Adam Ash

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Iraq, Iraq, Iraq -- one day it will all be over, but now it's with us every hour of the waking day

1. At this point, it's kamikaze strategy in Iraq
War supporters disdain a withdrawal, but what about winning?
Jonathan Chait

THERE IS something genuinely bizarre about those remaining supporters of President Bush's strategy in Iraq. It is not just that they are wrong — being wrong happens to all of us from time to time. It's that they are completely detached from reality.

Their arguments have nothing to do with what is actually happening in Iraq. They aren't claiming that Bush's critics have a wrong impression of what's happening in Iraq. They just seem to have no interest in the subject themselves. Their arguments take place almost entirely at the level of abstraction.

If you follow the news in Iraq, the story has become depressingly familiar. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is a creature of hard-line Shiite sectarians, and his government has been deeply infiltrated by Shiite militias. Everything he has done in his job has been toward the end of giving the Shiites an upper hand over the Sunnis.

Shiite militias have infiltrated the Iraqi army. We're equipping and training the bad guys. The Shiite militia members who haven't joined the army lay low when our troops patrol Baghdad, so that we fight the Sunnis and leave them standing. As Tom Lasseter of McClatchy Newspapers reported a week and a half ago, "The U.S. military drive to train and equip Iraq's security forces has unwittingly strengthened anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia."

That's why Maliki supports the surge. To the extent it succeeds, the surge will do a faster and better job of driving Sunnis out of Baghdad. But why should we want to help him do that?

The critiques of Bush's strategy all flow from this interpretation of events. The administration's critics say that our current role has the unintended but unavoidable effect of furthering sectarian warfare. If we stop cooperating with one party to a civil war, we can't make things much worse. We might possibly make them better: If we're no longer doing the Shiites' fighting for them, perhaps they'll have to bargain with the Sunnis.

What do the administration's supporters say to this? Let's look at a brief survey. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), one of the most vocal supporters of Bush's strategy, has made two major statements on the war in 2007. In the first, a letter in January, he wrote that "withdrawing from the fight is not a sound, long-term policy for the national security of the United States. Withdrawing from the fight is a recipe for defeat." How did Lieberman envision us winning? What about the reports that our actions are simply fueling the civil war? His letter had nothing to say.

Since then, Lieberman delivered a speech on the war, and that was even worse. The entire point of it was that a Senate vote of no confidence in Bush would demoralize our allies and embolden the enemy. Nothing at all about how the Bush strategy could work.

OK, you say, so maybe Lieberman has nothing of substance. But he's a politician, and they craft their words for sound bites. So surely the intellectuals who support Bush must have something deeper, right?

Sadly, no. The Weekly Standard — Bush's strongest bastion of remaining support — has editorialized about the war for three consecutive issues. The first editorial asserted that "abandoning American efforts to control the violence in Iraq would lead to an increase in violence" but offered no evidence to support this claim. It did not mention Maliki's clear lack of interest in making peace with the Sunnis nor the infiltration of the Iraqi armed forces.

The next editorial, by Executive Editor Fred Barnes, consisted of an extended analogy to Vietnam. The closest Barnes came to a substantive point was pointing out that war opponents had denigrated the Vietnamese government too. Did this mean we're wrong to denigrate the Iraqi government today? Barnes did not say.

And the next editorial consisted entirely of attacking proponents of the anti-surge resolution as cowards. It didn't even bother to make a claim that we're winning, or we could still win, or withdrawing would make things worse.

So, there you have it, the case for supporting Bush: Trust the commander in chief, don't undermine the troops, withdrawal equals defeat. These aren't arguments to support Bush's strategy, they're generic pro-war arguments. Change a few details and these lines could support Napoleon's invasion of Russia or the Crusader occupation of Jerusalem or almost any war. Generic pro-war arguments may be trite, but that's what you turn to when you've given up on reality.

2. House Democrats' New Strategy: Force Slow End to War -- by John Bresnahan

Top House Democrats, working in concert with anti-war groups, have decided against using congressional power to force a quick end to U.S. involvement in Iraq, and instead will pursue a slow-bleed strategy designed to gradually limit the administration's options.

