The inflammation of US nationalism since 11th September has blinded it to the potential strategic disaster of a split with Europe. If an American strike against Iraq were to go badly wrong, the resulting international discord could spell the end of the cultural entity known as "the west".
A year ago, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of 11th September, I wrote in Prospect of the need for the US and its allies to launch a "ferocious retaliation" in response. I still believe that this response was necessary. Admittedly, though the Taleban regime was overthrown and al Qaeda scattered, the nature of the country, the proximity of the tribal areas of Pakistan, and the reluctance of US commanders to use large numbers of troops on the ground all meant that victory was not as sweeping as it might have been. Most al Qaeda leaders are still at large. The present state of Afghanistan remains unstable. Moreover, hundreds of Afghan civilians have died as a result of mistakes made by the US armed forces. Prisoners have been murdered, starved and brutalised by our Afghan allies, and the US undermining of the Geneva Convention has been a foolish and irresponsible act.
None the less, the US armed forces have generally taken care, by realistic military standards, to avoid civilian casualties and to treat prisoners with humanity. The Bush administration has gone worryingly far in some of its domestic measures, but this is unsurprising in the wake of an attack as horrible as 11th September. Moreover, the wildest moves in this direction are being rolled back by the US legal system, in which we can place considerable trust. I have little sympathy therefore with those on the European left who opposed the war against al Qaeda and engage in crude stereotyping of US politics and culture.
I supported the war in Afghanistan because it was a war of self-defence by the US, and one in defence of world order and civilisation-including Muslim civilisation-against barbarism and obscurantism. However, a war against Iraq is a different matter, especially if such a war is to be carried out in alliance with the Israel of Ariel Sharon. It would run a high risk of causing a disastrous conflict with much of the Arab world and of leading to the long-term US military occupation of Arab lands. Moreover, the resulting "clash of civilisations," with the certainty of repeated terrorist attacks on the west, could in the long run drive western democracy in an authoritarian direction and end the present phase of liberal globalisation. This is exactly what radical Islamists want. Such a war is also a mistake while Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants remain at large, al Qaeda is threatening the stability of Pakistan and other states, and war between Pakistan and India is still possible.
I must endorse Michael Lind's view (Prospect, April 2002) of the dangerous role of the American Israel lobby in this regard-especially as far as Israel's own long-term interests are concerned. Forget the talk about the US bringing democracy to the Arab world. The sentiment driving both hardline Israeli and US policy was summed up in the words of a leading member of the Israeli lobby at a seminar I attended. He said, of the Arabs, "Let them hate us, as long as they fear us." As Lind argues, this and other factors are leading the Bush administration to mix up enemies and causes which must be kept separate if the "war against terrorism" is to be waged successfully.
While both Europeans and Americans should feel strongly committed to the existence of Israel as a state, that should not include commitment to Israeli rule over the West Bank and Gaza strip, or to the Israeli settlements there. These Israeli policies encourage among their defenders in Israel and the US a recourse to arguments of pure militarism, as in the recent comments by secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld: "Focusing on settlements at the present time misses the point. Settlements in various parts of the so-called occupied area… were the result of a war, which the Israelis won"-an argument which could have been used by Milosevic and his henchmen.
In the US, there has been an all-too-successful campaign to use the "war against terrorism" to bludgeon discussions of this problem into silence by accusations of antisemitism or "finding excuses for terrorism." This is corrupting the American intellect; to a striking extent, there is a more open discussion of the settlements issue, and Israeli policies in general, in Israel than there is in the US.
The US-Israel alliance is taking on some of the same mutually calamitous aspects as Russia's commitment to Serbia in 1914. One might almost say that as a result of this bond, the US and Israel have changed places. The US, protected by the oceans and by matchless military superiority, is cast in the role of an endangered middle eastern state which believes itself in mortal danger from countries with a tiny fraction of its power. Meanwhile, thanks to support from the US, Israel has become a kind of superpower, able to defy its entire region and Europe too. This is an untenable situation. Israel is not a superpower. It is rich and powerful, but it is still a small middle eastern country which will have to seek accommodations with its neighbours if it is to live in peace.
Strikingly, Israel is omitted from Robert Kagan's essay on the US and Europe (Prospect, August 2002) to which I shall return later. This omission comes despite the fact that unconditional US support for Israel has become the biggest single cause of tension between the US and Europe, and European criticism of Israel (sometimes unfair, as in the accusations of a "massacre" at Jenin) the biggest cause of the vicious attacks on Europe now appearing in the US media.
