I get asked by a lot of people how Americans let themselves be convinced that lanching a full-scale military invasion and occupation of Iraq was a good idea.
Here’s a little aphorism about Germany and the United States. Germany has more experience existing as a nation (or, at least, a people) than the United States has, and the perceptive observer sees evidence of this every day. The United States has more experience with self-government and democracy than Germany has, and the perceptive observer sees evidence of this every day.
I thought of the first part of the aphorism when I read David Ignatius’ Washington Post column, The Dignity Agenda, yesterday. Ignatius, an American foreign-policy expert (temptation to use scare quotes resisted, just barely) who used his precious column space in a top newspaper to support of the invasion of Iraq, is struggling to understand why it all went so wrong. He quotes an American army officer saying that "We talk about democracy and human rights. Iraqis talk about justice and honor." Ignatius goes on to suggest the U.S. follow what he calls a "dignity agenda" in its dealings with the rest of the world. Among the sources Ignatius quotes is
"Violent Politics," a new book by the iconoclastic historian William R. Polk. He examines 10 insurgencies through history — from the American Revolution to the Irish struggle for independence to the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation — to make a stunningly simple point, which we managed to forget in Iraq: People don’t like to be told what to do by outsiders. "The very presence of foreigners, indeed, stimulates the sense first of apartness and ultimately of group cohesion." Foreign intervention offends people’s dignity, Polk reminds us. That’s why insurgencies are so hard to defeat.
Am I wrong in thinking that this point would be obvious to almost anybody except an American? (It was, of course, grasped by many Americans.) Ignatius himself calls it "stunningly simple," which would also seem to indicate it was, well, stunningly stupid not to have seen it coming.
The notion that people dislike being told what to do by foreign occupying powers is well-understood by most Europeans. Most European countries have been run by a foreign occupying power (either in whole or in part) at some point, and run other countries themselves, with varying degrees of brutality. The part of Germany I live in, for example, was occupied by Napoleon’s troops in the early 19th century, by the French and Belgians in the 1920s, and by the British in the late 1940s. And this being Europe, the past is still very much present. People here are still very intensely aware of all three of these events.
You could excuse Americans like Ignatius on the grounds that the U.S. has never been invaded and occupied, but I’m not really inclined to (what about Vietnam?). In any case, it seems Ignatius is not the only American commentator who seems to be discovering, just now, that foreign military occupation tends to be unpopular. Here’s the mea culpa of Jonathan Rauch, another war supporter, who describes how the Washington establishment arrived at its blissfully ignorant consensus in 2002 and early 2003:
Over the past few years, it has become clearer that the hazards of the U.S. occupation of Iraq were not unforeseeable. In fact, quite a few people foresaw them. And warned about them. And went unheeded. Partly that was because the Bush administration wasn’t interested, but partly it was because a lot of us in the media gave a lot of ink and airtime to pontificators who had never been to Iraq, who had never fought in a war or served in an embassy or worked on a reconstruction team, and who did not know Iraq’s language, culture, people, leaders, history, or region. Other than that, they were experts.