(A translation of an editorial by Jean-Marie Colombani from Le Monde that appeared on May 14, 2004)
“It's impossible to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. The horror.” So says Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, the film that best represented an America at war, in Vietnam, divorced from itself. The nightmare that isolated America from the rest of the world and from the better part of itself has reemerged, revived by the quagmire created by Bush’s war in Iraq. One, perhaps, should say “crusade,” as Bush’s good conscience—this faith without any doubt that borders on arrogance and that distances America from the values that it is supposed to defend—is omnipresent. “They want to become Americans,” claimed Donald Rumsfeld, when speaking of Iraq. We are all un-American, one is now tempted to reply.
The American Secretary of Defense, with his proud use of the word “un-American” to distance himself from the torture scandals, has made America’s best friends desperate. We all felt American in the aftermath of 9/11. Donald Rumsfeld has made us un-American. Today, Rumsfeld is the greatest source of anti-Americanism—he is one of the people responsible for the greatest wave of anti-Americanism ever throughout the world. Every counter-terrorism expert agrees that this war has created precisely the situation that it was supposed to prevent: cooperation (a link) between Al-Qaida and the Jihadist groups who have migrated throughout the Middle East. Even more dangerous: Al-Qaida methods have been placed at the service of Arab nationalism.
Faced with this horror and with the question of “how to get out of it,” it is first necessary to gauge the political defeat and strategic reversal that is the occupation of Iraq. It is a political defeat because Bush invoked three goals of the war. Weapons of mass destruction: They represented a threat for the United States that could only be neutralized through war. These weapons no longer exist. Any where. The ties to Al-Qaida. They did not exist before the invasion.
War in the name of democratic “values.” This was supposed to liberate a country from a monstrous tyrant and to put in place a decent government that would influence the region. Sure enough, the monster was in Baghdad. But it is according to its own values that America must be judged in Iraq; and to quote an editorialist in Time Magazine: “this means, at the very least, that we should have made sure that Abou Ghraib stopped being a torture chamber.”
This is a political, strategic and moral failure. The United States has lost credibility at the moment when it wants to convince the leaders of the Greater Middle East that they must evolve towards…more democratic behavior? Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, accurately stated that torture is a war crime and that, henceforth, “it has become difficult to define” the American presence in Iraq “as a mission of peace.” It is likewise difficult to justify any participation in this enterprise.
Islamist terrorism feeds off of frustration and humiliation that results from the Arab
world’s inability to enter the modern age. The Islamists maintain a feeling of
Arab dignity that they claim is constantly demeaned by the West—Israel, the US
and Europe all caught up in their never-ending, anti-Muslim crusade. The Islamists brood on this fantasy and seek to benefit from it by describing the West, and first and foremost the United States, as a depraved, amoral and violent world. If the fight against terrorism is a battle of ideas—and it is, more than one imagines—and therefore of images, then Mr. Bush has just suffered a major strategic defeat. The war in Iraq has given ammunition to Islamist terrorism; the policy of physical mistreatment—designed to weaken a detainee prior to interrogation—conducted by Americans in an occupied Arab capital that is proud of its rich and glorious past, is the greatest gift ever given to Ossama bin Laden since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Abou Graib confirms the impression that Islamists want to create of the United States in the Arab world.
This debacle has it origins in that mix of American power and Bush’s absolutely good conscience. This is a corrosive cocktail that blocks all inhibitions, erases doubts, and prevents self-criticism on the borders of the Potomac just as much as in the corridors of a Baghdad prison. This situation requires a double remedy: Return to the best American tradition of checks and balances that lies at heart of American democracy; listen to the veterans of Old Europe; in brief, remember that trans-Atlantic cohesion deserves renewed consideration. American leaders must agree—one time is not enough—to state: “We are all Europeans!” America must become more European. Americans must draw on that wisdom that Old Europe—so disdained by Donald Rumsfeld—acquired at its own expense, during a colonial past that had its share of somber hours. America desperately needs Europe—Americans suffer from an absence of old European skepticism. At the origin of the Iraqi tragedy is an almost theological conception of power that has driven the Bush administration from the very beginning: America is Good incarnate; all those not with us are against us; the enemies of the United States are Evil. At the end of this absolute conviction that America is “fundamentally good”—as President Bush said to Fox News last year—there is a logical corollary: the temptation to demonize the adversary. If the enemy is dehumanized, if he is evil, one can do anything against and to him. This boundary was crossed in Iraq and probably also in Afghanistan. The boundary was crossed as soon as the United States, with George W. Bush supporting Donald Rumsfeld against Colin Powell, put in place an enormous prison system beyond the pale of international law in Guantanamo.
This is essentially an idea that was once European (and specifically French) to conflate universalism and nationalism, to believe that a nation can legitimately anoint itself with a universal mission, to self-proclaim that it is the Chosen People.
Let’s take a step back and return to the tragic beginning of this century: September 11, 2001. All free countries—those that actually are free as well as those that aspire to be—immediately felt that they had to fight together. We would all be at America’s side. We were all Americans. This solidarity lasted six months. It was broken when George Bush decided, at the beginning of 2002, to open his Iraqi campaign during his famous speech on Good vs. Evil. Ever since, the two sides of the Atlantic have grown distant: Bush has succeeded in convincing American opinion that there is a link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida; he thereby turned America’s and the military’s attention on a more manageable field of operations, on an easier target (so he thought) than the nebulous Al-Qaida, on a more identifiable target (so he thought) than bin Laden and his Pakistani and—at one time—Saudi supporters.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia: how could Bush have explained that the fate of bin Laden was in the hands of two American allies? Better, instead, to wage war against Saddam Hussein, even if this meant lying. Even if this meant going against international reason; against a half century of European-America cohesion that relied upon the strategy of “containment” (which has now been replaced by “preventive warfare”). If one wants to eliminate this divergence that has been built on government-sanctioned lies—on weapons of mass destruction, the ties with Al-Qaida—if one wants America to return to what is essential—the fight against terrorism whose true face was apparent in the Madrid blood bath and in the barbaric video from Baghdad; if one considers that free people are only being used to line the pockets of companies like Halliburton and Bechtel that control the Iraqi economy, is there any other path than to wish that George Bush Junior is thrown out by American voters—sent to his prayers and to go speak with his conscience? Let us hope then for the defeat of George Bush and the victory of John Kerry.