America gets real, but Britain is still lost in military fantasy land

By Simon Jenkins (THE TIMES, 12/11/06):

The world believes that a new America was born last week. At the flick of a democratic switch out went the wild, warmongering, fundamentalist neocons. Out went the xenophobic fanatics who believe that allies are wimps, that Arabs should be tortured and that dinosaurs inhabited the Ark. European is no longer an American term of abuse and vice versa. Liberals walk free down Fifth Avenue and eat french fries. In short, the great American polity is sane again.

Anyone who criticises America knows that it is among the world’s most paranoid nations. But nothing has more irritated many Americans this past six years than that the world should identify them with George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. I once attributed responsibility for Iraq to “America” and was deluged with complaints that the fault lay in Washington, with the Republicans, with the White House, then with the Pentagon, until I was told kindly to restrict my criticism to “Cheney and Rumsfeld”.

Nor have all Americans opposed abortion, homosexuality, stem cell research and evolution, let alone supported Pastor Ted Haggard, extraordinary rendition and biblical truth. As of last Tuesday, Bush’s reincarnation of the Ugly American may be dead, but not all Americans were that ugly nor are all ugly Americans that dead.

Since 9/11 the devil of the apocalypse in American politics has had the best tunes. There is nothing as useful to an insecure leader as fear. But it yielded no consensus. The last two presidential elections were a sign not of a homogeneous America but of a divided one. A bare majority (in 2000 a minority) supported Bush not just because they liked his fundamentalism but because his opponents were unconvincing and his organisation superb.

Nor are all this week’s “neo-Democrats” born-again liberals — far from it.

The election was a clear referendum on six years of Republican rule in Washington, but humility should guide any response to an American election.

A nation does not change its political culture overnight and America is the size of a continent. Reading this election would be like reading a European one in which, God forbid, voters were spread across Andalusia, Bavaria, Sicily and Wales.

The best available guide is the exit polls. Any midterm vote is conditioned by anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment. After 12 years of a Republican Congress that failed to bring either Bill Clinton or Bush to book, outsiders might conclude that the American constitution of checks and balances needs reform. A flurry of scandals during the campaign capped a widespread aversion to the corruption of Bush’s Washington and a sense that something must be done about public spending that has risen faster under Bush than under any president since Johnson.

But this is a mood, not a programme. There is no evidence that the American people have turned against “big government conservatism”, dominated as it is by swollen welfare, only against its hijacking by Halliburton imperialism. Yet the polls did indicate the centrality of Iraq and this is the more remarkable in a country whose political concerns are usually domestic.

Voters told pollsters that they rejected the portrayal of Iraq as a “threat to America”. They did not like being made to seem incompetent in the eyes of the world, nor did they welcome the prospect of military defeat and global humiliation. They never willed this war on the president; he willed it on them and they took him on trust. When a loyal Republican complained to me that his president “did not tell us the truth”, I replied that nor did my prime minister. No, he retorted, but my president is also your queen.

The voters clearly indicated — by two thirds to one third — that they want the Iraq expedition to end. Rarely has a commander-in-chief had the rug pulled so ruthlessly from under him. Bush’s Wednesday press conference was a chastened affair, even without the dismissal of Rumsfeld.

“Pre-mortems” on Iraq are now piling up in every American bookstore. There will be no heroic war movies about Iraq, only painful ones. The arrival of Robert Gates at the Pentagon is a victory for the “realist” anti-war party associated with Bush’s father, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker. Somehow he must salvage some dignity for America from the jaws of defeat.

This will be agonising. Talking with ordinary Americans about Iraq is an eerie experience. Even opponents of the war imagine themselves still in control of events. Sentences tumble out with America as the subject of every verb.

I keep hearing of “what we should do next in Iraq” or “what we need to say to Iran”. The occupation could have worked if “we” had handled it differently and there is “a job” that America must “finish”. Always the premise is that America possesses absolute power.

This thinking is still so much in imperialist mode that the scale of America’s impotence has yet to dawn. American and British troops are squatting in bases across Iraq, but they are not in military let alone political control. The public’s knowledge is mostly from reporters embedded in army fortresses and tanks, seldom the best standpoint for balanced analysis. The only policy choice is whether to stay and get killed or get out.

Since the Kurds are de facto autonomous and the Sunni militias are in virtual control of their region, military attention is concentrated on aiding the sectarian partitioning of the Baghdad area and hoping the Shi’ite militias settle their private civil war as soon as possible.

The policy of orderly handover to that British fantasy, “a strong Iraqi army and police force”, or to that American fantasy, “a new strongman in Baghdad”, is pie in the sky. Iraq is a state of anarchy beyond the wit of any foreigner to cure. Bush’s generals are close to mutiny and his new defence secretary is a member of the independent Baker/Hamilton Iraq review team, whose one agenda item is how to withdraw in good order. The chief task is to find a euphemism for cut and run, of which “redeployment to Qatar” is the current favourite.

Since Britons have been fed the same deluded fantasy, they might offer sympathy to Americans in this plight. British intelligence out of Baghdad has been as gloomy as the CIA’s and London has had no more excuse than the Pentagon for its mistakes. The British government fully participated in the fiasco. Tony Blair was there at Crawford and Camp David and spoke, so he said, to the president “almost daily”. That Blair shared little with his sceptical cabinet colleagues may deepen his guilt but it in no way exonerates them. They stand charged with corporate negligence over Iraq.

None appears to have believed fully in the war — yet, apart from Robin Cook, all signed up to it. If Rumsfeld must resign, what are Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon, John Reid, Margaret Beckett and Des Browne doing in office? As for the majority of Labour MPs, they were so compliant that last month they dared not risk even a parliamentary inquiry into the war’s conduct. They are about to be taught a lesson in oversight by the new Congress.

The trouble is that the realism of America’s political class is now ahead of Britain’s. Iraq has discredited British foreign policy as much as America’s. The difference is that American democracy has realised this and America’s leaders have had to listen. To return from America this weekend and read the mealy mouthed excuses of Beckett, the leaked innuendos of Gordon Brown, the tough-guy posturing of John Reid and the wriggling, inconsequential double-talk of the opposition front bench is distressing.

Worse, they are all signed up to the identical mistake in southern Afghanistan, a war that even Rumsfeld was sensible enough to abandon. Mesmerised by events in Washington, London has lost the capacity for original thought.

The Iraq war will end. As in Lebanon, its wretched victims will spend a decade piecing themselves together after suffering this bout of boastful and reckless pseudo-philanthropy. Liberals and conservatives alike will doubtless pretend that they never supported the war. Iraqis will have no such freedom. Hypocrisy is the privilege of wealth.

But now we should at least give credit where it is due. An electorate realised that it had been conned and told its rulers so. American democracy gave a raucous roar of dissent — and was heard.