The reason for this omission is probably that, from a "realist" standpoint based on US national interests and the needs of the war against terrorism, Israel is not a useful ally but a major liability. Thus there are indeed powerful arguments for removing Saddam Hussein and eliminating his weapons of mass destruction. What makes a war with Iraq at this moment so dangerous is the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israeli insistence on maintaining control of large areas beyond the borders of 1967. Without this, it would be much easier for the US to claim to be acting in defence of international order, and much more likely that a war to remove Saddam would receive the support of much of the region.
My suggestion that the 11th September terror attacks might lead to a rethinking of the unconditional nature of US support for Israel now looks naïve. A combination of 11th September, the Israeli lobby and older trends in American history and culture have contributed to a resurgence of American nationalism, directed in the first instance against the Muslim world, but also against Europe and any state or group which resists US policies. To this mixture, 11th September has added justified fear and anger, but also that most intoxicating of all spirits-a sense of righteous and unique national victimhood.
But no one with a sense of history should support aggressive nationalism on the part of any state, whatever the attacks to which they have been subjected. Many nations can claim to have been the victim of unjustified aggression; it does not mean that they are exempt from being judged on the proportionality of their response. We know too well from the history of Europe in the 150 years before 1945 where nationalist machtpolitik can lead. As for "pre-emptive unilateral retaliation," this is a phrase worthy of Orwell. Such militant nationalism is particularly foolish for the US, since it is the main beneficiary of the global order, with a strong interest in preserving the status quo, and strengthening it by generally-agreed rules. Thankfully, we are not yet at the point where the "west" is ceasing to exist, if only because, as I will argue, the Bush administration represents just one face of America, not the whole country. But if the US does go to war in Iraq, and if it goes badly wrong, the end of the west as a cultural and political unity will indeed be brought closer.
It can be argued that 11th September has demonstrated that the US does indeed face terrible threats. But before this is taken as a justification for the views of the new nationalists-or realists, as they falsely call themselves-one must look at what they were writing before 11th September. It then becomes clear that what they have done, in the unguarded words of one Bush administration official, is to "take 9/11 and load our whole agenda onto it."
A book of essays edited by Robert Kagan and William Kristol, Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy (2000), is revealing from this point of view. A bitter attack on the Clinton administration, it is also a forceful set of recommendations for the policies of a future Republican administration. In keeping with the pre-11th September realist tradition, the authors are indifferent to terrorism and issues of violence and stability within societies; instead they are obsessed with the threat to the US from supposedly powerful rival states, all of which must be approached with the maximum degree of toughness. The last essay of Present Dangers, for example, is a paranoid attempt to suggest that the US position vis-à-vis China resembles that of Britain vis-à-vis Germany in the early 1930s.
As Jonathan Clarke wrote in the National Interest, "If the book's recommendations were implemented all at once, the US would risk unilaterally fighting at least a five-front war, while simultaneously urging Israel to abandon the peace process in favour of a new no-hold-barred confrontation with the Palestinians."
The Bush administration world strategy is beginning to point in just that direction. America is mired in one conflict in Afghanistan, with grave implications for South Asia. It is planning a war with Iraq, which could lead to long-term military occupation not only of Iraq, but of other countries. Bush's "axis of evil" speech added two more enemies, Iran and North Korea. Most ominously, a briefing paper to the Defence Policy Board-headed by Richard Perle, the administration's chief security policy guru-called for the Saudis to be threatened with the occupation of their oil fields if they do not give unconditional support to the "war against terrorism." The paper adds that the ultimatum should force the Saudis to ban all anti-Israel and anti-US statements on their soil. The 15th July issue of the Weekly Standard, edited by Kristol, also identifies Saudi Arabia as a leading enemy of the US and a fit area for intervention.
During the 1990s, these same nationalists tried to portray Russia as a menacing superpower with innate tendencies to aggression and authoritarianism. This was at a time when Russia had conducted the largest peaceful retreat in history, surrendering to the US on every matter of substance, and when the Russian army was visibly falling to pieces.
One may have sympathy with the political and national hysterias of impoverished peasants and petit-bourgeois in the developing world, desperately seeking something to compensate for their miserable lives. But what is one to say of such sentiments in the Wall Street Journal? The origins of this spirit are beyond the scope of this essay. But whatever its roots, it has now emerged with full force in the attitudes of the American and Israeli nationalists, not only to the Arab world, but to European critics. In the case of France, so vicious has the stereotyping become that I have spoken with educated, Americans who have refused to believe that French troops participated in the Gulf war, French peacekeepers in Bosnia suffered serious casualties at the hands of the Serbs (more than the Americans have yet suffered in Afghanistan) or French troops suffered proportionately far higher casualties in Indochina than the Americans, and fought a great deal harder.