Led by Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., and supported by several well-funded anti-war groups, the coalition's goal is to limit or sharply reduce the number of U.S. troops available for the Iraq conflict, rather than to openly cut off funding for the war itself.

The legislative strategy will be supplemented by a multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign designed to pressure vulnerable GOP incumbents into breaking with President Bush and forcing the administration to admit that the war is politically unsustainable.

As described by participants, the goal is crafted to circumvent the biggest political vulnerability of the anti-war movement -- the accusation that it is willing to abandon troops in the field. That fear is why many Democrats have remained timid in challenging Bush, even as public support for the president and his Iraq policies have plunged.

Murtha and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have decided that they must take the lead in pressuring not only Republicans but also cautious Senate Democrats to take steps more aggressive than nonbinding resolutions in challenging the Bush administration.

The House strategy is being crafted quietly, even as the chamber is immersed this week in an emotional, albeit mostly symbolic, debate over a resolution expressing opposition to Bush's plan to "surge" 21,500 more troops into Iraq.

Murtha, the powerful chairman of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, will seek to attach a provision to an upcoming $93 billion supplemental spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan. It would restrict the deployment of troops to Iraq unless they meet certain levels adequate manpower, equipment and training to succeed in combat. That's a standard Murtha believes few of the units Bush intends to use for the surge would be able to meet.

In addition, Murtha, acting with the backing of the House Democratic leadership, will seek to limit the time and number of deployments by soldiers, Marines and National Guard units to Iraq, making it tougher for Pentagon officials to find the troops to replace units that are scheduled to rotate out of the country. Additional funding restrictions are also being considered by Murtha, such as prohibiting the creation of U.S. military bases inside Iraq, dismantling the notorious Abu Ghraib prison and closing the American detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"There's a D-Day coming in here, and it's going to start with the supplemental and finish with the '08 [defense] budget," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who chairs the Air and Land Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.

Pelosi and other top Democrats are not yet prepared for an open battle with the White House over ending funding for the war, and they are wary of Republican claims that Democratic leaders would endanger the welfare of U.S. troops. The new approach of first reducing the number of troops available for the conflict, while maintaining funding levels for units already in the field, gives political cover to conservative House Democrats who are nervous about appearing "anti-military" while also mollifying the anti-war left, which has long been agitating for Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to be more aggressive.

"What we have staked out is a campaign to stop the war without cutting off funding" for the troops, said Tom Mazzie of Americans Against Escalation of the War in Iraq . "We call it the 'readiness strategy.'"

Murtha's proposal, which has been kept under tight wraps, is likely to pass the House next month or in early April as part of the supplemental spending bill, Democratic insiders said, if the language remains tightly focused and does not threaten funding levels for combat forces already in the field. The battle will then shift to the Senate. Anti-war groups like Mazzie's are prepared to spend at least $6.5 million on a TV ad campaign and at least $2 million more on a grass-roots lobbying effort. Vulnerable GOP incumbents like Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnestoa, Susan Collins of Maine, Gordon Smith of Oregon and John Sununu of New Hampshire will be targeted by the anti-war organizations, according to Mazzie and former Rep. Tom Andrews, D-Maine, head of the Win Without War Coalition.

Mazzie also said anti-war groups would field primary and general election challengers to Democratic lawmakers who do not support proposals to end the war, a direct challenge to conservative incumbents who are attempting to straddle the political line between their pro- and anti-war constituents.

If the Senate does not approve these new funding restrictions, or if Senate Republicans filibuster the supplemental bill, Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership would then be able to ratchet up the political pressure on the White House to accede to their demands by "slow-walking" the supplemental bill. Additionally, House Democrats could try to insert the Murtha provisions into the fiscal 2008 defense authorization and spending bills, which are scheduled to come to the floor later in the year.

