Michael Ignatieff's Pseudo-Hegelian Apologetics for Imperialism;
or, Bush Is Staking All On The Pursuit of Democracy Everywhere

By Edward S. Herman
October 2005

One of the most familiar rhetorical devices for putting U.S. foreign policy in a favorable light is the "changing course" gambit. Using this gambit it can be acknowledged that in the past U.S. foreign policy was ugly, but it is claimed that the current leader has seen the light and returned this country to its intended benevolent role--to implementing the Jeffersonian notion that one day the U.S. democratic model will be spread "finally to all." Michael Ignatieff's New York Times Magazine article of June 26, 2005 ("Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom Is Theirs to Spread?")is built on this gambit. Ignatieff admits that the pre-Bush U.S. record was not always admirable: "The democratic turn in American foreign policy has been recent. Latin Americans remember when the American presence meant backing death squads and military juntas." And "In the cold war, most presidents opted for stability at the price of liberty when they had to choose." But the turn has come, and George Bush is the first president who has " actually risked his presidency on the premise that Jefferson might be right."

Actually, Ignatieff contradicts himself on who came first. Near the end of his article he contends that President Lyndon Johnson was in Vietnam to give Vietnamese "the right to choose their own path to change," and poor Johnson actually lost his presidency because of that alleged commitment to freedom. Ignatieff's ignorance or willingness to rewrite history here is breathtaking, as nothing is more clear about the U.S. war against Vietnam than that it was carried out despite knowledge that the enemy forces had overwhelming political support, that it was to prevent the Vietnamese from taking a path to change disapproved in Washington, and that it involved the imposition and protection of brutal dictatorships (Gareth Porter, Perils of Dominance 96-97; Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, 178-183).

He also distorts the record when he says that earlier presidents opted for stability over liberty "when they had to choose." This makes those presidents passive, forced to choose, when in fact they very often went to considerable pains to oust relatively democratic governments in Guatemala, Indonesia, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua (among others) in favor of military juntas and gangsters. They actively fought against any foreign right to self-determination and liberty (see Edward Herman, "The United States Versus Human Rights in the Third World," Harvard Human Rights Journal, Spring 1990, reprinted in Herman, Triumph of the Market).

According to Ignatieff, "It was Reagan who began the realignment of American politics, making the Republicans into internationalist Jeffersonians with his speech in London ...in 1982, which led to the creation of the National Endowment fo r Democracy and the emergence of democracy promotion as a central goal of United States foreign policy." But while the NED was being formed, Reagan was "constructively engaged" with the apartheid government of South Africa, backed the terrorist rebel Jonas Savimbi in Angola, rushed into alliance with the military government of Argentina, praised and strongly supported the murderous regime of Guatemala, and carried out a terrorist war against the elected government of Nicaragua. Ignatieff doesn't mention these "realist" events, featuring instead expressions of benevolent intentions.

In one of many remarkable passages, Ignatieff says that "American freedom aspires to be universal, but it has always been exceptional because America is the only modern democratic experiment that began in slavery." Poor "American freedom" had a tough time bringing freedom to America itself, and its "exceptionalism" started out on the unhappy note that it excepted itself from its desire to bring freedom everywhere. It has a remarkable capacity to exempt itself from the freedom it allegedly pursues, and other matters as well, such as the application of international law--or perhaps it is more accurate to say that its leaders and apologists have that capacity, along with the ability to make the exceptions perfectly consistent with the alleged aspiration to bring freedom everywhere.

And that aspiration, traceable back to Jefferson, Ignatieff tells us is what has "inspired Americans to do the hard work of reducing the gap between dream and reality," and has "had the same explosive force abroad." Funny though that with an aspiration so fundamental to "America" so many of its people had to work and die for many decades before the gap between dream and reality was reduced. Ignatieff doesn't discuss the apparently powerful and long- and possibly still-dominant ideological and institutional features of America that forced the struggle, or that caused such a long postponement of the "democracy turn in American policy" which he tells us has been "only recent."

But how does Ignatieff prove that Bush has changed course and is pursuing democracy? Of course he doesn't, but it is amazing that for Ignatieff the proof is simply that Bush says so. There is of course the election in Iraq and Bush's support of the elected government. But elections and elected governments were supported in the bad old days when the United States was "backing death squads and military juntas," where elections and elected governments were the best options in particular cases, served a useful public relations function, and regularly yielded amenable regimes. [1] In the 1980s the United States accepted the overthrow of a number of military juntas that it had sponsored but which had made a mess of things, with civilian replacements that were now better behaved because of the restructuring and killing by the death squads, police and armies, and the new ability to control via neoliberal institutions and policies. These were highly constrained and managed democracies that have not been able to serve ordinary citizens, with the overhang of damage and ongoing threat from the back-to-the-barracks military gang, and now enmeshed in the spider's web of international finance and the neoliberal world. They are arguably not real democracies at all, only nominal ones that their peoples increasingly dislike. When one of them breaks out of the web and starts to work for the majority, as Venezuela did under Chavez, U.S. hostility becomes acute.

