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Only American National Interest Counts Now

31 January 2002

This will sound to some people like an anti-American column. It is not meant to be. As the writer, I assert that it is not. I'm the one who knows. I am not anti-American in any of the conditioning senses the epithet usually signifies: ethnically hostile, corporately obsessed, economically resentful, chanting every night the well-known litany of Washington's postwar dirty deeds. That my disclaimer is necessary, however, is a commentary on the diminished state of consultative democracy just now. The least considered aspect of the war against terrorism is that a loyalty test - are you pro- or anti-American? - has become the obligatory standard against which deductions are made about anything written on American foreign policy.

For in the land of the first amendment, the normal rules of discourse are now blurred. The possibility of civilized people, all sharing the same loyalty, disagreeing about the right way forward is much attenuated. A single label can be made to wipe out every nuance. If you're not with me, you may be proving that you aren't a patriot. President Bush's state of the union address was redolent of the triumphalism and alarm that obliterate every alternative mind-set.

It was a fine oration by a war leader who is carrying all before him. The war has allowed a president without a mandate to grow into a heroic figure whom nobody wishes to challenge. Thus far it has been an impressive campaign, defying the military and political prophets who said the Taliban would take far longer to remove. Osama bin Laden remains at large, and al-Qaida networks perhaps still girdle the globe. Innocent Afghans have been killed. But, as recent wars go, this one has so far been the most efficient in all respects.

And now it will be pressed forward. The speech, I think, did not so much stoke up as reflect a national mood that there's a great deal more to do. But it was scarcely understated. What is the evidence that there really are "tens of thousands of trained terrorists still at large"? We begin to understand that in Bush's mind the Afghan campaign, aided by the Northern Alliance, may have been the easy bit - compared with destroying the nebulous cohorts now being sought by the same US agencies that have been unable to track down the anthrax terrorist in their own backyard.

So he was preparing Americans for the long haul. They do still prefer other people to take the human risks. They wouldn't put troops on the ground to seal the Pakistan border, which may be how Bin Laden escaped. Though the special forces are there, the Northern Alliance locals do most of the dirty work. But it's a fight for a world cause, and it is being run by America: one command, one air force, a unifying intelligence, an uncomplicated national will and no Jacques Chirac poking his nose into daily targeting decisions as he did in Kosovo.

However, the state of the union address had certain blank bits. There were important absences. Only fleeting references were allowed to any other country. It was as if these other participants in the drama barely existed, which in terms of the military effort was, by Washington's choice, true enough, but which, as a diplomatic statement, seemed both ignorant and dangerous. The need for the coalition was perfunctorily acknowledged, but not the faintest doubt was allowed to attach to the fact that it would continue to operate on America's terms.

The military success, in other words, emboldened the president to speak as though there is no broader purpose than the assertion of American power. He sounded like a man whose war had intensified rather than slackened his belief in America, if necessary, going it alone. Other voices, it appears, are not terribly interesting, especially European voices that bring up the priority of a Middle East peace process being resumed, or publicly insist on codes of behavior in the Guantanamo prison camp that rest on different attitudes to human rights than those now prevailing in war-torn America.

There can be arguments about that. Our governments do not have them, at least in public. To judge from the tortuous haste with which Mr Blair yesterday backed away from the early doubts his foreign secretary expressed about Camp X-Ray, they don't have them in private either. Instead, we fall in with the unilateralist impulse of a new age. The era of guilt (Vietnam) and the era of dithering (Clinton) have been replaced by a fresh discovered triumph of American will, that more and more permits Washington to take decisions which have to pass only an exclusive test of the American national interest. Such was the state of the union that Bush seemed to be describing on Tuesday night.

It is not entirely new. Unilateralist wrecking of the Kyoto treaty and the international criminal court began with Clinton. But Bush is pushing more recklessly ahead. The killing of the ABM treaty is a done deal. Nuclear testing is blithely listed for resumption. Nuclear warhead reductions agreed with Moscow may be scuppered by a Bush decision to store his own dismantled warheads anyway, just in case. Now, with all the yapping about Camp X-Ray, the White House has begun to ruminate in semi-public that, like ABM, the Geneva Conventions may be suddenly unsuitable to the new era.

Many Americans must find this only sensible. After all, it reflects power relationships nobody can contest. Post-Afghanistan, it seems to be the new reality. But it carries costs, which a pro-American should be the first to lament.

First, it negates the notion of a world community of self-respecting nations, many of which have much to contribute to making this a safer place. In George Bush's America, there's evidently little room for a sense of noblesse oblige. This America is an alliance-builder only for her national purposes. She's the only great power in the world, but shrinks from what it means to be a world power. Anti-terrorism became her postcommunist mission, and it's a vital one. But world power surely carries the responsibility to look wider, towards a benign shaping of decisions that are collective not unilateral.

Second, though the campaign against al-Qaida has been brilliantly destructive of appalling evil forces, it has far to go. Bush's own account of the nightmares he's trying to pre-empt makes that very clear. How can he hope to do it solely through the might of American power and intelligence? For a campaign lasting that long, there's a hearts-and-minds problem all over the Middle East and Asia. That's where the real anti-Americans live. They present a challenge to patience, subtlety and understanding, as well as military zeal. They need to see America living up to her best and broadest values. Bush paid lip service to that in his speech: "human dignity ... rule of law ... free speech ... equal justice". But in the face of homeland hubris, what price words?

Hugo Young
Published in the Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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