"We will set benchmarks for readiness," said a top Democratic leadership aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. If enacted, these provisions would have the effect of limiting the number of troops available for the Bush surge plan, while blunting the GOP charge that Democrats are cutting funding for the troops. "We are not cutting funding for any [unit] in Iraq," said the aide, who admitted the Democratic maneuver would not prevent the president from sending some additional forces to Baghdad. "We want to limit the number who can go ... We're trying to build a case that the president needs to change course."

Mazzie, though, suggested that Democrats ought to directly rebut the Republican charge that Democrats are threatening the safety of American forces in the field by pushing restrictions on war funding. "Cutting off funding as described by the media and White House is a caricature," Mazzie said. "It has never happened in U.S. history, and it won't happen now."

Andrews, who met with Murtha on Tuesday to discuss legislative strategy, acknowledged "there is a relationship" with the House Democratic leadership and the anti-war groups, but added, "It is important for our members that we not be seen as an arm of the Democratic Caucus or the Democratic Party. We're not hand in glove."

Andrews's group has launched a new Web site, , and he has already posted an interview with Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif. , one of the founders of the "Out of Iraq Caucus" in the House. An interview with Murtha on his legislative strategy will be posted on the site Thursday.

"I don't know how you vote against Murtha," said Andrews. "It's kind of an ingenious thing."

3. The 2nd Most Expensive War in American History -- by Eric Margolis/

“A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money,” famously quipped US Senator Everett Dirksen back in the 1960’s.

The US government has just estimated that President George Bush’s occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and his so-called war on terror, will cost at least $690 billion by the end of next year. That’s more than the total cost to America of World War I, the Korean War, or Vietnam, and second only to the $2 trillion cost of World War II (in current dollars).

This means that by 2008, Bush’s wars in the Muslim world will have cost each American man, woman, and child $2,300.

The $690 billion poured into the bottomless hole of the faux war on terrorism does not include the estimated $100 billion direct cost of the 9/11 attacks, the urgent need to replace $66 billion of US military equipment worn out or destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan, billions in lifetime care for seriously injured soldiers, $125 billion in backlogged veteran’s claims, and untold billions spent in secret CIA programs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ironically, half of the money spent on these wars is being borrowed from former American enemies, Communist China and Japan. Half the current American deficit is being tied directly to the war on terrorism. After six years, the Bush/Cheney Administration cannot even define what it means by victory in its wars in the Muslim World.

Defeat looms large in Iraq; Afghanistan is headed that way; and the US National intelligence Estimate just reported that al-Qaida is actually stronger than ever. The still elusive Osama bin Laden, who said the only way to expel US influence from the Muslim World was to bleed the US financially, must be beaming over the success of his grand strategy.

As all kings have found since the dawn of time, in war, money is as important as armies. Wars always cost far more than originally projected. A primary architect of the 2003 Iraq War, former US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, assured Americans the Iraq war would only cost $40 billion. The cost of occupying Iraq would be fully covered, he claimed, by plundering its oil. Wolfowitz now heads the World Bank.

Speaking of epic idiocy, enter the man selected by Wolfowitz to become proconsul of US-occupied Iraq, a bumbling conservative Republican hack named Paul Bremer.

During the 14 months he ran Iraq, Bremer committed two enormous follies. He dissolved Iraq’s army and police, then fired all government employees who were members of Saddam’s Ba’athist Party. Iraq was left without security forces or functioning government.

The first lesson in Imperialism 101 is that when you invade a country, the first thing to do is buy the loyalty of its army, police, and bureaucracy.

Chaos ensured in Iraq. Banks and museums were looted. Banditry was endemic. For a few hundred million dollars, the US could have hired much of Saddam’s army, security forces, and bureaucrats. Instead, the Bush/Cheney Administration declared them outlaws and began using Shia militias and death squads – called the “Iraqi Army” by the US media – to fight the Sunni resistance, so helping to trigger today’s ghastly Sunni-Shia civil war.

Chaos in US-occupied Iraq, and the collapse of its banking system and Ba’ath Party-run social programs, forced Washington to rush 363 tons of US $100 dollar bills to Baghdad. This money, which belonged to Iraq, came from the UN-run “Oil for Food” program. Bremer’s people dished out $12 billion by the truckloads and bagfuls. Another $800 million was stolen by US-appointed officials of Iraq’s Defense Ministry.

