How paranoid little Napoleons took over America

By Gerard Baker (THE TIMES, 13/07/07):

Democracy, Winston Churchill famously observed, is the worst form of government ever devised – except for all the others. Well, he was right about the first part.

In America these days democracy is living down to its reputation, producing sticking-plaster solutions to epochal challenges, indulging the worst populist instincts of its voters, throwing up demagogic leaders unworthy of the job and rejecting those of true courage. The most depressing spectacle is unfolding over Iraq. Washington has reached the stage where vital national interests – and the security of much of the world – are being determined almost entirely by immediate, panicky political considerations. Americans want their troops home.

It’s a wholly understandable sentiment. But it is one that needs to be resisted, not massaged and nurtured, as members of Congress from both parties have been doing.

Despite the picture of unrelenting gloom that fills television screens, there is growing evidence of progress in Iraq. In Anbar province, once the seedbed of Sunni extremism, peace has descended, as local tribal leaders have allied themselves with the Americans to defeat the hated al-Qaeda. There are signs that something similar is happening in troubled Diyala. Baghdad remains volatile and violent. But the “surge” of US troops launched earlier this year has only in the past few weeks reached its peak.

Even if you are inclined to greet claims of progress with war-weary scepticism, it is hard to see how you can argue with the proposition that an early US withdrawal would pile carnage upon misery. In graphic terms this week, Ryan Crocker, the US Ambassador to Baghdad – no shill for the Bush Administration – described Iraq as like a horror movie. In Washington, he said, people think we’re into the last reel of a three-reel film. We just have to sit through the final stages and then we can all go home. The reality, he said, is that an early US departure would put us about midway through the first of a five-reel Hammer Horror flick, with unimaginably gruesome scenes still to come.

If the 160,000 US troops now keeping fissiparous components of Iraqi society apart were to leave, imagine the consequences. The sectarian bloodletting would eclipse even the tragedy we have witnessed so far. Islamist extremists would seize on their victory to push their creed with ever more gusto. Iran, Syria and Turkey and perhaps Saudi Arabia would pick eagerly over the rotting carcass of a nation.

Some halfway house measure, currently the popular – and therefore the favoured – approach in the US, whereby American forces would be reduced and confined to a more limited role would actually be even worse. It would lead directly to the spectacle of US troops standing by while the killing intensifies around them.

It is cruel and unfair, of course, that because of the Bush Administration’s ineptitude over Iraq, the US now confronts this unenviable choice – stay and suffer the heartbreak of many more American losses, or leave and ignite a conflagration across the region. But wishing away the hubris and errors of the past five years is not an option. Substituting a suddenly chastened humility for the unheeding arrogance will compound the errors, not eliminate them.

Few politicians are willing to stand up and make this case. Democrats almost to a man and a woman want to exit quickly; growing numbers of Republicans are ready to follow suit.

There’s a tragicomic irony here, if you’ve the appetite for it. A central tenet of neoconservatism has always been that promoting democracy around the world is not only morally right, but also in the long-term interest of peace and stability. Democracies, as a rule, don’t go to war with each other. Their leaders are accountable to their people and people, as a rule, don’t like to see their sons and daughters go off to fight in a foreign country. There may be no better proof of that proposition than the increasingly desperate pleas for peace from Americans today.

The populist revolt over Iraq follows a smaller but equally depressing moment last month in Washington over immigration. President Bush had tried, honourably and rightly, to get a reform Bill through Congress that would have regularised the status of 12 million illegal immigrants, mostly Latinos, as well as enforcing border security more effectively.

The Bill was defeated by a roar of nativist and, at times, thinly disguised racist hysteria from the great American heartland. Little Napoleons on TV and talk radio strutted and howled, denouncing the President and his supporters for surrendering to a cultural takeover by Mexicans.

It was as ugly as it was absurd.

America has absorbed waves and waves of immigrants through its history; alone among industrialised nations its openness and ability to assimilate others give it a relatively rosy demographic future. Its remarkable gift for recreating itself has long been its most crucial economic talent.

Mr Bush, to give him rare credit, was willing to resist the tide of right-wing paranoia and hatred. But of course he is free, politically, to do so, no longer having to submit himself to the people’s verdict in elections. The real test was for his would-be successors – and almost all the Republicans fell quickly into line behind the howling mob.

One man who didn’t was John McCain, the Arizona senator, and until a few months ago the front-runner for the Republican nomination. Just as he has done over Iraq, where he remains one of the few voices urging the US to stay and face up to its responsibilities, so on immigration, Senator McCain took the narrow gate. His support for these two unpopular causes seems to have doomed him. He has slumped in the polls and his campaign is bleeding cash. This week his top two aides quit and many of the remaining staff were laid off.

“I’d rather lose an election than lose a war” Senator McCain has repeatedly said, defending his unpopular stance on Iraq. How tragic for him – and for the rest of us – that the mood in America today seems to ensure that this man of rare integrity is bleakly on course to lose both.