Despite the inflammation of American nationalism by September 11th, it should not be thought, however, that the hardline elements in this administration represent the whole of America, or that their future dominance is certain. There are signs that US public life is beginning to emerge from the nationalist flood which submerged debate in the nine months after 11th September. Moderates in Congress have begun to rally against a unilateral move to war with Iraq and have now been joined by important figures from the old Republican security establishment such as Brent Scowcroft. In so doing, they have strong behind-the-scenes support both from Colin Powell and the State Department, and from leading elements in the Pentagon. This reflects in part specific concerns about the war plans under consideration, some of which are regarded by leading military figures as barmy. US military opposition to war with Iraq is also, however, part of an admirable spirit within the US military, which is by no means given to reckless military aggression.
In America as a whole, memories of Vietnam have been airbrushed out over the last generation-to the extent that a high proportion of American teenagers apparently think that the US won that war. Obviously, this is not so easy for the US military. Two favourite books of US officers illustrate that lessons have been learned, and bring out the psychological and even cultural gulf between parts of the military and the nationalist ideologues. The first, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, was written by HR McMaster, a major who distinguished himself in the Gulf war. It is a blistering attack on Robert McNamara and the "technocrats" who took America into Vietnam and on the moral cowardice of generals who failed to oppose a strategy which many knew to be flawed.
The second is a novel, Once An Eagle, by Anton Myrer, a marine veteran of the second world war. The Tom Clancy ring of the title is misleading; it is in fact drawn from a passage of Aeschylus. This story, of a fictional American soldier from 1917 to the 1960s, is issued to every officer of the US Marine Corps, amongst whom it apparently enjoys cult status. The book is used by the US Army War College for officer training and was described by the college commandant as "the literary moral compass for me and my family of soldiers for more than two generations."
Once An Eagle is not a great novel, but it is a passionately moral one. Central to its message is a detestation of reckless military action launched for reasons of political, personal or indeed national opportunism, and of the soldiers who collaborate in such operations (though Myrer's hero accepts the need for ultimate control of the military by elected civilians). This book is a reminder that behind the screeching rhetoric there persists an older and more attractive America, in the military as in society at large: the America of Lincoln, Grant, Marshall and Eisenhower, of a strong but unaggressive patriotism and a deep but unassuming sense of duty; of Roman virtues softened by Christianity and the Enlightenment.
Although Richard Perle has tried to declare that the planning of wars is a matter for politicians alone, he and the other nationalist ideologues have to be careful of simply overriding the US military on Iraq. The military is by definition an institution which cannot be intimidated into silence by accusations of lack of patriotism. This is especially true because so few of the hardline nationalists in the intelligentsia served in the US military themselves. During the Vietnam war, some made considerable efforts not to do so.
Like Walt Whitman, the US is large, contains multitudes and often contradicts itself. The America of the National Rifle Association and John Ashcroft is also the America of the Sierra Club and the Civil Liberties Union. Even some Republicans are closer to their European counterparts than to many of their American colleagues.
In this context, it is worth considering what US policies would look like if - as democratically speaking he should have been - Al Gore had been elected President. Some big things would have remained the same. But on key questions like the International Criminal Court, the nuclear test ban treaty and the nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, Gore would have tried (albeit with stiff Congressional opposition) to pursue policies close to those of the Europeans.
A Gore presidency might have increased steel and other tariffs to please organised labour, but it would have been unlikely to give a massive subsidy to US farmers. To judge by Clinton's record, it would have taken a much more responsible approach to Latin American economic stability. And on the issue of the Kyoto treaty and global warming Gore would have taken a radically different line from Bush, or tried to. Rather than the present US efforts to increase and diversify oil production, we would probably have seen an attempt to turn the instability of the middle east into an argument for US energy saving and investment in alternative energy technologies. These are no small differences; and they would have left the "Euro-Atlantic community" in pretty good shape, rather than desperately sick and possibly even moribund.