How does Ignatieff deal with the possibility that Bush's new devotion to democracy in Iraq (and the Middle East, and the world) is a cover for a failed policy, a faute de mieux policy designed to mobilize the public with noble intentions while keeping the original objectives intact? He doesn't. He simply evades this set of issues. He doesn't discuss the original stated objectives or the early Bush team documents that stress power projection and the domination of Middle East oil, with little or nothing about bringing democracy to the Middle East. [2] He doesn't discuss the numerous ways in which the Bush team strove to avoid democratic elections in Iraq (opposing one person-one vote; trying to restrict the franchise to members of U.S.-controlled governing bodies; delaying national elections, etc.); how it imposed an Interim Constitution that makes it difficult for a government to be formed or to act; how it reorganized and staffed the government and put in a series of laws by decree "that tried to re-colonize Iraq economically and institutionally and create dependence even in such areas as agriculture by banning local seed stocks in favour of genetically modified seeds to be imported from the United States" (Hans Von Sponeck, “The Conduct of the UN before and after the 2003 Invasion,” World Tribunal on Iraq, June 24, 2005).It has built major military bases in Iraq, on the assumption that the Iraqi government will approve them; but only a highly dependent client government would do that, not a democratic government. Nowhere does Ignatieff discuss the possibility that elections may not yield a democratic government, or that an occupation and devastating civil conflict in a fractured society might be incompatible with democracy.

Is the new policy of spreading democracy consistent with the structural forces within the United States that have shaped U.S. foreign policy in the past and produced a Bush government today? If, as Ignatieff concedes, past U.S. foreign policy supported death squads and military juntas, what caused it to do so in the face of its professed devotion to spreading democracy? Could it be service to business looking for a "favorable climate of investment" overseas, and which found a Marcos, Suharto, Mobutu, and Pinochet useful for an extended period? And if so hasn't that interest increased in the age of global izing business and growing corporate power? Isn't the Bush administration exceptionally friendly to such corporate interests, and shouldn't that lead to a continuation of the drive for a favorable climate of investment abroad? Are these interests that have dominated U.S. foreign policy for many years likely to support a dedication of that policy and hundreds of billions of dollars to a crusade to bring democracy to peoples everywhere? Ignatieff evades these obvious issues and questions

There is also the question of oil. The Bush team is very close to the oil industry and command over a great oil resource like Iraq and greater domination of the Middle East overall means money and power to important interests and the national leadership. Could that be one of the driving forces in this expensive war, with "liberation" the public relations cover? Ignatieff evades this issue.

The military-industrial-complex needs war to thrive, especially with the death of the Big Excuse (the Soviet Threat). The Bush administration is close to this segment of U.S. business. Could it be influencing the new aggressiveness? Ignatieff evades the issue.

War is also the perfect diversion from domestic policy issues. If Bush wants to continue to redistribute income, taxes and expenditures from the poor and middle class to the rich, strip away the remnants of the welfare state, and allow his business friends to devastate the environment, he needs higher causes, like delivering freedom everywhere, and the threat of terrorism, for which "all" must be prepared to sacrifice. Ignatieff does not mention this possibility.

Bush has been cutting back on freedom at home, increasing governmental (executive) secrecy and sharply reducing access to information about governmental decisions. Power is being greatly concentrated in the executive branch, weakening the celebrated "checks and balances" system, stripping away individual rights to privacy, counsel, and habeas corpus, and using fear as a control strategy. Is this steady encroachment on freedom at home compatible with its expansion abroad as a primary policy objective? Ignatieff doesn't address the issue.

Bush has also engaged in ruthless imprisonment and torture policies, directly and indirectly, of such magnitude as to make for a global scandaland cause Amnesty International to refer to a U.S. "gulag." Bush has major U.S.-operated prisons dealing with "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo, Bagram in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and elsewhere in the occupied countries, and has a regular network of torture-prone clients to whom Bush sends prisoners for further working over ("extraordinary rendition"). And he has made it clear that international law does not apply to his treatment of prisoners, his decision to attack other countries, or his methods in such attacks. Are these policies consistent with bringing democracy and presumably the rule of law everywhere? Ignatieff mentions Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, assails U.S. performance there, and says that these will make it hard to encourage democracy in say Egypt, but it doesn't cause him to doubt Bush's devotion to the spread of the Jeffersonian ideal.

