All America's major wars in the modern era have been crusades fought against an "ism"; the Spanish-American War against Old World imperialism; the First World War against autocratic militarism; the Second World War against Fascism; and the Vietnam War against Communism. In all these instances Americans went to war not to protect themselves against a specific enemy but to rid the world of a universal evil.
Now we have the war against Terrorism, and America's reaction to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, especially its threat of war against Iraq, can only be understood properly as part of this tradition.
The tradition derives from Americans' ideas of themselves as a people born in democracy and freedom with a redemptive mission to spread these ideals to the rest of the world. Every President, at least since Abraham Lincoln, has reaffirmed this national gospel of America as the last best hope of mankind.
Most recently President George W. Bush in his inaugural address declared: "We have a place in a long story ... the story of a new world that became a friend and liberator of the old ... Through much of the last century America's faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations." Any challenge to America, then, has been seen in Manichean terms as a conflict between good and evil, liberty and slavery, democracy and tyranny.
But this way of dealing with war and history produces strange outcomes and creates great moral confusions. At the end of the Spanish-American War the US itself became an Imperial power; at the end of the First World War it turned its back on the League of Nations, its own prescription for making the world safe for democracy; at the end of World War Two it found that its Soviet ally in the struggle against Fascism was a greater enemy to liberty than either Germany or Japan; and in Vietnam where the people failed to rally to the cause of freedom it suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Communist peasants, and then reached an accommodation with the Sino-Soviet bloc.
After September 11 2001, America quite reasonably sought to punish those responsible for the deadly assaults on its citizens, and it mounted an offensive against al-Qaida and the Taliban regime that gave sanctuary to the enemy. This, however, was not an adequate answer. The violation of American innocence, especially since it involved iconic structures, stirred a deep nationalist impulse which could only interpret such an act as the work of demonic forces intent on confounding America's ideals and frustrating its destiny.
Thus the war against al-Qaida became a war against Terrorism. When the war was translated into an "ism" the question of who the enemy was became problematic. One person's terrorist is often another's "freedom fighter". Is the IRA a terrorist organisation? Are the Chechen guerrillas terrorists? For American purposes an "Axis of Evil" comprising hostile states was identified and Iraq, being at that time the most defiant of the unregenerate, was threatened with invasion. And this despite the fact that there was no demonstrable relationship between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein.
This second, potential, Gulf War is not at all like the first. In 1991 the Americans were defending a friendly state from Iraq's military aggression. They acted under the authority of the United Nations. All their European allies as well as the other Arab States in the Middle East gave their support. Not least of all, there was a proper Western interest at stake, namely to prevent the vast oil reserves of the region from coming under Saddam Hussein's control.
Profiting from their Vietnam mistakes, the triumphant Americans, in accordance with the wishes of the UN and their Arab allies, after expelling the Iraqis from Kuwait stopped at the border and forced Saddam Hussein to accede to conditions which still protect the Shi'ites and the Kurds from the worst excesses of his brutal rule.
What the present President is proposing is to fight a war that lacks all the ingredients that made his father's war, from almost every aspect, a good war. That is, it would be a war not against aggression but of aggression. It would be a war aimed at invading another country and overthrowing its government as well as destroying its putative weapons of mass destruction. If the UN will not bow to America's demands, it will act unilaterally.
The important Western allies are divided; only Britain offers unconditional support. The Arab states are, for the most part, opposed. The US has no precise interest in undertaking the invasion. If Saddam Hussein possesses biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, he would know that any attempt to use them would meet with massive retaliation. It would be his undoing. He is not a religious zealot. He does not have the mentality of a suicide bomber. Indeed, what might bring him to use such weapons could well be an attack on his country intended to accomplish his downfall.
Facing up to the problem of replacing Saddam's dictatorship, Washington first turned to the Iraqi exiles only to find that they were antagonistic to one another and hopelessly incompetent. The White House has since then contemplated placing Iraq under American military rule on the model of the successful occupation of Japan at the end of the Second World War. But at a minimum to make this work the US, to put it crudely, would have to drop an atomic bomb on Baghdad and find a common external enemy to enable the Iraqis to see the Americans as deliverers not oppressors.