Entry from January 15, 2003

And speaking of American empire. . . Ronald Wright, an Anglo-Canadian novelist writing in the TLS, ends a review of Henry Kamen’s Spain’s Road to Empire: The Making of a World Power (Allen Lane/Penguin) by citing appreciatively Kamen’s view that “Protected by their own view of how the world should be run, most Spaniards were incapable of seeing that there was a price to be paid for their imperial role. . .Like Americans and Russians of the twentieth century, the Spaniards had to live with universal hatred.” Note here that “universal” here means, as it so often does to intellectuals, “belonging to nearly every university common room and faculty club I know.” But now, “that predicament seems to have worsened for the one superpower left standing today,” Wright continues, “especially under its present regime. Washington may perhaps regard itself as the new Rome, but in its unilateralism, cultural isolation and archaic political attitudes it risks becoming a new Castile.”

“Cultural” presumably means pretty much the same thing as “universal,” since “isolation” is hardly the word to describe a country whose culture is elsewhere complained of by Mr Wright’s fellow-lefties as taking over the world, but what a pity he doesn’t go any more deeply into the matter of those “archaic political attitudes.” Could they possibly be the same attitudes that Britain had when she was top nation and trying to make sure that the natives in places like Iraq — in fact, in the same place as Iraq, which used to be called Mesopotamia — didn’t start acting up and threatening international stability and order.

For a mother country, Britain certainly has an odd taste for patronizing America. One day it is Adam Nicolson in the Daily Telegraph telling us that we have got some kind of weird obsession with evil empires — a sort of psychological tic, I suppose — and the next day it’s John le Carré in The Times telling us that we have gone stark, staring mad for wanting to knock Saddam Hussein off his perch. Nicolson quotes Niall Ferguson as saying that “The struggle for liberty against an evil empire is America’s creation myth.”

George III”s Britain, 1940s Japan, the Soviet bloc and George W Bush”s “axis of evil” have all played the same role: the big and threatening force against which America defines itself, not as a global power, but as the land of the free and the home of the brave, whose only concern is to prevent others eroding those liberties. Since long before September 11, it has seen itself, in other words, as essentially on the defensive.

This is because Americans don’t want to take on the imperial role themselves. “They think of themselves as the people who fight against empires. All they want is a free market and freedom from threat, not endless expensive colonies to administer.” Alas, thinks Nicolson, “that attitude, combined with financial strength of an unprecedented kind and an annual $300 billion defence budget, gets you an empire by default. And that is the situation we now have: a world superpower with no real desire to rule the world, but only an enormous and unstoppable capacity to erase those by whom it chooses to feel threatened.”

“Chooses” to feel threatened? That’s the worst kind of question-begging. America has been attacked, not just threatened with attack. It’s all very well to say that we like to imagine ourselves opposing evil empires, but what if the empires really are evil? What people like Nicolson dislike is the very idea of “evil” — which simply doesn’t exist in his world-view. Nor in that of John le Carré, who is positively incoherent with rage and hatred against the U.S.

To be a member of the [Bush] team you must also believe in Absolute Good and Absolute Evil, and Bush, with a lot of help from his friends, family and God, is there to tell us which is which. What Bush won’t tell us is the truth about why we’re going to war. What is at stake is not an Axis of Evil — but oil, money and people’s lives. Saddam’s misfortune is to sit on the second biggest oilfield in the world. Bush wants it, and who helps him get it will receive a piece of the cake. And who doesn’t, won’t.

It casts a retrospective light on the author’s understanding of geopolitics in all his world-weary spy-novels of the Cold War that he is so naVvely in thrall to leftist propaganda as to suppose that Bush’s concern in what he calls “this colonialist adventure” is getting his, or his cronies’, hands on Iraq’s oil. Spitting with rage, he continues:

Without bin Laden, the Bush junta [sic]would still be trying to explain such tricky matters as how it came to be elected in the first place; Enron; its shameless favouring of the already-too- rich; its reckless disregard for the world’s poor, the ecology and a raft of unilaterally abrogated international treaties. They might also have to be telling us why they support Israel in its continuing disregard for UN resolutions.

And so on and so forth for several more paragraphs. Poor thing. Perhaps he forgot to take his medication.

I myself began as a skeptic about the Iraqi campaign, but have changed my mind somewhat. While not believing, as Le Carré imagines President Bush does, that “God appointed America to save the world in any way that suits America,” I can’t help noticing that the force of the prudential argument seems to have increased in recent weeks. The interesting thing about the revelations out of North Korea is not that they have made this the administration’s unacknowledged crisis, but that they finally make the case for going to war against Iraq. Since everyone seems to agree we can’t take out North Korea’s nukes, now that they have already got them, the argument for taking out Saddam’s before he gets them and becomes similarly impregnable has become unanswerable.

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