As America's war drums beat ever louder, the Bush administration has embarked
upon an unprecedented exercise in diplomatic softening-up. Under the fashionable
rubric of 'public diplomacy', the White House is aiming to legitimize war in Iraq
by explaining to a global audience the selfless idealism of the American way.
While Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld appeal to the 'kick-ass' militarism of the
US mainstream, new more subtle pro-American radio stations and cable channels
proliferate throughout the Middle East. In Washington, the urgent need to challenge
hostile media perceptions has seen the public diplomacy spin unit moved from the
State Department to the White House West Wing.
Yet none of this will make the slightest difference. As this week's coverage
has shown, America will continue to be resented as brash, imperialistic and arrogant.
There can be no global improvement in the United States 'brand' so long as George
W. Bush remains President. For with a resonance apparent in few other republics,
the bearer of the US presidency defines the American image. With Reagan it was
the frontier spirit, with Bush senior East Coast Waspishness. The current President
Bush regards himself as America's Churchill, but he is in fact heir to a far less
attractive aspect of the Anglo-American heritage - Puritanism.
From the landing of the Mayflower, those Pilgrims who fled the tyranny and
irreligion of Stuart England believed they were establishing a new moral order.
America was to be the Promised Land, the New World free from the decayed corruption
of courtly Europe. Its virgin wilderness offered a modern Garden of Eden. And
the model piety of the Puritan settlers would act as a beacon for the fallen old
world to follow. America was unique and its people blessed.
Across the centuries the Puritan spirit, which helped foster an incredible
economic dynamism, a self-righteous moral certainty and, in seventeenth century
Salem (as later in the hands of Joseph McCarthy), a frightening propensity to
crush free-thinking, has remained quietly resilient in American political discourse.
Now in the character of George Bush, and most spectacularly in the form of Attorney
General John Ashcroft, it has come to dominate America's public image.
Bush's presidency was built on Puritan legend. He placed the story of his own
personal redemption at the heart of his political narrative. As Clinton was the
boy from a broken home who battled against an alcoholic step-father, Bush was
the man who at the age of 40 saw the light. His youthful alcoholism, his rumored
drug abuse, and his numerous arrests were forgotten as he swapped the bottle for
Bible study with librarian wife Laura. Dubya had lived and loved in darkness but
he saw the error of his ways, embraced the Lord and the slate was wiped clean.
A true Pilgrim's Progress.
Brilliantly, the Bush campaign projected the morality of this Puritan journey
on to the American body politic. After the decadent excesses of the Clinton years,
it was, as Bush repeated over and again, 'time to scrub the Oval Office clean'.
America had to purify the Presidency if it was to reclaim its status as the Promised
Once in power, the Puritan culture flourished. John Ashcroft undermined centuries
of church-state separation by demanding his office staff join him in Bible readings.
Inside the White House, Bush insisted on smart dress and smart manners and in
contrast to Clinton's late-night policy rambles he rose early each day for a two-hour
work-out. According to accounts published in the New York Times, a glamorous evening
with President Bush consists of 'dinner at seven, coffee on the Truman Balcony
and bed by 10'. Where Clinton reveled in the metropolitan intellectualism of Martha's
Vineyard, Bush has made the bleak philistinism of Crawford, Texas, his spiritual
Such puritan mores were of amusing if parochial interest until the events of
11 September. In the administration's ensuing reprisals on the Taliban and broadening
'war on terror' against al-Qaeda, Bush claimed to have realized the divine calling
of his presidency. He was involved not in a legitimate defense of the national
interest but a Manichean struggle between good and evil, black and white, fear
and freedom. In language strikingly redolent of his Puritan forebears, Bush accepted
it was his destiny to fight 'this crusade, this war on terrorism'. The President
declared himself and the nation engaged in a life and death struggle with 'the
evil one', Osama bin Laden. A man who was not simply a terrorist with messianic
delusions, but 'an incredibly evil man'.
As crusades have a habit of doing, the war on terror has widened its remit.
Bush is now committed to conquering an entire 'axis of evil' as sinful, backward
and fallen as Puritans once regarded the old world. And according to Defense Secretary
Rumsfeld, the White House is ready to do this with or without old world, European
support. America has rediscovered its unique, special calling - to drain the swamp
of terrorism and 'let in the light' of Western democracy and free market economics.
The Puritan heritage of unilateral moral righteousness has resurfaced as never
This hubristic moral certainty now defines the global image of the United States.
Across the world, post-11 September sympathy is evaporating as Bush embarks on
a unilateral war on terror which interprets geopolitics as a seismic struggle
between good and evil. A struggle which would in the Pentagon world view have
regarded the armed resistance of the African National Congress (ANC) as evil just
as it now believes Ariel Sharon to be 'a man of peace'.
But behind the Puritan righteousness, there is as ever the whiff of hypocrisy.
As recent reports have indicated, if in the early days of the administration Bush
hadn't been so concerned with rubbishing the Clinton legacy rather than following
up intelligence reports, or John Ashcroft hadn't prioritized combating pornography
above fighting global terrorism, Osama bin Laden and the al- Qaeda network might
have been dealt a lethal blow.
Yet just as debilitating for America's long-term global interests is the damage
Bush is doing to the predominantly progressive legacy of American political history.
Among the anti-globalization European young and across much of the Arab world,
the radicalism and inspiration of the American story is being pushed out by impressions
of big business, unchecked militarism and imperial hegemony.
It isn't just a question of forgetting America's extraordinary force for good
throughout most of the twentieth century. Rather, Bush is endangering a greater
legacy: the revolutionary idealism of George Washington and the enfranchising
liberalism of the founding fathers, who sent the language of autonomy and self-respect
around the world. A political language that secured human rights and peacefully
undercut authoritarian regimes across the centuries. Equally at risk is the introspective
spiritualism of the American tradition. In an administration over-shadowed by
oil and B52s, the individualism of Henry D. Thoreau as well as the humanitarian
dignity of his intellectual heir, Martin Luther King, is forgotten. America's
legacy of civil society, of environmental activism, women's rights and identity
politics will count for naught with a President who snubs the Earth summit while
unilaterally planning war on Iraq.
America's progressive heritage, its surest route to a positive global reception,
is being jettisoned by the regressive Puritanism of the Bush White House. Yet
the President blunders on incredulous at any expression of disquiet. The worst
move he could now make is to relocate those charged with 'selling America' from
the State Department to the West Wing. For it is Secretary of State Colin Powell
who alone in this grisly administration manages to embody a remaining vestige
of America's true greatness.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002