Sunday, September 18, 2005

Summer of 2004 - state of the united states

Guest Article by
Prajapati Sah

May to September, the summer of 2004, described as "a charged and burdened time" by Michael Ignatieff,1 was when I happened to be in the United States. To the elements Ignatieff draws on – "the D-Day commemorations, the death of a President, the daily carnage in Iraq, the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison, a July 4 just over the horizon" - to set up a contrast between “the sublime and the squalid, the decent and the desperate in American life,” .

“so overlaid upon one another that it is hard to reconcile the high rhetoric of one moment with the terrible reality of the other,” I would like to add the choric commentary provided by the Presidential election debate culminating in the Bush-Kerry elocution contests in October. If the events described by Ignatieff presented the sublime and the squalid aspects of American life, the debates provided the comic or the absurd element whose significance as a component of the theatre of American life in the summer of ’04 lies particularly in the fact that the Americans are totally incapable of seeing the absurdity so apparent to an outside observer. In a way, by cutting itself off from the frame of reference by which most of the world today sees it, the US imprisons itself in a shell of irrationality which would be a source of ironic amusement, only if its extraordinary military capability did not pose such a serious threat to the whole world.

As of now, more than twelve hundred US soldiers and over a hundred British ones have been killed in Iraq. Correct estimates of the number of Iraqis killed are not available, since no one is counting (not even the interim Iraqi government), but a pre-Falluja report puts the figure at over 100,000: about 100 Iraqis for every American soldier killed (See Times of India report 30.10 04). Most of the Iraqis killed, according to this American-sourced report, have been women and children. In addition, thousands have been wounded or maimed for life; hundreds of others have been taken prisoner and subjected to degrading treatment; thousands of houses have been destroyed; normal life has been disrupted and life has been reduced to a struggle for basic necessities. There is no question of building careers or promoting social and cultural activities. All this has happened because America decided, in defiance of the UN and world opinion, to attack Iraq on the mere suspicion of being involved in the terrorist attack on the WTC in September 2002 and of possessing weapons of mass destruction. When neither of these suspicions could be proved despite hard and prolonged efforts by its own intelligence agencies, other post facto justifications were invented and are now being proferred on a daily basis.

Does any of this bother the American conscience? It might bother Ignatieff, a few other intellectuals, and some liberals of the film world like Michael Moore, but neither the politicians (of any shade), nor, judging by the fare offered to them by the both the presidential candidates, the average American audiences, seem to find anything wrong in killing over100,000 people, ordinary, innocent men, women, children included, on mere suspicion; or in invading a country first, destroying property and lives, and then starting a search for a reason for doing so. Neither presidential candidate thought the invasion was wrong; neither candidate ever mentioned the Iraqi casualties or the destruction of Iraqi property, neither candidate ever raised the moral question involved in such irresponsible and reckless use of force, or in killing on mere suspicion, or in making their own security the justification for sweepingly destructive pre-emptive action. Yet, both candidates talked tirelessly of how religious and moral-minded they were, how much they valued life and personal freedom, how much they believed in God and compassion, and in doing the right thing. Could one go on listening to such pious talk on the one hand, and watch the images of the rape of Iraq on television everyday, and not wonder what stuff the Americans were made of, what made them behave the way they did, and what could make them so oblivious to the farcical comedy of the presidential debates?

On the surface, it looks that Americans are busy doing a lot of self-examination and analysis. Books are regularly published, special issues of magazines are brought out, there are extensive debates and discussions in the media, but like the presidential debates, most (though certainly not all)of these are predicated on the assumption that whatever America has done or is doing is basically right in the sense that the goals pursued are essentially the correct ones and the debate is only about the effectiveness of the methods used to achieve them; even the morality of the methods used is generally not questioned.. The kind of misdeeds that worry Ignatieff are held to be aberrations and confidence is expressed that the self-correcting American system is capable of taking care of them. The appropriateness of the goals themselves is never held in question. There is a smugness about all such self-evaluations which arises from an unshakeable belief that the specific combination of traits that historical accident has endowed them with has produced in the Americans a unique, unprecedentedly gifted and inventive community of people, almost a morally and intellectually superior race. As proof, they cite the present state of the United States – a nation the like of which history has never seen, the most powerful, the most wealthy, the most free, the most creative, the most knowledgeable in the entire history of civilization.

