October 18, 2006

Sacred Ignorance

In writing about the foreign policy of the United States over the past several years, I often feel as if I'm caught in an endless loop. The same issues arise time and time again. I and others offer numerous facts and many arguments to demonstrate how and why the standard assumptions are wrong and profoundly destructive. We offer examples from history, including recent history, to support our points. No one in the foreign policy establishment, and very few bloggers, even acknowledge what we've said. Then, three or six months or a year later, the identical issues come up still one more time, only now countless additional people have been killed and maimed. So I and others offer further facts and supplement our arguments with more details -- and once again, our modest offerings have no impact that is even noticeable.

Here is the most recent example of this phenomenon. It is one that clarifies once more some of the major points that those of us who oppose the aggressively interventionist foreign policy of the United States have been making since before the invasion of Iraq began. On May 14, 2005, I published an essay entitled, "Embracing Ignorance on Principle: And Still, We Will Not See." (I wrote a number of similar pieces well before this one, but I think this article summarizes the central points more effectively.) I stated the general theme of that article at the very beginning:
A recent pair of articles illustrates very powerfully the significant, and dangerous, differences between much of the reporting about Iraq in the American press and in the European press. Reading the articles side by side also reveals the enormous failures of comprehension of Iraq's history and culture exhibited by most Americans, including by the American government.
I examined an article by James Bennet in the New York Times, and one by Patrick Cockburn published in the London Review of Books. In introducing the Cockburn piece, I wrote:
Perhaps the point of greatest significance is that its author, Patrick Cockburn, has been reporting from Iraq since 1978. This makes all the difference in the world, but it is a difference our government seems determined to ignore, as a matter of some unstated principle. While Bennet relies on history from everywhere else in the world -- from Vietnam, from Greece, from Northern Ireland -- Cockburn appreciates and understands the central importance of the history of Iraq itself. One might be pardoned for not having thought that this stunningly obvious point would require explanation and justification, but such is the nature of our disastrously failed foreign policy -- a failure which is all too comprehensible, if one knows where to look for the reasons.
After examining the two articles, I offered some observations about the conclusions that were indicated:
The U.S., and most of the American media, have been and remain resolutely determined to look at the wrong history. They act as if Iraq's own history, including its long, bloody history of ethnic strife (pace Wolfowitz), is entirely irrelevant. It is hardly a mystery why they are then unable to grasp what is right before their eyes. They look at events in Iraq (to the extent they do look at them, which is far from comprehensive as Cockburn makes very clear) through the prism of ideas they have gleaned from other countries' histories -- and the reality of Iraq itself never assumes solid shape before them.

This determined refusal to look at and understand the relevant facts, including the crucially relevant history, is a significant part of the reason why Bush's repeated mantra that "everyone wants freedom," and moreover that everyone wants freedom in roughly the same form that we enjoy it, is so hollow and so unconvincing. It was not true in Vietnam, and it is not true in Iraq. Peoples' attitudes, objectives, alliances and enmities are uniquely shaped by their particular history -- not by ours, or by no history at all. And it is the latter that is unavoidably implied by the attitude revealed by Bennet in his article, and by the Bush administration: they seem to believe that "freedom" and "democracy" are abstractions that are plucked by people from the sky overhead -- and then applied by everyone in precisely the same manner, regardless of history, geography, culture and every other aspect of their specific lives.


[T]his is yet another reason why I maintain, as I explained yesterday, that we should leave immediately, or as close to immediately as we can -- and set a time limit of six months at the outside, for example, for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops. Not only are we a significant source of the ongoing violence, but we continue to refuse to learn about the nature of the Iraqis themselves, and what their perspectives and their aims are.

Because we are determined to remain ignorant of the actual nature and consequences of our own actions, and because this state of ignorance appears to be ongoing and unchangeable, the degree of the disaster will only increase. This is why we must leave now. The longer our withdrawal is delayed, the greater the devastation will be.

Ignorance is never bliss -- and it is especially not bliss when a huge military force is deployed against another nation, one which never seriously threatened us, and when we engage in torture, murder and devastation on a huge and unforgivable scale. Our actions are only made worse when they are supposedly "justified" by the indiscriminate use of terms such as "liberation" and "freedom," when those otherwise laudable and even glorious goals are used in a manner devoid of context and lacking in any specific meaning.
I repeat a critical point, one which those who seek only narrow partisan advantage are determined to avoid. Bush is a uniquely calamitous leader in numerous ways. Certainly, the abomination of the Military Commissions Act places him firmly in the annals of damnation, where one will find those leaders who have betrayed their own country's founding principles in ways that are never to be forgiven. And Iraq is an especially destructive episode in our history, and in the history of the Middle East as well as the world more generally.

