David Selbourne says that George Bush is losing the war in Iraq as surely as George III lost the war against the American colonists — and that the US imperium has entered on its decline after only six decades
With both houses of the US Congress set to maintain their challenge to President Bush’s conduct of the conflict in Iraq — and being accused in turn of ‘meddling in military strategy’ and of wanting to ‘set a date for surrender’ — America’s problems in its so-called ‘war on terror’ are deepening. In the gathering disorder, the recent visit to Damascus of Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, a visit carried out against the President’s wishes but with the approval of the region’s jihadists, served only to undercut the US administration’s hostile position on Syria. Last week’s humiliation of Britain at Iran’s hands, with service personnel apologising to their captors after being taken hostage and bishops this week thanking Tehran for its mercies, also compounded the difficulties faced by the US in seeking to check the growing ambitions of its foes.
But America’s problems are of a familiar kind in the history of great empires and nations. Misjudgment of the enemy, incompetent leadership, and divisions over policy caused similar turmoil in Britain in the late-18th century. At that time its war with the Americans was being lost, as the Americans are now losing the larger-scale struggle against the world-force of Islam.
On 22 March 1775, four weeks before the first shot had been fired in anger in what was to be an eight-year war between the rebellious colonists and the redcoats, the great Whig parliamentarian Edmund Burke stood up in the House of Commons and accused the Tory government of Lord North of being ‘grossly ignorant of America’. Declaring that ‘a great empire and little minds’ — the minds, say, of a Bush, a Rice, a Cheney — ‘go ill together’, he condemned the ‘woeful variety of schemes’, the ‘doing and undoing’, and the ‘shiftings and changings and jumblings of all kinds’ which characterised British policy towards the emerging United States.
He might have been talking of today’s White House, Pentagon and State Department, of the blunders of judgment and strategy in Iraq, and — more perilous — of America’s larger failures in the teeth of Islam’s advance. Like America now, Britain was a great economic and military power. It wanted to keep things as they were under its imperium, protect its markets, and hold on to its sources of wealth in the New World and elsewhere, just as corporate America must hold on at all costs to its resources in the Middle East and beyond. Yet, on the eve of the war with America, the British monarch George III and his ministry are regarded by historians as having been ‘insufficiently astute’ for their task, ‘ill-advised’ and ‘misinformed’.
Just as the British were accused by Burke of having no understanding of the ‘true temper of the minds’ of the Americans, so the inner strengths and growing momentum of Islam are being misjudged today. There are differences, of course. Among them, the Americans were fighting the Brits out of a ‘fierce spirit of liberty’, while Islamists seek to subject the entire infidel world to their faith. But Islam’s spirit is an equally formidable weapon in the present struggle. ‘You ought not to trifle with so large a mass of the interests and feelings of the human race,’ Burke warned the Commons, referring to a mere two million Americans whose numbers were increasing at what he called an ‘alarming’ rate. And 1.2 billion Muslims?
It was also wrongly believed by the British that the ‘trouble’ in the American colonies was the work of ‘infatuated wretches’, the predecessors of today’s ‘minority of Muslim fanatics’. In May 1774, the governor of New York called the rebels against British rule ‘reptiles’; others described them as ‘scoundrels’, ‘peasants’, ‘bandits’, ‘murderers’ and ‘sons of darkness’, language close to that used by American rednecks about today’s ‘insurgents’ and ‘terrorists’ in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
‘Believe me, my lords, the very sound of cannon would carry them off,’ thought one British parliamentarian. ‘The Americans are in general the dirtiest, the most contemptible, cowardly dogs you can conceive. They fall dead in their own dirt,’ said another. And not long before the British surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown in 1781, assurances were still being given in parliament that ‘so vast is our superiority everywhere that no resistance on their part is to be apprehended’. Today, with not even Baghdad secured after over four years of war — and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars — the White House still talks in terms of a ‘victory’ over ‘extremists’ and ‘killers’, even if the delusion that a Jeffersonian democracy can be created in Mesopotamia appears to have been abandoned.
Burke was wiser. He shrewdly saw the American colonists’ cause as containing a ‘principle of energy’. Likewise, resurgent Islam, despite its internal divisions, has a powerful common morality and religious culture. Indeed, at its ascetic best, Islam is as puritan as a now-obese and self-indulgent US was at its founding. It is also threateningly hard-headed at a time when Americans, and others, have come to believe that their increasingly trivial and hedonistic ideas of ‘liberty’ represent the high point in the evolution of political thought. One thing is plain: the ‘free market’ has not got the beating of the Koran, while a Washington or a Lincoln would not have been in the hands of Big Oil.
