President George W Bush on 10 January 2007 ordered a "surge" of increased deployment of American forces to Iraq. At the same time the Democratic opposition, newly in power in the Senate as well as the House of Representatives, is searching for ways to stop Bush's defiant policy, confident that a growing majority of the American people do not want to up the ante.
Only by using the Congress's financial authority to deny the president the sinews of war, it seems, can President Bush be deterred from making a terrible situation worse. If that happens, it could trigger off a political and constitutional confrontation that will make Watergate look like a déjeuner sur l'herbe.
It is a good moment to ask two questions about the Bush administration's disastrous effort to impose its own version of democracy on the world:
- is the American government organised and equipped to carry out the imperial duties the Bush administration has called on it to perform?
- do the American people, five years after 9/11, have the patience to support aggressively interventionist policies?
I have waded through more than half a dozen accounts of the bureaucratic confusion and incompetence that has led to the present impasse in Iraq, most recently Bob Woodward's third account of the Bush administration's policies in Iraq, State of Denial. I have to conclude that the answer to the first question is: "On this evidence, not right now". And the answer to the second question is: "Apparently not".
I admit that I was reluctant to read the Woodward book, not least because it seemed that, in a shift worthy of the pliable Vicar of Bray, he had changed his perspective when he realised that his previous flattering portrait of the Bush administration was going out of fashion (see Sidney Blumenthal, "The Bob Woodward version", 18 October 2006).
Also by Godfrey Hodgson in openDemocracy on American politics:
"Can America go modest? "
"American media in the firing-line" (June 2005)
"Gimme five! US Republicans' amoral minority" (June 2005)
"After Katrina, a government adrift" (September 2005)
"Oil and American politics" (October 2005)
"The death of American politics" (October 2005)
"The Democrats' dilemma"
"The mandate of heaven and the tipping-point" (December 2005)
"The US Democrats' opportunity: can they take it?" (June 2006)
"'Yo, Blair'" (July 2006)
"It ain't necessarily so: if Bush wins again"
"The next big issue: inequality in America" (13 September 2006)
"American politics: corrosion by the dollar" (6 November 2006)
"Washington: the earth moves"
(9 November 2006)
"After the Baker report: America's challenge" (13 December 2006)
The new volume has the failings imposed by Woodward's method. This is a caricature of the journalism of access. Those who agree to talk to him are rewarded with favourable coverage, and their antagonists are unsympathetically portrayed. Those who either refuse to see him, or (like former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld) respond in a grudging and laconic manner, are condignly punished.
Still, even making allowance for the animus implied by this method, Woodward has painted an unforgettable picture of a military bureaucracy at odds with unsteady, politicised civilian officials. The result is a menagerie of creatures whose blend of conceit and incompetence derives, in the case of civilians like Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and L Paul Bremer, from a certain amateurism, and in the case of the military men, from the almost total inappropriateness of their experience to the diplomatic and proconsular tasks they found themselves called on to perform.
From public service to contempt
It may seem odd to call such wily veterans of high office in Washington as Rumsfeld and Cheney "amateurs". I do so because they have got themselves into positions of power running the most powerful state in the world, one convinced that it is its destiny to transform the world. Yet they do not see themselves as servants of the state. They despise states. And their experience and mindset do not fit them for their purpose.
They are politicians and ideologues. In the Washington system, they are never in opposition. When they lose their jobs, they retreat to private business, where their talents are put at the service of whatever large corporation will hire them, at extravagant salaries; in the case of Cheney in the energy industry, for Rumsfeld in pharmaceuticals, and in the case of Bremer, running Henry Kissinger's commercial consultancy.
They consent to devote a few years, in the intervals of these better-remunerated tasks, to forwarding their ideas and their reputations. They do not, like the servants of traditional states, dedicate themselves to the public interest, come rain or come shine. Indeed, they make it plain that their attitude to the diplomats and civil servants of tradition is a mixture of amusement and disdain.
The root of the American incapacity to run a steady foreign policy lies in the contempt in which these would-be rulers of the world hold government itself. This has not always been so, though a certain tradition of suspicion of government does run back through American history at least as far as the revolution. Still, as recently as the administrations of Franklin D Roosevelt and Harry Truman (1933-1953) American statesmen, including the many "dollar-a-year men" seconded from private banking or law firms, did respect the government they were running.
