His responses to both the dead-heat election and September 11 showed a startling impetuosity. In neither instance did he seem to seek the counsel of the wisdom, age, and experience in which Washington, and especially the Republican Party, abound. One is reminded rather of Stephen Leacock’s young swashbuckler who leaps onto his horse and gallops off in all directions. Bob Woodward has written that he asked the President if he talked about the Middle East with his father, who had presided during the first Gulf War, and that the younger Bush said he talked to “a higher father.”
The case against John Kerry is that not being George Bush is an inadequate qualification for being president of the United States. If not George Bush, who is he? Why does he not register as a clearly defined personality? Is it because he doesn’t know who he is, or because he cannot decide, or because he does know, but he is too complicated to be easily identified?
Bush is a willful man of possibly dangerous simplicities, Kerry a man of many complications. Sometimes he seems so confounded by complications that he cannot make it clear to an audience desperate for sound-bite simplicity where he stands at any given moment and where he wants the country to go in the future.
Years ago I heard Morris Udall, a liberal Democrat from Arizona, say that the same people who voted for Barry Goldwater, then the voice of conservatives, also voted for him because Arizonans liked candidates who told them, plain and outright, who they were and what they stood for.
There is such a thing as Americophilia. It does not have the rich pedigree of Anglophilia or Francophilia, or even Germanophilia. In fact, it is not always recognized as a bona fide philia at all. But it exists. It existed in Europe during the Jazz Age, and in Europe, Japan, and pretty much everywhere during the 1950s. Even the Vietnam War didn’t really kill it, for the center of protest was still in America. Americans had the best lines, and tunes, against the war. It still exists, although it is in danger of going the way of Germanophilia, into the fog of nostalgia, the land of what might have been.
I have always been an Americophile, or at least from the moment, at a very early age, when I received a postcard of the Empire State Building from my father, who was on a business trip to New York. The US, then, was an exotic place, where everything seemed bigger, glitzier, richer, more exciting. Americophilia, in my generation, was nurtured by the sexy allure of popular music. Even the names of the most provincial American cities—Memphis, Tennessee; Flagstaff, Arizona—were turned into desirable fetishes through the lyrics of rock-and-roll.
The sexiness of American pop culture was not such a trivial thing. For it had the ring of freedom, of a country with endless possibilities, where you could do things that would make the lace curtains of old Europe twitch. Much of this was a myth, of course, as the Beatles, Americophiles themselves, found out when they outraged Middle America as soon as they landed on The Ed Sullivan Show. American conservatism, like everything else American, runs into extremes. But it was a potent myth, with some substance. What was beautiful was the idea of America, where man was free to pursue happiness in any way he liked, as long as it was lawful (or, perhaps, even when it was not).
Anybody, in theory, and often in practice, could reinvent him- or herself as an American in a way that was impossible to imagine anywhere else. The fact that many Americans, especially if they lacked the advantage of a pale skin, came nowhere near to fulfilling the American Dream did not destroy the beauty of the idea. It still held out hope to millions who were poor or persecuted, or just restless, that in America it might still be possible to find a better way of life.
Europeans such as myself, born in the aftermath of World War II, also grew up with another, related myth, which had a great deal of substance: liberation from Nazi occupation to the beat of Glenn Miller, the sweet odor of Lucky Strikes, and the broad smiles of guys from Memphis or Kansas City. As this summer’s anniversary celebrations of the Allied landings in 1944 demonstrated, even the French never forgot that blessing.
It was with this fizzing cocktail of images, then, of swinging GIs, rock-and-roll, constitutional liberty, and the Empire State Building, that I first landed in the US with a spring in my step in the summer of 1970. In time the rosy hue of my Americophilia would fade a little. I soon noticed the bleaker sides of American life; American friends were often the first to point them out. And yet I retained something of that Kennedy Airport spring in my step, as though always in anticipation of adventures that could happen only here, in this vast land of promise.
But this, too, has faded. No doubt it has something to do with my getting older. You cannot spring forever. But something else has changed, especially after September 11, 2001. More and more I hear the clichés of my own Americophilia being spouted in ways that sound false, as though I’m listening to a favorite tune being distorted by a faulty player. The rhetoric of freedom, fighting tyranny, and liberating the enslaved peoples of the world speaks louder than ever. But too often it is laced with a fear of foreigners, with a nasty edge of chauvinism and a surly belligerence. The US has always had mood swings from active intervention abroad to sour isolation. What appears to be the current mood in Washington is a peculiar mixture of both: a desire to fix the world alone, whether the world likes it or not.
