In my long life, I have known many Americas, each one completely different from the others. I was about 12 years old in the late ’40s of the last century when I knew my first America—the America of the movies, of action and suspense and the big stars. I loved them all; I can never forget that day when I accompanied my high school mates to see Rita Hayworth in The Loves of Carmen, to enjoy counting aloud together the kisses in the film. I do not remember the number, but I am sure it was greater than fifty. That was an unrivalled achievement in the movie theater in my old city, Damietta, which lies at the mouth of the Nile in the Egyptian Delta, close by the azure Mediterranean.But after the joy of kisses comes the pain. It was one of the first lessons in my life: You will never love anything without paying a price for it; think of this when you love freedom, I told myself. Decades passed before I saw Rita Hayworth again, now in a picture in the newspaper, a very old lady seized by some security guards who were dragging her out of one of the studios to keep her from disturbing the work of her fellow actors. This is another story, about another America.Then there was the America inside the America of the movies—the historical America we saw in Egypt. It was hardly easy for the early European settlers. I remember well the many horrible scenes of godly women, men and children besieged in a chapel defending themselves with guns against the brutal Indians armed with arrows, spears and their bloody screams. It took long years before I saw other scenes showing how the bad Americans coerced the good Indians and betrayed their treaties with them. Another story about yet another America.There were two sides in World War II: lunatic, evil Germans, Japanese and their allies, fighting against good and wise Americans and their allies. In those days the world—America, in particular—knew only two colors, two sides. It took years and much suffering before we discovered that black and white is good only in Scotch whisky. After this discovery it was easy for the movies to show us that people are not good or bad because they are Americans or Germans, black or white, or belonging to any nationality, but because for some reasons they believe that others are lesser human beings, and consequently feel contempt toward them. Contempt is the most vicious emotion inside the human race. It, and not hatred, is what drives us to violence. I am not afraid of ideas or thoughts contrary to my own; but I am terrified by those who tempt decent people to feel contempt toward others.But in that time, too, there was another America building itself up gradually in my heart. My father, though a mere policeman in a Third World country, was a painter and a good reader. He used to supply me with the monthly Reader’s Digest, the magazine that opened my eyes to my second America, an America I loved. From that time I stopped counting kisses in the movies, stopped admiring cowboys and their guns, and started admiring the America that glorified the dignity of every human being. I started being convinced that what America says is right, what America does is correct—and great, as well. This conception turned me into more than a fan; I admit that it made me almost a disciple.For a young Egyptian playwright, as I was then in that period of the Cold War, such sentiments—had they leaked out—were very dangerous. Admiring anything American could be considered an act of treason against the nation. It was America the monster that, for very vague reasons, was preparing to devour all the good people who believed in communism and socialism. This was what our government told us, and most at least pretended to believe it. I think this was my third America, an image I did not accept, but that was everywhere around me.I have taken you, dear reader, on this tour of my American images to prepare you as I now come to talk about the America that I am worried about, the America of today.I think of 9/11 as the darkest day in the history of freedom. Only moments after that disaster, it was not hard for me to realize that history was liable to take another course, one in which people would be less free and life itself would be more dangerous everywhere. Being a disciple of America did not blind me to the misconceptions I encountered when I visited America eight months before the invasion of Iraq. I was afraid of the talk I heard about liberating the people of Iraq, because I knew well that freedom for others has never been the real aim of any war. That might be one of its consequences, but not its principal objective. In wars our political and military leaders ask families to send their children to the battlefield, perhaps to die defending their own freedom, but not to secure freedom for other nations. Inevitably this conception of liberating Iraqis led many to expect that Iraqis would welcome the Western Coalition soldiers, as if Baghdad in 2003 was like Paris in 1944.Some American intellectuals and statesmen understand dictatorships from having read about them, from having heard about them, or from having seen their depredations on television news screens. But American-born intellectuals never understood dictatorships from having lived in one. They did not know—how could they know?—of the damage that oppression does to the collective mind of the people; how it damages the hard disk of logic; how it dries the blood while it still remains in the heart. Living for long years under a brutal, homegrown dictatorship makes it impossible for people to welcome their liberators. People made so miserable would rather kill their liberators than welcome them, simply because they start practicing their freedom against the new accessible authority that replaces the former inaccessible one.I had lived in a dictatorship and I knew this. I assumed others also knew it, so I did not expect or imagine a conventional invasion or occupation of Iraqi land as people experienced in the 19th century. But I was not sure of this, so I asked in a forum in one of the political institutes in Washington: “Can you get rid of Saddam without any American soldier being seen in any Iraqi town or a village?”The moderator smiled and asked me: “How?”Then I answered: “This is a good question, but not for me: It must be put before the generals.”From what followed, it seemed to me that the generals did not define precisely their target and their methods before invading Iraq. Getting rid of Saddam was a correct decision, but was occupying Iraq inevitable?In his book about strategy, Clausewitz repeated his definition of war almost every five pages, to wit: “To destroy the armies of the enemy in order to impose the terms of peace on him.” This was exactly what the Arab Caliphs used to do. After destroying the army of a king or a prince they would bring him or one of his family members and put him on the throne. He was only required to pay taxes (jizya) and to acknowledge his defeat by mentioning the name of the victorious Caliph in the prayers in mosques. They did not otherwise touch the system or the regime of any one of their defeated enemies. In the Middle East it is very dangerous to solve a problem by becoming a part of it. Some disorders or defects in our region must be fixed only from a distance. The America that doesn’t understand this is yet another America.As far as I know, America is the country that invented the “chains.” I mean the commercial chain stores. I hope that this is not a metaphor in-the-making, that there will not be a chain of mistakes made at the level of U.S. national policy. But I wonder. I’m afraid to say that 9/11 was not the only infamous day in recent American history. There was another. The second was when it turned out that the supposedly most powerful intelligence agency on earth gave its political leaders false information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There is something wrong with the inner workings of the state in America, and this is very dangerous—maybe more dangerous than 9/11 itself, because it is hidden and malignant. It is very dangerous in any modern state when citizens lose trust in those who need most to be trustworthy.Could there be a third day of infamy? Much talk about “victory” in Iraq ignores the fact that there can be neither victory nor defeat when fighting against an army that doesn’t materially exist. Generals are not trained to fight ghosts; only ghosts can encounter ghosts. American soldiers die in Iraq not because they are in a battle, but because they dwell in Iraqi cities and villages in an environment where every terrified creature has a hundred reasons to kill another such creature. America cannot win a war of ghosts. It is time that the Iraqi government, such as it is, realizes that it has its back to the wall. It must unite and stand to defend itself without expecting any help from the American forces. This is the only way for Iraqis to bring security and stability to Iraq. Then and only then will America’s image in Iraq, and in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, break free of the chain of events begun on 9/11. Then I will regain the peace I need to renew my discipleship, and to remember Rita Hayworth at her best.
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Published on: June 1, 2006
What are the sources of the American image around the world? How has it changed in recent years? And what, if anything, can the U.S. government do to shape that image? The American Interest posed these questions to a distinguished group of international observers. Their answers reflect diverse histories and circumstances, and offer some useful counsel.