‘Let freedom reign!’ scribbled President Bush in the corner of the briefest of hand-written notes from his national security adviser:
‘Iraq is sovereign. Letter was passed from Bremer at 10.26 a.m. Iraq time — Condi.’
And that was it. No ostrich feathers, no Princess Alexandra, no tea on the lawn at Government House. After 15 months of running Iraq, the Americans are out. Sure, they’ve got a lot of troops there, but they’ve got a lot of troops everywhere — Germany, Japan, South Korea, Qatar, Kosovo, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Diego Garcia ... What’s one more?
What the future holds for Iraqis is up to them. But the Americans have bequeathed them a better Iraq than the one the British invented for them eight decades ago: no imported princeling, no rigged referendum installing him as king, no exclusion of the majority population from political power. Iraq now has the most representative and progressive government in the Arab world. They may not keep it. They may lapse back to some reformed Baathist strongman or charismatic mullah. But they won’t be in the hands of a mass murderer and his even more psychotic sons. So I’m relaxed about Iraq: its future lies somewhere between good enough and great.
But Iraq was never really the issue. Goh Chok Tong, the Prime Minister of Singapore and a man who talks a lot more sense than most Continental prime ministers, was in Washington in May and put it in a nutshell: ‘The key issue is no longer WMD or even the role of the UN. The central issue is America’s credibility and will to prevail.’
That’s always been the question, ever since September 11. And that’s the real reason Saddam had to go: he was the living embodiment of the credibility gap. Having cocked a snook at Washington for over a decade, he symbolised the limits of American power. And it was necessary in the wake of 9/11 to make those limits look a lot less limited.
Has that been accomplished?
Well, up to a point.
America has the most powerful military on the planet. It spends more on its armed forces than the next 20 biggest spenders combined. Its mere annual increase in military expenditure is more than the entire official budget of the Chinese forces. And yet a relatively short occupation has given the impression of an overstretched army overly dependent on reservists and the National Guard.
How can this be? Short answer: Europe, Japan, South Korea. A little light colonial policing is bound to overstretch you if the bulk of your assets have been assigned to garrison your wealthiest allies in perpetuity. More importantly, the prolongation of the American security guarantee has been disastrous for those allies, transforming them into ersatz postmodern allies who require you to engage in months of elaborate diplomatic tap-dancing in order to get them to contribute a couple of hundred poorly equipped troops. There’s a line conservatives are fond of when they’re discussing welfare: What’s better for a man? To give him a fish? Or to teach him to fish for himself? That goes double for defence welfare. The continued US presence in Europe is bad for Europe and bad for the US. Ending it would be a basic recognition of the new circumstances: the wars of the future are going to look a lot like Iraq — swift, decisive interventions in failed states in dysfunctional corners of the world. That being so, the United States army should not be living in Germany.
The other lesson to learn from Iraq is one deftly summed up by Ralph Peters in the New York Post: ‘Kill terrorists, rather than taking them prisoner. Legally, we must accept the surrender of even the bloodiest monster. So our military must do everything it legitimately can to kill terrorists before they can wave a white rag,’ writes Peters. ‘By seeking prisoners we acquire large detainee populations that play into the hands of America’s critics. Kill terrorists, and you get a few self-righteous complaints. Spare them, and you get Abu Ghraib.’
Peters is right. And, given that America always gets blamed for killing hundreds of thousands of people when she hasn’t, it’s hard to see what she has to lose.
The military questions, though, are the easy ones. An ambitious defense secretary, as Rumsfeld is, could settle them and the public would barely notice. What’s harder to gauge is America’s ability to sustain anything that requires a measure of popular will. Last summer, you may recall, I wrote about Liberia, which Howard Dean and the New York Times were itching to occupy. I said, fine, go ahead, but fixing West Africa is a 30-year project. In the end, the US sent three ships, 225 troops went ashore, and two months later they’d all gone. And by then Howard Dean had moved on to agitating about something else. Did the intervention do any good? Some. Did it do any lasting good? No.
Al-Qa’eda thinks it’s got America pegged: the hyperpower is an effete, fleshy sultan sprawled languorously on overstuffed cushions and lost in sensual distractions. The British historian Niall Ferguson’s characterisation isn’t so very different: the hyperpower is a ‘strategic couch potato’ burdened with debt and suffering from attention deficit disorder.
Like many of us neo-imperialists, Prof. Ferguson is a bit disappointed at the total lack of interest America has in opening up a colonial office in Washington and training up the Gertrude Bells of the 21st century. The United States has zero interest in empire, for obvious reasons. For one thing, it’s already as big as an empire, and most countries that controlled such a large land mass would probably run it in imperial fashion. Instead, America took a federation designed for a baker’s dozen of ethnically homogeneous East Coast colonies and successively applied it across the continent and into the South Pacific. It’s not strictly true that the sun never sets on the American Republic, but it’s up an awful lot of the time.
One consequence is that imperialism has absolutely no constituency in America. The principal advantage the colonies offered to the average Englishman in 19th-century Britain was that it enabled him to get out of the country — to go to New Zealand or Malaya or Canada, where land was cheaper, economic opportunities greater and the restrictions of class much looser. But if you’re American, you can get all that at home. And if all you want is a change of climate, you can move from Maine to Hawaii or from Florida to Alaska.
