The entire Bush foreign policy is based on a dubious narrative of US
history that has freedom at its heart
Monday March 22, 2004
The Guardian [U.K.]
Paul Kennedy, the great historian of empires, likes to remind his
audience that George Bush read history at Yale - but not that many
history books. However, since September 11 and the installation of a
Churchill bust in the Oval Office, President Bush seems to have put his
college days behind him. History is now in vogue at the White House.
Indeed, the entire Bush foreign policy has been premised on a narrative
of America's past at the heart of which is the principle of liberty.
Since the inception of the "war on terror", the Pentagon has been
careful to eschew the call of empire. What motivates neoconservatives,
we are told, is not the aggrandisement of American power but ensuring
the beacon of liberty shines brightly across the globe. In his 2003
state of the union address, President Bush reassured his global audience
that America sought to "exercise power without conquest".
Although the neoconservative polemicist Charles Krauthammer has declared
America to be "the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any
since Rome", and Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional
Authority in Iraq, sounds every day more like an Edwardian viceroy, the
White House is adamant that the war on terror is distinct from the
colonial ambitions of previous great powers. Instead, what the Bush
administration is concerned with is fulfilling the ideals of the
However, although bookshops in the US are awash with new biographies of
George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson,
what the White House has learned from all this scholarship seems little
different from the historical interpretation of the Mel Gibson film The
Patriot. For Gibson, the revolution was a clear-cut struggle for liberty
from the wicked British.
The neoconservatives have taken this dubious history as read and then
universalised the principle. The liberty won by the founding fathers in
the 18th century is for the Pentagon hawks a value of global validity.
As President Bush put it: "If the values are good enough for our people,
they ought to be good enough for others." And as the disillusioned
Republican thinker Paul Craig Roberts has pointed out, it is this claim
of universality that seems to endow American principles with their
monopoly on virtue. It behoves America, as a republic of virtue, to
export these ideals around the world.
The president certainly feels the hand of history and casts himself as a
latter-day Churchill. Recently, at a Churchill exhibition at the Library
of Congress, Bush aligned himself with his hero, announcing: "We are the
heirs of the tradition of liberty, defenders of the freedom, the
conscience and dignity of every person".
This sense of moral clarity is what is meant to distinguish
neoconservatism from plain old conservatism. While the likes of
Kissinger and Nixon were happy to collude with terrorism and bolster
tyrannies, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defence, and
Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, will brook no such
betrayal of America's heritage. It is this call of historic virtue that
accounts for President Bush's recently launched "forward strategy for
freedom in the Middle East". Instead of supporting friendly if corrupt
Arab regimes, democracy and liberty would provide the litmus test for US
diplomacy in the region. "For too long, American policy looked away
while men and women were oppressed," announced the leader of the free
world. "That era is over."
Leaving aside US support for some pretty distasteful regimes in the
oil-rich Caspian basin, or Rice's intervention in the Venezuelan
elections, or the decision to postpone the polls in Iraq, there
remainfundamental historical problems with the neoconservative vision.
For at the political core the American revolution was a highly
restricted notion of freedom: the right of property holders to dispose
of their wealth as they saw fit. Many revolutionaries simply wanted to
be treated as Englishmen - which might account for Benjamin Franklin
lobbying for a job in the Westminster government as late as 1771. No
taxation without representation is a very different cry from the
universal right to liberty.
Moreover, the property that many founding fathers wanted to protect was
their slave holdings. One of the more unpublicised episodes of the war
of independence is the history of black loyalism, of the tens of
thousands of slaves who made their way to the British side to form the
Ethiopian Regiment, the Black Brigade and the Black Pioneers. For the
chattels of America, it was the British government not the righteous
revolutionaries that promised liberty.
Politicians with moral clarity are indubitably attractive, and after the
tergiversations of the Clinton era, there is some refreshing candour
about the Bush agenda. But if the president had read just a little more
history he might appreciate the complexity of the past - and show some
humility in the present.
* Tristram Hunt 's new book, Building Jerusalem, is published in June