That tradition lasted in the Eisenhower administration, led by a great general who was also a master of military bureaucracy and alliance diplomacy. Even in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, respect for the duties and the honour of government survived, in spite of the catastrophic errors that brought the country to defeat and disgrace in Vietnam.
It was the return of the Republicans under first Richard M Nixon, and even more under Ronald Reagan, that brought into office men who did not trouble to conceal their contempt for government. But it was not until the advent of George W Bush - propped up by his two fierce men-at-arms Cheney and Rumsfeld as a medieval baron's shield was supported by lions and bears - that the world's most powerful government fell into the hands of men who held the whole idea of civil government in profound contempt.
A culture of deception
If Iraq is now ruined, ungovernable, dismembered by savage sectarian hatreds, a place where a substantial minority look back to the barbarism of Saddam Hussein with nostalgia, it is largely because the Bush administration was led by people actually boasted that they despised "nation-building".
Many of the episodes described at such length in the whole library of insider narratives that is now appearing reveal this fundamental failure. Bob Woodward tells, for example, a remarkable anecdote about retired general Jay Garner, summoned from a profitable retirement in the corporate world to run Iraq after the conquest. At one of his briefings Garner noticed a real "spring butt", a fellow who kept popping out of his seat to say something.
In a break in Garner's meeting, the man came up and introduced himself as Tom Warrick, from the state department (known contemptuously to Rumsfeld's assistant, Douglas Feith, as "the department of nice" - no good, obviously, could come out of being nice to foreigners!)
"How do you know so damn much?" asked the general.
"Well, I've been studying this stuff for the last year and a half".
This is how the retired general, sent to be the Bush administration's proconsul in the conquered province of Iraq, learned that his own government had, unknown to him, been carrying a vast "future of Iraq" project.
The military bureaucrats deceived one another. They deceived their civilian counterparts: the word "colleagues" is not appropriate. Theirs was a culture of boasting, of euphemism, of "happy talk", covering profound cynicism bred of their long experience of the capacity of their political masters to screw up.
As to the civilians, first came the hour of the neo-conservative ideologues. Proud of their academic brightness, they were indifferent to the specifics of Iraq's history. They meant to hand the country over to Ahmed Chalabi and other exiles and intelligence "assets". Many were ignorant even of the simplest facts - for example, about the differences between Sunni and Shi'a.
It was only as the darkness fell and the enormity sank in of the mess the political chieftains and their neo-conservative courtiers had made, that expertise began to be treated as a desirable commodity, rather than as a presumption of disloyalty.
There are many competent people, both military and civilian, in the service of the United States government. A few of them have even deigned to learn Arabic, like the diplomat who went and worked as a shepherd to improve his fluency in the Iraqi dialect of the language. But they found themselves working for people who despised the state department for treating foreigners with respect, and who were consumed with petty rivalries - the army against the marines, the Defence Intelligence Service against the Central Intelligence Service, neo-cons against palaeo-cons, Republicans against Democrats.
All them worked for a president whose considered words of guidance and encouragement to his trusted proconsul Garner came straight from the frat house and the locker room: "Kick ass, Jay!" was his parting advice. The tragedy is that their training and their experience of the bureaucratic life had taught too many of Bush's paladins that asses are for kissing, not kicking.
The cost of pre-eminence
Now the president is about to throw good money after bad. He has ordered a new "surge" of American reinforcements. Few outside the green zone in Baghdad and the White House in Washington believe it will work. Few have even noticed that, so far from "staying the course", the president, in his political desperation, is now reversing course. It was Donald Rumsfeld who scoffed at the idea that more troops might be needed.
In summer 2001, Henry Kissinger published a thoughtful study of American foreign policy. In it, he pointed out that while American pre-eminence was so great that it led to charges of hegemony, "judging from media coverage and congressional sentiment, two important barometers, Americans' interest in foreign policy is at an all-time low".
Weeks later, Americans' interest in the outside world was reawakened in the most brutal fashion. But after 9/11 the interest was not so much in foreign policy (that was the responsibility of the "department of nice") but in sinew-stiffening, if ill-directed, military responses. Five years into that "long war", with Osama bin Laden still at large, Saddam Hussein amazingly transformed into a martyr, and the original mission as far as ever from being accomplished, the result of the mid-term elections suggests that Kissinger's misgivings were to the point. It is not only Iraqis who must now question whether the American people have an appetite for the steady sacrifices that are the true cost of pre-eminence.