Only in America

This article is based on Norman Mailer’s Commonwealth Club speech in San Francisco on February 20, 2003. Mr. Mailer received the Club’s Centennial Medallion, in honor of the organization’s hundredth anniversary. An audio stream of the speech can be heard on


It is probably true that at the beginning of the present push of the administration to go to war, the connections between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were minimal. Each, on the face of it, had to distrust the other. From Saddam’s point of view, bin Laden was the most troublesome kind of man, a religious zealot, that is to say a loose cannon, a warrior who could not be controlled. To bin Laden, Saddam was an irreligious brute, an unbalanced fool whose boldest ventures invariably crashed.

The two were in competition as well. Each would look to control the future of the Muslim world—bin Laden, conceivably, for the greater glory of Allah, and Saddam for the earthly delight of vastly augmenting his power. In the old days, in the nineteenth century, when the British had their empire, the Raj would have had the skill to set those two upon each other. It was the old rule of many a Victorian crazy house: Let the madmen duke it out, then jump the one or two who are left.

Today, however, these aims are different. Security is considered insecure unless the martial results are absolute. So the first American reaction to September 11 was to plan to destroy bin Laden and al-Qaeda. When the campaign in Afghanistan failed, however, to capture the leading protagonist, even proved unable, indeed, to conclude whether he was alive or dead, the game had to shift. Our White House decided the real pea was under another shell. Not al-Qaeda, but Iraq.

Political leaders and statesmen are serious men even when they appear to be fools, and it is rare to find them acting without some deeper reason they can offer to themselves. It is those covert motives in the Bush administration upon which I would like to speculate here. I will attempt to understand what the President and his inner cohort see as the logic of their present venture.

Let me begin with Colin Powell’s presentation before the UN on February 5. Up to a point, it was well detailed and looked to prove that Saddam Hussein (to no one’s dramatic surprise) was violating every rule of the inspectors that he could get away with. Saddam, after all, had a keen nose for the vagaries of history. He understood that the longer one could delay powerful statesmen, the more they might weary of the soul-deadening boredom of dealing with a consummate liar who was artfully free of all the bonds of obligation and cooperation. It is no small gift to be an absolute liar. If you never tell the truth, you are virtually as safe as an honest man who never utters an untruth. When informed that you just swore to the opposite today of what you avowed yesterday, you remark, “I never said that,” or should the words be on record, you declare that you are grossly misinterpreted. Confusion is sown rich in permutations.

So, Saddam had managed to survive seven years of inspection from 1991 to 1998. He had made deals—most of them under the counter—with the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Jordanians; the list is long. He also knew how to play on the sympathies of the third world. He convinced many a good heart all over the world. The continuing cruelty of America was starving the Iraqi children. The Iraqi children were, in large part, seriously malnourished by the embargo Saddam had brought upon himself, but, indeed, if they had been healthy, he would have kept a score of six-year-olds starving long enough to dispatch a proper photograph around the world. He was no good and he could prove it. He did so well at the games he played that he succeeded in declaring the inspections at an end by 1998.

There had been talk before, and there was certainly talk then in the White House that we had to send troops into Iraq as our reply to such flouting of the agreement. Unfortunately, Clinton’s adventure with Monica Lewinsky had left him a paralyzed warrior. In the midst of his public scandal, he could not afford to shed one drop of American blood. The proof was in Kosovo where no American infantry went in with NATO and our bombers never dropped their product from any height within range of Serbian antiaircraft. We did it all from 15,000 feet up. So, Iraq was out of the question. Al Gore was a hawk at the time, ready, doubtless, to improve his future campaign image and rise thereby from wonk to stud—a necessary qualification for the presidency—but Clinton’s vulnerability stifled all that.

