The fall of the vulcans
Iraq may spell the end of an evangelical belief in American military power
Timothy Garton Ash
Thursday May 27, 2004
Iraq has turned into a disastrous defeat for America and Britain. All the current debate is essentially about damage limitation. The Bush administration invaded Iraq on what has proved to be a false prospectus. It has made a terrible mess of the occupation. It has created more terrorist threats than were there before. Its military has shamed America with the torture in Abu Ghraib. It has provoked waves of anti-Americanism. And the whole business has been a vast, hugely expensive distraction from the pressing challenges that face America and Europe, including poverty, global warming and the very real struggle against the al-Qaida assassins of New York and Madrid. Even if things get better in Iraq, this indictment will stand.
Everyone is asking what America has done to Iraq. But the more important question is: what has Iraq done to America? Redefined it, to be sure, in a new era of world politics. But how? There's a pessimistic interpretation, which sees the American army "specialists" of Abu Ghraib as representative figures - harbingers of a meaner, coarser hyperpower. Here's a more optimistic answer: Iraq could mean the beginning of the end of vulcanism.
The vulcans is what the Bush foreign policy team called themselves, as they prepared for office. A 55ft high statue of the Olympian blacksmith, purveyor of thunderbolts to the gods, famously towers above Birmingham, Alabama, home town of Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. As the American writer James Mann shows in his fine book Rise of the Vulcans, the key members of Bush's team had certain things in common. Their formative experiences were in the study or practice of military power. They believed, from the outset, in using the post-cold war moment to establish unchallengeable US military supremacy. Most of them believed in the assertive use of that military power to spread "American values" and fight "evil", defined in muscular Christian terms. And they thought America should not be too encumbered by allies, treaties or international organisations. Vulcan could do it alone.
Of course, there were differences between them. Those who had fought in the Vietnam war, like Colin Powell and Richard Armitage, were most reluctant to commit American soldiers to another war. The Vietnam draft avoiders such as Bush himself and vice president Dick Cheney ("I had other priorities in the 60s than military service"), were less reluctant to send others to do what they themselves had not done. The soldiers were keenest on diplomacy; the businessmen-politicians on war. Nonetheless, this vulcan approach defined the Bush administration from the outset. And from the first meeting of Bush's national security council, months before 9/11, they talked of Iraq.
Many people leap to the conclusion that they would have done it anyway. The extraordinary inside accounts, published by Bush's former anti-terrorism supremo Richard Clarke, former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, and the reportorial outsider-turned-insider Bob Woodward, don't bear this out. Rather, the invasion of Iraq was a characteristically vulcan response to the real sense, created by the 9/11 attacks, of America being at war. Bush pushed for an Iraq war plan, then hesitated. He sought reassurance from his intelligence chiefs that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. "It's a slam dunk," CIA boss George Tenet told him. Unfortunately, Tony Blair reinforced that belief.
Lust for oil played some part, of course, as did neoconservative plans for a democratic revolution in the Middle East. But what seems to have been decisive was the president's gut instinct to respond to such an attack by going and "kicking butt". Whose butt exactly was, in a sense, secondary. Saddam happened to be the most obvious, persistent and provoking target. As one self-styled soccer mom told me, this attitude is what her kind in America loved about Bush. America had been hit; he was hitting back. This guy was in charge. He was kicking butt.
But no longer. Instead, it's Bush's own butt that's being kicked. The boots that marched out to war so confidently are now empty boots spread out on the lawn of Capitol Hill, some 800 pairs of them, deployed by anti-war protesters to symbolise the American dead in Iraq. The soccer moms don't like that. Bush's approval rating has sunk to 41%. The talk now is all of allies, UN resolutions, transfers of power; and, in private, of an exit strategy. America won't be doing another Iraq any time soon. And Bush is left saying, as he did on Monday night: "I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security." We make things too easy for ourselves if we regard such a statement as a barefaced lie. It is probably subjectively true. But it does invite two cool, precise questions: how was America's security threatened by Saddam's Iraq? And how has that security been enhanced by sending troops there?
T he end of vulcanism, if that is what results from the Iraq debacle, does not and should not mean the end of the application of American military power anywhere in the world. It means the end of a one-dimensional, unilateralist, evangelical belief in American military power as the key to world politics. Even the original Vulcan, as connoisseurs of Roman mythology will remember, was a clumsy bore, which is one reason his wife Venus (recently identified as a symbol of Europe) cuckolded him with the more mobile Mars.
The question now, for us Europeans, is how can we best help Vulcan off the stage. Jean-Marie Colombani of Le Monde, author of the famous "We are all Americans" headline after the 9/11 attacks, recently responded to the Abu Ghraib atrocities by suggesting that Donald Rumsfeld has made us all non-Americans, and by coming out firmly in support of John Kerry. It was a fine, incisive article, and largely right in its analysis, but I fear this ringing French endorsement for Kerry may be worth several thousand votes for Bush.
We are drifting towards a lamentable position where Rumsfeld's old Europe, the anti-Iraq war alignment of France and Germany, is seen to be the party of Kerry, while Iraq war allies of the United States, such as Tony Blair and the Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski, cling to Bush. At the moment, Blair is an electoral asset for Bush, while Chirac is an electoral liability for Kerry. At the very least, the French should make it more clear that their opposition is to Bush but not to America, while Blair should make it plain that his support is for America rather than for Bush.
Finally, the crucial election for Europe - not the European elections next month, but the American one on November 2 - will be decided by Americans for American reasons. And the deciding factor may not be any foreign entanglement, nor even the economy, but the candidacy of Ralph Nader, which is likely to take pivotal anti-Bush votes away from Kerry, as it did from Al Gore in 2000. If only Nader would stand down.
Now Nader is, in many of his concerns, truly European. It occurs to me that the European Union is having some difficulty finding a new president of the European commission. So why don't we kill two birds with one stone? If we really want to help the vulcans from the American stage, let's make Ralph Nader president of the European commission.