Originially published in the Financial Times on June 7, 2004
Many members of the American establishment who supported the Iraq war are now backing away from it at great speed. They are blaming the debacle on unforeseeable and extraordinary mistakes by the Bush administration and its officials in Baghdad. This is correct as far as it goes. But the failure in Iraq also reflects deeper flaws in US political culture, which must be recognised by Americans if such disasters are to be avoided in the future.
Above all, this is true of that very curious combination: belief in the possibility of the immediate, successful adoption of democracy by all the peoples of the world; and contempt for the cultures, interests and opinions of those peoples. This was seen with regard to Russia in the 1990s, when many American analysts believed that Russia's adoption of democracy meant that ordinary Russians would agree to US policies that were evidently contrary to their country's interests and economic policies that were ruinous for their wellbeing.
The abuses at Abu Ghraib are only the most grotesque expression of this contradiction as far as attitudes to Arabs are concerned. In the articles for the New Yorker magazine that brought the abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere into the open, Seymour Hersh attributes part of the philosophy behind the interrogation techniques to a book by Raphael Patai called The Arab Mind, described as "the bible of the neocons on Arab behaviour". From it, according to Mr Hersh's sources, they drew beliefs that Arabs only understand force and that their greatest weakness is sexual shame. I was not aware of the latter belief, but can attest to the former from some of my own conversations.
The combination of these attitudes with professed belief in democratising the Arab world is one for which terms such as "hypocrisy" or "cognitive dissonance" are quite inadequate. This is Orwellian doublethink, an offence against fundamental human standards of intellectual decency. That such a mixture can be taken seriously and exert influence reveals starkly the hideous muddle into which US thinking about the Muslim world has fallen.
Contempt for the Muslim world was displayed in the very decision to go to war in Iraq, which was opposed by the overwhelming majority of Arabs. Parallels have been drawn between the Iraq war and that in Kosovo, which was also launched without the sanction of the UN. But the war over Kosovo was supported by a consensus of most of the states of the European region and of the leading regional organisations. This gave Nato the moral and political right to override the views of more distant states. If the US had tried to intervene in Kosovo against the will of the vast majority of Europeans, it would have lacked all legitimacy and would have failed utterly.
Since the war in Iraq began, US forces have displayed their respect for the Iraqi civilians they came to liberate by failing even to keep count of the numbers they accidentally kill. President George W. Bush in his May 24 speech on Iraq policy gave an extremely qualified apology for Abu Ghraib but could not be bothered to learn how to pronounce it.
And this in turn reveals a deeper flaw in the approach of dominant sections of America's political elite to the outside world. It is not just that messianic belief in spreading the American Way co-exists with deep suspicion of the outside world in large sections of US society. The dream of Americanisation itself embodies and to some extent depends on an implicit, if unacknowledged, contempt for other traditions.
This has been encouraged still further by the decline in regional studies and the rise of academic "disciplines" such as rational choice theory, which seek to render the study of other cultures irrelevant but which are themselves frequently no more than an expression of contemporary western cultural assumptions in their most shallow and banal form. Hence the US administration's belief that Iraq was a political blank slate on which it could write a new system that would be at once democratic and subservient to the US. The combination of naive belief in the universal applicability of democracy with disdain for the study of other cultures is a lethal one when it comes to policymaking. It offends against the oldest and wisest of all military maxims: know thine enemy.
These were very much the errors that led the US into Vietnam. That searing experience should have been a lesson in the need to study one's enemy, in the dangers of messianism and in the fact that US troops are no less innately capable of atrocities than any other soldiers. So contrary, however, was this lesson to fundamental US national myths that it could not be properly learned. We must hope that the experience of Iraq changes that.
The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His next book, America Right and Wrong, will appear in October