National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 30, 2004

America's habit of self-deception


No weapons of mass destruction? It’s the fault of the “intelligence community.” Wide-spread abuse of Iraqi prisoners? It’s the “wrongdoing of a few.” Iraqis want the Americans to go home? It’s because they “fail to understand our motives.” For President Bush and his advisers, failure is always to be laid at someone else’s door. This attitude flows from a worldview so ideologically proscribed (Christian fundamentalist elements in government see themselves on a mission from God) that it filters out discordant aspects of reality. You just hide yourself from unwanted facts with the tenacity of cult devotees and use an old tactic to maintain the resulting fantasy -- evidence that does not fit your paradigm is rejected, and those who offer it lack patriotism.

Take the case of weapons of mass destruction. The CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department did gather intelligence that raised doubt about weapons programs in Iraq. However, such a conclusion did not meet the needs of the administration. Their worldview demanded an invasion, and that required the existence of such weapons and a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Therefore, major pressure was put on the analysts to come up with conclusions the data did not support, and Vice President Dick Cheney created his own “intelligence office” within the Pentagon, the Office of Special Plans. Its job was to “data mine” the intelligence so it would fit the administration’s worldview. When Bruce Hardcastle, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s senior officer for the Middle East, told the White House that their “handling of the evidence was wrong,” the response was to “do away with his job,” according to Sidney Blumenthal in The Guardian Feb. 5. There was no failure of the intelligence community. They were simply censored.

In a similar effort, outriders of the administration, in the persons of Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, are now attacking American Middle East scholars because most of them challenge the neoconservative worldview. Pipes and Kramer claim that these scholars have failed to serve U.S. government interests because they do not make acceptable predictions of events in the Middle East, as Kramer wrote in Ivory Towers on Sand. As punishment, those who come up with such “wrong assessments” should lose federal funding for their research until they cease to be “intellectually corrupt.”

In truth, American academics studying the Middle East have been remarkably prescient. Most warned that American policies in the region were and are bad ones. U.S. support for dictatorships, the overthrow of popular governments and support for Israel’s systematic destruction of the Palestinian society were all bound to arouse violent anti-Americanism. But pointing this out contradicts an administration worldview that is blindly pro-Israel, determined to control the Middle East by force and incapable of admitting that American practices are self-defeating. As a result we now have an effort to censor (as with the recently passed House bill HR3077) offending Middle East scholars who are accused of being “un-American.”

The Bush administration’s reaction to the unfolding scandal of prisoner abuse fits this pattern of blinkered perception. They insist that the abuse is the “wrongdoing of a few.” However, in the judgment of the Red Cross’s director, Pierre Kraehenbuehl, “what we have here is part of a pattern and a broad system” of abuse over an extended period of time. The Red Cross warned of such abuse as early as March 2003. The fact that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top generals did not care enough even to read the reports on the problem suggests, once more, that facts contradicting a priori notions (Iraqi prisoners are terrorists who need to be “softened up”) get ignored. For Rumsfeld, the real problem is not the abuse, but getting caught at it.

Such egocentric blindness is not unique to the present. In the 18th and 19th centuries, America adhered to a self-glorifying paradigm of manifest destiny. Blessed by God, we spread across the continent and beyond, bringing “modernity and progress.” Simultaneously, we murdered millions of Native Americans and Filipinos. In the 20th century America fought the “empire of evil” and millions more died in places like Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan, while we self-flagellated with Red Scares and McCarthy hearings (today we have the grotesquely misnamed “Patriot Act”). Now, thanks to decades of antidemocratic policies in the Middle East, things have caught up to us. Sept. 11 marks the day when our hubris drew a fateful, albeit fanatical and terrorist, reaction. And how do we react? Not with introspection and a thorough policy review to find out why they hate us. Instead, we slip into yet another manifest destiny paradigm that allows us to maintain the hubris, retain God’s blessing and push the worst of U.S. policies to their extreme in the name of “freedom.” Every dead American and Iraqi, too, dies for our “freedom” to exploit Iraqi resources and control its foreign policy.

Can America’s habit of self-deception be broken? If so, we might have a chance to initiate foreign policies that really are guided by the best of our domestic principles. But such transformations usually require a crisis as a catalyst. Neither Vietnam nor the events of Sept. 11 seem to have been sufficient to achieve this. But the present game has not yet played itself out. Bush and his cohort have laid the basis for more crises to come. Let us hope we learn their lessons correctly.

Lawrence Davidson is Professor of History at West Chester University, Pennsylvania.

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: