Friday, 18 July 2008

America’s moral reconstruction

It is difficult to remember a US presidential election more important for America and the world than that taking place in November.

America is stuck in a nightmare of its own making. It is mired in a Middle Eastern war that is bringing it no strategic benefit; it is alienated from its closest and oldest allies; its economy is feeling the combined pains of a loss of manufacturing industries, plummeting confidence in the dollar and debt spending by households and the government that the financial system cannot support; it is blamed for failing to lead in climate change, which is by far the more pressing concern of the age when stood up next to security; its loss of moral prestige through unwillingness to broker a Middle Eastern peace and instead pitchforking its allies into an unnecessary war is inestimable; its armed forces are undermanned and worn out, emboldening its enemies (even defeated Russia is resurgent) and causing historians to ask whether America's moment is forever gone.

The loss of material and moral capital could hardly be more precipitous. Should the United States continue in the policies of George W Bush for another eight years, there is little doubt that the prophecies of doom would come true. American strength would be spent, its moment would indeed be over, and so might any chance of moral leadership in the world. For who can imagine that there is among the emerging strengths of the planet a country with the character of the United States?

Barack Obama has so far emerged as the only candidate who really perceives how pivotal Iraq has been to his country's demise. "To renew American leadership in the world, we must first bring the Iraq war to a responsible end and refocus our attention on the broader Middle East," he wrote in Foreign Affairs last summer, and has stuck to that position. He advocated then a precipitate withdrawal of US troops by March this year, which he has now moderated to a 16-month period. His reasoning is simple. The war in Iraq is a drain on the good fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan; it is a drain on US treasure and moral standing; and it is enabling the Iraqi government to fail rather than succeed.

The moral argument is the most potent, however. The Iraq war undermines America's standing because it was entered upon under false pretences. Not only was the case for weapons of mass destruction a misinterpretation of scanty intelligence; the Bush White House rode roughshod over the United Nations and over its own diplomats and spies, in order to preserve the fiction that its case to the Security Council in January 2003 was based on uncontested facts.

Hillary Clinton, too, has advocated a withdrawal, but she was compromised by her original vote in favour of war. So is John McCain, who went the extra mile of trying to justify the war in September 2002. He is on the record as having told CNN's Larry King that victory would be "fairly easy", and Wolf Blitzer that "we can win an overwhelming victory in a very short period of time." No doubt he meant the toppling of Saddam's forces rather than the occupation, but that is the same oversight the Bush White House made. McCain may have been taken into the confidence of the administration enough to allow him to believe what the administration believed.

Barack Obama was the only of the three candidates to have said then what he says now. It is worth quoting in full: "I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbours, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

"I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars." (Remarks made on 2 October 2002).

Those words proved prophetic, but even without the benefit of hindsight they were bold. Obama has not lost that courage since. In what has been perhaps the most impressive speech of his campaign so far, he stood by his spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, even while denouncing Wright's racist remarks, in a speech in Philadelphia last March.

What makes that stand impressive is that in an incorrigible culture of political correctness, it would have been the more conventional choice for Obama to have distanced himself outright. In the event he was forced to do so when Wright persisted in his racist remarks, but the Philadelphia speech showed an aspect of Obama no other candidate seems to have: the willingness to admit an attachment to someone who is embarrassing without that being a signature under that person's views.

It is a message America sorely needs. The nation is deeply divided between those who opposed the Iraq war from the start, and those who couldn't think clearly enough in 2002 to see that there was no apparent connection between Al Qa'ida and Iraq. Neither could the Economist or the New York Times. The latter has since admitted its mistake, but perhaps many Americans feel their personal investment in the current disaster is now too deep to be entirely renounced. Obama is essentially saying that the nation is a family to which everyone belongs irrespective of past or present views.

Greece could only dream of being lucky enough to field three highly competent and relatively honest prime ministerial candidates ready to depart radically from a disastrous incumbent. John McCain and Hillary Clinton surely have the brains and guts to gradually rebuild America economically and politically; but Barack Obama seems to be the only candidate who can encourage Americans to forgive themselves for past mistakes, rectify them rather than wallow in them, restore the country's confidence and rebuild America morally.

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