Let’s take as a sample the special Independence Day issue of US News and World Report. It has the main theme Defining America. The whole issue radiates the belief that today’s America has realized the dream of “a unique destiny” that inspired the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop. Ronald Reagan, at his inauguration, used Winthrop’s words to describe America as “a shining city on a hill” and “the hope of the world.” George Bush Jr. has repeatedly reasserted Winthrop’s belief that God has chosen America to establish freedom and democracy in the world. Bush has on occasion expressed the belief, like Winthrop, that he has God’s special commission to save the world. His supporters see him as a Christian crusader fighting evil.2 It therefore does not come as a surprise that when Bush is faced by another set of people who also consider themselves to be God’s chosen ones, the Islamic Jihadists, the battle for supremacy is fierce and unforgiving. Religion, the lack of which both Bush and his Jihadist opponents berate in their liberal and/or secular critics, is thus at the root of this 21st century Armageddon just as it was during the Crusades.

Lest this sound an exaggeration, at least in the context of modern-day America, let me mention that one of characteristics that the US News special issue attributes to modern-day Americans is ‘religiosity.’ It claims that even today, as in 1782 when Benjamin Franklin said it, one could live to a ripe old age in America without ever meeting an atheist or infidel. It quotes statistics which show that 90% of Americans believe in God while 60% of them say that religion is ‘very important’ in their lives (as against, for example, 10% in France). Even the supposedly secular and neutral elements of the American public life, like the Supreme Court, are hesitant to be seen as opposing religion or staying neutral against Christianity. That may have been the reason why, in June, the judges rejected a petition which sought to remove the words ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance (which every schoolboy in America has to repeat every school morning) but did so on the technical ground that the petitioner had no locus standi in the case. The public impression was that the court wriggled out of a ‘tricky’ decision, which would have aligned it against religion. What most Americans would have liked the Supreme Court to do was to take a substantive decision which would, as Daily News put it, “not only acknowledge the nation’s religious heritage, it could also have shut down once and for all the movement by crusading secularists.” The American constitution, through the First Amendment, grants every citizen the right to practice his or her own religion and prohibits the Congress from making any laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But, as Frank Lambert points out in his book The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton University Press 2003) “the nation’s religious heritage” includes a strong belief that the Founding Fathers intended to create an explicitly Christian state in America. Actually, Lambert distinguishes two sets of spiritual fathers for America: first, the Puritans of New England, whom he calls the Planting Fathers, who practiced Congregationalism, raised religious taxes and compelled their magistrates to govern according to the Word of God, and, second, nearly 150 years later, the Founding Fathers who made the American constitution. It was the influx of a large number of immigrants belonging to other religions that in later years gave the secularists an edge, but the Christian element has always kept reasserting itself, most significantly during the two presidencies of Eisenhower (1952-60) when Congress opened a Prayer Room in the Capitol, made “In God We Trust” the official national motto, and added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. That in today’s US army there are elements that strongly believe the war against terrorism to be a version of the Crusades, was brought home to those who didn’t suspect it in August when it was revealed that a senior military intelligence officer, Lt. General William Boykin, Deputy Secretary of Defence for Intelligence, had gone round the country speaking at church and other religious gatherings, in his military uniform, declaring that Islamic extremists hated the US “because we are a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian” and that “the enemy is a guy named Satan.” He also declared that God himself had put George Bush Jr. in office.3 On an earlier occasion, in Somalia, the same general, talking about a local Muslim warlord, had told an audience: “I knew my God was a real God and his was an idol.” (Apparently, the General was ignorant of the fact that Muslims do not worship idols.) An inquiry into the affair also revealed that the General had asked military lawyers in advance about the propriety of making such speeches and was not advised against it. The report did not mention if there was any action against the General, but said that the General had apologized when the matter became public.