So, in 1998, Saddam Hussein got away with it. There had been no inspections since. Colin Powell’s speech was full of righteous indignation at the bare-faced and heinous bravado of Saddam the Evil, but Powell was, of course, too intelligent a man to be surprised by these discoveries of malfeasance. The speech was an attempt to heat up America’s readiness to go to war. By the measure of our polls, half of the citizenry were unready. And this part of his speech certainly succeeded. The proof was that a good many Democratic senators who had been on the fence declared that they were in on the venture now; yes, they, too, were ready for war, God bless us.

The major weakness in Powell’s presentation of the evidence was, however, the evidential link of Iraq to al-Qaeda. It was, given the powerful auspices of the occasion, more than a bit on the sparse side. With the exception of Great Britain, the states with veto power in the Security Council, the French, the Chinese, and the Russians, were obviously not eager to satisfy the Bush passion to go to war as soon as possible. They wanted time to intensify inspections. They looked to containment as a solution.

Not a week later, al-Jazeera offered a recorded broadcast by bin Laden that gave a few hints that he and Saddam were now ready, conceivably, to enter into direct contact, even though he called the “socialists” in Baghdad “infidels.” But this last statement was in immediate contradiction to what he had just finished saying a moment earlier: “It does no hurt under these conditions [of attack by the West] that the interests of Muslims [will ultimately] contradict the interest of the socialists in the fight against the Crusaders.”

Bin Laden may have chosen to be ambiguous and two-sided in his remarks, but the suggestion of a common interest, despite all, between al-Qaeda and Saddam was also there. Was it finally happening? Had the enemy of Saddam’s enemy now become Saddam’s friend? If so, that could prove a disaster. We might vanquish Iraq and still suffer from the catastrophe we claimed to be going to war to avert. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction could yet belong to bin Laden.

Without those weapons, al-Qaeda would have to scrape and scratch. But if Saddam were to make transfer of even a sizable fraction of his bio-warfare and chemical stores, bin Laden would be considerably more dangerous.

The inner diktat of George W. Bush to go to war with Iraq as rapidly as possible now had to face the possibility that Saddam had come up with an exceptional countermove. Was he saying, in effect, “Allow me to string along the inspections, and you are still relatively safe. You may be certain I will not rush to give my very best stuff to Osama bin Laden so long as we can keep playing this inspection game back and forth, back and forth. Go to war with me, however, and Osama will smile. I may go down in flames, but he and his people will be happy. Be certain, he wants you to go to war with me.”

Since the sequence of these kinds of moves was present from the beginning, it could be asked, as indeed more than a few Americans were now asking: How did we allow such choices in the first place—these hellish Hobson choices?

Meanwhile, the world was reacting in horror to the Bush agenda for war. The European edition of Time magazine had been conducting a poll on its Web site: “Which country poses a greater danger to world peace in 2003?” With 318,000 votes cast so far, the responses were: North Korea, 7 percent; Iraq, 8 percent; the United States, 84 percent….

As John le Carré had put it to The Times of London: “America has entered one of its periods of historic madness, but this is the worst I can remember.”

Harold Pinter no longer chose to be subtle in language:

…The American administration is now a bloodthirsty wild animal. Bombs are its only vocabulary. Many Americans, we know, are horrified by the posture of their government, but seem to be helpless.

Unless Europe finds the solidarity, intelligence, courage and will to challenge and resist American power, Europe itself will deserve Alexander Herzen’s declaration—“We are not the doctors. We are the disease.”

According to Reuters, on February 15 more than four million people “from Bangkok to Brussels, from Canberra to Calcutta…took to the streets to pillory Bush as a bloodthirsty warmonger.”


A quick review of the two years since George W. Bush took office may offer some light on why we are where we are. He came into office with the possibility of a recession, plus all the unhappy odor of his investiture through an election that could best be described as legitimate/illegitimate. America had learned all over again that Republicans had fine skills for dirty legal fighting. They were able to call, after all, on a powerful gene stream. The Republicans who led the campaign to seize Florida in the year 2000 are descended from 125 years of lawyers and bankers with the cold nerve and fired-up greed to foreclose on many a widow’s home or farm. Nor did these lawyers and bankers walk about suffused with guilt. They had the moral equivalent of teflon on their soul. Church on Sunday, foreclose on Monday. Of course, their descendants won in Florida. The Democrats still believed there were cherished rules to the game. They did not understand that rules no longer apply when the stakes are large enough.

