Michael Ignatieff’s piece in the New York Times titled Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom Is Theirs to Spread?  is second on the list of most emailed articles, i.e. high on their Recommended List. While it contains some stuff that is a joy to read, Mr Ignatieff asks several wrong questions which of course lead to wrong answers.

He begins by quoting Jefferson’s letter for the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence:

”To some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,” he wrote, the American form of republican self-government would become every nation’s birthright. Democracy’s worldwide triumph was assured, he went on to say, because ”the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion” would soon convince all men that they were born not to be ruled but to rule themselves in freedom.

Powerful words. However, Ignatieff seems to think that W is a “gambler from Texas” who has bet his presidency on the Iraq war:

If democracy plants itself in Iraq and spreads throughout the Middle East, Bush will be remembered as a plain-speaking visionary. If Iraq fails, it will be his Vietnam, and nothing else will matter much about his time in office. For any president, it must be daunting to know already that his reputation depends on what Jefferson once called ”so inscrutable [an] arrangement of causes and consequences in this world.”

Bush will not be remembered as a “plain-speaking visionary” even if peace breaks out all over and the self-satisfied arrogance of this intellectual midget could not be daunted by anything.

Here comes the good part:

The consequences are more likely to be positive if the president begins to show some concern about the gap between his words and his administration’s performance. For he runs an administration with the least care for consistency between what it says and does of any administration in modern times. The real money committed to the promotion of democracy in the Middle East is trifling. The president may have doubled the National Endowment for Democracy’s budget, but it is still only $80 million a year. But even if there were more money, there is such doubt in the Middle East that the president actually means what he says — in the wake of 60 years of American presidents cozying up to tyrants in the region — that every dollar spent on democracy in the Middle East runs the risk of undermining the cause it supports. Actual Arab democrats recoil from the embrace of American good intentions. Just ask a community-affairs officer trying to give American dollars away for the promotion of democracy in Mosul, in northern Iraq, how easy it is to get anyone to even take the money, let alone spend it honestly.

 And then there are the prisoners, the hooded man with the wires hanging from his body, the universal icon of the gap between the ideals of American freedom and the sordid — and criminal — realities of American detention and interrogation practice. The fetid example of these abuses makes American talk of democracy sound hollow. It will not be possible to encourage the rule of law in Egypt if America is sending Hosni Mubarak shackled prisoners to torture. It will be impossible to secure democratic change in Morocco or Afghanistan or anywhere else if Muslims believe that American guards desecrated the Koran. The failure to convict anybody higher than a sergeant for these crimes leaves many Americans and a lot of the world wondering whether Jefferson’s vision of America hasn’t degenerated into an ideology of self-congratulation, whose function is no longer to inspire but to lie.

Unfortunately it is pretty much all downhill from here. Later on he dumps all over Germans and Canadians, among others:

Other democratic leaders may suspect Bush is right, but that doesn’t mean they are joining his crusade. Never have there been more democracies. Never has America been more alone in spreading democracy’s promise.

Here his premise is simply flawed, probably because he is wearing blinders. Germany and Canada and all the others “sat out” the Iraq war not because they don’t believe in spreading freedom and democracy, even at the point of a gun (he is right that the point of a gun is often very useful in securing freedom and democracy, Germany and Japan being simply the most prominent examples) but because nations like people don’t enjoy being told to bugger off and then ordered to help with a massively risky and illegal undertaking. In Afghanistan all these countries offered treasure and blood. It is simply unfair to criticize them for wanting no part in an illegal adventure that was clearly not about spreading freedom and democracy after the US administration told them get lost.

Ignatieff then speaks of the retreat of American liberalism from the Jeffersonian ideals:


The fact that many foreigners do not happen to buy into the American version of promoting democracy may not be much of a surprise. What is significant is how many American liberals don’t share the vision, either.

 On this issue, there has been a huge reversal of roles in American politics. Once upon a time, liberal Democrats were the custodians of the Jeffersonian message that American democracy should be exported to the world, and conservative Republicans were its realist opponents. Beginning in the late 1940’s, as the political commentator Peter Beinart has rediscovered, liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Adlai Stevenson realized that liberals would have to reinvent themselves. This was partly a matter of principle — they detested Soviet tyranny — and partly a matter of pragmatism. They wanted to avoid being tarred as fellow travelers, the fate that had met Franklin Roosevelt’s former running mate, the radical reformer Henry Wallace. The liberals who founded Americans for Democratic Action refounded liberalism as an anti-Communist internationalism, dedicated to defending freedom and democracy abroad from Communist threat. The missionary Jeffersonianism in this reinvention worried many people — for example, George Kennan, the diplomat and foreign-policy analyst who argued that containment of the Communist menace was all that prudent politics could accomplish.

