11/09/2007 05:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The American Idea, from Iraq

For the Atlantic's 150th birthday party in New York, I was asked, as
part of an eclectic -- to say the least -- panel (Christopher Buckley,
Azar Nafisi, Moby) to talk about the American Idea, in light of my
reporting from Iraq:

To Iraqis, there are a thousand different American ideas. Torture,
to many Iraqis, is a now an American idea. (It's always been an Iraqi
idea, unfortunately.) Invasion is also an American idea. Incompetence
is an American idea, and opportunism is an American idea. But to other
Iraqis, freedom is an American idea, as is democratization and
secularization and modernization. It all depends on which Iraqi you're
asking, and on what day.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, talking to
a Kurdish politician. The Kurds, of course, see liberation as the
essence of the American idea -- if you were Kurdish, you'd tend to like
anyone who took Saddam Hussein's boot off your neck - -and this
particular politician asked me how a territory becomes an American
state. I realized that he was asking a very specific question -- how
does Kurdistan become a state? I told him that we still haven't worked
out the whole Puerto Rico thing yet, so don't expect statehood for
Kurdistan anytime soon.

The problem in Iraq today is that some Iraqis think that we're worse
than we actually are, and some think we're better than we actually
are. If you're a Sunni, and you've lost the privileges you had under
Saddam Hussein, you tend to see America as the most nefarious country
ever. If you're Kurdish, you tend to see America as the great
liberator. My specific fear about the Kurds is that they don't
understand that pragmatism is also an American idea, and, if need be,
the Americans will cut loose the Kurds, the way we've done twice

The more general point -- and the greatest irony embedded in this
question -- is that Iraqis think about the American Idea much more than
Americans think about it. For Iraqis, of course, what Americans think,
and what they want, are issues of the most urgent importance. In many
ways, the actions of the American government affect the lives of
Iraqis much more than they affect the lives of American citizens.