However, the so-called religiosity alone does not account for the crusading zeal of Bush and his camp followers. In fact, one could argue, as many non-secularist Americans do, that religiosity is what leads to compassion and love including for those “who are against us,” and instances of Christian love and forgiveness winning over enemies can always be found. It is the other element of religiosity, which lays claim to exclusiveness, the quality of being the chosen ones of God, which makes the combination a deadly one.

There are of course different senses in which this ‘exceptionalism’ is understood in America. The idea itself was mooted first not by an American but by a French traveller and historian, Alex de Tocqueville, in the 1830s. Described as “perhaps the most perceptive observer of the American character,” Tocqueville described American character as a thing wholly new and “unknown in the old aristocratic societies.” Some intellectuals, American as well as non-American, have tried to fill in the details and show what this uniqueness consists in. Walt Whitman believed that the “genius” and the “pride” of America lay “not in its executives and its legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors … but always most in the common people,” “the breed of full-sized men or one full-sized man unconquerable and simple.”4 G.K.Chesterton believed the uniqueness lay in the fact that America was “the only nation in the world founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.” Recently, Seymour Martin Lipset5 has amplified this idea:

Other countries’ senses of themselves are derived from a common history. Winston Churchill once gave vivid evidence to the difference between a national identity rooted in history and one defined by ideology in objecting to a proposal in 1940 to outlaw the anti-war Communist Party. In a speech in the House of Commons, Churchill said that as far as he knew, the Communist Party was composed of Englishmen and he did not fear an Englishman. In Europe, nationality is related to community, and thus one cannot become un-English or un-Swedish. Being an American, however, is an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are un-American. (Chapter 1)

Lipset goes on to identify five essential elements of this ideology, which he calls Americanism . They are: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez faire. Those who do not believe in these ideas have no place in America. In other words, as in former Soviet Union or other totalitarian countries, the nation allows for only one ideology. The only difference is that the concentration camps to which America expels its renegades are psychological and not physical ones.

This of course is not a small difference. Those renegades who do not mind living in psychological ghettoes can cry themselves hoarse lambasting America and the Americans and find themselves physically and materially not much worse for it. The days of McCarthy and the Rosenbergs 6are gratefully over. But this phenomenon does not encourage one in the thought that at least some of that lambasting may produce results and bring about some softening in the hard-as-nails Americanist attitudes. Their unprecedented economic and intellectual success has so firmly persuaded Americanist Americans of the absolute superiority of their values and beliefs that they are no longer open to any kind or degree of persuasion. It is not that they are not aware of the shortcomings of their system, but they look upon them with a tolerant and indulgent eye as the necessary and irremediable concomitants of extraordinary success. In calling American exceptionalism “a double-edged sword,” this is what Lipset means. He draws attention to a number of negative traits of American society “such as violent crime, incarceration, drug abuse, and family breakdown,” or the indifference towards the processes of democracy like the elections, but goes on to attribute them to the Americans’ strong spirit of equality and liberty, which prevents them from interfering with individual freedom and makes social norms and bonds weak. The lack of interest in elections is attributed to the strong anti-state tradition: in their view, the state should have such a small role in the life of the nation that no matter which party forms the government, it should make no, or completely negligible, difference to the life of the people. The economic and civil life of the people should be a completely private affair to be shaped by private individuals, or their voluntary organizations, but with no interference from the state.

The attitudes displayed by the American administration, mainstream media, the church and people in general towards the damaging revelations of severe prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison, which exploded in the papers in the summer of ’04, are pretty well illustrative of the Americanist attitudes shaped by their exceptionalist beliefs. The administration’s reaction at first, reflected in several statements by George Bush himself, was to dismiss the whole thing as the peccadilloes of a few misguided individuals, which in no way compromised the noble traditions of the US army, but as the matter snowballed, logical quibbling about the definitions of ‘torture’ and Presidential privilege began. The President was advised, in Ignatieff’s words, that “infliction of pain or suffering per se, whether it is physical or mental, is insufficient to amount to torture;” and also that “inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign rendered the US obligations under the Torture Convention inapplicable to interrogation conducted pursuant to his orders.” The exceptionalist mode of the statements becomes obvious if it is pointed out that if similar interpretations were to be applied to President Saddam Hussein, they would make him immune to any charges of torture and murder.7