If Bush’s legitimacy was in question then from the start, his performance as president was arousing scorn. When he spoke extempore, he sounded simple. When more articulate subordinates wrote his speeches, he had trouble fitting himself to the words.

Then September 11 altered everything. It was as if our TV sets had come alive. For years we had been watching maelstrom extravaganzas on the tube, and enjoying them. We were insulated. A hundredth part of ourselves could step into the box and live with the fear. Now, suddenly, the horror had shown itself to be real. Gods and demons were invading the US, coming right in off the TV screen. This may account in part for the odd guilt so many felt after September 11. It was as if untold divine forces were erupting in fury.

And, of course, we were not in shape to feel free of guilt about September 11. The manic money-grab excitement of the Nineties had never been altogether free of our pervasive American guilt. We were happy to be prosperous but we still felt guilty. We are a Christian nation. The Judeo in Judeo-Christian is a grace note. We are a Christian nation. The supposition of a great many good Christians in America is that you were not meant to be all that rich. God didn’t necessarily want it. For certain, Jesus did not. You weren’t supposed to pile up a mountain of moolah. You were obligated to spend your life in altruistic acts. That was still one half of the good Christian psyche. The other half, pure American, was, as always: beat everybody. One can offer a cruel, but conceivably accurate, remark: To be a mainstream American is to live as an oxymoron. You are a good Christian, but you strain to remain dynamically competitive. Of course, Jesus and Evel Knievel don’t consort too well in one psyche. Human rage and guilt do take on their uniquely American forms.

Even before September 11, many matters grew worse. America’s spiritual architecture had been buttressed since World War II by our near-mythical institutions of security, of which the FBI and the Catholic Church were most prominent, equal in special if intangible stature to the Constitution and the Supreme Court.

Now, all that was taking its terrible whack. Old and new scandals of the FBI were brought into high focus by the Hanssen case which broke in February of 2001. An ultra-devout Catholic, Robert Hanssen had been a Soviet mole for fifteen years. No one in the FBI could believe it. He had seemed the purest of the pure anti-Communists. Then after September 11 came the pedophile lawsuits against the Catholic Church, and that opened an abyss of a wound in many a good Catholic home. It certainly injured the priesthood grievously. How could a young or middle-aged man wearing the collar walk down the street now without suffering from the averted eyes and false greetings of the parishioners he met along the way?

And then there was the stock market. It kept sinking. Slowly, steadily, unemployment rose. The CEO scandals of the corporations became more prominent.

America had been putting up with the ongoing expansion of the corporation into American life since the end of World War II. It had been the money cow to the United States. But it had also been a filthy cow that gave off foul gases of mendacity and manipulation by an extreme emphasis on advertising. Put less into the product but kowtow to its marketing. Marketing was a beast and a force that succeeded in taking America away from most of us. It succeeded in making the world an uglier place to live in since the Second World War. One has only to cite fifty-story high-rise architecture as inspired in form as a Kleenex box with balconies, shopping malls encircled by low-level condominiums, superhighways with their vistas into the void; and, beneath it all, the pall of plastic, ubiquitous plastic, there to numb an infant’s tactile senses, plastic, front-runner in the competition to see which new substance could make the world more disagreeable. To the degree that we have distributed this crud all over the globe, we were already wielding a species of world hegemony. We were exporting the all-pervasive aesthetic emptiness of the most powerful American corporations. There were no new cathedrals being built for the poor—only sixteen-story urban-renewal housing projects that sat on the soul like jail.

