They’re Beginning to See the Light

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.

Amen.

8 thoughts on “They’re Beginning to See the Light

  1. > how Americans let themselves be convinced that launching a full-scale military invasion and occupation of Iraq was a good idea

    Because launching a full-scale military invasion and occupation of Germany was a good idea? In order to portray Americans as bumbling doofuses you’d have to go further than just a general “People don’t like to be told what to do by outsiders.” At the very least, you’d have to take cultural differences between the Iraqis and Germans into account. Such as Germans, as opposed to pretty much everyone from the Afghans to the Irish, welcoming anyone telling them how to run their lives. All hail the new overloards, whatever uniform they may be wearing.

  2. A lot of Americans like to stress that Americans hate to be told what to do. In this very blog you’ve had a few posts about how Americans would never accept their individual liberties to be curtailed in the way they are in Germany.

  3. The model for successful occupation, of course, was the allied occupation of Germany. Japan is another. The history of both has been buggered nearly beyond recognition, with the case of Germany faring worse; the distorted pictures of success continue to play a role in justifying the use of American military might. However, this may change somewhat with publication of “After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation,” by Giles MacDonogh, which makes clear ( based on Patricia Meehans review of the work) that even during the model occupation rape, destruction, slaughter, and pillage help explain the tizzy into which an invasion puts an occupied people. That too is a simple idea, proven long before the sack of Rome and by each occupying army ever since.

  4. “Germany has more experience existing as a nation (or, at least, a people) than the United States has”

    Are you certain of this, Andrew? The concept of ‘American’ surely dates to the early 1700’s at the latest, although I suspect it may not have been widespread until the 7 Years War (called the Seven Years War in the US).

    When was the comparable German wakening? What I mean is the start of Germaness as a concept in the minds of the common Germans, not merely in rarified intellectual circles? I can’t imagine it happening much if any earlier than the same thing in the US. Perhaps after the US.

    As for nationhood – there is no doubt. The US was established possibly as early as 1776 and no later than 1789. The nation of Germany was created in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, more than 80 years later.

    Germans have memories of being occupiers and occupied, although many of those memories would be Prussian ones. Don’t forget that portions of the US were occupied during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 however briefly in the latter war.

    I think your argument is weak on this point.

  5. “Germany has more experience existing as a nation (or, at least, a people) than the United States has”

    Are you certain of this, Andrew? The concept of ‘American’ surely dates to the early 1700’s at the latest, although I suspect it may not have been widespread until the 7 Years War (called the Seven Years War in the US).

    When was the comparable German wakening? What I mean is the start of Germaness as a concept in the minds of the common Germans, not merely in rarified intellectual circles? I can’t imagine it happening much if any earlier than the same thing in the US. Perhaps after the US.

    As for nationhood – there is no doubt. The US was established possibly as early as 1776 and no later than 1789. The nation of Germany was created in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, more than 80 years later.

    Germans have memories of being occupiers and occupied, although many of those memories would be Prussian ones. Don’t forget that portions of the US were occupied during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 however briefly in the latter war.

    I think your argument is weak on this point.

  6. Don, the concept of Germanness dates back at least to the Holy Roman Empire. German nationalism as a movement exists only since the second half of the 18th century.

  7. @Don:

    What I mean is the start of Germaness as a concept in the minds of the common Germans, not merely in rarified intellectual circles? I can’t imagine it happening much if any earlier than the same thing in the US. Perhaps after the US.

    It is correct that a national conscience in the modern sense didn’t emerge in Germany until between the French Revolution and the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Nonetheless there was, of course, a German identity much earlier than that. When exactly it was born is not easy to determine, but it was certainly there by the time of the Reformation, the 30 Years War (called the Thirty Years War in Germany ;)), etc.

  8. Thanks, Sebastian.

    Andrew’s thesis is that Europeans have had more experience of being occupiers and occupied – therefore they know the risks better. I stil think this is weak. Let’s look at the historical record:

    France was occupied during the 100 Years War, yet this sympathy did not prevent the invasion and occupation of Italy less than 150 years later. Nor did it prevent various French adventures in Germany circa 1704-1760, nor legion French occupations in Africa and Asia in the colonial era, or the adventure in Mexico which ended disasterously in 1869.

    Great Britain had experience of a disasterous occupation of the US between 1776 and 1783, yet this did not dissuade Britain from occupying India and many, many others. Britain’s experiences of occupation go back a long time but were pretty brutal. The Saxon Invasion and the Norman Conquest spring to mind, so with that no doubt in mind the Brits went on to become the greatest imperialists in history!

    Another example was Suez 1956, where the sophisticated pacifists of the UK and France went down to defeat in Egypt – though that was an aborted occupation at best.

    And Germany? Germany prior to 1870 was as trampled-upon a country which ever existed – so how did Germany behave once they became more powerful than the neighbors? Belgium 1914, Northern France, Russia. And then they outdid themselves after 1941.

    And Russia. Occupied twice this century, co-dividers of Poland earlier on, and notably occupied by the French in 1812 and the Germans in 1915-18 and again 1941-44. Remember a little thing named the Warsaw Pact?

    All after hundreds of years of experience on both sides of the occupation.

    You might be able to make a case something like ‘those who can, do – those who can’t sigh wisely’. But that’s about all.

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