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End of American intervention?

Mark Mardell | 22:42 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

US_soldiersThe last US combat brigade has left Iraq. I am preparing a TV piece ahead of the formal end of the mission.

I think my focus is going to be on how it has, or hasn't, changed America's attitude to war, and how the rest of the world sees the US.

One big question it raises, which has long fascinated me, is the whole idea of liberal interventionism.

At a seminar this week organised by the Centre for a New American Security, I was struck by a remark by the current Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Michael Corbin.

My notes are not verbatim but he said something along the lines that for 50 years Iraq had been a negative force in the region, a destructive role and now was in partnership with other countries, a model for laws on civil society, a democracy, decentralized, where not state planning but the private sector was in charge.

It struck me that this statement from an official in the Obama administration was rather close to the standard "neo con" justification for going to war in the first place, that Iraq would not only be a better place itself but a beacon for the region.

Tony Blair's free prime-time advertising campaign for his new book also reminded me of the former UK prime minister's commitment to the idea of liberal interventionism, as set out in his Chicago speech of 1999.

The matter of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction can hardly be put to one side, but I have little doubt he wanted regime change in Iraq for many other reasons.

Those who believe in what I am calling liberal interventionism think it is the duty of the strongest military powers to stop bad people doing bad things, even to their own people.

I once asked Condoleezza Rice if she would justify the invasion of China on similar grounds.

Her reply was on the lines of "what we can do, we do". Realistic but not exactly reassuring to those in the People's Republic who believe in an inviolable nation state.

I also recall asking Blair on the eve of his departure from office whether this philosophy was not just a thin veneer for old style imperialism, the West imposing its way on "lesser breeds without the law" (as Kipling put it).

Sitting in the garden of Number 10, perhaps I spoilt my point by adding that it might be more believable if Sweden had been in charge of the invasion. His reply was understandably dismissive. "They don't have the forces."

That is sort of the problem. Those who have the forces, have the history.

Has war weariness perhaps killed off the desire to make the world a better place through military might?

Perhaps, but the impulse is deep.

Listening to the radio news reports of the Taliban stoning a couple to death for adultery arouses the ire of my children. "Why can't we stop them?" they ask.

Seeing the cover of Time magazine depicting a young woman's brutal punishment at the Taliban's hands prompts similar feelings in me that it would be great to be able to stop the torture.

Of course, these two pieces of barbarity happened recently, nine years after the American invasion, so perhaps point to the limits of "shock and awe".

It is, I think, a moral muddle which isn't debated enough. If you will excuse a slight, but not flippant, digression I have long been fascinated that the fiction of the greatest living sci-fi writer, Iain M Banks, revolves around a morally superior society, The Culture, clandestinely undermining its militaristic, sexist, brutal enemies, delighting in secretly dealing with the torturers.

Yet he is also a leading anti-war activist.

I've long thought about this but only recently seen a rather good essay by Alan Jacobs worrying away at the same problem.

I guess part of Banks's theme is the moral ambiguity that sustains his utopia and that he would say that America's wars were really about scarce resources (I am not sure about this) and George W Bush isn't a Mind (I am sure about this: he is not a morally superior super computer).

The bottom line, I suppose, is that while the Chelgrians are vile, the Taliban are real.

Fictional and philosophical reflections aside, has America lost its taste for intervention and if so, is the world a better, or worse, place as a result?

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