But Bremer’s missing $12.8 billion was just the tip of the corruption iceberg. US corporations in bed with the Republican Party’s rightwing, like Halliburton, and mercenary-supplier, Blackwater, made billions out of Iraq. Halliburton, whose former CEO was VP Cheney, was awarded $16 billion in questionable Iraq contracts.

Last week, House Democrats opened hearings that finally began to expose the tsunami of corruption that accompanied the occupation and plundering of Iraq. Billions more of fraud and thievery concealed by the Administration will likely be uncovered.

The whole sordid story of the 100,000 “private contractors” employed by the US in Iraq has only begun to emerge. According to the US Government Accountability Office, at least 48,000 of these – let’s use the correct term, mercenaries – are private gunmen working for hundreds of shadowy US military corporations like Blackwater and Vinnell. These heavily-armed desperados are a law unto themselves and under no supervision.

Some of these mercenaries make US $1,000 daily in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the US locks up Muslims it brands “illegal combatants” in Guantanamo, it has deployed an army of armed thugs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even interrogation and torture of Iraqis and Afghans has been farmed out to US private enterprise.

Blackwater reputedly has the world’s biggest private military base and a fleet of aircraft. Such huge numbers of uncontrolled mercenaries are a menace. They could also pose a serious internal danger to America. Under the Bush/Cheney Administration, we saw the neoconservatives create their own private intelligence organizations within the Pentagon and a top-secret military outfit to spy on Americans. It is hardly a great leap of imagination to picture the same neocons creating their own corporate-run army in the heart of the United States.

While the Washington, DC. police no longer dare patrol crime-infested southern parts of America’s capital, President Bush and VP Cheney are sending the 82 nd Airborne Division to try to pacify Baghdad. If this isn’t the extreme theater of the absurd, I don’t know what is.

(Eric Margolis, contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada, is the author of War at the Top of the World.)

4. Iraq's Death Toll is Far Worse Than Our Leaders Admit
The US and Britain have triggered an episode more deadly than the Rwandan genocide
By Les Roberts / Independent / UK

On both sides of the Atlantic, a process of spinning science is preventing a serious discussion about the state of affairs in Iraq.

The government in Iraq claimed last month that since the 2003 invasion between 40,000 and 50,000 violent deaths have occurred. Few have pointed out the absurdity of this statement.

There are three ways we know it is a gross underestimate. First, if it were true, including suicides, South Africa, Colombia, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania and Russia have experienced higher violent death rates than Iraq over the past four years. If true, many North and South American cities and Sub-Saharan Africa have had a similar murder rate to that claimed in Iraq. For those of us who have been in Iraq, the suggestion that New Orleans is more violent seems simply ridiculous.

Secondly, there have to be at least 120,000 and probably 140,000 deaths per year from natural causes in a country with the population of Iraq. The numerous stories we hear about overflowing morgues, the need for new cemeteries and new body collection brigades are not consistent with a 10 per cent rise in death rate above the baseline.

And finally, there was a study, peer-reviewed and published in The Lancet, Europe's most prestigious medical journal, which put the death toll at 650,000 as of last July. The study, which I co-authored, was done by the standard cluster approach used by the UN to estimate mortality in dozens of countries each year. While the findings are imprecise, the lower range of possibilities suggested that the Iraq government was at least downplaying the number of dead by a factor of 10.

There are several reasons why the governments involved in this conflict have been able to confuse the issue of Iraqi deaths. Our Lancet report involved sampling and statistical analysis, which is rather dry reading. Media reports always miss most deaths in times of war, so the estimate by the media-based monitoring system, (IBC) roughly corresponds with the Iraq government's figures. Repeated evaluations of deaths identified from sources independent of the press and the Ministry of Health show the IBC listing to be less than 10 per cent complete, but because it matches the reports of the governments involved, it is easily referenced.

