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DIARY – Scottish Review of Books
by Alex Massie


October 28, 2009 | by Alex Massie

The Diary of a Chicken Hawk

I DID NOT NEED to make a return trip to Scotland recently to be aware of just how unpopular George W Bush is these days. Not that he was ever a pin-up boy for many Scots in the first place of course. Still, the casual assumption that the President is incompetent at best and a war criminal at worst, and the manner in which such assumptions are so casually dropped into conversation by the very least politically minded folk without any fear or notion that these sentiments might not command universal agreement, surprised me more than perhaps it should have.

It is still, even now, too soon to say whether the decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s vile regime was the correct one. What can be said with some certainty is that blundering has made the task of winning Iraq much more difficult than it might have been. Even the war’s more ardent supporters have, if they are honest with themselves, found themselves asking if it was worth it or not.

At the back of my mind there is another niggling doubt. It is distasteful in the extreme to think that George Galloway might have a point. But when he raises the now familiar “chicken hawk” argument a little part of me quivers with agreement. The fact that I would make a useless soldier and am in any case too old to volunteer might excuse me from joining the army but not, perhaps, from failing to travel to Iraq to report on the war and its aftermath.

It’s not enough, I think, to say that my mother would have been desperately distressed had I gone to Iraq. No, not travelling to Iraq must, I think, count against one at some level. If nothing else abstract theories about the war ought to be measured against how the country seems to be in reality. And I’m sympathetic to this view for another reason too: those of us who support military action should, if we can, at some point see at least some of the consequences of that action.

There are several fears at work here. First the obvious physical doubts about survival in a hostile, unfamiliar territory, second a degree of what in darker moods I can only call moral cowardice and third, much later, a fear that I might enjoy it too much.

So why haven’t I been? And why, when not going to Iraq does not seem to bother many other supporters of the war who are in a position to do so, should it be troubling me?

Dipping into Teddy Roosevelt’s memoirs did little to reassure me. In the first paragraph of his account of the Spanish-American war he exclaims that “While my party was in opposition, I had preached, with all the fervour and zeal I possessed, our duty to intervene in Cuba…Now that my party had come to power, I felt it incumbent on me, by word and deed, to do all I could to secure the carrying out of the policy in which I so heartily believed; and from the beginning I had determined that, if a war came, somehow or other, I was going to the front.”

Is it any wonder that TR is the hero of so many neoconservatives and anyone else who still believes in that charmingly old-fashioned idea of “national greatness”?

Scotland could do with an injection of the Bull Moose’s zeal and belief in the country’s potential. Roosevelt was not afraid to talk about “the honour and prosperity of the country” and use those twin considerations as the guiding stars of his administration. In that light, if none other, Henry McLeish understood something about leadership that Jack McConnell does not. Mere competence is not enough – and often hoping for even that can seem like wishful thinking – but people want to be inspired too. Indeed, such are the swings and roundabouts of political fortune that shares in McLeish should be due to rise soon.

Roosevelt should also be required reading for journalists. To wit: “Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable; but it can never take the place of action, or be even a poor substitute for it. The function of the mere critic is of very subordinate usefulness.

“It is the doer of deeds who actually counts in the battle for life, and not the man who looks on and says how the fight ought to be fought, without himself sharing the stress and the danger.”

Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys and any of the other assorted blowhards and puffed-up opinion makers who relish pouring cynicism into the public square could, just occasionally, remember this. Having written plenty of editorials myself, I know the truth in a quip made, I think, by HL Mencken to the effect that leader writers are the folks hiding in the hills who only come down to the battlefield to stab the wounded once the battle is over.

It is a conceit much enjoyed by British hacks that our newspapers are much better than their American counterparts. By this we generally mean that ours are more entertaining and less, well, boring. This is generally true. But British newspapers – even the so-called qualities – are also much more juvenile than the leading American blatts.

Exhibit A: the so-called story of President George W Bush hearing the voice of God commanding him to invade – and liberate – Afghanistan and Iraq. The Independent and Guardian both illustrated this old, non-story with pictures of Mr Bush’s head framed by bright lights in such a way as to suggest a halo was hovering above him. At best this was sophomoric and, in the Guardian’s case at least, a betrayal of the seriousness with which it takes itself and customarily lectures the rest of the country.

These were interesting photographs in another sense. Christian suspicion of the “liberal” media exists on both sides of the Atlantic, just, characteristically, more quietly in Britain. One of the odder aspects of liberal media coverage of religious matters is that Christianity may, indeed should, be laughed at whereas Islam must be treated with respect if not even reverence. I find it impossible to believe that the Guardian or Independent would use a photograph that mocked any Muslim leader – or Osama bin Laden himself – in the way that they chose to have some fun at the expense of Mr Bush’s faith.

Maybe they just demand more of the United States? Perhaps, but that’s just another way of demanding less of Islamic leaders. Maybe the Guardian simply cannot bring itself to expect better from Islamic societies and so lets them off the hook while condemning each and every American (and, for that matter, Israeli) excess. This is what Mr Bush, in another context, once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

One other point: Mr Bush is said to have told the Palestinian leadership that he has a moral and religious obligation to further the cause of a Palestinian state. How can this be so if he is in Ariel Sharon’s pocket and the puppet of a cabal of neoconservative (ie Jewish) advisors at home?

Any visitor to Washington expecting to be wowed by a sense of imperial grandeur will only be half-satisfied. The buildings – even the bad ones – are constructed on a properly thunderous scale of course, but the truth, never revealed to the busloads of tourists from

Missouri and Tennessee before they arrive to clog the Mall each summer, is that Washington’s greatest monuments sit in a setting that brings to mind Frank Lloyd Wright’s comment on seeing the proliferation of ugly apartment buildings in San Francisco half a century ago: “Only a place this beautiful could survive what you people are doing to it.”

The National Mall itself is in a state of disrepair. A place that should be as perfectly maintained as the Tuileries is a shabby, ill-kempt disgrace that looks as though it has not seen a proper gardener in years. There is nowhere to eat properly, few lavatories, no maps, and only an accidental sense of history.As Andrew Ferguson put it in the neoconservative (careful, no need to frighten the children) Weekly Standard earlier this summer, “One doesn’t have to spend too much time on the national mall – the place of resort for public walks that Pierre L’Enfant, the capital’s designer, dreamed of – before one begins to detect a certain lack of hospitality.”

For residents this is just about acceptable. The Mall remains a place for summer softball, jogging and occasional romance. But it must, and too frequently is, a severe disappointment to visitors.

Nor is the Capitol itself much better. Any visitor can only be depressed by the roadblocks and breeze blocks that clutter the Hill, fostering a sense of siege and a palpable sense that America is on the defensive in this war against Islamic extremism/“fascism with an Islamic face” as Christopher Hitchens memorably described it.

The Scottish Parliament is not, as the Lord and his servants know, without its critics. Architecturally it seems that, as with the French Revolution, it is too soon to say whether it is a success or not. The absurd fuss over its cost could perhaps be put in some perspective however. As noted before, half of Capitol Hill is a construction site. Among the projects underway is the construction of a massive subterranean visitor centre which is currently years late and massively over budget. The project is closing in on the $500m mark with no end in sight. This, remember, is for a visitor centre that will, like almost all visitor centres, do little to improve the “visitor experience.” It may be ready to open next year.

So: does this suggest that many, maybe even most, government projects are destined to finish late and over-budget or that the fuss over the cost of the Scottish Parliament, whatever one thinks of its architectural merits, demonstrated a feeble narrowness of mind? Or both?

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