Anybody who has done some foreign reporting knows that the views of correspondents
on the nature of the crisis or war which has brought them to a particular place
tend to be similar. Day-to-day experience, constant discussion, and the weight
of numbers produce a consensus which only a few resist. Thus most of the correspondents
who covered Vietnam felt that the war was in some way wrong, a feeling reflected
in their stories, and thus today most of the correspondents who cover the conflict
between the Israelis and the Palestinians would agree that Sharon is more of an
obstacle to peace than Arafat. The point here is that the consensus is multinational
and, especially, that there is not that much divergence between Americans and
The picture painted for readers of, for example, the New York Times, Le Monde,
or the Guardian by the reporters on the spot in Israel and the territories is
in essentials the same. Comment, put together in the metropolis, is a very different
matter, as are the stories reporting on the views and decisions of policy makers
in capitals, above all Washington. But this argument from journalism on the ground
is of interest because it contradicts the notion that an almost genetic difference
can now be seen between Americans, as citizens of the imperial center, and non-Americans,
and it reminds us that we have been in similar situations in the past, long before
anybody was talking of the single superpower. The difference it suggests is not
that between Americans and everybody else but between the sensible conclusions
of people on the spot and the overly abstract, unreal and sometimes fantastical
conclusions of people in power.
The Vietnam war in Washington was a construct shaped by ideology and national
pride, constantly being refashioned by rival institutions, personalities, and
factions. The Vietnam war in Vietnam was a terrible fight in which men, women,
and children were extinguished every day, and that touched the consciences, sharpened
the minds, and inflamed the passions of those reporting the conflict. Although
less free to express their views publicly, soldiers, diplomats, and intelligence
people were affected in the same way. The views of the working press and others
on the ground in Vietnam, first that the war was being fought in the wrong way
and, later, that on balance it had better not be fought at all, did eventually
reach Washington and affect decisions there.
America is not of course fighting in the Middle East, and this administration's
refusal to fully engage is clear, yet most see success there as vital to its wider
interests. If the question that the press in Vietnam initially raised through
its reporting was "is this the right way to make war?" that for their successors
in Israel and Palestine is "is this the right way to make peace?" The answer of
the reporters today, with many nuances, is no, and they may be discreetly joined
in that by diplomats and others. But this skepticism, as President Bush's speech
this week makes clear, is not getting through to the center Elements of a response
to reality mingle with elements of what was so evident during the Vietnam years
- an insistence that reality conform to ideology or to the compromises worked
out between Washington schools and factions, and anger at those who point out
that it does not.
Thus the Bush administration does not ask whether it is possible that the Palestinians
pass through the eye of the needle in order to attain the heaven of a state, it
merely asserts that they must. It does not attend to the evident readiness of
the Sharon government to sabotage any progress toward a political settlement,
but assumes a goodwill in that respect which simply does not exist.
The Bush administration may be especially prone to fantasy in many fields.
The Republican campaign in opposition for national missile defense, based on the
claim that the right technology, with enough effort and money, was just around
the corner, has become in office an $8bn research program without the slightest
chance of producing an effective defense for years to come, the Carnegie Endowment
specialist Joseph Cirincione has argued convincingly. The administration has in
effect admitted as much by its new doctrine of preventative attack but the expensive
NMD program stays in place, soaking up resources that might contribute far more
effectively to American security if used in other ways.
Another example of fantasy at work is the American campaign against the international
criminal court, which could even undo the NATO peacekeeping forces in the Balkans.
There are legitimate concerns over how the ICC may operate, but the American demand
for immunity rests on the fantastical notion that the court would reward American
risks and sacrifices in peacekeeping by victimizing American personnel, a concept
as far from the purposes of the new institution as can be imagined.
American governments are of course not alone in being attached to unrealistic
doctrines or pursuing contradictory policies, and the resistance of rulers to
unwelcome news about what is actually happening on the ground is an old story.
The problem is only particularly American because of American primacy. This, you
might say, is always going on in government, as is the countervailing process
of slowly grasping that policy does not fit reality. It is on this possibility
that the present Palestinian leadership rests its remaining hopes. As when mediaeval
rebels used the device of blaming the monarch's advisers but not the monarch himself,
they have embraced the positive elements in the Bush speech and girded themselves
for the continuing fight to turn round the American establishment.
Vietnam was less critical for America than it seemed to be at the time. There
is reason to believe, by contrast, that Palestine could indeed be crucial in determining
whether we are entering an era of vicious irregular war or whether we can contrive
a round of settlements. The achievement of a viable Palestinian state could produce
a domino effect, to use Vietnam phrases, by changing the hearts and minds of men
and women in many societies.
The denial of such a state could bring a domino effect in the other direction.
The Bush administration, of course, thinks of the yet different domino effect
of giving in to terrorism, something that underlines the connections between the
Vietnam time and the present day. The Vietnam generation has been in charge for
a decade. Now that things have become truly serious on Bush's watch, it would
be a good idea to recall how hard it was, once upon a time in Washington, to sort
out the real facts from the rhetoric, how unready those in power were to listen
to voices that turned out to be telling the truth about how the war was going,
and how they made the mistake of casting the conflict in apocalyptic terms that
made changing policy all but impossible.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002