The US army still continued to claim that it could not be judged by the behaviour, in Ignatieff’s words, of “a few rotten apples in an otherwise sweet American bushel basket.” As matters progressed, however, it became clear not only that superior officers were aware of the goings-on but that the soldiers’ actions had their implicit sanction. When such things are discovered, the US army always makes a great show of bringing the perpetrators of the heinous crimes to justice. They are tried and punishment is handed out with great flourish. Eventually exceptionalism and exemptionalism prevail, Torture Conventions and international treaties are disregarded, national duty and the divine mission are invoked and the perpetrators are set free. The world cannot forget that the master mind of My Lai, Lieutenant William Calley, who was sentenced to life in prison, spent less than three years in jail.

In fact, so deep-rooted are Americans into exceptionalist thinking that even those commentators who unreservedly condemned the soldiers’ behaviour at Abu Ghraib did so because it compromised that exceptionalism. Ignatieff, who thought that, “at Abu Ghraib, America paid the price for American exceptionalism, the idea that America is too noble, too special, too great to actually obey international treaties,” for example, suggests that a lesser country may not have needed to “lose its nerve” over what has happened at Abu Ghraib, but America must (yes, must, not did). America must, “because no other democracy is so exposed by these painful moral juxtapositions.” The implication is that only in America are these instances of disgraceful behaviour juxtaposed with instances of highly noble behaviour. Other nations being completely deficient in the latter, the question of juxtaposition does not arise at all. Further, America must, “because no other nation has made a civil religion of its self-belief.” The relevance of this point is further explained: “The abolition of cruel and unusual punishment was a founding premise of that civil religion. This was how the fledgling republic distinguished itself from the cruel tyrannies of Europe. From this sense of exceptionalism grew an exceptional sense of mission.” It is therefore, argues Ignatieff, that America must worry about what happened at Abu Ghraib. He seems to forget that “this exceptional sense of mission” never stood in the way of exterminating almost the entire population of native American-Indians in their own country; nor did “the fledgling nation” feel much contrition at issuing “cruel and unusual punishment” to the black slaves. “Old Europe” has outlived its “cruel tyrannies” of the past, but My Lai and Abu Ghraib are modern America. America has not apologized for any of these atrocities. If, despite claiming noble ideals and sentiments and professing exemplary concern for human rights, a sizable proportion of Americans are untouched by the murder of thousands of innocent Iraqi men, women and children; if Americans can let their Secretary of State (Madeleine Albright, by the way a Democrat who also laments the loss of moral high ground during the Bush regime) get away with her statement that the death by disease and malnutrition of a hundred thousand Afghan children as a result of American sanctions is “an acceptable cost” of America’s Afghanistan policy, then is it any surprise that so many Americans consider torture and physical abuse acceptable in dealing with suspects?8 Americans will hang other nations for doing far, far less: for example, stop carpet imports from India because at some stage in their manufacture child-labour was involved. Obviously, the standards that Americans apply to themselves are different, because they are exceptional. Because they are exceptional, Americans do not apologize; because they are superior, they do not care what the world thinks of them. When, during the Philippines War (1899-1901), General Jacob H. Smith ordered every Filipino over the age of 10 killed and the country reduced to “ a howling wilderness,” leading to the killing of 200,000 of them, the government’s effort was at first to suppress the news. When the atrocities were finally reported, Mark Twain wrote: “We have debauched America’s honour and blackened her face before the world.” Most Americans no longer feel such compunctions; those of them who do boast of their compunctions and hold them up condescendingly, displaying them as proofs of their moral superiority.