Then came a more complete exposure of the economic chicanery and pollution of the corporations. Economic gluttony was thriving at the top. Criminal behavior was being revealed on the front pages of every business section. Without September 11, George W. Bush would have been living in the nonstop malaise of uglier and uglier media. It could even be said that America was taking a series of hits that were not wholly out of proportion to what happened to the Germans after World War I, when inflation wiped out the fundamental German notion of self, which was that if you worked hard and saved your money, you ended up having a decent old age. It is likely that Hitler would never have come to power ten years later without that runaway inflation. By the same measure, September 11 had done something comparable to the American sense of security.

For that matter, conservatism was heading toward a divide. Old-line conservatives like Pat Buchanan believed that America should keep to itself and look to solve those of its problems that we were equipped to solve. Buchanan was the leader of what might be called old-value conservatives, who believe in family, country, faith, tradition, home, hard and honest labor, duty, allegiance, and a balanced budget. The ideas, notions, and predilections of George W. Bush had to be, for the most part, not compatible with Buchanan’s conservatism.

Bush was different. The gap between his school of thought and that of old-value conservatives could yet produce a dichotomy on the right as clear-cut as the differences between Communists and socialists after World War I. “Flag conservatives” like Bush paid lip service to some conservative values, but at bottom they didn’t give a damn. If they still used some of the terms, it was in order not to narrow their political base. They used the flag. They loved words like “evil.” One of Bush’s worst faults in rhetoric (to dip into that cornucopia) was to use the word as if it were a button he could push to increase his power. When people have an IV tube put in them to feed a narcotic painkiller on demand, a few keep pressing that button. Bush uses evil as a narcotic for that part of the American public which feels most distressed. Of course, as he sees it, he is doing it because he believes America is good. He certainly does, he believes this country is the only hope of the world. He also fears that the country is rapidly growing more dissolute, and the only solution may be—fell, mighty, and near-holy words—the only solution may be to strive for World Empire. Behind the whole push to go to war with Iraq is the desire to have a huge military presence in the Near East as a stepping stone to taking over the rest of the world.

That is a big statement, but I can offer this much immediately: At the root of flag conservatism is not madness, but an undisclosed logic. While I am hardly in accord, it is, nonetheless, logical if you accept its premises. From a militant Christian point of view, America is close to rotten. The entertainment media are loose. Bare belly-buttons pop onto every TV screen, as open in their statement as wild animals’ eyes. The kids are getting to the point where they can’t read, but they sure can screw. So one perk for the White House, should America become an international military machine huge enough to conquer all adversaries, is that American sexual freedom, all that gay, feminist, lesbian, transvestite hullabaloo, will be seen as too much of a luxury and will be put back into the closet again. Commitment, patriotism, and dedication will become all-pervasive national values once more (with all the hypocrisy attendant). Once we become a twenty-first-century embodiment of the old Roman Empire, moral reform can stride right back into the picture. The military is obviously more puritanical than the entertainment media. Soldiers are, of course, crazier than any average man when in and out of combat, but the overhead command is a major everyday pressure on soldiers and could become a species of most powerful censor over civilian life.

To flag conservatives, war now looks to be the best possible solution. Jesus and Evel Knievel might be able to bond together, after all. Fight evil, fight it to the death! Use the word fifteen times in every speech.

There is just this kind of mad-eyed mystique to Americans: the idea that we Americans can do anything. Yes, say flag conservatives, we will be able to handle what comes. We have our know-how, our can-do. We will dominate the obstacles. Flag conservatives truly believe America is not only fit to run the world but that it must. Without a commitment to Empire, the country will go down the drain. This, I would opine, is the prime subtext beneath the Iraqi project, and the flag conservatives may not even be wholly aware of the scope of it, not all of them. Not yet.

