The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Mirror, Mirror, on the War

The Dreyfus Affiar was important not for its historical consequences but for the moral rot it exposed in France. The same may be true of America and l'affaire Irak

Published on March 1, 2006

Fellow historians and others may recoil at the sins I commit here. I propose to draw lessons from history through an apparently inappropriate historical analogy: comparing the Dreyfus Affair, an old story (1894-1906) concentrated mainly on one individual and one country, with current developments in Iraq and their implications for American and world history.

This effort would be absurd were it my intention to discuss the broad skein of historical causality and consequence supposedly linking these two cases. My purpose, however, is to illustrate how events can be significant not mainly for their broader historical impact, but simply for what they are in themselves—for what they tell us about the essential human qualities of the actors involved and the society in which they live. At the time and ever since, most people have believed the Dreyfus case important for its impact on French history. It really had but modest impact; its chief historical importance lies in what it revealed about fin-de-siècle France. Most believe today that the unfolding Iraq story is crucial for the broad consequences it has had and will have on American, Middle Eastern and world history. Perhaps. But the war in Iraq, too, may turn out to be important above all for what it is, for what it tells us about the United States today.

An Abbreviated Affair

The Dreyfus Affair began in 1894 when the intelligence service of the French Army, called the Statistical Section, discovered that some French officer was selling military secrets to Germany’s military attaché. Suspicion centered on a Jew, Captain Alfred Dreyfus. A sloppy investigation and defective court-martial procedures led to Dreyfus’ conviction and imprisonment on Devil’s Island.

Dreyfus’ claims of innocence and his family’s and friends’ efforts kept his cause alive, but this would not have availed had not the treasonous activity continued and a new head of the Statistical Section, Major Georges Picquart, ultimately become convinced that another officer, Count Marie-Charles-Ferdinand Walsin-Esterházy, was the real culprit. Picquart’s investigations prompted a concerted Army cover-up, however, during which his subordinate, Major Hubert-Joseph Henry, forged and falsified documents to bolster the case against Dreyfus. Meanwhile, Picquart’s superiors tried to silence him by bribes, threats, reassignment and, when none of that worked, with dismissal, arrest and imprisonment.

Nonetheless, as more evidence seeped out incriminating Esterházy and exonerating Dreyfus, the case became a cause célèbre that split France into Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard camps. Before long, the question of Dreyfus’ innocence or guilt became entangled with the hottest issues then dividing Frenchmen—Catholicism versus anticlericalism, militarism versus anti-militarism, conservative nationalism versus radical republicanism.

Public pressure finally forced the government to bring Esterházy to trial but, despite clear incriminating evidence, a court-martial acquitted him. The case then flared anew when Henry’s forgeries were detected, whereupon Henry committed suicide, leaving behind a false “confession” insisting that he had only followed orders and was sacrificing himself for the Army’s honor and France’s security. Anti-Dreyfusards hailed him as a martyr.

In late 1898 and 1899, however, the flood of revelations of corruption, cover-up and malfeasance seemed to turn the tide. A new government brought Dreyfus back from Devil’s Island for another trial. The military court once more-—ncredibly—convicted him of treason, but with extenuating circumstances. Determined to end the crisis without provoking civil and military disorder, Premier René Waldeck-Rousseau then pardoned Dreyfus, released Picquart and restored him to duty, and pushed through legislation giving amnesty to everyone involved. A moderate anticlerical campaign he also launched turned radical under his successor, culminating in the separation of church and state in 1905. In 1906, the Courts of Appeal eventually quashed the verdict of the second military court, enabling Dreyfus to return to the Army. In 1998—yes, 1998—the French government officially proclaimed his innocence.

What can one say about the larger dimensions of all this? Dreyfusards who claimed that the Republic was in grave danger from monarchists, the Church and militant nationalists were exaggerating threats well past their peak. The serious political problems the Republic did face at that time—ministerial instability, ideological divisions, party and class conflict, and a venal, irresponsible press—did not cause the Affair, nor did the Affair and its outcome directly address them. Anti-Semitism in France was nasty but not a real threat to the Republic or a central cause of the Affair, though the trial’s outcome probably made it worse. The main issue involved the Army’s threat to civil liberties and republican institutions, yet French generals were after freedom from political interference in their sphere, not political power for themselves. The reforms the Dreyfus case did eventually facilitate, chiefly the separation of church and state and a Republican purge of monarchist-Catholic officers in the Army, had mixed results; indeed, the purge may have hurt the French army at a fateful moment in August 1914.

The Affair brought obloquy and ridicule on France from abroad, but never threatened France’s alliance with Russia or increased the threat from Germany (though it risked doing so). It hampered France in a humiliating confrontation with Britain in 1898-99, but France recovered and, in the 1902-06 period, made major diplomatic gains. Frenchmen could even claim that the foreign denunciation was exaggerated and hypocritical. After all, one reason French political life was so unstable was that France was freer and more democratic than any other major European state. French military justice left much to be desired, true; but other countries’ systems were worse, and the crisis proved that Frenchmen did in the end care about justice and individual rights. As for anti-Semitism, then a pervasive Western phenomenon, it was much more virulent elsewhere in Europe, as French Jews themselves were well aware.

A Superficial Resemblance

Why, then, raise the Dreyfus case now? Because these comments also apply generally to the Iraq story. Though intrinsically more important, the Iraq war, too, seen in comparative historical perspective, looks less earthshaking than most commentators currently claim. For example, the abuse of prisoners and detainees by Americans or at America’s behest, though morally repellent, appears relatively mild compared to many past and current atrocities around the globe. The war in Iraq is (in my view, for reasons indicated below) an illegal and unjustifiable war, but it is clearly not an old-fashioned war of conquest; and while it has caused much death and destruction for Iraqis, Coalition forces have not deliberately fought it as a dirty war and have tried hard, especially after the early months of occupation, to minimize collateral damage.

But the same historical perspective that relativizes some of the evils alleged by critics also relativizes much else. The successful initial Coalition military campaign was no more than a colonial-style victory by an unchallenged superpower over a crippled, disorganized foe. Saddam Hussein was a genuine villain, but by March 2003 he menaced only his own people, and even that threat seemed to be fading. The insurgency remains moderate by historic standards, embarrassing America more than seriously endangering it. The Administration’s original goals in Iraq must be characterized as imperial by the normal historical definition of this slippery term,1 but from an historical perspective what impresses most is how rapidly the Administration’s goals for the war (a stable, united, secular and democratic Iraq; a transformed Middle East; a defeat for terrorism; enhanced American prestige, power and influence in the region and the Muslim world; pressure on Iran, North Korea and other dangerous states) have been scaled back in the face of an unexpectedly recalcitrant reality.

As for the Global War on Terror, the all-purpose justification for every action the Bush Administration takes in Iraq and elsewhere, here too there is less than meets the eye. The claim that most Americans seem still to believe—that terrorism and al-Qaeda menace the United States and the free world as they have never been menaced before—is in historical perspective simply and demonstrably untrue. The current terrorist danger is of course real and serious, but terrorism has menaced many countries and peoples in the distant and recent past. The actual terrorist attacks of 9/11, though sensational, were pinpricks compared to the losses suffered every day in many countries during both world wars, and by countless peoples and countries in great wars and insurrections for centuries. Americans merely have not experienced this, at least not since 1865, and so are practicing what might be called “existential exceptionalism.”

Current nightmare scenarios of future terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction, though certainly not to be dismissed, involve low probabilities with high consequences. The threats endured by statesmen and peoples before, during and especially following World War II involved much higher probabilities (“the bomber or the ICBM will always get through”) with even more intolerable consequences. Current predictions of inevitably worsening terrorism are speculative and may prove as unsound as the widespread predictions of inevitable nuclear conflict during the Cold War.2 The obvious message to Americans here is: Get a grip. Don’t let fear, anger, patriotism or propaganda sweep you into exaggerating current dangers. Don’t let them deflect you from soberly appraising what has happened and shrewdly assessing what needs to be done about it.

A Deeper Kinship

But there is more to the Dreyfus analogy than a warning against exaggerating the historical significance of one’s own times. A second message from the Affair is subtler, requiring us to understand why, regardless of its relatively moderate and mixed impact on larger issues, it was important precisely because the central question really was the innocence or guilt of one man, and because the French response revealed critical things about France. Once we do understand that, applications to Iraq today come into focus, though be warned: The pictures revealed are not pleasant to view.

The Dreyfus Affair started with a serious but not particularly sinister miscarriage of military justice. Only with the later cover-up did official conduct become criminal. The driving engine in this was the French Army, dragging various civilian ministries along to protect itself from scandal.

The Army’s leaders pursued this course so stubbornly for what came down to simple reasons: caste spirit, career ambition, an ethos of unwavering loyalty to one’s superiors, fear of reprisal and the conviction that control of the Army by radical, anti-military, anti-Christian forces would ruin it. The public rationale was that the Army was the true embodiment of the nation and its only bulwark against a fearsome enemy; let its morale and the public’s confidence in its leadership be undermined, and the Germans would soon overrun France again as they had in 1870.

This seems to proclaim, “You see? This is the kind of thinking that got America into the tragic mess of Iraq and Abu Ghraib.” Not so fast. Alongside some resemblances between France in the 1890s and America today are as many or more contrasts. For example, the respective structures of military and civilian control are far different, and it was civilian hawks in the White House and Defense Department, not the generals, who drove America into Iraq. The German threat to France was very real; the Iraqi threat to America was at least grossly exaggerated.

One has to go deeper, asking why French Army leaders were not deterred from their cover-up or from persisting in it as doggedly as they did. The reason turns on what was missing from their world: namely, internal norms, such as strong loyalty to the Republic and its ideals and a code stressing individual rights and due process, that were adequate to check the lure of career incentives, group loyalty, religious zeal, myopic patriotism and military honor. Parallel to these missing norms was inadequate civilian control over the Army. Put simply, French officers thought they could get away with their cover-up because they believed no ministry would dare confront the Army, and because they calculated that so long as just one man’s (especially just one Jew’s) disputed guilt or innocence was pitted against the entire Army’s honor, the public would mainly take its side.

For years they seemed to be right. This calculation, that the public did not care much about Dreyfus and did care about the Army, accounts for many aspects of the case—not only the remarkable persistence of anti-Dreyfusards in the teeth of mounting evidence and their success in diverting attention from the central issue, but the complaints of some Dreyfusards that his defenders concentrated too much on Dreyfus’ personal fate and not enough on purging the Army of monarchist officers or breaking the hold of the cursed Roman sect. This factor also explains the hesitations of the ministries and the timidity of the Chamber of Deputies. Of course, such behavior is commonplace in politics, especially in a democracy, and France was not worse than average in this regard—rather the contrary. But the Army’s calculation shows clearly what the Dreyfus affair reveals about French public life at the time: a serious deficit in intellectual and moral integrity.

I put this historical verdict as objectively and dispassionately as possible; yet it still sounds moralistic, judgmental and unhistorical. Without some such conclusion, however, one cannot get to the heart of the Affair. The initial blunder grew into a major scandal and crime because too many Frenchmen in high places were willing to ignore evidence, bend facts and accept or do what they knew at bottom was wrong—and too much of the political public either endorsed this, or just did not care. Without recognizing this deficit one cannot explain the high level of dishonesty and deception sustained throughout the case in the anti-Dreyfusard camp and the protracted success of their dirty tactics.

Again, this sounds moralistic. Dishonesty of many varieties is obviously endemic in politics and social life and is inseparable from it. But it remains vital for analysts and leaders to judge when the level of dishonesty goes beyond normal nuisance and becomes toxic. Because he and others realized that the Dreyfus case was poisoning French public life, Waldeck-Rousseau, no crusader by experience or temperament, finally intervened to end it—and he was surely right to do so. One piece of evidence was that the case enflamed French anti-Semitism when, by all rights, it should have discredited it. Even better proof lay in Franco-German relations. Army leaders, who insisted that the Army’s honor and morale must be maintained intact to enable it to defend France against the German threat, repeatedly jeopardized French security against Germany by their cover-up. Their false assertions were offensive and provocative to Germany, and gave German leaders an excuse, had they wanted one, to provoke a crisis or even to attack France at a time when it was unprepared. If that does not define dishonesty driven to a toxic level, it is hard to think of what does.

Here is where the analogy lies between the Dreyfus case and the Iraq-Abu Ghraib-Guantanamo story. America has got itself into a tragic mess by a roughly similar process with a roughly similar underlying cause: a national deficit in intellectual and moral integrity. But once again there are contrasts alongside similarities, and our deficit must be carefully defined, away from the distortions of partisanship and raw emotion.

The Bush Administration’s decision to attack Iraq resembles the first verdict against Dreyfus in being a blunder rather than a crime. President Bush and others seem to have genuinely convinced themselves of what they were disposed to believe from the outset: that Saddam Hussein posed a real, imminent menace that had to be removed by force. This was a mistake, and the process of making and selling this decision, carried out in public view (unlike the Dreyfus’ trial) therefore involved almost inevitably plenty of false statements and misleading distortions—but no cover-up.

What has happened since the war, however, has turned blunder into crime. There has been a cover-up, one bigger, more organized and more brazen than in the Dreyfus Affair. In this cover-up the American public has been to some extent lied to, for example about the real sources for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. To a greater degree, Americans have been misled about the occupation, which has involved the Administration in near constant denials of facts and distortions of reality; repeated claims, promises and confident predictions that when falsified by events are dismissed and forgotten; the treatment of central, direct results of the war and occupation in Iraq (civilian deaths and destruction, the breakdown of the civil and economic order and security, massive unemployment, steep declines in health and living conditions) as if they never happened or were unimportant or were simply the enemy’s fault; the refusal to ascribe any but nihilistic motives and purposes to all opponents, who are uniformly called “terrorists” even when they are fighting uniformed foreign soldiers on their native soil. These characteristics have been and remain hallmarks of the occupation, notwithstanding the somewhat more candid tone adopted by President Bush starting in December of last year.

These assertions will be hotly denied by some, as the current furious debate testifies. Backing them with detailed evidence would break the bounds of this essay and deflect it from its purpose, which is to contend that this cover-up, fairly successful until recently, constitutes evidence of a major national deficit in intellectual integrity.

The key word here is “national.” The American public has not been an innocent victim of manipulation and distortion by the Administration or the media, but in the majority showed itself a willing collaborator in the process. The same willingness to believe comforting untruths and ignore inconvenient evidence that led many in government to endorse the decision for war and support the policy thereafter also motivated many Americans and helped the cover-up succeed. To illustrate: When Administration officials before the war claimed without credible evidence that there were close ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, this was at least distortion. When Vice President Cheney continued to assert this even after the 9/11 Presidential Commission had explicitly refuted it and after the President had admitted the lack of any such evidence, this was either obfuscation or a lie. And when, according to polls, a solid majority of Bush voters still believed in such ties in November 2004, and in a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, this was evidence of a powerful willingness to be deceived.

The revelations about American detention and interrogation practices at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram and possibly elsewhere, along with subsequent investigations tailored to concentrate attention on individual wrongdoers in the lower ranks rather than the policies and culture of command behind these practices, add a special moral dimension to the deficit in integrity. Three aspects of this stand out.

First, though the uniformed services and Defense Department civilian leaders had the best and earliest information on these scandals, public revelations have all come from the outside—certain journalists, CBS, the FBI, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and others. A good example is a whistle-blower, Army Captain Ian Fishback, who finally went to Human Rights Watch to make public what he knew when all his attempts to go through Army channels failed.

Second, no one in high office, either military or political, has genuinely taken responsibility for these ugly abuses or paid a penalty for them. When the French Chief of Staff General Raoul Boisdeffre, a convinced anti-Dreyfusard, discovered that Army officers had fabricated the evidence on which he had based his testimony to the Chamber, he resigned his post, ending his career. Boisdeffre genuinely took responsibility. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who knew about Abu Ghraib months before the abuses became public, finally, in order to help quell the public outcry, accepted full responsibility—and remained at his post. Rumsfeld, in effect, pretended to take responsibility.

Finally, public indignation over these scandals, despite a steady drumbeat of new revelations and charges, has never risen, especially on the Right, to anything approaching the level reached over scandals in the Clinton White House. Yet those scandals, however disgusting, cannot compare to these in national, international or moral significance.

No outsider can be certain of the motives impelling those most responsible for the cover-up, but their statements and conduct indicate ones not radically different from those in France—a mix of career concerns, loyalty to party, president and armed forces, the drive for power and electoral success, ideological commitment, and the patriotic conviction that the threat to America justifies extraordinary means, weapons and tactics both in fighting it and in keeping power away from those too weak or unpatriotic to do what is necessary. In any case, their motives are less important than their reasons for believing they could get away with their actions, and these too are similar—that the operation would quickly succeed and any furor die down, and that most Americans would accept as legitimate any actions claimed necessary for national defense regardless of international law, world opinion or normal moral constraints.

Once again, as in France, this calculation, especially the latter part, seemed correct for a good while, and shows again that the deficit in intellectual and moral integrity is a national, not a partisan, phenomenon. The divided and half-hearted Democratic opposition to both the war itself and a host of issues related to its conduct usually concedes the principles involved and challenges only particular means and measures of execution. An example is the Administration’s detainee policy, which asserts the American government’s right to capture thousands of persons abroad and, on the President’s sole authority, to designate them as enemy combatants, keeping them imprisoned indefinitely without specific charge, representation or right to a hearing on suspicion of acts they might have committed, aided or might want to commit in the future. Most criticism of the Administration on this score evades the central principle (thereby avoiding the real, admittedly difficult problem) and merely nibbles at the edges—how the policy is applied and what consequences it has had. In some quarters even this marginal critique is pilloried as unpatriotic.

A Question of Law

This argument may give the impression that the deficit in intellectual and moral integrity in both cases, fin-de-siècle France and America today, consists simply of dishonesty in public life raised to an unusual level. Crucially important though the element of dishonesty is, the deficit goes still deeper, into things both countries did that crossed a vital line—decisions and actions reaching to the negation of the rule of law itself.

One can break the law, even by grave crimes like murder, without putting oneself outside the law or negating the rule of law. A murderer knows that if caught he faces trial and punishment. But when certain crimes are declared legal for certain individuals or groups because, when done by them, they automatically serve a higher good—for example, when policemen or soldiers are allowed to commit murder in order to preserve public order or uphold a particular regime—this crosses a vital line and negates the rule of law itself.

France crossed that line in the Dreyfus case when Army leaders decided that deliberately perpetuating a grave injustice was a legitimate means of defending the Army’s honor and the nation’s security. The United States crossed that line when its leaders, some of whom may genuinely have believed that the war was legitimately preemptive—the only way to meet a demonstrable, intolerable and imminent threat—faced incontrovertible proof from its own investigations following the military victory that rendered this justification for the war untenable. It thus became in hindsight at best a preventive war, forbidden under the UN Charter of which the United States was a leading author and sponsor.

