So now the supposedly anti-Bush Obama's starting yet another war, this time in Syria, where the odds are that either Assad or al-Qaeda will end up beating "our" "moderate" rebels.
Whenever we start up one of these wars of choice, I go back to Russell Kirk's classic essay Political Errors at the End of the Twentieth Century. Even though he was dealing with Bush 41's war against Saddam, his basic point still holds true today:
Now indubitably Saddam Hussein is unrighteous; but so are nearly all the masters of the "emergent" African states (with the Ivory Coast as a rare exception), and so are the grim ideologues who rule China, and the hard men in the Kremlin, and a great many other public figures in various quarters of the world. Why, I fancy that there are some few unrighteous men, conceivably, in the domestic politics of the United States. Are we to saturation-bomb most of Africa and Asia into righteousness, freedom, and democracy? And, having accomplished that, however would we ensure persons yet more unrighteous might not rise up instead of the ogres we had swept away? Just that is what happened in the Congo, remember, three decades ago; and nowadays in Zaire, once called the Belgian Congo, we zealously uphold with American funds the dictator Mobutu, more blood-stained than Saddam. And have we forgotten Castro in Cuba?
Momentum of Its Own. I doubt whether much good is going to come out of the slaughter of perhaps a hundred thousand people in Iraq. "For one of the troubles of war," Butterfield writes, "is that it acquires its own momentum and plants its own ideals on our shoulders, so that we are carried far away from the purposes with which we began -- carried indeed sometimes to greater acts of spoilation than the ones which had provoked our original entry into the war. Before the war of 1914 had lasted a year, its own workings had generated such a mood that we had promised Russia Constantinople and had bought the alliance of Italy with offers of booty, some of which had later to be disavowed by President Wilson. And it is a remarkable fact that in wars which purport to be so ethical that the states attached to neutrality are sometimes regarded as guilty of a dereliction of duty, the great powers primarily concerned may have required an iniquitous degree of bribery to bring them into the conflict, or to maintain their fidelity. The whole ideal of moderate peace aims, and the whole policy of making war the servant (instead of the master) of negotiation, is impossible -- and the whole technique of the 'war for righteousness' has a particularly sinister application -- when even in the ostensibly 'defending' party there is a latent and concealed aggressiveness of colossal scope, as there certainly was in 1914."
You may perceive some parallels between Butterfield's description of the course of the Allies during World War I and the course, so far, of the coalition against Iraq. Already there is talk of what shall be done with the "remains of Iraq." Mr. James Baker talks of rebuilding Iraq; others talk of dismantling Iraq altogether, by way of spoilation. And what promises and bribes were provided by the government of the United States, in recent months, to secure the assent of such murderous governments as that of Ethiopia to strong measures against Iraq; to secure, indeed, by holding out prospects of massive economic aid, the cooperation of the Soviet Union, Iraq's former patron?
Was not Egypt's cooperation obtained by forgiving the Egyptian government's indebtedness of several billion dollars? Was not Syria's assent gained by America's ignoring of the Syrian conquest of the Lebanon, with a massacre of General Aoun's Christian army? What began as determination to restore a legitimate (if somewhat arbitrary) government in Kuwait may result in the overturn of several governments in the Levant. As for regarding neutral states as guilty of dereliction of duty -- why, the United States has done just that to Jordan, by cutting off economic aid at the very time when Jordan is crammed with destitute refugees from Iraq.
Disagreeable Consequences. In short, deliberate entry into war commonly brings on consequences disagreeable even to the seeming victors. Prudent statesmen long have known that armed conflict, for all involved, ought to be the last desperate resort, to be entered upon only when all means of diplomacy, conciliation, and compromise have been exhausted. In Iraq, we have crushed an insect with the club of Hercules. Temporarily, Mr. Bush's stroke is popular. When a democracy goes to war, at first there occurs a wave of enthusiasm: "Bop the Wop; sap the Jap; get the Hun on the run!" But afterward, when troubles arise....
True, we did not suffer a long war in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq. But we must expect to suffer during a very long period of widespread hostility toward the United States -- even, or perhaps especially, from the people of certain states that America bribed or bullied into combining against Iraq.
In Egypt, in Syria, in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Morocco, in all of the world of Islam, the masses now regard the United States as their arrogant adversary; while the Soviet Union, by virtue of its endeavors to mediate the quarrel in its later stages, may pose again as the friend of Moslem lands. Nor is this all: for now, in every continent, the United States is resented increasingly as the last and most formidable of imperial systems.
