‘It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.’
Idealism is the new realism. Or as one of my disaffected conservative neighbours summed up the Bush speech: ‘Great. We’re gonna invade every country and shove freedom down their throats, whether they want it or not.’ Or in the words of a newly popular bumper sticker on the back of Vermont granolamobiles: ‘FOUR MORE WARS!’
As for what passes for the grandees in what’s left of the British Conservative party — the Hurds and Rifkinds — the President’s inaugural address will mark the final breach in their long soured relationship with the Republican party. And, watching the proceedings in the Elysée, M. Chirac was no doubt rolling his eyes and wondering when the men in the white coats with the tranquilliser darts would be rushing in.
It’s not the rhetoric. Forty-four years ago, JFK had plenty of soaring rhetoric: ‘We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.’ That’s truly soaring rhetoric: it soared up into the stratosphere and disappeared out of sight en route to cloud-cuckoo-land. It was admired as a speech, not analysed as a policy. Within a few years, America decided that the price and burden and hardship of Vietnam was not one it was willing to pay and bear and meet, and its retreat ushered in the darkest period of the Cold War — the period when the Soviets gobbled up real estate in every corner of the globe from Afghanistan to Grenada, and America’s friends went unsupported and its foes unopposed.
The difference this time is that folks think Bush means it. He’s a plain-spoken man, so when he says he’s going to liberate the entire world it’s a policy, not a pretty line from his speechwriters. When he says he’s going to cut taxes, taxes get cut: he doesn’t always get everything he wants, but he usually gets 80–85 per cent of it. He’s not going to invade the world in his second term, or even launch four more wars — or at any rate not formal wars, requiring large tank formations and tap-dancing for UN resolutions. But he has essentially signed on to what I (if nobody else) thinks of as the Steyn line, formulated here on 7 October 2001: ‘This system of cherrypicking from a barrel-load of unsavoury potential clients was summed up in the old geopolitical realist’s line: “He may be a sonofabitch but he’s our sonofabitch.” The inverse is more to the point: he may be our sonofabitch but he’s a sonofabitch.’
That’s why, three years ago, to the horror of the EU, Bush decided that there was no point wasting time with Yasser Arafat: when the old monster protested that it was not within his power to stop the suicide bombers, he was either lying, which makes him an unreliable sonofabitch, or he was telling the truth, which makes him a useless sonofabitch. But either way America had no interest in facilitating the creation of yet another fetid Arab dictatorship.
In other words, Bush is doing what the leftie professors spent the days after 9/11 shrieking he ought to do: look at the ‘root causes’. The roots of many of the world’s biggest problems derive from its least free region — North Africa and the Middle East. Coincidence? Could be. But what we do know, as I said here back then, is that the ‘stability’ of the Middle East — unique in the non-democratic world, where otherwise Presidents-for-Life come and go — brought us September 11. The ‘stability’ of another 25 years of the Ayatollahs, another 40 years of Syria’s Baathists, another 50 years of Mubaraks, another 70 years of Saudi Wahabism will be agreeably stable for the various despots but increasingly unstable for the rest of us.
That’s where the realists are unrealistic. They’ve spent so long worshipping at the cult of stability they don’t realise it’s a total crock. The geopolitical scene is never stable, it’s always dynamic. If the Western world decides in 2005 that it can ‘contain’ President Sy Kottik of Wackistan indefinitely, that doesn’t mean the relationship between the two parties is set in aspic. Wackistan has a higher birth rate than the West, so after 40 years of ‘stability’ there are a lot more Wackistanis and a lot fewer Frenchmen. And Wackistan has immense oil reserves, and President Kottik has used the wealth of those oil reserves to fund radical schools and mosques in hitherto moderate parts of the Muslim world. And large numbers of Wackistanis have emigrated to the European Union, obliging opportunist politicians in marginal constituencies to pitch for their vote. And cheap air travel and the Internet and bank machines that take every card on the planet and the freelancing of nuclear technology mean that Wackistan’s problems are no longer confined to Wackistan: for a few hundred bucks, they can be outside Big Ben or the Empire State Building within seven hours. In today’s world, everywhere’s next door.
Nothing stands still. By 2050, the population of relatively tiny Yemen will be greater than the population of vast empty Russia. Will all those young Yemeni men stay in their cramped, crowded country and will it be able to support them? Or will they leave? And, if so, where will they go? ‘Stability’ is a surface illusion, like a frozen river: underneath, the currents are moving, and to the casual observer the ice looks equally ‘stable’ whether there’s a foot of it or just two inches. There is no status quo in world affairs: ‘stability’ is a fancy term to dignify laziness and complacency as sophistication.
Here’s my favourite example from the last couple of years: in 2003, mass hysteria swept Khartoum after reports that foreigners were shaking hands with Sudanese men, causing their penises to vanish. According to the London paper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, this guy came into some fabric merchant’s shop and ‘shook the store owner’s hand powerfully until the owner felt his penis melt into his body’. He was taken to hospital. Announcing a special investigative committee, the ‘Chief Criminal Attorney-General’ told the local press that ‘the rumour broke out when one merchant went to another merchant to buy some Karkady [a popular Sudanese beverage]. Suddenly the seller felt his penis shrivelling.’ Also, don’t accept any combs from infidels: according to another victim, ‘At the market, a man approached him, gave him a comb, and asked him to comb his hair. When he did so, within seconds, he said, he felt a strange sensation and discovered that he had lost his penis.’