While Bush has supported elections in Iraq and Lebanon, he also supported the overthrow of the elected government of Haiti and the brief coup d'etat against the elected government of Venezuela in 2002. He has also supported dictatorial governments in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, among others, and the brutal occupation and steady dispossession policies of Israel on the West Bank. It goes almost without saying that Ignatieff does not discuss these or attempt to reconcile them with the alleged change of course.

Ignatieff spends considerable space marveling at how the French, Germans, and radicals who had been critical of U.S. support of death squads and juntas were now dragging their feet in approving and participating in the new democracy thrust of U.S. foreign policy. These strange creatures aren't willing to take Bush's word for it, and have not been convinced by the holding of elections in Iraq and Afghanistan under conditions of occupation and ongoing pacification (and in Iraq, after Bush's valiant struggle to prevent democratic elections and then to make them unworkable). They may have noted the hypocrisy in Bush'sinsistence on Syria's ending its occupation of Lebanon as a necessary condition for a truly free election in Lebanon, while ignoring that requirement in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. Ignatieff never mentions this double standard, which he has internalized in the same manner as Bush, as well as the editors of the New York Times.

Ignatieff states that "much of European support for Bush in Iraq came from the people who had grown up behind the wall" in Eastern Europe. Ignatieff confuses governments with people: polls in Eastern Europe showed consistent majorities opposed to the Iraq invasion, with the toadying governments lining up with Bush for their own political-financial reasons. When the Turkish government refused to go along with the Bush war plans, based in good part on the fact that 90 percent of the populace opposed such cooperation, Wolfowitz criticized the Turkish armed forced for not doing something to rectify this situation. This expression of the Bush team's devotion to democracy has of course hardly been featured in the media, and has never been mentioned by Michael Ignatieff.

Ignatieff does deal with some domestic criticisms of the Bush policies in his attackon the Democrats for insufficient commitment to freedom abroad: "The Michael Moore-style left conquered the Democratic Party's heart; now the view was that America's only guiding interest overseas was furthering the interests of Halliburton and Exxon. The relentless emphasis on the hidden role of oil makes the promotion of democracy seem like a devious cover or lame excuse. The unseen cost of this pseudo-Marxist realism is that it disconnected the Democratic Party from the patriotic idealism of the very electorate it sought to persuade."

Notice that Ignatieff doesn't stop to evaluate whether those material interests (Halliburton, oil) had any influence at all on Bush policy; he does that nowhere in this article, whose thrust is that Bush is seeking democracy for no other reason than that Jeffersonian spirit of altruism. We may refer to his treatment as "pseudo-Hegelian imperialist apologetics," [3] which he offers in a pure form, with no discussion at any point of whether democracy promotion might in fact be "a devious cover or lame excuse."

Ignatieff claims that the failure to get on the democracy bandwagon was costly to the Democrats because of the "patriotic idealism" of their constituency. Later he repeats that "Judging from the results of the election in 2004, a majority of Americans do not want to be told that Jefferson was wrong." But polls have showed that the crucial Bush support was rooted heavily in a perceived national security and terror threat, and an associated fear, along with the stress on selected "moral values," not a desire to bring freedom to Iraqis or anybody else (see John Harwood, "Terrorism Worries, Not 'Moral Values,' Decided Election," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 24, 2004; "'Security Moms': An Edge for Bush?," Business Week, Dec. 1, 2003). That fear was cultivated and exploited, so not only is Ignatieff wrong on the facts as to public support of the democracy crusade and why Bush won, he is a de facto supporter of an ongoing corruption of democracy at home.

I have barely scratched the surface of the crude rhetoric, misreading of history, and rank apologetics of this terrible article. But several observations and conclusions are in order. One is the sorry intellectual and political condition of the United States in which a man can write such drivel, get it published in the leading newspaper, and hold a chair in "human rights" at a top university (Harvard). This reflects the immense leeway given to an intellectual or journalist who adheres to the national party line or deviates from it only to the right; he or she can write absolute nonsense, make numerous misrepresentations, and get away with it. [4] The mainstream and rightwing are very tolerant of abuses by one of their own; it is only dissidents who have to be extremely careful with the facts and avoid rhetorical excesses.

A second point is that this occupant of the human rights chair at Harvard, and recent addition to the list of New York Times Magazine regulars, is a straightforward apologist for aggression in violation of the UN Charter, war crimes, and human rights violations. Of course he selectively supports human rights and opposes aggression and war crimes, but only when engaged in by U.S. targets. He waxed indignant about ethnic cleansing in the Balkans (although only selectively there also), but not in Turkey, the West Bank or East Timor. He has nothing to say about this country's use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium in its recent wars, or its bombing of civilian infrastructure. And he has approved each U.S. war pursued in violation of the UN Charter (Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq), which makes the Carr Professor of Human Rights an apologist for the "supreme crime." No problem for the New York Times, which follows the same firm double standard and approves each repeat of the supreme crime, by their own government, and apparently no problem for Harvard either.