Besides, Bush could count on a few other reliable sentiments that are very much present in our daily affairs. To begin with, a good part of American pride sits today on the tripod of big money, sports, and the Stars and Stripes. Something like a third of our major athletic stadiums and arenas are named after corporations—Gillette and FedEx are but two of twenty examples. The NFL Super Bowl could only commence this year after an American flag the size of a football field was removed from the turf. The US Air Force gave the groin-throb of a big vee overhead. Probably half of America has an unspoken desire to go to war. It satisfies our mythology. America, goes our logic, is the only force for good that can rectify the bad. George W. Bush is shrewd enough to work that equation out all by himself. He may even sense better than anyone how a war with Iraq will satisfy our addiction to living with adventure on TV. If this is facetious—so be it—the country is becoming more loutish every year. So, yes, war is also mighty TV entertainment.


More directly (even if it is not at all direct) a war with Iraq will gratify our need to avenge September 11. It does not matter that Iraq is not the culprit. Bush needs only to ignore the evidence. Which he does with all the power of a man who has never been embarrassed by himself. Saddam, for all his crimes, did not have a hand in September 11, but President Bush is a philosopher. September 11 was evil, Saddam is evil, all evil is connected. Ergo, Iraq.

The President can also satisfy the more serious polemical needs of a great many neocons in his administration who believe Islam will yet be Hitler Redux to Israel. Protection of Israel is OK to Bush, electorally speaking, but it is also obligatory, especially when he cannot count on giving orders to Sharon that will always be obeyed. Sharon, after all, has one firm hold on Bush. With the Mossad, Sharon has the finest intelligence service in the Near East if not in the world. The CIA, renowned by now for its paucity of Arab spies in the Muslim world, cannot afford to do without Sharon’s services.

These are all good reasons Bush can find to go to war. As for oil, allow Ralph Nader a few statistics:

The United States currently consumes 19.5 million barrels a day, or 26% of daily global oil consumption…. The US [has to import] 9.8 million barrels a day, or more than half the oil we consume….

The surest way for the US to sustain its overwhelming dependence upon oil is to control the sixty-seven percent of the world’s proven oil reserves that lie below the sands of the Persian Gulf. Iraq alone has proven reserves of 112.5 billion barrels, or 11% of the world’s remaining supply…. Only Saudi Arabia has more.

I would add that once America occupies Iraq, it will also gain a choke-hold on Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Near East. One can also propose that we wish to go into Iraq for the water. To quote a piece by Stephen C. Pelletiere in The New York Times of January 31:

There was much discussion over the construction of a so-called Peace Pipeline that would bring the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates south to the parched Gulf states and by extension, Israel. No progress has been made on this, largely because of Iraqi intransigence. With Iraq in American hands, of course, all that could change.

So, yes, oil is a part of the motive, even if that can never be admitted. And water could prove a powerful tool to pacify a great many heated furies of the desert. The underlying motive, however, still remains George W. Bush’s underlying dream: Empire!

What word but ‘empire’ describes the awesome thing that America is becoming?” wrote Michael Ignatieff on January 5 in The New York Times Magazine:

It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents; deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every ocean; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce, and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires.

From Timothy Garton Ash in The New York Review of Books, February 13:

The United States is not just the world’s only superpower; it is a hyperpower, whose military expenditures will soon equal that of the next fifteen most powerful states combined. The EU has not translated its comparable economic strength—fast approaching the US $10 trillion economy—into comparable military power or diplomatic influence.

Perhaps the most thorough explanation of this as yet unadmitted campaign toward Empire comes from the columnist Jay Bookman of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Back on September 29, five months ago, he wrote:

This war, should it come, is intended to mark the official emergence of the United States as a full-fledged global empire, seizing sole responsibility and authority as planetary policeman. It would be the culmination of a plan 10 years or more in the making, carried out by those who believe the United States must seize the opportunity for global domination, even if it means becoming the “American imperialists” that our enemies always claimed we were.