Beyond that, Americans are deeply suspicious of the idea that you can swan around the world ‘giving’ freedom to people. The people have to want it, as the first Americans did — as we say in New Hampshire, live free or die. Of course, that’s easy to say in New Hampshire, which had the advantage of being settled by British subjects. But the principles that animate America don’t sit easily with imperialism, and the institutions on which an imperial project would depend happen to be America’s lousiest: the idea of American teachers fanning out across the globe, like Victorian schoolma’ams, to teach the natives the wisdom of Washington and Jefferson is pure fantasy; American teachers can’t even spread the merits of Washington and Jefferson in Berkeley and Ann Arbor.
Private-sector imperialism is a better bet. But the nearest to a latterday Hudson’s Bay or East India Company is Halliburton and not everyone wants to find Michael Moore prowling the parking lot when you show up in the morning. The biggest private employer in Afghanistan right now is an e-commerce operation based in Salt Lake City that’s got 1,700 Afghans on the payroll making rugs, embroidery and jewellery to sell on the Internet. You could get an American to go to Jalalabad to open a factory but not to become District Commissioner.
So what happens when a scrupulously non-imperial country finds itself as the hyperpower in a unipolar world? Well, you get a two-month presence in Liberia and a 15-month colonial administration in Iraq. The first wasn’t enough, the second may well be. But neither settles the credibility issue. Around the globe, America’s principled rejection of conventional imperialism is seen as softness and decadence. As a practical matter, it means that nation-building is invariably left to global agencies and multilateral institutions antipathetic to America and to American values. And, as I wrote before the Iraq war, in such a world it’s easy for the ersatz allies to present each and every American victory as some kind of terrible defeat. As we’ve learnt this last year, if there is a ‘white man’s burden’ in 2004, it’s not the burden of doing one’s bit for the natives, but doing so under a hail of continual sniping from Chirac, Schröder, the Belgian guy, Kofi, Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, the BBC and a gazillion others.
But what choice does Bush have? Last weekend two security guards at Iran’s UN mission were ordered out of the country. They’d been observed photographing and videoing what the Iranian press attaché called ‘popular tourist attractions in New York City’. This turned out to mean the tunnels and bridges leading into Manhattan. I don’t know about you, but the first time I visited New York I couldn’t wait to get a photograph of the mouth of the Holland Tunnel. And then one about a couple hundred yards in, with a nice close-up of the duct work. Who needs Central Park in May or the Rockefeller Center skating rink?
This story comes round every few months now. November 2003: Iranian men discovered photographing ‘tourist attractions’. June 2002: same thing. Maybe commuter-tunnel photography is to Persian culture as trainspotting is to English culture.
But suppose it’s not. One day a pair of security guards from the Iranian mission will be heading for the Lincoln Tunnel, and they won’t be carrying just their Kodak Instamatics.
The war on terror’s a bit of a joke on the Left these days. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore says Bush is deliberately keeping the population in a state of fear, and he gets some of his biggest laughs with clips of solemn announcers announcing upgraded terrorism alerts.
I suppose it is pretty funny. Until it happens. And then Moore and the Democrats will switch to arguing that Bush knew it was going to happen all along and didn’t do anything about it.
In the autumn of 2001, Jacob Weisberg, now editor of Slate, wrote a column bemoaning what he regarded as a silly post-9/11 trend. The Weekly Standard, the New Republic and other publications had begun giving ‘Susan Sontag Awards’ and similarly facetious honours for notably stupid anti-war commentary. Early winners included Oliver Stone, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Michael Moore, etc. Weisberg thought this unworthy of serious news magazines: ‘Stone and Moore are well-known cranks, regarded with considerable distaste even on the Left,’ he wrote. The idea that ‘these comments represent a significant body of anti-war opinion’ was preposterous.... Put bluntly, there is no anti-war movement, intellectual or popular, in the United States. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying no one opposes the war. According to polls, 5 per cent of the country is against it. There are pacifists and Buddhists ...Those policing the debate are dropping the rhetorical equivalent of daisy cutters on a few malnourished left-wing stragglers.’
Well, something’s changed in the last couple of years, and those left-wing stragglers are a lot less malnourished. Last weekend Michael Moore, the ‘well-known crank’ regarded with ‘considerable distaste’, had the Number One movie in North America. Okay, its weekend gross was $21 million, which sounds big, until you realise that the week before a dumb comedy called Dodgeball took $30 million without anybody even noticing. On the other hand, the business of Congress wasn’t put on hold because so many Democratic bigshots were attending the premiere of Dodgeball. That did happen with the premiere of Fahrenheit 9/11, and when the movie was over it was all five-star raves. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa urged all Americans to see the film. Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, praised the film for raising ‘a lot of issues that Americans are talking about’ — i.e., is Bush in league with the bin Laden family?
As those Iranian photographers remind us, this war can only be won abroad. And, as the rise of Michael Moore emphasises, it can only be lost at home.