Several other estimates have placed the death toll far higher than the Iraqi government estimates, but those have received less press attention. When in 2005, a UN survey reported that 90 per cent of violent attacks in Scotland were not recorded by the police, no one, not even the police, disputed this finding. Representative surveys are the next best thing to a census for counting deaths, and nowhere but Iraq have partial tallies from morgues and hospitals been given such credence when representative survey results are available.

The Pentagon will not release information about deaths induced or amounts of weaponry used in Iraq. On 9 January of this year, the embedded Fox News reporter Brit Hume went along for an air attack, and we learned that at least 25 targets were bombed that day with almost no reports of the damage appearing in the press.

Saddam Hussein's surveillance network, which only captured one third of all deaths before the invasion, has certainly deteriorated even further. During last July, there were numerous televised clashes in Anbar, yet the system recorded exactly zero violent deaths from the province. The last Minister of Health to honestly assess the surveillance network, Dr Ala'din Alwan, admitted that it was not reporting from most of the country by August 2004. He was sacked months later after, among other things, reports appeared based on the limited government data suggesting that most violent deaths were associated with coalition forces.

The consequences of downplaying the number of deaths in Iraq are profound for both the UK and the US. How can the Americans have a surge of troops to secure the population and promise success when the coalition cannot measure the level of security to within a factor of 10? How can the US and Britain pretend they understand the level of resentment in Iraq if they are not sure if, on average, one in 80 families have lost a household member, or one in seven, as our study suggests?

If these two countries have triggered an episode more deadly than the Rwandan genocide, and have actively worked to mask this fact, how will they credibly be able to criticise Sudan or Zimbabwe or the next government that kills thousands of its own people?

For longer than the US has been a nation, Britain has pushed us at our worst of moments to do the right thing. That time has come again with regard to Iraq. It is wrong to be the junior partner in an endeavour rigged to deny the next death induced, and to have spokespeople effectively respond to that death with disinterest and denial.

Our nations' leaders are collectively expressing belligerence at a time when the populace knows they should be expressing contrition. If that cannot be corrected, Britain should end its role in this deteriorating misadventure. It is unlikely that any historians will record the occupation of Iraq in a favourable light. Britain followed the Americans into this débâcle. Wouldn't it be better to let history record that Britain led them out?

(The writer is an Associate Professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health)

5. America's View of Republicans Crumbles in Iraq -- by Thomas F. Schaller/Baltimore Sun (Maryland)

According to the latest Gallup survey, Republican self-identification has declined nationally and in almost every American state. Why? The short answer is that President Bush's war of choice in Iraq has destroyed the partisan brand Republicans spent the past four decades building.

That brand was based upon four pillars: that Republicans are more trustworthy on defense and military issues; that they know when and where markets can replace or improve government; that they are more competent administrators of those functions government can't privatize; and, finally, that their public philosophy is imbued with moral authority. The war demolished all four claims.

In uniform or out, Americans think Iraq is a disaster, oppose escalation and blame Mr. Bush and his party for the mess in Mesopotamia. Heading into the 2006 mid-terms, polls showed Republicans trailing Democrats as the party most trusted to handle Iraq and terrorism. Nationally, Mr. Bush's war approval ratings hover around 30 percent.

Military members are skeptical, too. A Military Times poll released in December revealed that only 35 percent of military members approved of the president's handling of the war - despite the fact that 46 percent of them are self-identified Republicans (down from 60 percent in previous Military Times polls) while just 16 percent are Democrats. According to a recent Zogby survey of troops serving in Iraq, 72 percent want American forces home within a year.

Congressional hearings last week on war contracting dispel the second claim. Billions of dollars appropriated for Iraq cannot be accounted for, and contracts have been doled out with limited oversight and little regard for competitiveness.

Robert Greenwald's powerful documentary Iraq for Sale exposes many of the absurdities. You wouldn't sign a three-year, $250,000 lease for a vehicle you could buy outright for $50,000, but our government does. The "cost-plus" procurement protocol pays contractors a fixed percentage on top of whatever they spend, encouraging them to spend as much and as inefficiently as possible. So rather than vehicles with minor mechanical damage being repaired, many are junked in favor of expensive replacements.