In this century, great empires have collapsed: the Austrian, the German, the British, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Italian, and the Japanese. The Soviet empire now languishes in the process of dissolution. "Imperialism" has become a term of bitter reproach and complaint; all this within my own lifetime.
American Empire. But there remains an American Empire, still growing -- though expanding through the acquisition of client states, rather than through settlement of American populations abroad. Among the client states directly dependent upon American military power are Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Israel, and El Salvador; and until the withdrawal of American divisions from Germany for service in Arabia, Germany, too, was a military client. Dependent upon American assistance of one kind or another, and in some degree upon American military protection, are the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and Panama; and also, in the Levant, Egypt and Jordan, and formerly Lebanon. Now Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are added to the roster of clients. I hardly need mention America's earlier acquisitions: Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgins, and lesser islands. I refrain from mentioning America's economic ascendancy, through foreign aid or merely trade, over a great deal more of the world. In short, although we never talk about our empire, a tremendous American Empire has come into existence -- if, like the Roman Empire, in a kind of fit of absence of mind. No powerful counterpoise to the American hegemony seems to remain, what with the enfeebling of the U.S.S.R.
Such a universal ascendancy always has been resented by the lesser breeds without the law. Soon there sets to work a widespread impulse to pull down the imperial power. But that imperial power, strong in weapons, finds it possible for a time to repress the disobedient. In the long run -- well, as Talleyrand put it, "You can do everything with bayonets -- except sit on them." In the long run, the task of repression is too painful a burden to bear; so the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has discovered in the past few years. Napoleon discovered that hard truth earlier and King George III and the King's Friends discovered it between the years 1775 and 1781. Doubtless George Bush means well by the world near the end of the twentieth century. He is a man of order, diligent, dutiful, honest, and a good family man. But he lacks imagination, "the vision thing." And power intoxicates; and, as Lord Acton put it, power tends to corrupt. The love of power tends to corrupt both speech and actions. It may corrupt a grave national undertaking into a personal vendetta. It may corrupt what began as a chivalric rescue into a heavy belligerent domination. (Talk continues to come to our ears of a "permanent American presence" in the Persian Gulf.)
President Bush and Americans of his views doubtless intend the American hegemony to be gentler and kinder than the sort of hegemony that prevailed in the ancient Persian Empire, say; more just even than the Roman hegemony that gave peace, for some centuries, to several lands -- relative peace, anyway, at the price of crushing taxation and the extinction of earlier cultures. But devastating Iraq (and the rescued Kuwait) is an uncompromising way of opening an era of sweetness and light. Peoples so rescued from tyrants might cry, as did the boy whom Don Quixote de la Mancha had saved from beating by the muleteers but who was thrashed by them not long later, nevertheless -- "In the name of God, Don Jorge de la Casablanca, don't rescue me again!"
Don Jorge de la Casablanca has toppled and imprisoned one Central American despot -- somewhat small fry -- and is in the process of dealing after the same fashion with one Mesopotamian despot, somewhat larger fry. "Well done!" some cry. It has all been rather like deer hunting in my Michigan back woods.
Yet presidents of the United States must not be encouraged to make Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, nor to fancy that they can establish a New World Order through eliminating dissenters. In the second century before Christ, the Romans generously liberated the Greek city-states from the yoke of Macedonia. But it was not long before the Romans felt it necessary to impose upon those quarrelsome Greeks a domination more stifling to Hellenic freedom and culture than ever Macedon had been. It is a duty of the Congress of the United States to see that great American Caesars do not act likewise.
Echo of 1984. If that duty is forgotten, before many years are out we may receive such television communications as follows.
The voice from the telescreen paused. A trumpet call, clear and beautiful, floated into the stagnant air. The voice continued raspingly:
"Attention! Your attention please! A newsflash has this moment arrived from the Malabar front. Our forces in South India have won a glorious victory. I am authorized to say that the action we are now reporting may well bring the war within a measurable distance of its end. Here is the newsflash -- "
Bad news coming, thought Winston. And sure enough, following a gory description of the annihilation of a Eurasian army, with stupendous figures of killed and prisoners, came the announcement that, as of next week, the chocolate ration would be reduced from thirty grams to twenty.
Perhaps you have already recognized the preceding passage from Orwell's 1984. Orwell describes our world of 1991, too. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace comes to pass in an era of Righteousness -- that is, national or ideological self-righteousness in which the public is persuaded that "God is on our side," and that those who disagree should be brought here before the bar as war criminals.