It is indeed nothing short of amazing that no matter what extremes of immoral and inhuman behaviour Americans reveal, they still like to think of themselves as a highly moral society, never very far removed from their Puritan roots. You can see the ordinary Americans getting very upset about very minute infringements of the moral code. The Sunday Magazine of The New York Times regularly carries a column entitled “The Ethicist,” a specialized term the Americans have invented to distinguish their moral philosophers from the run-of-the-mill “moralists” of the Old World. In the pages of this column, at the time when their kids were subjecting Iraqi prisoners to indescribable humiliations at Abu Ghraib, American citizens at home were conscience-stricken about such morally profound issues like the following:

• One woman wants to know if her son is ethically justified in refusing to pay up his share of the money spent on a dinner of five friends till each one of them pays up. The bill had been paid by one of the five, who had exempted two of them from payment because they were not in a position to pay. However, he had offered to pay their share himself without asking the remaining two to share it!
• An African-American male applied for a job. His first name gave away his ethnicity and he got few job offers. Sensing this, he suppressed his first name in later applications and used his second name only. He received more offers and eventually a job. He made no other change in the résumé. Was he justified in hiding his ethnicity?
• A woman helps out at a junior high school bar once a month. One evening, she found a 1953 Franklin half-dollar in the cashbox, an old coin whose value was
$ 4. She replaced it by two quarters. Was it ethical? The child who gave the half-dollar received only half-dollar worth of snacks and the school too received only half a dollar.

In May 1964, President Lyndon Johnson delivered a speech at the University of Michigan commencement in which he set out his vision of “the Great Society” which America was going to be. He believed that America had solved the fundamental problem of material abundance: growth and prosperity were now guaranteed. His government would now address the issues of education, environment, beauty, culture and ethics. His Great Society would be a place where “the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce, but the desire for beauty and hunger for community.” In that future Great Society, people could “renew contact with nature”: they would be more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.” Reading “The Ethicist,” one has the impression that America has achieved that Great Society: the American citizen is now only concerned with the moral and aesthetic quality of his existence. They have leisure which they spend, like Romans at the height of the Roman Empire, in quibbling about ethical and aesthetic issues. And all this becomes possible because they choose to remain blissfully unconcerned with facts: uncomfortable facts like the one about Philippines mentioned above; or the one about the air-raids on North Vietnam which, according to Secretary McNamara himself, were killing or seriously injuring 1,000 non-combatants a week in early 1965; or the fact that, in 1968, a unit of the US army, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, entered the hamlet of My Lai and massacred 400 hundred innocent villagers in “a fierce outburst of savagery” (One American reaction to this ‘fact’ is quoted in Irwin Unger’s book Recent America: The United States Since 1945 (Prentice Hall, 2002): “It didn’t happen, and besides, they deserved it.”); or the fact that almost exactly at the same time that the correspondents of The New York Times were worrying about the Franklin dollar and the ethnic first name, American soldiers in Iraq were setting “guard dogs at the genitals and legs of cowering naked prisoners,” forcing “shackled, hooded prisoners to masturbate or simulate oral sex with one another” (Susan Sontag: “Regarding the Torture of Others,” The New York Times Magazine, May 23, 2004).

It was inevitable that this kind of ethicist hair-splitting should be carried over into the field of US international policy and respectable academicians and philosophers like Ignatieff himself should jump into the fray trying to defend the indefensible. The summer of ’04 also saw the publication of Ignatieff’s book The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Princeton University Press) in which he justifies almost every evil action that the Bush government has been guilty of in its so-called war on terror: pre-emptive war (i.e. aggression), targeted assassinations, coercive interrogations, indefinite imprisonment of suspects without trial, and so on.
All these actions, according to Ignatieff, represent “the lesser evil,” as compared to what would happen if the government did not resort to them in the war against terror. What would happen, in Ronald Steel’s summary of the argument (in his review of the book in The New York Times Book Review, July 25, 2004), is that
“terrorists could get hold of nuclear weapons and set them off in American cities. In the wake of the devastation the American public would demand that the government protect them at all costs. Constitutional restraints would go out the window. The United States would degenerate into a police state ruled by fear and suspicion. … To combat this threat we must now begin a draconian war against terror that embraces measures normally repugnant to our values and legal processes.”

