The world is justifiably shocked by the recent photos of abused Iraqi prisoners of war. I understand and agree with the anger and disgust. At the same time, it would be highly exaggerated to conclude that these actions are regular policies of the US and British military forces. By and large, they are an incredibly courageous, incredibly professional group. As is often the case, a few bad apples are to blame. Someone is bound to screw up. So why is everyone reacting so strongly?
Because the real mistake comes not from these actions, despicable as they may be. The real mistake is the expectation Bush and his neocon theorists are setting. They said they would spread freedom and democracy. They said they would rid the world of injustice and the tyrants responsible for it. A noble goal? More like an incredibly arrogant one. We Americans supposedly know and practice democracy so well that we stand ready and willing to teach the world. And we’re going to do so preemptively. Well if you set expectations that way, you shouldn’t be surprised at the outrage when the truth turns out to be a bit more nuanced and failure-prone.
We have prisoners of war at Guantanamo Bay to whom we won’t grant proper rights according to the Geneva Conventions. We have American Citizens whom our administration claims it can imprison for months and years without even a simple opportunity for the accused to defend themselves. Our administration makes decisions in secret, reports to oversight committees in secret, not under oath, and without any recording for posterity. We have lost all transparency and accountability. And we want to teach the world about democracy and freedom?
I keep wondering, if Bush and co. thought the WMD excuse was starting to falter under scrutiny, did they really think they’d have a better leg to stand on with this “spreading democracy and freedom” stuff? At least it is conceivable we might one day find some WMDs somewhere. But to make the grandiose claim that we are the perfect flawless example of democracy and freedom ready to impart our wisdom on the anxiously awaiting Arab World?
As Donald Rumsfeld said earlier on in the war, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” That’s right. But presence of evidence *is* evidence of presence. It’s much easier to prove that something exists than to prove that something doesn’t exist. We said to the world “our counry is free of injustice, and soon so will yours be.” We were just daring everyone to find our flaws. And finding a flaw, it turns out, is not that difficult.
So the problem is not that we have flaws. The problem is that we claimed we had none.
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