Those on the American right and the European left who are indifferent to the possible death of the west are doing a disservice to their own countries, as well as to humanity in general. Without the US, a whole range of dangerous global issues cannot be tackled. Equally, the US without Europe is likely to ignore global issues until they become mortal threats to the US; and without European peacekeepers and money, it will be impossible to turn short-term US military victories into anything resembling long-term successes. Without European peacekeepers in Kabul, and European-funded reconstruction efforts, Afghanistan will fall back into ethno-religious civil war and al Qaeda will recolonise the Pashtun areas.
However infuriating and hypocritical American democratic messianism may sometimes be, the country's democratic institutions have been central to democracy worldwide, and not only because from 1941 to 1989 US economic and military power was essential to the defence of western democracy against its totalitarian enemies. The 19th-century Lancashire mill-workers who during the American civil war supported the Union, although their economic interests lay with the Confederacy, were right. If the Confederacy had won, the geopolitical history of Britain and Europe from the 1860s on would have been drawn in much more authoritarian colours.
The democratic prestige of America is strong even in the Muslim world; it is especially evident among the youth of Iran. Opinion polls show that the majority of Muslims admire America's democracy, institutions and economic achievements. One of the striking things about the American nationalists has been their unwillingness to recognise how thoroughly they won the cold war, in terms of military and economic, but also ideological hegemony. As I pointed out immediately after 11th September, al Qaeda itself is a testimony to this. The only alternative model of modernisation was dead, and the elites of the world's leading states were integrated into the US-dominated world capitalist order and given stakes in its preservation. Ideological opposition to this order was therefore driven to the extreme religious and quasi-religious fringes, fundamentalist Islam and radical eco-warriors.
The US clearly dominates the existing world order; logically, therefore, the US would seem destined to act as a conservative power, as Britain did in the second half of the 19th century. It should be self-evidently in the interests of the US to create a framework of global rules, restraints and institutions which would help freeze the present status quo in place. Why is the Bush administration not doing so? The reason is American nationalism, fed by that of Israel and inflamed by 11th September.
This brings me to Kagan's essay, which is an intelligent and well-argued representation of the self-deluding ideology now animating the Bush administration. The obvious question to be asked in response to it is: if Europe is arguing from military weakness rather than strength, does that mean that Europe's arguments are wrong? Is it not possible that Europe has learned some useful lessons from its terrible history before 1945? And if the US and Israel fail to heed those lessons, might they be doomed to repeat Europe's experience?
There are also lessons to be drawn from Europe's late-colonial wars, especially those of the French in Indochina and Algeria. Pace Kagan, though France was beaten squarely in Indochina, France did not withdraw from Algeria because it was too weak to hold it, any more than America withdrew from Vietnam because it was defeated in the field. Like America in Vietnam, France withdrew from Algeria because occupation would have meant one continuous war; because the horrible nature of the means needed to maintain it (including institutionalised torture) were corrupting French democracy and destroying its moral and cultural prestige; and because the economic and geopolitical prize which Algeria represented was simply not worth the bloodshed and squalor involved in keeping it. The same was true in a lesser key of the British withdrawal from Africa after the bloody crushing of the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya. America too had experience of these horrors in Vietnam, although it has been possible largely to suppress those memories.
And from the point of view of machtpolitik, America today is not at all like the European powers before 1945. European nationalists of the past frequently and deliberately exaggerated both the power and the malevolence of other European states, but their countries were genuinely threatened. No European state before 1914 or 1945 had anything like the predominance of armed force and military technology that the US has now. Britain had the strongest navy-but had reason to fear the growing German navy, especially its submarines. Germany had the strongest army-but was still outnumbered and outgunned by France and Russia, and could only hope to win by a horribly risky and as it turned out unsuccessful gamble. Austria was even more threatened by Russian military superiority-and Russia was obviously threatened by Germany and Austria. Today, by contrast, the US accounts for 40 per cent of global defence spending. No other state can hope to match America militarily even in a local theatre of operations. There is no serious threat to the US from any other state. On the other hand, this kind of superiority is to a considerable extent irrelevant to the war against terrorism. The threat from terrorism cannot be defeated in the end by conquering and occupying one Muslim state after another-on the contrary, nothing could more certainly spread support for terrorism.
Furthermore, Kagan's picture of a Hobbesian world of state against state is simply not true for great parts of the world, including the US's backyard in Latin America. And in many other places where it is true, it does not affect US interests, and US military force is not going to be used. It is the British who led the Sierra Leone peacekeeping operation, and it is the Australians in East Timor. In south Asia, there is a real threat of interstate conflict, but the US task in the Indo-Pakistan conflict-admirably pursued by Colin Powell-is of a diplomacy which mixes threats, bribes and balance. In other words, a mixture of US and European diplomacy. The threats to the west from most of the developing world are from within states: civil war, disease, immigration and environmental damage-problems which the Bush administration has treated with contempt, and which the US military cannot solve, even if it wants to.