Obviously, Ignatieff’s concern for “constitutional restraints” extends only so far as they ensure the rights of American citizens: the US should not be allowed to degenerate into “a police state ruled by fear and suspicion.” To ensure these rights, extraordinary draconian measures should be taken against other countries suspected to be behind terrorist attacks. For the citizens of those countries, even basic human rights like the right to life and the protection of law are not considered necessary, let alone constitutional niceties like the freedom to choose their way of life, freedom of expression, etc. The denial of such rights to the supposedly enemy nations is after all “the lesser evil,” the greater evil being the destruction of US life and property in a terrorist attack. The United States is perfectly within its rights to keep its self-interest above everything else, but then by what rights can it deny this privilege to other countries? If the US is justified in treating the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and the killing of 3000 US citizens and the destruction of its property as a terrorist attack on its territory which has to be avenged by indiscriminate bombing of any country the US decides to suspect; if, without caring even for the meaning of the word, massive “retaliation” is to be let loose on men, women and children who happen to share the religion or nationality of the attackers, what kind of retaliation, how many 9/11s, would “the Ethicist” consider adequate for the country which was responsible for the Philippines, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, North Korea and Vietnam, not to mention various others? Obviously, it is not ethics that is involved here, but brute force.

But that would put the American ethicist out of business. Hence Ignatieff has to go on. After all, there are still compunctions to be felt, and seen to be felt. Therefore, they must be translated into moral terms. The way to do it, Ignatieff tells us, is to use the draconian measures but never to lose sight of their “morally problematic character.” In other words, as Ronald Steel’s metaphor so beautifully captures it, beat the hell out of the fellow but keep repeating “It hurts me more than it hurts you.” “Does an evil act become lesser simply because it is problematic?... Does suffering a twinge of bad conscience justify what we do in a righteous cause?” asks Steel.

Specially when, we should add, the strong one also decides not only what is righteous and what is not, but also when it’s righteous. America long ago decided that democracy, which it considers synonymous with freedom, is good for it and therefore for every other country. It may well be, but why not leave the countries to discover it for themselves, so that when they do actually find it, it endures? As a seemingly reformed Madeleine Albright (in opposition) now says: Isn’t “imposing democracy” a contradiction in terms? The complete disregard of such an obvious truth makes one suspect that the real motivation behind American imperialism is not the spread of freedom and democracy but what the President of Princeton University said in 1901 defending America’s annexation of the Philippines after killing 200,000 Filipinos:

“The East is to be opened and transformed whether we will it or not; the standards of the West are to be imposed upon it; nations and peoples who have stood still the centuries through are to be quickened and to be made part of the universal world of commerce and of ideas.”

Such thinking was already an American tradition. In 1846, when the US was about to attack Mexico, Americans thought, as they did again during the “liberation” of Iraq, that Mexicans would be chanting, in the words of a New York poet, “The Saxons are coming, our freedom is nigh.” One after another, American presidents were persuaded that they had this special mission to liberate the whole world till President Wilson, in April 1914, declared that “every nation of the world needs to be drawn into the tutelage of America” and sent his troops into Mexico to suppress the Mexican revolution, only to be greeted by Mexican children chanting “Death to the Gringos.” By 1918, the time of the Russian Revolution, Wilson had learned his lesson, but the presidents who followed learnt nothing from him (See John Judis :The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush could learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Scribner,August 2004).

The Summer of ’04 seemed to be a particularly congenial time for American historians and philosophers to provide intellectual and moral justification to their imperialist-minded Presidents. Those who had long thought America to be on the side of the oppressed and colonized people of the world would be not a little surprised to read, in a discussion between two eminent professors, of history and political science respectively, that the notion of empire is “as American as apple pie” (See The New York Times Book Review, July 25: “Does the US have an Empire?” A Discussion between John Lewis Gaddis and Robert A. Lovett). However, the discussion implies that while other empires were bad, the American empire is good. “…it seems to me on balance,” says one of the discussants, “American imperial power in the 20th century has been a remarkable force for good, for democracy, for prosperity. (That is because) for most of its history the United States (has managed) to be imperial without being imperious.” For those of us who thought we were living in a post-imperial, post-colonial age, it is also instructive to read, in the same issue of the NYT Book Review, Gaddis’s review of a book by Niall Ferguson entitled Colossus, to whom is also attributed another previous book entitled Empire. Ferguson is a young, extraordinarily brilliant and prolific professor, who has just moved from Oxford to Harvard. He goes a step beyond Gaddis and Lovett and claims that empires are highly desirable things: they have as often been a force for progress as a source of oppression. In fact, he says, empires are a time-tested method of imposing order and securing justice. “What is required,” he writes, “is an agency capable of intervening …to contain epidemics, depose tyrants, end local wars and eradicate terrorist organizations.” The UN has long since demonstrated its ability to perform this task. That leaves only the US together with such “Coalition of the Willing” as it can assemble.

