The Foolish Hopes of Washington's New Jacobins. (War/The Aftermath)

By Gray, John | New Statesman (1996), March 31, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Foolish Hopes of Washington's New Jacobins. (War/The Aftermath)

Gray, John, New Statesman (1996)

America's neoconservatives have the same utopian ambitions as the revolutionaries of 18th-century France and 20th-century Russia. Stubborn Iraqi soldiers are just the first of many obstacles.

Around two hundred years ago, the great French reactionary thinker Joseph de Maistre wrote of "the profound imbecility of those poor men who imagine that nations can be constituted with ink". De Maistre, one of the fiercest critics of the Enlightenment, was targeting the radical philosophes, who believed that liberal republics could be established throughout the world. Against this sunny view, de Maistre insisted that nations are made from human suffering, as different cultures and traditions clash in unending historical conflict.

In de Maistre's day, it was the French Jacobins who believed that democracy could be spread throughout the world by fiat; today it is American neoconservatives. There are many differences between the two, some of them profound: the sense of mission that animates the Bush administration owes as much to Christian fundamentalism as it does to Enlightenment universalism. Yet American neoconservatives are at one with the French Jacobins onthe most essential--and most dangerously misguided--point. Both are convinced that democratic government can be made universal, and in pretty short order.

To be sure, they also know that more than ink is required to realise this noble ideal. The Jacobins understood very well that blood would also have to be spilt. Equally, the neoconservative intellectuals who are calling the shots at the White House accept that terror will be necessary; but like their Jacobin predecessors they believe it will be just and merciful, a brief pang before the advent of a new world. A think-tank warrior such as Richard Perle may think of himself as a realist, but the cold frenzy with which he urges war reminds one more of Robespierre than Metternich. Like their Jacobin predecessors, Perle and his neoconservative confreres believe they can rewrite history and bring humanity to unprecedented freedom and harmony.

We have seen the awful consequences in Iraq in recent days; the people of that unhappy country, much as they hate Saddam Hussein, have not embraced the American invaders in quite the way that Washington hoped. And the rest of us are compelled to face an awful truth: that though we, too, wish for the sudden collapse of Saddam's regime, a swift and decisive American victory, even if it comes about, can only embolden the Bush administration in its revolutionary new policies. Flushed with victory, the neoconservatives would be ready to embark on a project of reconfiguring global politics as far-reaching as any attempted in the 20th century, exporting US-style democracy to the Middle East and thereby guaranteeing America's global hegemony.

The hawks now fully in charge of Washington policy spurn multinational institutions and scorn the traditional arts of diplomacy. They have turned their backs on the policies of deterrence and containment that preserved the world from disaster in the cold war. Instead, applying the new doctrine of preventive war, they are determined to eradicate threats to American power wherever they perceive them; but their objectives go far beyond simply defending the US from attack. They aim to entrench American global hegemony against any potential challenge. In their view, this demands more than disabling "rogue states" (such as Saddam's Iraq) and putting friendly regimes in place. It requires reshaping postwar Iraq and much of the rest of the Middle East in an American image. After Iraq, Iran and Syria are in line for regime change. The entire region is to be reshaped to reflect American values.

This fantastical scheme will be tested to destruction in postwar Iraq. Current US pronouncements on rebuilding the country change from one day to the next and need not be taken too seriously, but it is clear that the Bush administration means to govern Iraq itself, with the UK serving -- as ever -- as its obedient junior partner, and the UN and the EU playing only a peripheral role. …

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