Monday, January 02, 2006

America and the Higher Standard

Why is it that there was such a public outcry when the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted in Iraq, but there was little similar dismay at the torture that was a routine part of the Saddam Hussein regime? Why has there been such anger recently over the relatively non-violent means of torture used by the American CIA to elicit information from the insurgency, when governments such as China and North Korea get a pass when it comes to much more violent and routine torture, which often causes death? It is in large part due to expectations.

An Iraqi recently told me that much propaganda was being spread by the Hussein regime and the Al Jazeera television channel about the Americans before they came to overthrow Saddam. Americans are, they were told, mean, strong, hateful, and willing to kill all Iraqis. (How interesting it is that this same belief is still currently held by many Americans regarding Muslims.) But when the Americans arrived, Iraqis discovered that they are strong, but that they are friendly, that they love liberty and wish to share it with others, and that they feel sincere guilt when aberrant behavior is committed by Americans, such as occurred at Abu Ghraib.

Noone in America is proud of what happened in Abu Ghraib. Every American is ashamed, because this is not like us, regardless of what Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies would have others believe. The rest of the world is very angry at the United States about Abu Ghraib and alleged US torture practices because of expectations.

The United States of America is held to a higher standard of decency and morality than nearly any other nation on earth. How did America come to be deserving of this (sometimes backhanded) compliment?

Those countries with the greatest hatred for America are those with corrupt and dictatorial regimes that are supported by the United States, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, to an extent Egypt, and formerly Iraq. Those countries with the greatest love for America are those whose dictatorial regimes are opposed by the United States, such as North Korea and Iran. The people of Iraq are currently transitioning to a “we like America” point of view because of the benefits that our military and diplomacy have brought to their country, as are the people of Lebanon and, to an extent, Egypt.

In 1979, the Iranian populace despised America, because America had been a staunch supporter of the Shah’s semi-repressive regime. They did not bargain that in return they would get a much more oppressive regime of religious clerics, but as a result of the topsy turvy ride given them by the Iranian ayatollahs, their regard for America has returned to positive.

A news reporter (I believe this to have been Thomas Friedman of the New York Times) in the last couple of years visited Teheran, Iran, where he saw moderately frequent anti-American propaganda. When he attempted to photograph the propaganda as proof of Iranian hatred of America, several of the young people there begged him not to, as this, they said, was official government propaganda which did not at all reflect the belief of the populace. If my memory serves me incorrectly, at least Mr. Friedman has much that is enlightening to say about the Iranian populace in his book Longitudes and Attitudes.

In The Case for Democracy Natan Sharansky quotes a former Soviet official who recently visited Iran: “It reminded me of the Soviet Union. All the officials criticize and condemn America, and all the people love America.” (page 60).

Sharansky goes on to explain that

Even those who do hate America do not necessarily hate free societies. Rather, part of their hatred is due to the perception that by supporting the non-democratic regimes that are oppressing them, America is betraying the democratic values it claims to uphold. (ibid.)

In his book, After Jihad, Noah Feldman reminds us that

[i]n the wake of the September attacks on the United States, young Iranians were among the only people in the Muslim world who spontaneously showed sympathy for American suffering. …Young Iranians associate the U.S. with freedom and democracy as do young Muslims everywhere.

…But nearly every other undemocratic regime in the Muslim world has benefited from U.S. government support…including Iraq. (page 91)

American foreign policy for too long has been that it is better to deal with the known quantity of a dictator than to gamble on the unpredictability of a democratic regime. No wonder many in the Middle East were or still are skeptical that President George W. Bush sincerely wants to see democracy flourish in Iraq as well as elsewhere in the Middle East and wherever it now languishes. (His father, President George H. W. Bush made the mistake of liking to deal with “known quantity” dictators, to the chagrin of countries that were emerging from behind the Iron Curtain, such as the Ukraine.) I believe the current President Bush to be sincere in his efforts to further democracy.

<>Muslims and people everywhere have had a right to question the United States’ motives in the world when the U.S. was so often seen to uphold tyrannical governments. Now that the new democratic republic of Iraq has had its first free elections, the rough edges of American policy are being polished. And people everywhere now can begin to believe that America accepts the challenge not to dominate, but to be “the shining city on a hill”, the example to the world, that is not afraid to be and to live according to a higher standard of decency and morality.


Virginia C. Esmeier, friend said...

Thanks, teacher, the tables have turned. Now, I am learning from you. I appreciate the book reviews, the current events lesson and the history lesson . Most of all, I appreciate your service to your country, your efforts in trying to get people, cultures and countries to understand each other. As for myself, I am reading, books like,"The Idiots Complete Guide to The Koran."
I love and appreciate you and all your family here.
Virginia Clark Esmeier

Frank Staheli said...

Thanks, Virginia.

It is because of wonderful teachers like you that I have developed such an interest in people and cultures and one of the reasons that I am so enjoying my time in Iraq.