Revolutionary wars are out of style in the Old World, which, after a century of mass slaughter, has retreated into its own version of isolation. So there is something bracing about the neoconservative talk of liberation and democracy, wherever and whenever. But the aggressive disdain expressed by those same armchair liberators for people who disagree with their strategy, or who take a more skeptical view of violent revolution as a national policy, suggests Napoleonic hubris. And the odd insouciance displayed by the democratic warriors toward the systematic assaults on American liberties in the name of security or patriotism suggests a less than wholehearted commitment to democracy at home.
I am often reminded, in the US today, of Britain during the twilight years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule. Then, too, hard-line Tories talked a great deal about battling for freedom and the like, but usually in a snarling, spitting, fearful rage against “Europe.” The Battle of Britain would be invoked against trade policies hashed out in Brussels. D-Day would be remembered in fishery disputes. And Winston Churchill was regularly trotted out as the spirit incarnated by the first female Tory Party leader.
Going to war against states without any evidence that they are part of the terrorist threat, while invoking Munich, Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill, does not look like a sensible strategy. Turning the US into an armed fortress, making it harder and harder for foreigners to enter the country, is the opposite of defending an open society. Legal sophistry in defense of torture casts a dark stain on the White House. Harassing harmless campaigners for causes not popular with the current administration damages not only the beauty but also the substance of the American idea of freedom.
It is still possible that most Iraqis will come out of the war better off than they were before. Being ruled by Saddam Hussein was about as bad as it gets. The question is whether the US will be a better place after years of fear-mongering, military abuse, erosion of civil liberties, and a constant stream of political propaganda that distorts America’s proudest legacies. If America can no longer offer the hope of freedom, refuge from persecution, or a second chance in the lives of millions, the whole world will be worse off. And we cannot blame al-Qaeda for that.
It has been clear for several months that the United States is losing its war in Iraq. What remains to be seen is whether Americans will come to realize this fact before the election or after it. The answer may well determine who sits in the White House in late January 2005. But whoever wins on November 2 will be confronted by the stark fact that in a bitter, fragmented country the United States has engaged itself in a guerrilla war that no more admits of a clear and easy resolution than did the war in Vietnam in 1968. And in Iraq, a country poised on the Gulf of Hormuz—the “choke-point” through which more than half of the world’s oil passes, making it the jugular of the industrialized world—the strategic stakes are much greater.
They are greater still because the Bush administration has succeeded in making the Iraq war a recruiting poster for Osama bin Laden’s region-wide cause of Islamic jihad, a rallying point for the Islamic fundamentalist movement that serves as a source of heroic televised images, stirring propaganda, and vital on-the-ground training—serves, that is, roughly the same function that the jihadist struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan did in the 1980s. It was the Afghan struggle that produced Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. And now, during eighteen months of a war that should never have been fought, the Bush administration has managed to create out of Iraq the new Afghanistan.
Among the many reasons that the Bush administration has given for attacking and occupying Iraq—the need to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, the need to remove a “dangerous dictator” from power, the need to transform Iraq into a “shining example of democracy” in the Middle East—we seldom find the one historians may well settle on as closest to the truth: the need for an administration that believed fervently in the unilateral power and world dominance of the United States to act, following a humbling attack on its territory, to reassert that power and dominance. It will be an increasingly obvious irony that the United States acted in Iraq in a way that not only gave the world the specter, for the first time, of what an untrammeled American unilateralism would look like but that demonstrated, at the same time, the stark limits of American power. For the expedition in Iraq has revealed once again an America that is a strange hybrid—a military giant yoked uncomfortably to a political dwarf.
For many in the Bush administration, the conquest of Iraq was a cherished goal long before the attacks of September 11. But when the time came—after the attacks offered them a “window” in which to carry out their war, restoring to Republicans the traditional political advantage in managing national security that had vanished with the cold war—these officials chose to minimize the difficulties of the war and refused to build the political support necessary to fight it with sufficient troops, money, and determination. They clung to a war of the imagination, one fought with high-tech weapons, few troops, and little cost, in which democracy would magically emerge from the Iraqi streets. The lack of troops in particular, and the characteristic stubbornness that has made the administration singularly unwilling to admit a mistake and—much more seriously—unable to correct one, created, in the first weeks of looting and chaos, a fault line under the Iraq occupation that has grown steadily deeper and broader, and undermined every effort to construct a stable order there. Worse—and it is this that the next president will be forced to confront—that political cowardice has created a vulnerability precisely in the spot that the Iraqi insurgents, and ultimately Osama bin Laden, expected to find it: in the American will.