A world of equals

Anthony Barnett
12 May 2004

Can the greatest power on earth appreciate what it is like for other people?

The pictures of Iraqis being tortured by Americans could, finally, teach those who run America the lesson they refused to take after Vietnam. The lesson is the basic one of the global world: all nations and people are equal and must be given equal respect.

In its heart, it seems to me, the Bush administration denies this even while proclaiming it on television.

But as Fred Halliday suggests in his sweeping overview of the Middle East after Saddam, this is a moment for truth.

When President Bush delivered his 2002 “State of the Union” speech he launched his doctrine of pre-emption against the “axis of evil”. From then on, the president claimed, it was not just a matter of either being with him or against him (which leaves little enough room for discussion) in the fight against terrorism. We had also to agree that being with him was to fight for good against evil.

Now we are offered another kind of contrast: unlike the enemy, the president points out, the United States does not behead the prisoners it tortures. An important distinction, not to be sneered at, that brings America down to earth, onto the same moral terrain as everyone else.

To say that the US must now confront its moral equivalence with the rest of humanity is not to say its actions are the same as those of others. The way the US runs Abu Ghraib is not nearly as terrible as the way Saddam ran it. But now we are talking about the difference between the bad and the worse. In the space of this difference, let me emphasise, liberty can flourish or wither. It’s a difference that can be worth fighting and dying for. But it can no longer be presented as a black and white, “good” versus “evil” difference. The Bush administration can no longer assume a moral polarity that refuses argument and is – in the caustic phrase of Bush’s former treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill - impenetrable to facts.

That is why this can be a moment for truth for the United States.

For the facts are now undeniable and unavoidable in Washington. Paul Rogers reminds us, and rightly so, that in his openDemocracy column he has consistently reported on two aspects of the war in Iraq virtually ignored in the west: the huge numbers of Iraqi civilian casualties, meaning the deaths of innocents, and the more vigorous, explicit and accurate coverage of this in Arab press, TV and radio.

Americans were shocked by the Abu Ghraib images. But they showed what Iraqis already knew – that the power which had liberated them from Saddam could act like a beast and had brought them the jungle.

Did it have to be like this? In his report from the Senate hearings, John Hulsman suggests not and claims America can redeem itself by recognising and righting a great wrong. But can this be done by Bush and Rumsfeld?

At the beginning of last year, we ran a major debate on “Sorry! The politics of apology”, exploring the new role of contrition. In the conclusion of her magnificent opening essay, Marina Warner summed up how I feel about Bush’s recent use of “Sorry”.

“Apologising represents a bid for virtue and can even imply an excuse not to do anything more about the injustice in question. Encurled inside it may well be the earlier meaning of vindication. So it can offer hypocrites a main chance. It can also, as in the case of the priestly self-fashioning of some political leaders, make a claim on their own behalf for some sacred, legitimate authority.” The apology of Donald Rumsfeld, US secretary of defense, has appealed less to the sacred and more to the practical. The moment he thinks his “effectiveness” is being undermined, he assured the Senate hearing, he would resign immediately.

But surely it was precisely the Rumsfeld effect that was being felt by those Iraqis being brutalised for later interrogation? The key moment came when Baghdad, after its first liberation, was left to the looters. Rumsfeld himself was both catalyst and apologist.

Asked to condemn what was then still taking place in those April 2003 days, Donald Rumsfeld - speaking from the media room in the Pentagon - replied: “When people have freedom they are free to do bad things.” At the very start of the US occupation of Iraq, Rumsfeld redefined liberty as license. His words were a permission, not just to Iraqi thugs but also to those under his own command: Iraq was the wild west; American freedom means bad things happen.

They have happened.

Now – now – Rumsfeld states that they must stop, so that, in the words of his president, the United States can “complete its mission”. Alas, these words were evidently addressed to Bush’s own supporters, rallying his voters. The phrase combined that extraordinary body language of the hurt conqueror, at once defensive, threatening and fatalistic, that Tom Nairn has called America's imperial nationalism.

What is needed, what the world is listening for, is language and action from Washington based on a real comprehension that the citizens of other countries are America’s moral equals. It starts with the way they are treated in Abu Ghraib.

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