The detail that caught my eye in the vanishing-penis hysteria is this: it was spread by text messaging. You can own a cellphone yet still believe that shaking hands with an infidel will cause you to lose your penis. That’s a state-of-the-art primitive. Sudan is an economic basket-case with a 27 per cent literacy rate that nevertheless has half a billion dollars’ worth of top Chinese weaponry imported via Iran. What if it started importing other kinds of technology from Iran? Or North Korea? What happens when the infidel-handshake-fearing chap is given not just a cellphone but a suitcase nuke?
But these days we’re the ones who’ve lost our penises. The wise old foreign-policy birds insist that nothing can be done — Islam and democracy are completely incompatible, old man; everybody knows that, except these naive, blunderi ng Yanks who just don’t have our experience, frankly. If that’s true, it’s a problem not for Iraq this weekend but, given current demographic trends, for France and Belgium and Holland and the United Kingdom a year or two down the line. But, as it happens, it’s not true. The Afghan election worked so well that, there being insufficient bad news out of it, the doom-mongers in the Western media pretended it never happened. The Iraqi election will be imperfect but more than good enough. OK, that’s a bit vague by the standards of my usual psephological predictions, so how about this? Turnout in the Kurdish north and Shia south will be higher than in the 2001 UK elections.
But, beyond the numbers, when you look at the behaviour of the Shia and Kurdish parties, they’ve been remarkably shrewd, restrained and responsible; they don’t want to blow their big rendezvous with history and rejoin the rest of the Middle East in the fetid swamp of stable despotism. The Shiites, for example, have adopted a moderate secular pitch entirely different from their co-religionist mullahs over the border. In fact, they sound a lot less loopy than, say, Senator Barbara Boxer of California did accusing Condi Rice of being a liar last week and then going all weepy and a-waily and claiming victim status because Condi declined to agree with her. Even on the Sunni side of the street, there are signs that the smarter fellows understand their plans to scupper the election have flopped and it’s time to cut themselves into the picture. The IMF noted in November that the Iraqi economy is already outperforming all its Arab neighbours.
You might not have gained that impression from watching the BBC or, indeed, reading The Spectator. The Western press are all holed up in the same part of Baghdad, and the insurgents very conveniently set off bombs visible from their hotel windows in perfect synchronisation with the US TV news cycle. But if they could look beyond the plumes of smoke, they’d see that Iraq’s going to be better than OK, that it will be the economic powerhouse of the region, and that the various small nods toward democracy going on in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere suggest that the Arab world has figured out what the Robert Fisk crowd haven’t — that the trend is in the Bush direction.
Speaking of stability, if you want a good example of excessive deference to the established order, look no further than Iraq. I’m often asked about the scale of the insurgency and doesn’t this prove we armchair warriors vastly underestimated things, etc. I usually reply that, if you rummage through back issues of the Speccie, you’ll find that I wanted the liberation of Iraq to occur before the end of August 2002. The bulk of the US military were already in place, sitting in the Kuwaiti desert twiddling their thumbs. But Bush was prevailed upon to go ‘the extra mile’ at the UN mainly for the sake of Tony Blair, and thanks to the machinations of Chirac, Schröder and co the extra mile wound up being the scenic route through six months of diplomatic gridlock, while Washington gamely auditioned any casus belli that might win the favour of the President of Guinea’s witchdoctor. As we know, all that happened during that period was that the hitherto fringe ‘peace’ movement vastly expanded and annexed most of the Democratic party, and that other hostile forces such as M. Chirac were greatly emboldened, and the one person the long diplomatic waltz was designed to protect emerged from the process the most weakened: Tony Blair. As a footnote, because they don’t rate any higher, the feeble opportunists on the Tory benches degraded themselves even further and re-cast themselves in the unlikely mutant form of Michael Moore Conservatives.
Given all that happened in America, Britain, France etc. during the interminable ‘extra mile’, it would be idiotic to assume that, with an almighty invasion force squatting on his borders for six months, Saddam just sat there chewing his Quality Streets, listening to his Sinatra LPs, and sending thank-you notes to George Galloway. Not at all. He was very busy, as were the Islamists, and Iran, and Syria. The result is not only an insurgency far more virulent than it would have been had Washington followed my advice rather than Tone’s and gone in in August 2002, but also a broader range of enemies that learnt a lot about how ‘world’ — i.e., European — opinion could be played off against Washington.
I don’t believe Bush would make that mistake again. Which means he wouldn’t have spoken quite so loudly if the big stick weren’t already in place — if plans weren’t well advanced and perhaps even under way against Iran and some of the low-hanging fruit elsewhere in the region. Bush won’t abolish all global tyranny by 2008 — that might have to wait till Condi’s second term — and there won’t be ‘four more wars’. But by the time he steps down, by one means or another, there will be four fewer dictatorships in the world, including Iran.