It is true that Ignatieff denounces the U.S. treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib that "makes American talk about democracy sound hollow." But he quickly drops the subject and proceeds as if this subject had never arisen, never trying to reconcile the "gulag" structures and performance with the noble objective and scoffing at those foreigners who have doubts about the Bush commitment.[5] This is benevolent imperialism, by Bush's say-so, and in one of his most ludicrous effusions, Ignatieff says that "most Americans believe that most human beings, if given the chance, would like to rule themselves. It is not imperialistic to believe this." No, but it is imperialist apologetics of a very crude sort to imply that this alleged belief has any bearing whatsoever on Bush-Rumsfeld-Cheney foreign policy moves.

A final point: the Bush administration has made this country into a frightening global rogue state in the view of most of the world's inhabitants. It has carried unilateralism to new heights, currently openly attacking and threatening the UN, with Bush's Ambassador Bolton, after three weeks on the job, "seeking to shred an agreement on strengthening the world body and fighting poverty intended to be the highlight of a 60th anniversary summit next month."[6] Phyllis Bennis says that "the Bush administration has declared war on the world… The US proposal package is designed to force the world to accept as its own the US strategy of abandoning impoverished nations and peoples, rejecting international law, privileging ruthless market forces over any attempted regulation, sidelining the role of international institutions except for the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, and weakening, perhaps fatally, the United Nations itself" ("A Declaration of War," Tompaine.com, August 31, 2005).

The Bush administration has withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol , opposed the International Plan for Cleaner Energy, withdrawn from the International Conference on Racism, refused to join 123 nations pledged to ban the use and production of anti-personnel bombs and mines, opposed the UN Agreement to Curb the International Flow of Illicit Small Arms, refused to accept the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, refused to join the International Court of Justice, withdrawn from the 1972 Antiballistic Missiles Treaty, rejected the Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty, among other matters. It is developing more refined nuclear weapons for more practical use, is pursuing space-based weapons stations, and has announced a right to engage in preventive war at its own discretion. It has gone to war three times in the last six years in violation of the UN Charter and threatens more of the same in dealing with Iran.

None of this is mentioned by Michael Ignatieff in his accolade to the freedom-loving George Bush. Bush says he is seeking democracy, so he must be and everything else--including history, evidence of interests and purpose, and actual performance--fade to nothingness in light of this beautiful vision. Bush, Rove and Bill O'Reilly will certainly want to circulate this masterful document, coming as it does from the liberal New York Times and liberal Harvard University.


1. See Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead, Demonstration Elections: U.S.-Staged Elections in the Dominican Republic, Vietnam and El Salvador [Boston: South End Press, 1984).

2. See Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources For a New Century, Project For A New American Century, September, 2000; The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (HTML), White House Office of the Press Secretary, September 20, 2002, Section V. “Prevent Our Enemies from Threatening Us, Our Allies, and Our Friends with Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

3. For Hegel, it was the German spirit that had the dominant role in the spread of Spirit: "The German spirit is the spirit of the new world. Its aim is the realization of absolute Truth as the unlimited self-determination of freedom-that freedom which has its own absolute from itself as its purport." For Ignatieff, it is the American spirit that aims to the realization of that goal of freedom, and Hegel had even forecast that it would be America "where in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the world's history shall reveal itself©" Quotes from Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, 737-9. Two chauvinistic apologists for their own state's violence singing the same ugly song.

4. A number of Ignatieff's lies and misrepresentations on the Balkan wars are discussed in Edward Herman and David Peterson, “Morality’s Avenging Angels: The New Humanitarian Crusaders,”in David Chandler, ed., Rethinking Human Rights.

5. Paralleling the U.S.-organized gulag abroad is a large and still growing one at home in the vast prison system, with over two million inmates, disproportionately black and Hispanic, and badly treated (“New Incarceration Figures: Growth in Population Continues,”Sentencing Project, May, 2005; Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, Prison Nation [New York: Routledge, 2003]). A number of the worst torturers at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were recruited from the guards and officials of the U.S. prison system.

6.See also Francis Harris, "US envoy sets out to wreck UN reform deal,” Daily Telegraph, Aug. 26; “United Nations: Mr Bush fires a missile,” Editorial, The Guardian, August 27.

Published in Z Magazine

Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

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