But, in terms of the underlying foreign policy principles that Bush embraces and implements, he falls squarely in the U.S. interventionist tradition -- a tradition that stretches back to the Spanish-American War and the Philippines, to the Wilsonian "ideal" of "spreading democracy" across the globe, on through Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan and all the rest. The examples of Vietnam and Iraq together reveal the same dynamics, and the identical catastrophic results. Our overall approach to foreign policy, and the embrace of aggressive non-defensive intervention, knows no party: it is beloved by the entire entrenched foreign policy establishment, Republican and Democrat. Republicans and Democrats alike bleat that the idea of a nuclear Iran or a nuclear North Korea is "unacceptable" and "intolerable" -- a position that relies on the assumption that we, and we alone, have the "right" to dictate to the entire rest of the world the ways in which all other countries may act that are approved, and those which are not. Even if one were to grant the assumption, how do we propose to enforce our endless moral pronouncements, even about matters that do not directly implicate our national security? Short of militarizing our entire country and engaging in literally endless war, it cannot be done. But growing militarization and perpetual war is the policy that both parties ultimately support.

Added to this militant interventionism is our national narcissism, which springs from our belief in our own "exceptionalism," while we simultaneously believe that all of humanity wants exactly what we want. As I have discussed, the proponents of this view never reconcile these contradictory ideas, just as they do not want to face the obvious question: if everyone wants what we want, why then do we have to impose our "ideals" on them by bombing, murder, invasion and occupation? Our narcissism has the additional result noted in my earlier essay: if we are the model for the world, and if everyone wants what we want, then the histories, cultures, and aspirations of other peoples are of no consequence. We need not ever direct our glance outward -- to determine the goals and desires of those we subjugate. Why, they really want exactly what we propose to give them, at the end of a gun if necessary. If they don't, it is only because they are ignorant. And that is, in fact, what the foreign policy establishment believes, although it will rarely admit it honestly and unambiguously: to the extent other peoples resist our efforts to improve them, they are "less than," they are not as "civilized" as we are, they are not fully human. So if we kill thousands or even millions of them, what does it matter? It's not as if it is Americans who are being killed.

With this background in mind, the article by Jeff Stein in yesterday's New York Times (which has already been widely noted) is not at all surprising. Indeed, it was completely and entirely predictable:
FOR the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: "Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?"

A "gotcha" question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I’m not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?


But so far, most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?


A few weeks ago, I took the F.B.I.’s temperature again. At the end of a long interview, I asked Willie Hulon, chief of the bureau’s new national security branch, whether he thought that it was important for a man in his position to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. "Yes, sure, it’s right to know the difference," he said. "It’s important to know who your targets are."

That was a big advance over 2005. So next I asked him if he could tell me the difference. He was flummoxed. "The basics goes back to their beliefs and who they were following," he said. "And the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shia and the difference between who they were following."

O.K., I asked, trying to help, what about today? Which one is Iran — Sunni or Shiite? He thought for a second. "Iran and Hezbollah," I prompted. "Which are they?"

He took a stab: "Sunni."



Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.

"Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?" I asked him a few weeks ago.

Mr. Everett responded with a low chuckle. He thought for a moment: "One’s in one location, another’s in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don’t know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something."

To his credit, he asked me to explain the differences. I told him briefly about the schism that developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and how Iraq and Iran are majority Shiite nations while the rest of the Muslim world is mostly Sunni. "Now that you’ve explained it to me," he replied, "what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area."
There are additional grisly details, but that gives you the idea. Stein concludes:
Some agency officials and members of Congress have easily handled my "gotcha" question. But as I keep asking it around Capitol Hill and the agencies, I get more and more blank stares. Too many officials in charge of the war on terrorism just don’t care to learn much, if anything, about the enemy we’re fighting. And that’s enough to keep anybody up at night.
Stein's article reveals this profound, determined ignorance in a manner that is especially stark and appalling. But I emphasize once again two critical issues: this ignorance is the inevitable and logical result of the basic premises that drive our foreign policy, and our government's blindness about the rest of the world has been staggeringly obvious for years -- and in fact, for many decades.

From the Philippines, through Vietnam, through Central America, through numerous other interventions (acknowledged and covert), through Iraq -- it's the same theme, repeated with endless variations. We never learn -- and we pride ourselves on the fact that we are not obliged to learn. We are unique and "exceptional." Everyone wants what only we have. It is our "right" to bring the rest of the world into line with our goals and desires, using military force as required.

And then we wonder why chaos, destruction and death follow in our wake.

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