interests, many of which have nothing to do with spreading freedom and democracy.

There is nothing wrong with being frank about that, and quite a few things wrong with pretending that it isn't true. Naturally we want our southern neighbors to be free and prosperous, but what we need is for them to stop sending so many illegal immigrants to the United States. Absolutely we support democracy in Iran because the Iranian people have universal human rights, but mainly the dominant forces in the current government are violently hostile to the United States and likely to remain so. Of course we would like to see more freedom in a country like Egypt, but what we need is for Egypt not to export terrorists (and, by the way, it would be nice if Egypt could exert its influence to stop the genocide going on just over its southern border. As far as I'm concerned, if Mubarak would do that he could arrange his next ceremonial reelection any way he liked).

Additional examples could be multiplied many times over. With respect to Iraq alone there must be about twenty of them. Other nations expect the United States to pursue its interests, because it is what they do. They recognize that in addition we will encourage, exhort, warn and otherwise promote our political ideals, but continual proclamations that we are mostly about ideals and only secondarily about interests all but guarantee confusion and disillusion in almost every foreign country. Sooner or later foreign audiences discover that we aren't, even if many Americans never get the message.

Posted by at May 13, 2005 11:59 AM | TrackBack (5)


Very good post, and I will grudgingly admit that Suzanne does have a point though I might quibble over some of the details.

But I think a more important question needs to be asked. Are our national interests and ideals we put forth two conflicting purposes, or is it two sides of the same coin?

For instance you mention our southern neighbors and our desire to see them free & prosperous, but yet to stop sending illegal immigrants to the US. Would we have the problem of illegal immigrants if they were free and prosperous to the degree we are? Would the Iranian government be hostile to the US if the Iranian people were free to govern themselves, or would we see a relationship similar to France were we compete economically but coordinate on shared interests? More crucial, would we continue to see Islamic extremism if the Middle Eastern people were free to express & govern themselves?

I would think that despite some of our missteps, our idealism is the vision for producing the tangible results that are our national interests. Our idealism and national interests are not always a zero sum game.

Posted by: m.harn at May 13, 2005 04:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't think that the problem lies in the US not acting consistently with its ideals at all times; the world understand that there are limits to practical applications of idealism.

The problem occurs when the US act in a manner that is completely opposite of those ideals. The US can't talk about "human rights", then decide that the Geneva Conventions are "quaint" and that the US can unilaterally decide when it can ignore their provisions. The US can't talk about democracy, then support the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Venezuela because it disagrees with their President's economic policies.

It is the highly selective nature of what the US criticizes and supports that leads to the erosion of American credibility on issues like democracy and freedom.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 13, 2005 05:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think it was a few pages torn out of a Koran that were "flushed" - talk about appallingly stupid.

Posted by: TexasToast at May 13, 2005 11:14 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

one word is all you need to understand the Bush administration's hypocrisy on human rights and democracy


(and if you want to be really appalled, contrast the Bush regime's reaction to the gunning down of literally hundreds of protesters in Uzbekistan to its reaction to the deaths of a handful of protesters in Venezuela)

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 14, 2005 05:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

p. l., you really must learn to govern your passions. They will be your undoing.

What do you know about what happened in Uzbekistan, or why? Why do you care? Why do you feel it necessary to leap to the defense of the Chavez government in Venezuela -- which is, and I'm sorry to have to refer you to a map of the world to find the reason for this, much more important to the United States than Uzbekistan is -- just because Chavez is hostile to the United States?

Honestly, I'm starting to think of you as one of those Reuben James Democrats, the people that had they been around in 1941 would have thought Roosevelt was being a bully to the poor Nazis whose leader had been democratically elected and was just trying to break the blockade of Roosevelt's British friends, and that the sailors on the Reuben James got what was coming to them.

Posted by: JEB at May 14, 2005 11:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Whoa! Fox 2...Bingo!!!

Would that your response really was the last word...

Posted by: Tommy G at May 17, 2005 12:49 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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