Meanwhile, the same troops Mr. Bush brags he will do "whatever it takes" to support often wait in two-hour chow lines, or shower in bacteria-contaminated water. "The hearings and the introduction of legislation, while long overdue, will begin to have an immediate effect on those who have been ruthless and relentless in their profiteering," Mr. Greenwald says hopefully.

As for the third pillar - superior management skills - there's insufficient space on this page to revisit the myriad blunders made by America's civilian leaders.

Little foresight was given to post-invasion scenarios. Disbanding the Iraqi army was an early, colossal mistake. We had too few troops there, as L. Paul Bremer III, former civilian administrator of Iraq, later admitted. And the torture policies on view at Abu Ghraib gave terrorists a fantastic recruiting tool.

Notice, too, how management "success" has been steadily defined downward: from disarming an unarmed Saddam Hussein, to bringing liberation and democratization, to establishing basic security, to avoiding a domestic civil war, to "holding and clearing" Baghdad, to the current goal of preventing a regional conflagration that wouldn't be imminent had we not gone to Iraq in the first place. Talk about the soft bigotry of low - and lowering - expectations.

Finally, there is the war's morality. In what moral system is it justified to wage a war without paying for it? Mr. Bush tormented Sen. John Kerry in 2004 for "voting for before voting against" funding the war. But Mr. Kerry voted for a version of the $87 billion appropriation bill that also raised revenues to pay for it. Instead, we pile the war's costs atop our mountainous national debt, leaving future generations to pay for it later - plus interest.

The administration is asking for another $245 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan - an amount that, were it set aside and allowed to accrue interest, could pay the entire budget of a mid-size state like Maryland for almost a decade. This sum, too, will be added to America's giant credit card bill - an act of moral cowardice from the same White House that gives lectures about the sanctity of marriage and embryonic stem cells.

The Iraq war's human consequences abroad are far more tragic than any impact they are having on partisan politics at home. But for Republicans, the last casualty of Mr. Bush's war of choice may be the party itself.

(Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of " Whistling Past Dixie .")

6. Once the Most Beloved Country in the World, the US is Now the Most Hated
The American swagger has become bombast, the cocky GI a bully. But with luck the pendulum may be ready to swing back
By Jan Morris/ Guardian / UK

'Whisper of how I'm yearning", sang George M Cohan in one of the great American songs of nostalgia, "to mingle with the old time throng". Well, I'm yearning too, not for the gang at 42nd Street exactly, but for the America that Cohan was indirectly hymning - for the Idea of America, with a capital I, which once made the United States not just the most potent of all the nations but genuinely the most liked.

Perhaps, with a future new president already champing at the bit, we are about to witness its rebirth. As a foreigner I am immune to the rivalries or seductions of American party politics, but I have loved the old place for 60 years, and I simply pray for an American leader to give us back its baraka, as the Arabs say - nothing to do with religion or economics or power or even ideology, but the gift of being at once blessed and blessing.

Of course nobody can claim that the old dreams of America were ever perfectly fulfilled. They often let us down. They were betrayed by the national reputations for crime, corruption, racism and rampant materialism. Not all the presidents, God knows, were icons of virtue or even of glamour, and the benevolent Uncle Sam of the old cartoonists was more often interpreted, around the world, as a fat moron in horn-rimmed spectacles, chewing a cigar. Nobody's perfect, still less any republic.

But I think it is true that only in our time has the American Idea lost its baraka. A generation or two ago, most of us, wherever we lived, loved the generous self-satisfaction of it, if not in the general, at least in the particular. The GI was not then a sort of goggled monster in padded armour, but a cheerful fellow chatting up the girls and distributing candy not as a matter of policy, but out of plain goodwill - everyone's friendly guy next door. To millions of radio listeners around the world, the Voice of America was a voice of decency, and one could watch the lachrymose patriotic rituals of America - the hand on heart, the misty-eyed salute to the flag - with more affection than irony.