Back in 1992, a year after the final fall of the Soviet Union, there were many on the right in America, early flag conservatives, who felt that an extraordinary opportunity was now present. America could now take over the world. The Defense Department drafted a document which, to quote Jay Bookman once more,

envisioned the United States as “a colossus astride the world, imposing its will and keeping world peace through military and economic power. When leaked in its final draft form, however, the proposal drew so much criticism that it was hastily withdrawn and repudiated by the first President Bush….

The defense secretary in 1992 was Richard Cheney; the document was drafted by [Paul] Wolfowitz, who at the time was defense undersecretary for policy.

Now he is deputy defense secretary under Rumsfeld.

Afterward, from 1992 to 2000, this dream of world domination was not picked up by the Clinton administration, and that may help to account for the intense, even virulent hatred that so many on the right felt during those eight years. If it weren’t for Clinton, America could be ruling the world.

Obviously that document, “Project for the New American Century,” projected prematurely in 1992, had now, after September 11, become the policy of the Bush administration. The flag conservatives were triumphant. They could seek to take over the world. Iraq could be only the first step. Beyond, but very much on the historical horizon, are not only Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and North Korea, but China.

Of course, not every last country had to be subjugated. Some needed only to be dominated or brought into partnership. There could be firm and mutual understanding. To speak of China as existing in a symbiotic relationship with us is too exceptional a remark to make without some projection into possible reasons and causes. It is not inconceivable that some of the brighter neocons do see some fearful possibilities in our technological development. Iraq and the Near East can hardly be the end. Greater nonmilitary specters and perils loom for the future. A late January piece in The Boston Globe by Scott A. Bass sets it forth:

Research and development at American universities relies heavily on foreign students in the crucial fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the STEM fields)….

If…trends continue, we will have too few domestic students earning advanced graduate degrees in the STEM fields to support our economic, strategic, and technological needs. The flow of young American scientists and engineers has been reduced to a trickle, with many other industrialized countries having a far greater proportion of students going into these fields.

While foreign students are attracted to STEM fields at US research universities, our own domestic students are not. Many have not been sufficiently encouraged, and others may have found the academic rigors of the STEM fields too challenging.

Between 1986 and 1996, foreign students earning STEM field PhDs increased at a rate nearly four times faster than domestic students. In 2000, 43 percent of physical science PhDs went to non-US citizens.

Flag conservatives may yet be hoping to send some message like this to China: “Hear ye! You Chinese are obviously bright. We can tell. We know! Your Asian students were born for technology. People who have led submerged lives love technology. They don’t get much pleasure anyway, so they like the notion of cybernetic power right at their fingertips. Technology is ideal for them. We can go along with that. You fellows can have your technology, may it be great! But, China, you had better understand: We still have the military power. Your best bet, therefore, is to become Greek slaves to us Romans. We will treat you well. You will be most important to us, eminently important. But don’t look to rise above your future station in life. The best you can ever hope for, China, is to be our Greeks.”

In the 1930s, you could be respected if you earned a living. In the Nineties, you had to demonstrate that you were a promising figure in the ranks of greed. It may be that empire depends on an obscenely wealthy upper-upper class who, given the in-built, never-ending threat to their wealth, are bound to feel no great allegiance in the pit of their heart for democracy. If this insight is true, then it can also be said that the disproportionate wealth which collected through the Nineties may have created an all-but-irresistible pressure at the top to move from democracy to empire. That would safeguard those great and quickly acquired gains. Can it be that George W. Bush knows what he’s doing for the future of empire by awarding these huge tax credits to the rich?

Of course, terrorism and instability are the reverse face of empire. If the Saudi rulers have been afraid of their mullahs for fear of their power to incite terrorists, what will the Muslim world be like once we, the Great Satan, are there to dominate the Near East in person?

Since the administration can hardly be unaware of the dangers, the answer comes down to the unhappy likelihood that Bush and Company are ready for a major terrorist attack. As well as any number of smaller ones. Either way, it will strengthen his hand. America will gather about him again. We can hear his words in advance: “Good Americans died today. Innocent victims of evil had to shed their blood. But we will prevail. We are one with God.” Given such language, every loss is a win.

