Let’s be clear, it’s Bush who can’t lose face

The Independent (UK)

December 27, 2002

It has been a perfect Christmas here in this small segment of the US eastern seaboard where the great decisions of our time are taken. It began snowing in Washington at dusk on 24 December.

Next morning, for the first time I remember, we woke up to a true White Christmas. And the quantity of snow was just right – enough to create a wonderland, but not enough to inconvenience Washingtonians seriously.

However, the idyllic spectacle has only served to make Christmas an even more unreal interlude than usual, a pleasant fantasy before the unpleasantness of the New Year. As the snowflakes fluttered down late on Christmas Eve, we sang in church about peace on earth and goodwill to all men – knowing full well that, barring miracles, a long-planned war will be starting in perhaps five weeks.

You can present the coming attack on Iraq as proof irrefutable of a superpower’s imperial arrogance, as another example of the world’s true rogue nation acting unilaterally to settle a score (having first bullied or bribed a few other countries into going along with it, to give the enterprise a respectable veneer). But I don’t see it like that.

If any people believe the words of the carols, it is God-fearing, church-going Americans. If there is an American empire, it is of a more benign variety than the majority of its earthly predecessors. During the past century, America has been on balance an immense force for good.

We may mock Woodrow Wilson’s vision as Utopian, but his goals of peace, democracy, free trade and a supranational authority (the League of Nations then, the United Nations today) to manage the rules of the international system remain virtually universal aspirations.

As Britain should know as well as anyone, being top nation is a lonely job, in which gratitude from others is not among the rewards. Someone once wrote about the “tragic lesson” that any dominant country must learn – that it cannot be loved.

President Bush, I am sure, has learnt that lesson. No, my objections to the forthcoming war are practical. The minuses outweigh the pluses; the sums just don’t add up.

That is the European way of looking at it. We are inherently pessimistic and dread the unknown. Convinced of human shortcomings, we prefer the status quo. But America does not see things that way.

In its pursuit of Iraq, it is obeying one of its oldest instincts, that things – in this case the Middle East – can be changed for the better. America is not a prisoner of the status quo.

Yes, self-interest is involved, oil and a desire to buttress Israel. Yes, the Bush crowd have used Iraq to keep people’s minds off domestic economic problems. But people in very high places in Washington really do share the Wilsonian belief that Iraq can be remade into a progressive state to serve as a model for a blighted region. And, they would privately add, the whole place is such a mess that whatever happens post-Saddam can hardly make matters worse.

But I, like most Europeans, think things can get even worse, that you shouldn’t make history simply by shaking the kaleidoscope. I fear that an invasion of Iraq will merely toss fuel onto a smouldering fire. The consequences will not be peace and goodwill, but more anti-Americanism. Have the Americans thought this through? There is scant sign.

Mr Bush proclaims that the war against Saddam is a war for peace. His administration believes that it can foster democracy in the Middle East. But these heirs of Woodrow Wilson are reluctant to put their money where their mouth is.

America spends $400bn (£250bn) a year on its defence. But what’s the budget of the outreach scheme, unveiled by Colin Powell a few weeks ago to advance education, the market economy and democracy in the region? A paltry $29m, or just 1 per cent of the cost of one of those fancy aircraft carriers queuing up in the Gulf to strike Saddam (and incidentally, that $3bn-plus price tag doesn’t include the aircraft).

With magnificently enlightened self-interest, the US offered Europe the Marshall Plan after the Second World War. The self-interest argument is at least as strong today. So why not a Powell Plan to rebuild the Middle East?

But Mr Bush is locked in. The words “regime change” are avoided these days, but no one doubts he has decided to get rid of Saddam, come what may. Whatever Iraq does, the bar is set higher. Now Baghdad faces the near-impossible task of proving a negative, that it doesn’t have weapons of mass destruction. Even if inspectors with the best Western intelligence come up with nothing, any outcome with Saddam still in place as Iraqi leader is unacceptable.

At this point, we confront that most powerful driving force in human affairs: face, or rather the importance of not losing it. Just think of those headlines if America’s legions are pulled back. “Bush’s bluff called” or “Saddam wriggles free again”.

The very thought of them must induce apoplexy in the White House. This President’s projected image of relentless purpose, his strongest political asset, would lie in ruins.

The best we can hope for is that someone in Iraq acts first against Saddam and does the dirty work for us. But pinning hopes on that eventuality does not make for a joyous Christmas, even when the Christmas is white.

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