[snip, unfortunately. It is a good bit.]

 It was Reagan who began the realignment of American politics, making the Republicans into internationalist Jeffersonians with his speech in London at the Palace of Westminster in 1982, which led to the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy and the emergence of democracy promotion as a central goal of United States foreign policy. At the time, many conservative realists argued for detente, risk avoidance and placation of the Soviet bear. Faced with the Republican embrace of Jeffersonian ambitions for America abroad, liberals chose retreat or scorn. Bill Clinton — who took reluctant risks to defend freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo — partly arrested this retreat, yet since his administration, the withdrawal of American liberalism from the defense and promotion of freedom overseas has been startling. The Michael Moore-style left conquered the Democratic Party’s heart; now the view was that America’s only guiding interest overseas was furthering the interests of Halliburton and Exxon. The relentless emphasis on the hidden role of oil makes the promotion of democracy seem like a devious cover or lame excuse. The unseen cost of this pseudo-Marxist realism is that it disconnected the Democratic Party from the patriotic idealism of the very electorate it sought to persuade.

 John Kerry’s presidential campaign could not overcome liberal America’s fatal incapacity to connect to the common faith of the American electorate in the Jeffersonian ideal. Instead he ran as the prudent, risk-avoiding realist in 2004 — despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he had fought in Vietnam. Kerry’s caution was bred in the Mekong. The danger and death he encountered gave him some good reasons to prefer realism to idealism, and risk avoidance to hubris. Faced with a rival who proclaimed that freedom was not just America’s gift to mankind but God’s gift to the world, it was understandable that Kerry would seek to emphasize how complex reality was, how resistant to American purposes it might be and how high the price of American dreams could prove. As it turned out, the American electorate seemed to know only too well how high the price was in Iraq, and it still chose the gambler over the realist. In 2004, the Jefferson dream won decisively over American prudence.

This part is really tricky. There be minefields in here. Was Reagan really talking about promoting democracy? Is that why he supported a covert and dirty war against the Sandinistas? Why are Clinton’s wars called “reluctant risks”? If the interests of Halliburton and Exxon are NOT guiding America’s actions overseas, why was the war in Iraq seemingly designed around Halliburton’s needs and NOT those of our armed forces and of the Iraqi’s we’re there to `liberate’? Did the American electorate have any real idea of how high the price tag for Iraq would eventually be? Did Bush win decisively?

But Iraqi freedom also depends on something whose measurement is equally complex: what price, in soldiers’ bodies and lives, the American people are prepared to pay. The members of the American public are ceaselessly told that stabilizing Iraq will make them more secure. They are told that fighting the terrorists there is better than fighting them at home. [You know what I think of that.] They are told that victory in Iraq will spread democracy and stability in the arc from Algeria to Afghanistan. They are told that when this happens, ”they” won’t hate Americans, or hate them as much as they do now. It’s hard to know what the American people believe about these claims, but one vital test of whether the claims are believed is the number of adolescent men and women prepared to show up at the recruiting posts in the suburban shopping malls and how many already in the service or Guard choose to re-enlist and sign up for another tour in Ramadi or Falluja. The current word is that recruitment is down, and this is a serious sign that someone at least thinks America is paying too high a price for its ideals.

The American public is promised all these wonderful things but is never exhorted to pitch in and help. While we don’t hear much about cakewalks anymore, taxes keep on being cut, the dead are hidden, our leaders do not call upon people to enlist, the war is kept out of sight, as much as possible, and we are urged to go shopping. What is this, the implementation of the phrase `when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping’?

There is nothing worse than believing your son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother died in vain. Even those who have opposed the Iraq war all along, who believe that the hope of planting democracy has lured America into a criminal folly, do not want to tell those who have died that they have given their lives for nothing. This is where Jefferson’s dream must work. Its ultimate task in American life is to redeem loss, to rescue sacrifice from oblivion and futility and to give it shining purpose. The real truth about Iraq is that we just don’t know — yet — whether the dream will do its work this time. This is the somber question that hangs unanswered as Americans approach this Fourth of July.

Indeed. It would help if our leaders started giving us the truth.

[Update] Added poll and crossposted to dKos

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