The U.S. will learn from its errors, and so should Arabs

Does anyone doubt we will discover the truth about American mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq? It is not merely puzzling that this openness is not the main story. It is, for the Middle East, a tragedy. It is of course "abhorrent'' that American soldiers abused prisoners, as President George W. Bush said in an interview with the Dubai-based TV network Al-Arabiya. He also said such actions "don't represent America'' which, radical fulminations notwithstanding, they don't. What does represent America, and should be the main story, is an inquiry that has already denounced "grave breaches of international law'' at Abu Ghraib prison between August 2003 and February 2004, and "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses'' by U.S. soldiers, and produced career-ending reprimands for some and criminal charges for others, with more likely to follow over events in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the president told the U.S.-funded Al-Hurra network, this response "stands in stark contrast to life under Saddam Hussein. His trained torturers were never brought to justice under his regime. There were no investigations about mistreatment of people.'' True. But Mr. Bush also told Al-Arabiya, "Our citizens in America are appalled by what they saw, just like people in the Middle East are appalled.'' And sadly, while they are surely appalled, they do not seem to be appalled just like Americans. Rather, and with the usual caveat about cultural generalizations not applying to everyone, we seem to be facing the distinction anthropologists and sociologists draw between societies based on guilt and on shame.

In the West, the dominant reaction is that injustices humiliate those guilty of committing them. In the Middle East, too often injustices humiliate those shamed by suffering them. As one newspaper quoted a probably not untypical Middle Eastern journalist: "This is not humiliation of Iraqis, it is humiliation of all Arabs.'' That's not how it looks in Washington.

The American reaction reminds me strongly of the fascinating thesis of Victor Davis Hanson in Carnage and Culture that the relentless western habit of dispassionate self-criticism has, in military matters, ensured lethal domination over non-western societies for more than 2,500 years. For one thing, because it has a free press, the United States had much better ideas how to fight the second war against Saddam Hussein than the first, while he had not even improved his methods of torture, let alone realized his army had disintegrated on him. Just as, because no one dared bring Xerxes or Montezuma bad news, in the long run they faced an unmanageable amount of it.

I am frustrated by the often distorted reporting of western media outlets, including announcements every few months that recent developments have finally dispelled the deep reservoir of Iraqi sympathy for the coalition whose existence they had, until that moment, entirely denied. (And journalists who think it's culturally sophisticated to tell us public nudity is taboo in Iraq as though anyone but a few judges think Canadians routinely stroll around naked.) But doubtless there were fools in the Agora as well.

Then, as now, the wise man will ignore them and ponder the deeper lessons. The American reaction also reminds me of Mr. Hanson's account of how the Athenians executed eight generals after a famous victory for failing to rescue drowning Athenian sailors. But it reminds me of nothing in the history of the Persian Empire. They no more analysed victories than they did defeats.

In the West, let a victory be as lopsided as you can imagine and its blemishes will be subject to immediate, wide-ranging analysis. Not only were the American authorities investigating and punishing these abuses long before the story broke, but within days of it breaking the Citizen alone had published an opinion piece by in-house expert Dan Gardner on the psychology of torture and a news story about academic studies of it. We'll have a better idea next time how to avoid abuses (including, if those tabloid photos are fakes, how the British did a better job of preventing them). And because we care whether our cause and our conduct in it are just, we'll be even stronger next time.

Has the Arab world learned similar, or any, lessons from Saddam? Not, I submit, if the dominant and tragic reaction there is that President Bush must be weak to apologize, not a "strong'' man like Saddam who would rather see his people crushed than give an inch.

I hope not, for the sake of those who live in the Middle East and those brave souls seeking to reform its politics. But things don't look good. There, surely, is the real story.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson