The Dignity Agenda*
By David Ignatius
Sunday, October 14, 2007; B07
"We talk about democracy and human rights. Iraqis talk about justice and
honor." That comment from Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, made at a seminar
last month on counterinsurgency, is the beginning of wisdom for an
America that is trying to repair the damage of recent years. It applies
not simply to Iraq
but to the range of problems in a world tired of listening to an
Dignity is the issue that vexes billions of people around the world, not
democracy. Indeed, when people hear President Bush
preaching about democratic values, it often comes across as a veiled
assertion of American power. The implicit message is that other
countries should be more like us -- replacing their institutions, values
and traditions with ours. We mean well, but people feel disrespected.
The bromides and exhortations are a further assault on their dignity.
That's the difficulty when the U.S. House of Representatives
to admit that it committed genocide against the Armenians 92 years ago.
It's not that this demand is wrong. I'm an Armenian American, and some
of my own relatives perished in that genocidal slaughter. I agree with
the congressional resolution, but I know that this is a problem that
Turks must resolve. They are imprisoned in a past that they have not yet
been able to accept. Our hectoring makes it easier for them to retreat
deeper into denial.
The most articulate champion of what the administration likes to call
the "democracy agenda" has been Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
When she talks about the universality of American values, she carries
the special resonance of an African American girl from Birmingham, Ala.
who witnessed the struggle for democracy in a segregated America. But
she also conveys an American arrogance, a message that when it comes to
good governance, it's our way or the highway.
That's why it's encouraging to hear that Rice is taking policy advice
from Kilcullen, a brilliant Australian military officer who helped
reshape U.S. strategy in Iraq toward the bottom-up precepts of
counterinsurgency. Sources tell me Kilcullen will soon be joining the
as a part-time consultant. For a taste of his thinking, check out his
Sept. 26 presentation to a Marine Corps
seminar (available at http://www.wargaming.quantico.usmc.mil).
As we think about a "dignity agenda," there are some other useful
readings. A starting point is Zbigniew Brzezinski
new book, "Second Chance," which argues that America's best hope is to
align itself with what he calls a "global political awakening." The
former national security adviser explains: "In today's restless world,
America needs to identify with the quest for universal human dignity, a
dignity that embodies both freedom and democracy but also implies
respect for cultural diversity."
After I mentioned Brzezinski's ideas about dignity in a previous column,
a reader sent me a 1961 essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin
which made essentially the same point. A deeply skeptical man who
resisted the "isms" of partisan thought, Berlin was trying to understand
the surge of nationalism despite two world wars. "Nationalism springs,
as often as not, from a wounded or outraged sense of human dignity, the
desire for recognition," he wrote.
"The craving for recognition has grown to be more powerful than any
other force abroad today," Berlin continued. "It is no longer economic
insecurity or political impotence that oppresses the imaginations of
many young people in the West today, but a sense of the ambivalence of
their social status -- doubts about where they belong, and where they
wish or deserve to belong."
A final item on my dignity reading list is "Violent Politics," a new
book by the iconoclastic historian William R. Polk. He examines 10
insurgencies through history -- from the American Revolution to the
Irish struggle for independence to the Afghan resistance to Soviet
occupation -- to make a stunningly simple point, which we managed to
forget in Iraq: People don't like to be told what to do by outsiders.
"The very presence of foreigners, indeed, stimulates the sense first of
apartness and ultimately of group cohesion." Foreign intervention
offends people's dignity, Polk reminds us. That's why insurgencies are
so hard to defeat.
People will fight to protect their honor even -- and perhaps, especially
-- when they have nothing else left. That has been a painful lesson for
the Israelis, who hoped for the past 30 years they could squeeze the
Palestinians into a rational peace deal. It's excruciating now for
Armenian Americans like me, when we see Turkey refusing to /make/ a
rational accounting of its history. But if foreign governments try to
make people do the right thing, it won't work. They have to do it for
/The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal
<http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/>, an online discussion
of international issues. His e-mail address email@example.com