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What has the US become?

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. As Isabel Hilton asks: What does 2006 have in store? (Part one)
Jeremy Hardie
22 December 2005

For all except the Harold Pinters and the Donald Rumsfelds, who can live with any development in Iraq as confirmation of their blessedly certain views, what matters to most of us in 2006 must be the resolution of that terrible and bloody conundrum. So much ink has been spilled on why we were all wrong about weapons of mass destruction, whether it is all about oil really, whether Bush is wicked or stupid or incompetent or all three, that the central issue gets lost, whether Iraq can emerge as some sort of federal democracy. If only because that was the central idea of the neocons, it is hard for those hostile to, or bewildered by, the war to remember that now, that is all that matters.

So my best hope for 2006 must be that the heartwarming enthusiasm for free elections, the occasional glimmers of success for the Iraqi security services, the evident improvements in material prosperity, the continued restraint of mainstreamShi’a politicians, are not just the flickers of a dying fire, but evidence that this year, next year, but not just sometime, certainly not never, the Iraqis will get what they deserve.

Even more important, if that were possible, is what we all think of the United States when the dust has settled. William Shawcross has said that that if we have to be subject to a single global power, we should thank our lucky stars that it is the US, committed to freedom and the rule of law. That has been harder and harder to believe in 2005. Anyone can get intelligence wrong. Anyone can be guilelessly optimistic about reconstruction. No politician, however statesmanlike, can easily own up to mistakes. But Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo are not like that.

In Britain, the centre of the debate on torture has been the decision of the Law Lords that such evidence is not admissible, because the common law has, since the 17th century, held it to be dishonourable for the state to use such methods. The US debate has been almost entirely value free and instrumental, about how far you have to go to get what you need in the fight against terror. That is not the US that we were brought up to respect. Faking extra-territorial locations, such as Guantánamo, outside US law tears apart the principle that there should be a tight link between what is right and what is lawful. What kind of people have the Americans become?

So my best hope for 2006 is that we can come to answer that question happily, and that the US is still what we thought it was. That will matter more than the result of this or that military adventure, however tragic. My worst fear is that something has gone badly wrong with how the US believes it should and can conduct itself as the leader of what used to be called the free world.

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