The United States Sobers Up

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a Hoover Institution senior fellow.

To return to the United States after an absence of six months is to find a nation sobered by reality. The reality of debt and lost jobs. The reality of a rising China. Above all, the reality of Iraq.

This new sobriety was exemplified by President Bush’s speech at Ft. Bragg on Tuesday. Beforehand, as the TV camera panned across row upon row of soldiers in red berets, a commentator warned that the speech might last a long time because it was likely to be interrupted by numerous rounds of applause from this loyal military audience.

In fact, the audience interrupted him with applause just once. Once! Lines that would have drummed up a storm during the campaign (“We will not allow our future to be determined by car bombers and assassins”) were now met with a deafening silence. Stolidly they sat, looking slightly bored and, in at least one case that I spotted, rhythmically chewing gum.

Bush plowed on with his rather wooden speech, wearing that curious, rigid half-smile of his, with the mouth turning down rather than up at each end. Afterward, the same commentator who had warned to expect rounds of applause speculated, with an equally authoritative air, that the White House had suggested restraint to this audience so it would not appear that the president was both requesting coverage from the TV networks and exploiting the nation’s military for a political rally. But then, perhaps soldiers who actually risk their lives for Bush’s policies in Iraq, and have lost comrades there, would not have been in a mood to applaud anyway.


Bush’s speech once again presented Iraq as part of the Global War on Terror -- the GWOT. He mentioned the Sept. 11 attacks six times; weapons of mass destruction, not once. We have to defeat the terrorists abroad, he said, before they attack us at home. As freedom spreads, the terrorists will lose support. Then he made this extraordinary statement: “We will prevent Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorists from turning Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban -- a safe haven from which they could launch attacks on America and our friends.”

Consider. Three years ago, when Bush started ramping up for war in Iraq, Afghanistan had recently been liberated from both the Taliban and the Al Qaeda terrorists who had attacked the U.S. Iraq, meanwhile, was a hideous dictatorship under Saddam Hussein.

But, as the 9/11 commission concluded, Hussein’s regime had no connection with the 2001 attacks. Iraq was not then a recruiting sergeant or training ground for jihadist terrorists. Now it is. The U.S.-led invasion and occupation has made it so. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark put it plainly: “We are creating enemies.”

And the president says: Our great achievement will be to prevent Iraq becoming another Taliban-style, Al Qaeda-harboring Afghanistan! This is like a man who shoots himself in the foot and then says, “We must prevent it turning gangrenous, then you’ll understand why I was right to shoot myself in the foot.”


Whether or not the invasion was a crime, it’s now clear that -- at least in the form in which it was executed -- it was a massive blunder. And the American people are beginning to see this. Before Bush spoke at Ft. Bragg, 53% of those asked in a CNN/Gallup poll said it was a mistake to go into Iraq.

That’s the new sobriety, and here are a few more indicators. First off, neocons are no longer calling the shots. As a well-informed Washingtonian tells me, tapping Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank and John Bolton to be ambassador to the U.N. actually shows they have been “kicked upstairs.”

What’s more, there is little talk now of proud unilateralism and the U.S. winning the GWOT on its own. The State Department is setting out to repair old alliances and to forge new ones. It wants a strong European partner. On Iran, which even six months ago had threatened to become a new Iraq crisis, the U.S. is letting the E3 -- Britain, France and Germany -- take the diplomatic lead. And if the European diplomacy does not work, what is Washington’s Plan B? To take the issue to the U.N.! What a difference three years make.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is right. It would be suicidally dumb for any European to think, in relation to Iraq, “the worse the better.” Jihadists now cutting their teeth in Iraq will make no fine distinctions between Washington and London, Berlin or Madrid. Any European tempted to luxuriate schadenfreudishly in the prospect of a Vietnam-style U.S. evacuation from Baghdad may be awoken from that reverie by the blast from a bomb, planted in Charing Cross tube station by an Iraq-hardened terrorist.

But it is a fair and justified historical observation that U.S. policy has gotten better -- more sober, more realistic -- at least partly because things in Iraq have gone so badly. This is the cunning of history.