If this sounds like an “embedded” academician to you, “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Ferguson believes that only the United States has the power to run a world-wide empire today, but he regrets that the US has proved itself “surprisingly inept” at this job. As a result, American interventions abroad are “often short-lived and their results ephemeral.” Reason: Americans lack “the imperial cast of mind.” (i.e. they are not imperious enough). They fail to train their youth to manage their empire. They resist annexation, preferring “that foreigners … Americanize themselves without the need for formal rule.” Reason for this? Americans “crave for themselves protracted old age and dread, even for other Americans … untimely death in battle.”

The reviewer, Gaddis, who has been nodding approvingly up to this point, finds these accusations too much to bear. Why should annexation be necessary, he roars. Didn’t the British Empire often operate without formally controlling territory? And what is this about Americans being afraid to die? Didn’t American slaughter each other merrily in their own civil war? Didn’t thousands of American die in the Philippines, North Korea and Vietnam? Aren’t they now dying happily in Iraq?

Ferguson of course seems to think that not enough Americans have died yet. And of course far, far fewer of the foreigners than should have been killed in the course of the American war for freedom and democracy. It is bad enough, Ferguson seems to be saying, that the erstwhile imperialist powers of Europe have withdrawn from the scene and thus shown themselves to be lily-livered cowards; must US also turn tail? He’s afraid the US will, since it lacks the stomach for murder and mayhem, at least a big enough stomach. Witness how, in 1950, even after China had driven the American army across the 38th parallel and taken Seoul, President Harry Truman turned down Commander Douglas MacArthur’s recommendation that the US drop 30 to 50 atom bombs on North China and dispatch half a million Taiwanese troops into the Chinese mainland.

The summer of ’04 is over. President Bush has won the election by a good margin. Things would not have been very different even if he had not. Kerry is also committed to “the war on terror,” which is the name by which American imperialism is now known. Republican or Democrat, it does not matter. Bi-partisanship is the distinguishing trait of American democracy. It used to be said that the liberals and the lovers of peace in America are concentrated in the east and the west coast campuses. It’s now being said that their liberalism and love of peace has made cowards and wimps of them all and that they are the factor responsible for America’s failures. So a new breed of academicians is now rising that will provide philosophical foundations to “middle America.” President Bush has full five years to go. He can count on the moral and intellectual support of a growing tribe of these “embedded” intellectuals.


1. Michael Ignatieff is Director of the Carr Centre of Human Rights Policy at Harvard. The article referred to here, ‘Mirage in the Desert,’ appeared in The New York Times Magazine, 27.6.04, pp. 13ff.
2. See Times of India 29.10.04 for a photo of Bush supporters carrying placards which read : “Finally, a Christian fighting evil. Thank you, George Bush”
3. See USA Today, Friday, August 20
4. Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855)
5. In his book “American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword” (N.W.Norton & Co. New York 1996). The Chesterton quote is also taken from this book.
6. That the Rosenberg episode still rankles the American conscience is evident from the fact that articles keep appearing in mainstream papers about this disgraceful affair which occurred in the 1940s. For the latest, see The New York Times Magazine, 7.6.2004.
7. The 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which United States is a signatory, includes in its definition of torture “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.” In fact, such a definition has been a common feature of all human rights conventions, customary law, several peace treaties and the four Geneva conventions of 1949. They also specify that torture includes treatment intended to humiliate the victim , like leaving prisoners naked in cells and corridors. The 1984 Convention goes on to declare that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” (See Susan Sontag: “Regarding the Torture of Others,” The New York Times Magazine, May 23, 2004)
8. An ABC News/Washington Post poll, reported by Ignatieff, found that 46% Americans believed that physical abuse short of torture was sometimes acceptable, while 35% were ready to accept outright torture.

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