Matthew Parris

The Iraq blunder will make Americans say, ‘Never again!’ And that’s a pity

The Iraq blunder will make Americans say, 'Never again!' And that's a pity

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A charge should be laid at the door of those who urged America onward into Iraq this year, and it should come not from pacifists, United Nations groupies or Uncle Sam-baiters, but from those on the Right who think that a great power does have special responsibilities, including – sometimes – a responsibility to intervene.

We should charge the neoconservatives with fouling it up. We should charge them with spoiling the case. We should charge hotheads in the media with egging an administration into making a fool of itself when wiser friends urged restraint. The yee-hah tendency in the Pentagon and in the press has besmirched, by misapplication, a decent philosophy of muscular great-power diplomacy of which the civilised world may have future need.

It is unoriginal but true to remark that people tend to fight the last war, learning the wrong lessons from recent mistakes. Some historians say that the trauma of the Crimea headed British foreign policy unwisely away from engagement in Continental Europe. The horrors and mistakes of the first world war contributed mightily to the reluctance to fight another, feeding the mood for appeasement. The shame of the Holocaust may have dulled moral sensibilities to the mistakes Israel is making in the Middle East. The collapse of America's calamitous engagement in Vietnam frightened a generation in the West off the more interfering approach we should have taken to sinister or corrupt forces developing in the Third World.

When what you do could set a precedent, you have a special responsibility to get it right. In Iraq, the neocons got it wrong. There was nothing wrong in principle with an argument for pre-emptive action to forestall danger, but everything wrong with its application in this case. The risk now is that next time America may shrink from intervening when she should.

For what, in three years, will be the lessons the American people suppose themselves to have learnt from the war on Iraq? Surely it is 'Never again!' If by then they have removed a Republican president from office, this will have been in anger at the commitment of so much American money and so many American lives to a bloody and inconclusive scrap in a hot and dusty place many thousands of miles away. George W. Bush's Democrat successor at the White House would be under pressure to run a foreign policy that draws in America's horns.

And if Mr Bush is re-elected? That is not unlikely; what is unlikely is that this would be on the crest of a wave of public admiration for what has been done in Iraq. Between now and then, President Bush will want to change the subject – and may succeed. If so, and he wins, he will count himself lucky to have survived a narrow brush with fate: a messy experiment in foreign policy that the American people have been prepared to overlook. A second-term Bush will not be straining at the leash for new adventures abroad.

But Abroad needs America. To an extent we may overlook, much of the world proceeds on the assumption, often unconscious, that far away across the ocean lies a great and at heart benevolent power which believes in freedom and which has been prepared to act as a sort of guarantor of last resort for the values we share. What if the Arabian nightmare – in which the Washington neocons and their hounds here in Britain have landed the US