Yes, America’s my friend. Or is it? Suddenly I’m not sure

By Matthew Parris (THE TIMES, 13/01/07):

The trouble with Margaret,” one of the then-Prime Minister’s Cabinet colleagues once observed, “is that when she speaks without thinking she says what she thinks.” We all do this. It’s like that microsecond between catching the reflection in a shop window of a disagreeably tense-looking person — and realising it’s you. Oops. Me? Not tense, then: purposeful. But that tiny delay before the official censor moves to correct the record can be the moment when we make assessments that we didn’t know were ours: the moment the unconscious mind blurts it out. Typically this is associated either with a thought too awkward to acknowledge, or with a new opinion to which we are unconsciously moving but not quite ready to declare — even to ourselves.

Such moments are precious. I believe I experienced one yesterday. A familiar remark had caught my eye. Hard upon it came an unfamiliar reaction. The familiar remark was between quotes on the front page of The Times: “If we’re going to follow the US or the EU, I’d take clumsy America any time.” The sentence came from an article within, by my fellow columnist, Gerard Baker.

The unfamiliar reaction was mine. It was unfamiliar because it was negative. “Take America any time? No, I’m not sure I would. Not any more.”

This was not what I had thought I thought. I remain unsure whether it’s what I do think. But I sense the approach of some sort of mental tipping point: a throwing of the switch. And though what is occurring in one columnist’s mind is of little significance in itself, it may be indicative of a more general shift in public sentiment. I begin to sense this is so.

Here, first, is what I thought I thought. I’ve certainly written it often enough. That, like a big, rough, but loveable bear, “clumsy” America can be an embarrassing friend but must remain at the deepest level a friend. That it makes mistakes, awful mistakes, from time to time, but mostly from excess of confidence or lack of finesse, and usually with good intentions. That there will be presidents and administrations (like the present one) who stray badly off course, but that in doing so they betray their own country and its abiding purposes.

That we can disapprove of one president without disapproving of a whole country. That no matter how many American mistakes and wrongs you pile onto the negative side of the scales, they are somehow only aberrations: they can never outweigh the essential good faith of our erstwhile colony. That whatever rows may arise between us, it must always be our expectation that afterwards we can get back together. And that beneath and beyond all the twists and turns of events and policymaking in a messy world, there is an abiding national soul — a Platonic essence — that is America: and it is good. At heart, at root, at centre, and in a very final way, we and the United States are on the same side.

I’m sure this has represented not just my own thinking, but my country’s instinct too. For me personally, two years (funded by an American philanthropist) at Yale University helped to cement it. For millions of my countrymen, experience of world wars and Cold War in the 20th century has lodged it very deep.

Could it ever be dislodged? For the first time, and rather late in my life, I am beginning to wonder. The negative side of the scales, for so long obdurately refusing to dip, has been piling ever higher over the years. Carbon emissions and a destructive attitude towards the campaign against global warming, protectionism, Guantanamo, sponsorship of intransigence in Israel, “rendition”, torture, support for dreadful regimes in Latin America . . . and of course most recently that monster of an issue: Iraq.

But still in my own mind the ever-more-crowded negative scale has not dipped. The balance still felt positive. And oddly enough it is not Iraq that now theatens that balance. I’ve always been able to explain Iraq as a simple blunder. Hell, it might have worked (I once rather expected it to); weapons of mass destruction might have been found (I thought they would). A stable democracy might have been established there (I hoped so). Though none of these hopes added (in my own mind) to an argument sufficient to justify a new doctrine of unilateral international intervention, they were enough to keep the American way as a morally defensible proposition, internationally.

No, it’s not Iraq, but Iran that is pushing me towards a complete reassessment of the moral relativities. On Thursday, little-reported here, US forces stormed Iranian offices in the Kurdish part of Iraq and, to the fury of the Kurdish security forces, tore down the Iranian flag, and seized and took away five Iranian officials. No doubt confused and conflicting claims will now follow as to whether these premises were above board, or housed people hostile to the US presence in Iraq. We may never know. What we can be sure of is that this is not the way to behave in the most ordered and autonomous part of Iraq unless Washington has come to the settled conclusion that Iran is central to the violence and insurrection in Iraq, and — the “and” is important — that America is now ready to confront Iran directly.

Like Anatole Kaletsky on these pages, I am deeply unsettled by Washington’s perspective on the region, obediently marketed by Tony Blair as a looming stand-off between an “arc of moderation” (Saudi Arabia — don’t laugh — Pakistan and other more moderate Middle Eastern powers) and an axis of evil, dominated by Iran. Unlike Anatole, I had until recently supposed it inconceivable that this was a war the United States could really want. I thought rumours that Israel might be willing to strike, in part as proxy for the United States, fanciful.

But I am beginning to wonder. To my own internal dismay, the best argument I can find for the unlikelihood of such a turn of events is that George W. Bush cannot (surely?) imagine he could get away with it, and win. I am no longer confident that any principled objection to raising the stakes and polarising the region would be sufficient to stop the White House in its tracks. Only fear of failure might. I hope it will.

And so we return to where I started: Gerard Baker’s assertion that “If we’re going to follow the US or the EU, I’d take clumsy America any time”. If we are now living in a world in which only fear of failure is deterring the United States from fomenting in the Middle East a confrontation between two great blocs of Arab, Persian, Jewish, Kurdish, Afghan and Pakistani peoples, then — if I must choose — will I take clumsy America every time? No, of course not. But it’s worse than that. Will I even be able continue comforting myself that mistakes like this are out of character? Will I still feel, at the deepest level, on America’s side?

Will I see it as a natural ally? Will I feel sure, as I always have, that America is a force for good in the world? British socialists — the oldest among them, at any rate — may remember British socialism’s long affair with an emerging world power: the Soviet Union. They will recall their early confidence and trust; all of them will remember trying valiantly to find positive interpretations of each new item of news, domestic or international, about the USSR; and some will remember visiting Russia and being able to believe all was well.

Painfully, they will be able to remember, too, their own personal Kronstadt moment. The Kronstadt uprising, put down with extraordinary brutality, opened the eyes of many on this side of the Iron Curtain.

“What was your Kronstadt?” became a code phrase to find the point at which a European socialist or communist tipped from being a Soviet sympathiser.

I am not comparing Guantanamo with Gulag, or America with the Soviet Union — it’s nothing like as bad as that. But if Washington does get us into a war with Iran, that will be my Kronstadt moment.