The Truth About Our Good Intentions

What can we, in America, know of how it feels to be a citizen of any other country in the world?

We do not have brigades of well-meaning volunteers from, say, the Netherlands arriving in our neighborhoods with bold promises of teaching us how to run our schools. We do not have representatives from Singapore engaging in optimistic efforts to reform our legislature, or teams from France trying to develop our media. Scruffy Swedish twenty-somethings, fresh from college, do not take up residence in our midst and teach us about the importance of government-sponsored healthcare.

Though we pride ourselves on traveling the world to help solve its problems -- charity or bust -- we do not know how it feels to be always on the worse end of the expression, "It is better to give than to receive."

Now -- although nobody really believes that the Bush administration waged war for humanitarian purposes -- the faltering process of "reconstructing" Iraq is being spun as America's grandest act of altruism in decades. But do we really want our presence in Iraq to seem, to the watching world that has hosted so many of our do-gooders, like just one more foreign aid program in which moneyed Americans set up shop in distant villages to teach a group of people how to do things the American way?

I recently returned from a long stay in Russia, where, with U.S. State Department money, I helped run a journalism training institute at a university in the North Caucasus. The institute proposal was all lofty ideals about how Russian and American journalists could learn from one another, because it would be impolite to call it what it was: a sophisticated foreign adventure for the Americans, in exchange for a gleaming computer lab filled with expensive video equipment and tied up with the ribbons of broadband cable that would allow our Russian hosts to learn for themselves what they really wanted to know.

After leaving Russia, I chatted with a young American friend who had recently set off for another former Soviet republic to run a project (also funded by the U.S. government) that was to "reform" the small nation's parliament. He told me that his charges there barely concealed their scorn for what they saw as a pipedream project to give intrepid Americans an excuse to see the world. The cynics' mission statement, he told me? "Just bring us your computers and then leave us alone."

These less-than-fawning responses to American aid projects in the former Soviet Union reminded me of the way my own relatives, who grew up in the Middle East, describe their experiences as the recipients of the Peace Corps' best intentions. My mother still fumes when she remembers the Peace Corps teachers she endured in both Iran and Lebanon. As the locals perceived it, the volunteers considered it their goal to civilize members of a culture old enough to be America's great-grandparent 35 times over.

"To those people in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves," said President Kennedy, before cutting the Peace Corps ribbon. Over the applause, nobody could have heard a quiet "No, thank you," if there had been one.

I do not mean to suggest that the billions of dollars we spend on exporting U.S. values are entirely wasted, or that our armies of volunteers should head home right away. But while Americans have a great supply of sympathy, we do not have nearly enough empathy for those who are burdened with our ubiquitous attempts to help -- and are tortured by the implicit inferiority that is always part of the deal.

"The most repulsive thing to all men is gratitude," wrote Zora Neale Hurston. "Men give up property, freedom and even life before they will have the obligation laid on them."

These examples are, of course, just peace-time dioramas of the scenario taking shape in Iraq, where, President Bush told us in one of his recent stand-up routines, "We are helping the long-suffering people of that country to build a decent and democratic society at the center of the Middle East. Together we are transforming a place of torture chambers and mass graves into a nation of laws and free institutions."

If we are confused by Iraqi gunfire, bombing and hostility toward our troops, we need only remember how much less than a declaration of war it takes to make the recipients of American aid disgusted with America.

But a recent poll of Iraqi public opinion, released last month by the American Enterprise magazine and heralded in the Wall Street Journal, tells me I am all wrong if I mean to say that Iraqis aren't embracing their liberators. In his summary of the poll results, Karl Zintsmeister writes that Iraqis are "more sensible, stable and moderate than commonly portrayed, and that Iraq is not so fanatical, or resentful of the U.S., after all."

How does Zintsmeister figure? First off, he reports with great excitement that four out of 10 Iraqis say democracy can work in Iraq. So what about the other five who believe it can't work, or the one who isn't sure? Zintsmeister seems tickled that 37 percent of Iraqis would like to see the new Iraq modeled after the U.S.

Thirty-seven percent? That means that a roiling 63 percent of Iraqis said they'd like Iraq to be modeled after one of the other four choices: Syria, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Zintsmeister tells us, "You can cross out Osama II" because a whopping 57 percent of Iraqis don't have a favorable view of Osama bin Laden. Are we supposed to take comfort in the knowledge that the remaining 43 percent of Iraqis think he's not so bad? I read and re-read Zinstmeister's comments for hints of satire, but I concluded that his eerily Pollyanna-ish interpretation of the poll results was serious.

What all of this adds up to, for me, is continuing evidence that the U.S. -- and especially our current administration -- has a terribly difficult time putting itself in the other man's shoes. With some kind of willful blindness that sustains evermore the glow of our graced position on this earth, we just keep on shaking our heads at the ungrateful beggar who doesn't appreciate all we've done for him, never seeing him as the angry man whose Hobson's choice is between starving and humiliation.

Our president chastises the Iraqi people from the television screen: "Now they must rise to the responsibilities of a free people and secure the blessings of their own liberty." For an institution so finely skilled in the minutiae of mind-altering propaganda, the Bush administration keeps failing to find words that convey any notion of respect. Can it be otherwise in this troubled union of the liberator and the liberated? Probably not, because condescension is not simply a manner of speaking, but a state of mind, one that is deeply embedded in the American psyche, and communicated like a virus by our well-meaning emissaries all over the world.

Meline Toumani is finishing her master's degree in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU. She spent the past summer teaching journalism in Russia.

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