Wednesday 2 April 2003

Emperor George

What has become of American values and idealism? All swept away in this thoroughly un-American war

by Jonathan Freedland

This war is un-American. That's an unlikely word to use, I know: it has an unhappy provenance, associated forever with the McCarthyite hunt for reds under the beds, purging anyone suspected of "un-American activities". Besides, for many outside the US, the problem with this war is not that it's un-American - but all too American.

But that does an injustice to the US and its history. It assumes that the Bush administration represents all America, at all times, when in fact the opposite is true. For this administration, and this war, are not typical of the US. On the contrary, on almost every measure, they are exceptions to the American rule.

The US was, after all, a country founded in a rebellion against imperialism. Born in a war against a hated colonial oppressor, in the form of George III, it still sees itself as the instinctive friend of all who struggle to kick out a foreign occupier - and the last nation on earth to play the role of outside ruler.

Not for it the Greek, Roman or British path. For most of the last century, the US steered well clear of the institutions of formal empire (the Philipines was a lamentable exception). Responsibility was thrust upon it after 1945 in Germany and Japan. But as a matter of deliberate intent, America sought neither viceroys ruling over faraway lands nor a world map coloured with the stars and stripes. Influence, yes; puppets and proxies, yes. But formal imperial rule, never.

Until now. George Bush has cast off the restraint which held back America's 42 previous presidents - including his father. Now he is seeking, as an unashamed objective, to get into the empire business, aiming to rule a post-Saddam Iraq directly through an American governor-general, the retired soldier Jay Garner. As the Guardian reported yesterday, Washington's plan for Baghdad consists of 23 ministries - each one to be headed by an American. This is a form of foreign rule so direct we have not seen its like since the last days of the British empire. It represents a break with everything America has long believed in.

This is not to pretend that there is a single American ideal, still less a single US foreign policy, maintained unbroken since 1776. There are, instead, competing traditions, each able to trace its lineage to the founding of the republic. But what's striking is that George Bush's war on Iraq is at odds with every single one of them. Perhaps best known is Thomas Jefferson's call for an America which would not only refuse to rule over other nations, it would avoid meddling in their affairs altogether. He wanted no "entangling alliances". If America wished to export its brand of liberty, it should do it not through force but by the simple power of its own example. John Quincy Adams (before Bush, the only son of a president to become president), put it best when he declared that America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy". Could there be a better description of Washington's pre-emptive pursuit of Saddam Hussein?

The Jeffersonian tradition is not the only one to be broken by Operation Iraqi Freedom. Last year the historian Walter Russell Mead identified three other schools of US foreign policy. Looking at them now, it's clear that all are equally incompatible with this war.

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