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The Dignity Agenda

By David Ignatius
Sunday, October 14, 2007

"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 American megaphone.

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 pressures Turkey 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 State Department 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's 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 themselves.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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