The liberal and internationalist camp in the US has, of course, taken a blow from 11th September. The idea of inter-dependence has been eclipsed for now. There is a widespread feeling, not only on the right, of the irrelevance of Europe. Thus Kagan: "Can the US handle the rest of the world without much help from Europe? The answer is that it already does. The US has maintained strategic stability in Asia with no help from Europe. In the Gulf war, European help was token; so it has been in Afghanistan; and so it would be in an invasion of Iraq. Europe has had little to offer the US in strategic military terms since the end of the cold war."
European voters, political elites and not least intellectuals need to have their noses rubbed in this unpleasant truth again and again. Until Europe develops serious military forces, and the will to use them, European states will be condemned to their present position of whining impotence in respect to the US.
This does not mean developing aircraft carrier groups to fight wars in the Middle East or South Asia; it does mean being able to fight a war to stabilise the Balkans. The humiliating failure of Europe in Bosnia in the early 1990s crippled Europe psychologically, and led to it trailing after the US into the Kosovo war, which crushingly emphasised the distance between US and European military technology.
Increasing defence spending is, however, harder for Europe than America. US military spending cannot be described as a "sacrifice" by the US, as little of it ever leaves America's shores. By far the greater part is a transfer of funds from American taxpayers to the American military-industrial complex and its millions of employees. As a result, it has always enjoyed strong support in Congress. To date, this military spending has been a tremendous force for US economic growth and technological innovation. But in Europe, the necessary military investment will require a pooling of resources, in which French taxpayers' money will go to buy British submarines or German tanks; and its economic benefits will therefore be much less apparent to ordinary voters.
However, contrary to American nationalist rhetoric, even if Europe does not provide a single soldier to a US war in the middle east, it will still play an essential part in any such war, and run grave risks as a result. The contribution by Europe is its agreement to let the US use European bases and to enjoy military overflight rights. Without this, the supply of US troops in the middle east would become a great deal more difficult. But the presence of these bases increases the probability that Europe will become the target of terrorist attacks.
If European governments truly believe that US policies in the Middle East are a serious danger to Europe, the region, and the world, then they should be prepared to deny the US military the use of bases on their soil-and to take the consequences in terms of responsibility for their own defence. As long as Russia and Turkey remain friendly, there are no serious conventional threats to Europe. In this context, much European naval spending is pointless. Even a hypothetical intervention in North Africa would depend chiefly on air power based in Spain and Italy.
The veteran American journalist William Pfaff had this to say recently in the International Herald Tribune: "The European Nato governments could refuse American use of Nato's European assets in an attack on Iraq… Nato will not be destroyed because the US needs it more than Europe does. This is not widely understood. Nato no longer serves to protect Europe from any threat. The threat is gone. For the Europeans, Nato is an expensive relic of the cold war. For the US, Nato has to exist. Washington may be indifferent to allied opinion, or in no need of allied military support, but it has to have the European alliance because Nato provides the indispensable infrastructure for US military deployments throughout Europe, Eurasia, the middle east and Africa."
Should the US become involved in a bloody military occupation in the Middle East, the maintenance of these bases will become a big issue in European politics. America, like Israel, could seem more of a danger than an asset to Europe as far as the threat of terrorism is concerned. And, as Pfaff indicates, this would be in circumstances where Europe feels no threat from the east. Moreover, as Pfaff notes, European criticism of Israel has not to date been backed by actions. But if the Europeans were to resort to economic sanctions as a lever of influence, over time they could inflict crippling damage on Israel's economy.
Such developments would place Britain in a terrible dilemma; and it is in a desperate attempt to head off the necessity of making such a choice between America and Europe that the British government is endorsing present US policies, including over Iraq. The hope is that this may give Britain influence over the US, and avert more serious outcomes. Britain is rather in the position of a man who accompanies a drunken friend on a dark, meandering road, partly to help him but also to prevent him from insulting and attacking passers-by. But there comes a point when the patience of even the closest friend is exhausted, and his intoxicated companion must be told either to sober up, or to continue his dangerous way alone.
Anatol Lieven is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.
Originally published in Prospect, Issue 78, September 2002