The nation which in Burke’s days lost the plot against America, as America is losing the plot now, was deeply divided: Whig and Tory, landed interest and urban, conservative and radical. Today, America is equally divided about what is to be done in Iraq and in the wider war. The outcome is exactly what Burke described in March 1775: policies which contain an ‘incongruous mixture of coercion and restraint’. It is an incoherence which has simultaneously aided Islam’s advance and America’s self-defeat. Moreover, the hostility of the Whigs for the Tory administration of Lord North and the Hanoverian king is being echoed in the open contempt shown for President Bush by some Democratic Congressional leaders. ‘Calm down with the threats,’ the strident Nancy Pelosi told him at the end of last month — after he had warned Congress that he would veto its attempts to tie his hands in the conduct of the Iraq war — ‘there is a new Congress in town.’ ‘He has dug a hole so deep he can’t see the light,’ she has also said. What Burke called ‘prudent management’ and ‘care and calmness’ at a time of ‘distraction’ are lacking from such feverish statements.
However, Burke would have found some of the causes of this dissension familiar. Thus, in the England of George III, radicals felt more sympathy for the American rebels than for their own government. And just as they objected then to the arbitrary power of the king, so the Republican Senator Chuck Hagel felt driven a fortnight ago to remind the President (‘I am the decision-maker’) that ‘this is not a monarchy’. In Britain’s 18th-century war with America, critics saw the war as ‘impractical’ and ‘ruinous’, as today’s critics of America’s war in Iraq see it as ‘unnecessary’, ‘disastrous’ and a ‘grotesque mistake’. At worst, yesterday’s British radicals wished defeat upon their own country; there are many ‘liberals’ in America today who would not be sorry to see their country forced to retreat from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Moreover, the US military is as divided as the British army was in the War of Independence. In the highest ranks of the British officer corps there were similar differences over strategy and tactics, poor morale, replacements of commanders and uncertainty over the justice of their cause. Then, as now in Iraq, soldiers sent to fight saw that they were not fighting a minority of the population, contrary to what they had been told. There were thousands of British troops stationed in America. But they were not enough, while military reinforcements — like the American ‘surge’ in Iraq — were of no avail.
Why? Because, among other things, the British army found in America what General Thomas Gage, the commander-in-chief, called a ‘ferment throughout the continent’, a ‘phrenzy’. Or as Burke asked in the House of Commons in an unnerving parallel with the situation in Iraq, ‘What advances have we made towards our object by the sending of a force? Has the disorder abated? I cannot avoid a suspicion that the plan itself is not right.’ The use of British force against the Americans, added Burke — who was in favour of ‘conciliation’ with the colonists — could have only a ‘temporary effect’; as it can have only a temporary effect today in battling with an armed world-faith.
Despite relatively few American losses in the Iraq war, the sense in the US that it is at the limits of what can be endured is a sign of deep unease. There is nothing for the non-Muslim world to gloat over in all this. The US needs help, not merely because it could not in any circumstances take on Islamism alone, but because its power in the world is on the wane. Yet since its power is waning, it is decreasingly able to get such help except on the terms that others set. It has also been actively obstructed in its purposes by its friends as well as by its foes. Indeed, the obstacles being put in America’s path easily dwarf those which the British faced when the French came to the aid of the Americans in 1777, and helped them gain their independence.
Furthermore, increasingly complex alliances are being formed by America’s rivals and challengers in order to thwart its geopolitical aims. For instance, relationships between Russia and North Korea, Russia and Iran, China and Pakistan, China and nations in Africa such as Sudan and Angola, and even between Iran and Venezuela, make President Bush’s claims to be ‘fighting to advance the cause of freedom around the world’ increasingly vainglorious. As Burke observed, 18th-century Britain faced problems with an ‘extensive empire’ too large to be kept under control. By the last quarter of the 19th century, however, when the British had learnt the arts and crafts of imperial command — and numbered only some 35 million — it ruled a fourth of the world’s population. But it is too late for the US to follow suit. Islam and America’s competitors have seen to that. Moreover, as historical processes quicken, the longevity of empires is diminishing: the American imperium, like the Soviet, has entered on its decline after only some six decades. There will be no future Pax Americana.
Now it is the turn of Islam to assert itself, for the third time in history, across large swaths of the globe. It is a bitter truth that the worst of Islamists, many of whose purposes are ugly and craven, should be crowing loudest over America’s travails. In the 18th century, the American colonists had outgrown the Brits; today, it is clear that Mohammed is unlikely ever to go on his knees to the American mountain. And in these travails, George the Second of America has proved no wiser than George the Third of Britain.
David Selbourne is the author of The Losing Battle with Islam.