Yet, so long as terrorism continues, so will its subtext, and there is the horror to its nth power. What made deterrence possible in the cold war was not only that there was everything to lose for both sides, but also the inability of either side to be certain they could count on any human being to turn the apocalyptic switch. In that sense, no final plan could be counted on. How could either of the superpowers be certain that the wholly reliable human selected to push the button would actually prove reliable enough to destroy the other half of the world? A dark cloud might come over him at the last moment. He could fall to the ground before he could do the deed.

But this does not apply to a terrorist. If he is ready to kill himself, he can also be ready to destroy the world. The wars we have known until this era could, no matter how horrible, offer at least the knowledge that they would come to an end. Terrorism, however, is not interested in negotiation. Rather, it would insist on no termination short of victory. Since the terrorist cannot triumph, he cannot cease being a terrorist. They are a true enemy, far more basic, indeed, than third-world countries with nuclear capability who invariably appear on the scene prepared to live with deterrence and its in-built outcome—agreements after years or decades of passive confrontation and hard bargaining.

If much of what I have said so far is the novelistic projection of my notion of neocon mentality—and I can hardly argue with you—the opposite pole of the flag conservatives’ campaign to invade Iraq is that it is does have liberal support. Part of the liberal media, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and some on The New York Times are joined with Senators Hillary Clinton and Dianne Feinstein, Senator Joe Lieberman and Senator John Kerry in acceptance of the idea that perhaps we can bring democracy to Iraq by invasion. In a carefully measured appraisal of what the possibilities might be, Bill Keller speaks on The New York Times Op-Ed page on February 8 of a war that might go quickly and well:

Let’s imagine that the regime of Saddam Hussein begins to crumble under the first torrent of Cruise missiles. The tank columns rumbling in from Kuwait are not beset by chemical warheads. There is no civilian carnage. [Even so] a victory in Iraq will not resolve the great questions of what we intend to be in the world. It will lay them open.

[Is] our aim to promote secular democracy, or stability? Some, probably including some in Mr. Bush’s cabinet, will argue that it was all about disarmament. Once that is done, they will say, once Saddam’s Republican Guard is purged, we can turn the country over to a contingent of Sunni generals and bring our troops home in 18 months.

Or perhaps, argues Keller, we will fashion a real democracy in Iraq after all, and the Near East will benefit. It is as if these liberal voices have decided that Bush cannot be stopped and so he must be joined. To commit to a stand against fighting the war would guarantee the relative absence of Democrats at the administration tables that will work on the future of Iraq. It is an argument that can be sustained up to a point, but the point depends on many eventualities, the first of which is that the war is quick and not horrendous.

The old Bill Clinton version of overseas presumption is present. The argument that we succeeded in building democracy in Japan and Germany and therefore can build it anywhere does not necessarily hold. Japan and Germany were countries with a homogeneous population and a long existence as nations. They each were steeped in guilt at the depredations of their soldiers in other lands. They were near to totally destroyed but had the people and the skills to rebuild their cities. The Americans who worked to create their democracy were veterans of Roosevelt’s New Deal and, mark of the period, were effective idealists.

Iraq, in contrast, was never a true nation. Put together by the British, it was a post–World War I patchwork of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and Turkomans, who, at best, distrusted one another intensely. A situation analogous to Afghanistan’s divisions among its warlords could be the more likely outcome. No one will certainly declare with authority that democracy can be built there, yet the arrogance persists. There does not seem much comprehension that except for special circumstances, democracy is never there in us to create in another country by the force of our will. Real democracy comes out of many subtle individual human battles that are fought over decades and finally over centuries, battles that succeed in building traditions. The only defenses of democracy, finally, are the traditions of democracy. When you start ignoring those values, you are playing with a noble and delicate structure. There’s nothing more beautiful than democracy. But you can’t play with it. You can’t assume we’re going to go over to show them what a great system we have. This is monstrous arrogance.