For myself, I responded to them all too sentimentally. Like Walt Whitman before me, I heard America sing! I relished the hackneyed old lyrics - Mine eyes have seen the glory, Thy word our law, Thy paths our chosen way, Oe'r the land of the free and the home of the brave, God bless America, land that I love ... Most of the words were flaccid, many of the tunes were vulgar, but as I heard them I saw always in my mind's eye, as Whitman did, all the glorious space, grandeur and opportunity that was America, Manhattan to LA. Sea, in fact, to shining sea.

In those days we did not think of American evangelists as prophets of political extremism - they seemed more akin to the homely convictions of plantation or village chapel than to the machinations of neocons. We bridled rather at the American assumption that the US of A had been the only true victor of the second world war, but most of us did not very deeply resent the happy swagger of the legend and danced gratefully enough to the American rhythms of the time. We thought it all seemed essentially innocent.

Innocent! Dear God! Half a century, and nobody thinks that now. Far from being the most beloved country on earth, today the US is the most thoroughly detested. The rot really started to set in, in my view, with Abraham Lincoln, one of the most admirable men who ever lived. He it was who saw in American glory the duty of a mission. America, he declared, was the last best hope of earth. The pursuit of happiness was not its national vocation, but the example of democracy. The more like the United States the world became, the better the world would be. No statesman was ever more sincere or kindly in his beliefs, but poor old Abe would be horrified to see how his interpretation of destiny has gone sour.

For the missionary instinct, which impelled Americans into so many noble policies, was to be perverted by power. Pace Lincoln, America was not necessarily the last best hope of mankind, and the knowledge that it has possessed unchallengable powers of interference has distorted its attitude to the world and cruelly damaged its image in return.

Isolationism was not a very estimable stance, but interfereism is not much more attractive. In humanity's eye, the swagger has become bombast and the cocky GI has become a bully.

But there is a difference between image and idea. One is a projection, the other an absolute. Public relations people, tabloid newspapers, spin doctors and entertainers can all fiddle with the image of America, but the idea of it remains constant - overlaid, perhaps, dormant, even forgotten, but always there. Everyone who visits America feels it - every package tourist returns to tell their neighbours how nice the Americans are, how different from their reputation. And what they are all sensing, half-hidden behind the image of America, is the presence of the Idea, with a capital I.

When I first went to the United States in the 1950s, I impertinently remarked to an archetypal guru, Chief Justice Felix Frankfurter, that what with Senator McCarthy and southern segregation, and civic corruption everywhere, I was not much impressed by the condition of America. Be patient, said the sage. America is like a pendulum, swinging from good to bad, from bad to good, and before long it will swing again.

He was right, and with luck, perhaps the pendulum is almost ready to swing back once more. Whatever we may think in our moments of despair, America is still a marvellous and lovable country whose patriotism can still be touching: try restraining a tear when you listen to Irving Berlin's setting of the words on the Statue of Liberty - the ultimate American text, with music by the emblematic American immigrant. The Great Republic is great still, full still of decent clever people trying to be good. Even now, it is as free as can be expected, and its democracy is fundamentally honest and robust. It laughs at itself, criticises itself and dislikes itself just as much as we do.

All it needs is someone with a key to unlock that Idea again, and I hope it will be that next president, whoever it is, even now gearing up for the election. Please God, may it be a poetic president. Inspiration has been the true engine of American success, and all its greatest presidents have been people with a divine spark. The dullards may have been efficient, respected or influential, but the Jeffersons and the Roosevelts, the Lincolns and the Kennedys have all been, in their different ways, artists.

So may it be a president with the key of original inspiration who can release the Idea from its occlusion. All the ingredients are still there, after all - the kindness, the imagination, the merriment, the will, the talent, the energy, the goddam orneriness, the plain goodness - all there waiting to burst out once more and bring us back our America, blessed and blessing too.

"Give our regards to old Broadway", sang Cohan, "And say that I'll be there ere long." So will we, so will we, just as soon as America comes home.

(Jan Morris is a historian, travel writer and former Guardian correspondent. Her first book was Coast to Coast: A Journey Across 1950s America and the most recent Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere)


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