Bush: scared of his own shadow?

The US president is doing a pretty good impression of the Grand Old Duke of York, marching his men up and down the hill to no great effect.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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On both sides of the debate about war with Iraq, many agree that the USA is intent on creating a new world order post-11 September. They may disagree about whether this is a good or bad thing, but the shared premise is that George W Bush’s America is flexing its muscles as the world’s only superpower.

‘America has transformed itself from the status quo superpower of the 1990s into a revolutionary hyperpower’, is how Financial Times editor Philip Stephens sums up the argument: ‘Then, the US was content to police the world. Now, it intends to remake it in its own image.’ (1)

Yet this widely accepted notion bears little relation to the reality of US foreign policy today. Far from being revolutionary, America appears cautious, conservative and anxious about acting decisively to upset the status quo for fear of what the fallout might be. As for the USA actively remaking the world in its own image: not only is Washington demonstrating a defensive siege mentality towards the world, but it seems unsure as to what its own image is in the first place.

Despite the strong words from a few Bush administration hawks, in practice US foreign policy evidences none of the conviction that commentators ascribe to it. Behind the rhetoric, America remains uncertain as to what it is fighting for, never mind how to achieve it.

Having set up the Iraqi crisis as the focus for a reaffirmation of its authority at home and abroad, Washington has proved incapable of seeing it through. Seemingly lacking the will to launch a war against the feeble, ruined state of Iraq, the global superpower has repeatedly hidden behind the UN in the hope of gaining some second-hand moral authority. That is why we have witnessed the endless diplomatic shenanigans, while being told at every stage of the circus that this time it really, really is the final, final chance for peace.

Even now, there are more moves by the US and UK to delay the UN Security Council vote, alter the resolution, extend the deadline – just about anything, it seems, to put off the moment of reckoning. As for exercising moral authority, the US has more been displaying the morals of a pimp, trying to persuade countries like Angola, Guinea or Turkey to get into bed with it in return for a fistful of dollars.

President Bush is doing a pretty good impression of the Grand Old Duke of York, marching his men up and down the hill to no great effect. And don’t believe the line about this toing-and-froing all being a big favour to try to help Tony Blair get out of trouble in the UK. The American authorities have plenty of political problems much closer to home than London.

The US establishment has lost its way in the world. Its identity crisis was in no way caused by 11 September, but the trauma caused by those terrorist attacks did help bring things to head. The underlying problem, as we discussed on spiked when the Iraqi crisis began, is that the US elite has long since lost its Culture Wars at home. The image of a self-confident USA bestriding the world has increasingly been called into question by doubts about everything from the history of slavery to the validity of the American Dream. The divided and indecisive state of the US foreign policy establishment today is a consequence of that loss of mission and purpose.

Since 11 September the Bush administration has been thrashing around for a way to reassert America’s moral authority, without much success; witness the knots the White House tied itself in, trying to prove to itself and everybody else that its war against terror wasn’t offensive to Islam.

Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld has won a reputation as the hard man of the administration, threatening terrible vengeance against anybody who crosses America. Yet a more historical interpretation might see Rumsfeld as a blowhard making empty threats, more talk than action. A hard man of the old school like former secretary of state Henry Kissinger didn’t make big speeches about America’s plans to assassinate an enemy in Latin America or launch an illegal bombing campaign in south-east Asia. He just got on with it, without informing many in the administration, let alone the world media.

Having instigated the latest campaign against Iraq as a vehicle for the moral rearmament of America, the Bush administration finds that it has the military, but not the moral arsenal to finish it. The US and UK governments have now backed themselves into a tight corner, and it is widely assumed that war is inevitable. Yet even now, significant sections of America’s political and military elite are warning Bush to back off or risk doing more serious damage to America’s standing – and, typically for today, making sure that what would once have been a private top-level debate is conducted in the public arena.

Even George Bush senior has made a speech warning against the dangers of America trying to go it alone (2). Meanwhile, some administration insiders have let it be known that they are advising Bush to seek an exit strategy from the whole mess.

One Washington bulletin reports that, ‘Some Bush aides now admit privately that the President, for all his tough talk, may have to back down and postpone his plans to invade Iraq in the near future, delaying any decision until April or May at the earliest. “The vote in Turkey [against allowing US troops to invade Iraq across the Turkish border] fucked things up big time”, grumbles one White House aide. “It pushes our timetable back. On the other hand, it might give us a chance to save face.”’ (3)

The Bush administration appears scared of its own shadow. It is haunted by the shadows of America’s past interventions, from the defeat in Vietnam to the current bogged-down campaign in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, its internal crisis of authority casts a new shadow across the world stage.

All bets are off as to what happens next. If the US authorities do ultimately pluck up the moral courage to push the button, the war against Iraq is unlikely to start as the conventional large-scale invasion many are expecting. From the first, it has seemed unlikely that the White House has the political will to send 200,000 soldiers into battle. Instead the US and UK forces are likely to try to do as little as they can get away with, concentrating on using their overwhelming air power from a safe distance in the first instance. Afghanistan is not a good advert for the success of that strategy. It has been a disaster for the Americans – not to mention for the Afghans on the receiving end.

Contrary to the widespread assumption, there really is no hardline pro-war camp in the Iraqi crisis. The trouble is, of course, as we have argued elsewhere on spiked, there is no principled anti-war movement, either. All sides are motivated by fear and marked by a lack of conviction.

So the world stands on the sidelines, waiting for UN figures like Hans Blix and Kofi Annan to pass judgement on Iraq. But who wants a world order shaped by these unelected, unaccountable characters? At least we can get rid of Bush and Blair.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) ‘The choice that was best avoided’, Philip Stephens, Financial Times, 10 March 2003

(2) Bush Sr warning over unilateral action, The Times (London), 10 March 2003

(3) Advisors warn Bush he faces ‘humiliating’ defeat on UN resolution, Capitol Hill Blue, 4 March 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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