Because democracy is noble, it is always endangered. Nobility, indeed, is always in danger. Democracy is perishable. I think the natural government for most people, given the uglier depths of human nature, is fascism. Fascism is more of a natural state than democracy. To assume blithely that we can export democracy into any country we choose can serve paradoxically to encourage more fascism at home and abroad. Democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it.

The need for powerful theory can fall into many an abyss of error. I could, for example, be entirely wrong about the deeper motives of the administration. Perhaps they are not interested in Empire so much as in trying in true good faith to save the world. We can be certain Bush and his Bushites believe this. By the time they are in church each Sunday, they believe it so powerfully that tears come to their eyes. Of course, it is the actions of men and not their sentiments that make history. Our sentiments can be loaded with love within, but our actions can turn into the opposite. Perversity is always ready to consort with human nature.

David Frum, who was a speech- writer for Bush (he coined the phrase “Axis of Evil”), recounts in The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush what happened at a meeting in the Oval Office last September. The President, when talking to a group of reverends from the major denominations, told them,

You know, I had a drinking problem. Right now, I should be in a bar in Texas, not the Oval Office. There is only one reason that I am in the Oval Office and not in a bar: I found faith. I found God. I am here because of the power of prayer.

That is a dangerous remark. As Kierkegaard was the first to suggest, we can never know for certain where our prayers are likely to go, nor from whom the answers will come. Just when we think we are at our nearest to God, we could be assisting the Devil.

Our war with terror,” says Bush, “begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end…until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Plus, asks Eric Alterman in The Nation, what if America ends up alienating the whole world in the process? “At some point, we may be the only ones left,” Bush told his closest advisers, according to an administration member who leaked the story to Bob Woodward. “That’s OK with me. We are America.”

It must by now be obvious that if the combined pressures of Security Council vetoes and the growing sense of world outrage, plus a partial collaboration of Saddam with the inspectors, result in long-term containment rather than war, if Bush has to turn away from an active invasion of Iraq, he will do so with great frustration. For he will have to live again with all the old insolubles! Deep down, he may fear that he will not have any answer then for restoring America’s morale. Can it be that the prospect of bringing these troops home again will prove so unpalatable that he will have to go to war?

Speaking to the Senate, Robert Byrd said,

Many of the pronouncements made by this administration are outrageous. There is no other word. Yet this chamber is hauntingly silent. On what is possibly the eve of horrific infliction of death and destruction on the population of the nation of Iraq—a population, I might add, of which over 50 percent is under age fifteen—this chamber is silent. On what is possibly only days before we send thousands of our own citizens to face unimagined horrors of chemical and biological warfare—this chamber is silent. On the eve of what could possibly be a vicious terrorist attack in retaliation for our attack on Iraq, it is business as usual in the United States Senate.

We are truly “sleepwalking through history.” In my heart of hearts I pray that this great na-tion and its good and trusting citizens are not in for a rudest of awakenings.

…I truly must question the judgment of any President who can say that a massive unprovoked military attack on a nation which is over 50 percent children is “in the highest moral traditions of our country.” This war is not necessary at this time. Pressure appears to be having a good result in Iraq…. Our challenge is to now find a graceful way out of a box of our own making. Perhaps there is still a way if we allow more time.

If I were George W. Bush’s karmic defense attorney, I would argue that his best chance to avoid conviction as a purveyor of false morality would be to pray for a hung jury in the afterworld.

For those of the rest of us who are not going to depend on the power of prayer, we will do well to find the rampart we can defend over what may be dire years to come. Democracy, I would repeat, is the noblest form of government we have yet evolved, and we may as well begin to ask ourselves whether we are ready to suffer, even perish for it, rather than readying ourselves to live in the lower existence of a monumental banana republic with a government always eager to cater to mega-corporations as they do their best to appropriate our thwarted dreams with their elephantiastical conceits.

—February 27, 2003