Just as French military leaders, faced with the truth, had the option of admitting their mistake and reversing Dreyfus’ conviction, so the Bush Administration at this point had the option of admitting that it had made a mistake and trying to secure international cooperation to minimize the damage and retrieve whatever good was possible from the situation. This was never considered. Instead, after long denial of the facts and dispute over their meaning, the President himself refused to admit that these discoveries (or absence of discoveries, in this case) made any difference, or that he had made any mistake at all. (Even in December 2005, when the President finally spoke to the matter of key intelligence errors, he still refused to entertain the possibility that the decision to go to war had been a mistake.) After the fall of Baghdad the President reasserted even more vigorously the U.S. “right” under the Bush Doctrine to use force against any government or movement it deemed a threat to American security. He insisted that any such operation by the United States ipso facto constituted legitimate self-defense because, by definition, it fought terrorism and promoted the universal higher ends of freedom and democracy. Along with this reassertion of its right to wage preventive war went a reassertion and continued exercise of its claimed right of indefinite preventive detention.

Here is where one must attempt to introduce clarity into a discussion marred (as in France during the Dreyfus Affair) by confusion, obfuscation and deliberate evasion of the real issues. Policies of preventive war and indefinite preventive detention are wrong in principle and should be rejected because they are wrong, not because they may work badly or produce harmful side effects.

True, a state may under extraordinary circumstances legitimately use military force preemptively. Granted, also, that changes in military technology and in the nature of international actors affect the determination of when and whether a threat is certain, imminent and impossible to deter except by preemptive force. Granted, further, that non-uniformed enemy combatants and suspected terrorists cause special problems for both civil and international law. Yet after all reasonable concessions are made, the distinctions between legitimate preemptive and illegitimate preventive war, and between policies of legitimate temporary detention of illegal enemy combatants or suspected terrorists and policies of indefinite preventive detention, remain valid and are too vital to be discarded. The fact that a line is difficult to draw, and may under changed circumstances have to be drawn somewhat differently, does not mean that the burden of judgment is thereby lifted. A basic principle cannot be abandoned simply because it must be applied differently and with difficulty. When principle is abandoned, the rule of law is negated and is replaced by what amounts, in effect, to vigilantism.

This point becomes even more crucial when, as here, a war originally proclaimed and justified as preemptive is subsequently proved to have been at best preventive, and is then praised and defended as legal because of its alleged humanitarian and political achievements. This particular form of moving the goalposts suggests the extremely dangerous principle that states may engage in preventive (or even aggressive) war if some putative higher good comes out of it. It makes no difference in this case whether those who made the decision for war genuinely believed in the original rationale and still believe in the new humanitarian one. Once the case for preemptive war has been disproved, those who deny the facts, defend the action as right despite them, persist in it, and claim a right to do the same thing again under similar circumstances, place the country outside the law and negate the very rule of law.

Nor does the claim that Saddam Hussein had violated UN Security Council resolutions make the war legal. Neither the United States alone nor any group of nations aside from the Security Council itself is entitled to determine whether this was so and if it justified a war to overthrow his regime, any more than a bloc of Arab states could legally attack Israel militarily for allegedly violating UN Security Council resolutions. Again, this is vigilantism.

Least of all does it help to say, as President Bush regularly does, that the United States alone must decide when, whether and how to exercise its right of self-defense. The right of self-defense cannot be used to justify everything a nation claims to do for its security. True, the United States for much of its existence has enjoyed an extraordinarily privileged position within the international system and has developed an extravagant understanding of its right of self-defense. In part we learned this from our elders: Just as for several centuries the British believed that they could have as much or as little of any European war as they wanted (until two world wars shattered the illusion), for 175 years after independence Americans supposed that they could have as much or as little of the international system as they wanted. World War II and the Cold War seemed finally to destroy the American illusion that the United States could drop in and out of the international system at will, but the experience of the last five years calls that conclusion into question.

Of course, law within civil society and international law are not the same. French officers broke French law in the Dreyfus Affair, while basic U.S. actions in Iraq seem not to have broken U.S. law (though some Administration actions, like empowering the National Security Agency to conduct domestic surveillance, may have). Yet whatever the differences, American policy for well more than a century has invested great energy in the practical benefits of international law, and, make no mistake, current Bush Administration policies and doctrines contradict and undercut that investment.

