Timothy Garton Ash: Iraq Is America's Boer War





If you want to know what London was like in 1905, come to Washington in 2005. Imperial gravitas and massive self-importance. ... As Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, put it in 1902: "The weary Titan staggers under the too vast orb of his fate."

The United States is now that weary Titan. In the British case, the angst was a result of the unexpectedly protracted, bloody and costly Boer war, in which a small group of foreign insurgents defied the mightiest military the world had seen; concern about the rising economic power of Germany and the United States; and a combination of imperial overstretch with socio-economic problems at home. In the American case, it's a result of the unexpectedly protracted, bloody and costly Iraq war, in which a small group of foreign insurgents defies the mightiest military the world has seen; concern about the rising economic power of China and India; and a combination of imperial overstretch with socio-economic problems at home.

Iraq is America's Boer war. Remember that after the British had declared the end of major combat operations in the summer of 1900, the Boers launched a campaign of guerrilla warfare that kept British troops on the run for another two years. The British won only by a ruthlessness of which, I'm glad to say, the democratic, squeamish and still basically anti-colonialist United States appears incapable. In the end, the British had 450,000 British and colonial troops there (compared with some 150,000 US troops in Iraq), and herded roughly a quarter of the Boer population into concentration camps, where many died.

In a recent CNN/Gallup poll, 54% of those asked said it was a mistake to send American troops into Iraq, and 57% said the Iraq war has made the US less safe from terrorism. The protest camp outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, which grew around the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq, exemplifies the pain. CNN last Sunday aired a documentary with top-level sources explaining in detail how the intelligence on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction was distorted, abused, sexed up and, as the programme was entitled, Dead Wrong. This will hardly be news for British or European readers, but the facts have not been so widely aired in the US. In another poll, the number of those who rated the president as "honest" fell below 50% for the first time. This week, he has again attempted to bolster support for his administration and his war. It doesn't seem to be working....

None of this is to suggest that the United States will decline and fall tomorrow. Far from it. After all, the British empire lasted for another 40 years after 1905. In fact, it grew to its largest extent after 1918, before it signed its own death warrant by expending its blood and treasure to defeat Adolf Hitler (not the worst way to go). Similarly, one may anticipate that America's informal empire - its network of military bases and semi-protectorates - will continue to grow. The United States, like Edwardian Britain, still has formidable resources of economic, technological and military power, cultural attractiveness and, not least, the will to stay on top....

The Bush administration's national security strategy makes no bones about the goal of maintaining military supremacy. But whether the "American century" that began in 1945 will last until 2045, 2035 or only 2025, its end can already be glimpsed on the horizon.

If you are, by any chance, of that persuasion that would instinctively find this a cause for rejoicing, pause for a moment to consider two things: first, that major shifts of power between rising and falling great powers have usually been accompanied by major wars; and second, that the next top dog could be a lot worse.

So this is no time for schadenfreude....




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