Again there is a notable analogue with the Dreyfus Affair. The founding principle of the Third Republic, born of the French Revolution, was liberty and equality for all citizens under the same law. True, during both the Revolution and the first two republics (1792-99 and 1848-51) things were done that undermined and discredited that principle, but it remained the Third Republic’s essential foundation, and the Army’s stance in the Dreyfus case clearly (though in secret) contradicted and undercut it. Once the United States entered World War II, it based sixty years of policy and world leadership on the principle that international relations must be conducted fundamentally on a basis of rules and international law equally applicable to all. It did not always act on that principle and sometimes violated it, but it never repudiated and often defended it, and it reaped great benefits from so doing. The Bush Administration’s doctrine and practice on preventive war and indefinite preventive detention fundamentally reject and undermine that principle, claiming in effect a higher law for the United States and thus negating any general rule of law in the international arena. Even if this is not how Administration principals see what they have done, it is how virtually all the rest of the world sees it. And in regard to this fundamental principle of law it apparently still enjoys the support of a substantial majority of the American people and encounters relatively little domestic political opposition. Put bluntly, most Americans still seem to believe that anything done at home or abroad supposedly to make them safer from terrorists is fine regardless of legal niceties.

Indeed, though it is not a matter of law, it is a frustrating sign of insularity and self-preoccupation that the American people should, now years later, still think that the only serious charge to be made against the Administration with respect to the Iraq war is that it (perhaps inadvertently at the outset) misled the American people and Congress. This ignores the fact that the Administration misled the international community, too, and defied its collective judgment in a case that directly involves other countries’ vital interests as much and, in many cases, more than it does American interests. It is almost maddening to hear Americans denounce other countries for not supporting the United States in a war that these countries rightly considered premature and unjustified by the available evidence. Even now, long after the judgment of most Europeans and others has been vindicated by events, American commentators still speak of European leaders (e.g., German Chancellor Angela Merkel) feeling the need to mend fences with the United States for opposing the war—when it is the United States that ought to be seeking to mend fences with them for waging it.

And it is an equally telling sign of America’s blithely acting as a law unto itself that President Bush still justifies the American occupation of Iraq as a way to fight terrorists in their new center and breeding ground, thus keeping them away from American shores. This ignores both the fact that Iraq was not a center for Islamist terrorism until the United States invaded it, and that fighting terrorism by an American occupation there promotes its spread throughout the Muslim world and adjoining areas, making Spaniards, British, Indonesians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Moroccans and very conceivably Israelis, too, pay a price for the current level of American security from direct attack.

What Next?

Such a state of affairs reveals the current national deficit in intellectual and moral integrity in stark terms. The deficit is still not equivalent to bankruptcy, however, and is not necessarily headed toward it. The Dreyfus case, after all, did get resolved, though messily and incompletely, and led to modest overall gains in civil rights, tolerance and the rule of law. This was possible because fin-de-siècle France, despite its problems, still valued democracy, republican institutions, civil liberties and respect for law.

The same can still be said, though with less confidence than before, of America today. If certain of its actions and policies violate international law and negate it in principle, the American system does not rest on the negation of law, as many other great power regimes have done and still do. The institutional resources for turning things around exist; evidence points to a turnaround already underway. One cannot expect dramatic changes in hearts and minds from the principals of this Administration, but one can hope for more caution and restraint from them and their successors, and more resistance from their opponents.

Nor must the war necessarily lead to disaster. The occupation could end with a gradual withdrawal of American troops, leaving an Iraq very imperfectly pacified, stable, democratic or friendly, but neither a menace to its neighbors nor a serious threat to the United States. Even if that outcome in Iraq complicates other world problems, it need not make them radically worse or insoluble. The United States throughout its history has enjoyed an extraordinary margin for error in international affairs, and probably still has enough to handle this one. In domestic politics, Democrats should gain a short-run electoral advantage, but Republicans will still claim credit for any achievements in Iraq and blame Iraqis, foreign terrorists and liberals at home for any failures—while the public tires of Iraq and moves on.

A common muddling-through outcome, then, is entirely possible—so again, why all this discussion and why drag in the Dreyfus case? There are two reasons. First, only the fact that some persons involved in the Dreyfus case—the best example is Georges Picquart—did not care about its historical consequences but did care deeply about justice, truth and principle made it possible for the Affair to reach even a semi-satisfactory resolution. The same attitude is needed now in regard to Iraq, and it may be developing; Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame case, might be one of the Georges Picquarts turning American attitudes around. Former State Department chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson may be another.

The second reason involves the Latin axiom principiis obstat (“Resist the beginnings”). The semi-optimistic scenario holds at best only for the near term. The need for a longer-term corrective, again illustrated by the Dreyfus case, is encapsulated in a saying of Jesus: “If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31).

The Dreyfus case ended as well as it did because it happened during the Third Republic’s best years (though most Frenchmen did not think so then), when relative prosperity, improved political stability and a stronger international position helped make a surface resolution possible. But a surface resolution was all it was; French leaders failed to confront and solve the problems that gave the Affair its true character. The real question had never been whether France or the Republic would survive, but whether the Republic would be true to its ideals. The outcome of the Dreyfus affair did not fully answer this question, and after the hellish trials of World War I drained France’s reserves of unity and civic virtue, a revived German menace, followed by a catastrophic invasion and defeat, overwhelmed France’s democratic institutions and its republican convictions. The highest values and purposes of French civic life after June 1940 became those of saving the government’s authority and the Army’s honor, preserving national unity and ensuring that most Frenchmen would survive, but at the cost of civil liberties, principles, particular individuals and a whole race—the Jews. Thus did the Vichy regime, with its so-called National Revolution, write the last tragic and shameful chapter of the Dreyfus case. After its fall Charles de Gaulle, Vichy’s implacable enemy, said of its leaders, too generously but with deep insight, that they had thought too much about Frenchmen and too little about France. Too little, that is, about what France really stood for.

This is a tragedy Americans would do well to ponder. One can more easily be hopeful about America’s chances of escaping the current situation relatively unscathed than about its longer-range future. The main reason is not the danger of heightened terrorism (possible) or more and bigger wars (improbable), but rather that other deficits and problems, too numerous to list, now being allowed to pile up in America’s current fat years will present graver challenges both to our standard of living and our way of life than America has ever before faced. Add to this the likelihood of crises abroad and the temptation to use unrivaled American military power to deal with them through preventive war, to unite (and distract) the nation and supposedly solve its problems, and the meaning of the Dreyfus Affair’s unsatisfactory ending comes clear. What will an America that took this route when the wood was green (and never rejected it as wrong) do when the wood is dry? And what will we do thereby to what America stands for?

1 Imperialism by this definition means gaining control over important political and economic decisions of a foreign country such that one can use its strategic and economic assets for one's own purposes or, at a minimum, deny them to any opponent. If, as I assume, the United States overthrew Iraq's government with the aim of establishing a regime allied to the United States and dependent on it for its security in the hope (among other things) of thereby strengthening America's security and influence throughout the region, these aims must be called imperialist—though, as in most instances of modern imperialism, they were to be achieved through indirect rather than direct control. Typical instances are the British occupation of Egypt after 1882, British and French imperialism in the Middle East after World War I, and most German war aims in Europe during World War I. If these latter examples are fairly called imperial, so must be America's. This is not merely an attempt to anticipate an objection, but goes to the central theme of this essay: the critical need for intellectual rigor and honesty, a willingness to see things as they are and call them by their right names.

2 John Mueller argued years ago that 9/11 might prove an historical aberration rather than the harbinger of a new trend (National Interest, Fall 2002). At the time of this writing, the evidence supports his view.

Paul Schroeder, emeritus professor of history at the University of Illinois, specializes in the history of international politics.