America must share its imperial burden

Washington's perception of power has left it bewildered by the realities in Iraq
America knows how to win wars, but not how to win the peace. Of course, the removal of the Saddam regime has ended a murderous dictatorship. But two weeks on from the fall of Baghdad, Iraq remains in a mess. This is not just the inevitable disorder after a war. Americas postwar strategy is flawed because of a failure to accept the implications of its imperial role.

Merely to express such doubts risks being branded anti-American. The war has produced a crude division into for us or against us labels: on the one hand, contrasting good old Rummy against cheese-eating European allies of Saddam and, on the other hand, portraying President Bush and Saddam as somehow equivalent. The latter is more pernicious because of its moral bankruptcy, but the former involves a partisan suspension of critical faculties.

Those of us who backed the war as necessary to avoid Washington acting alone do not accept this means America right or wrong. Yet that is the trap in which Tony Blair has placed himself. He believes that the only way to influence Washington is to express doubts in private, behind a public face of unity. But this risks swallowing doubts in the hope that the overall balance is favourable. That claim is now looking increasingly strained.

The inherent tensions between British and American policies are becoming more open. Britain favours an international approach, while the Bush Administration, and particularly the Pentagon, wants to remake Iraq, and, in time, much of the rest of the Middle East, in an American image. What does this mean for the role of the United Nations in seeing whether there are weapons of mass destruction and in co-ordinating the future of Iraq? If war was ostensibly to enforce UN resolutions on removing the threat of such weapons, as Mr Blair argues, there is a strong case for UN involvement now. But the US is strongly opposed.

The underlying problem is about Americas view of power. The US has an enormous military advantage over any other country, but has resisted the use of its forces in peacekeeping and nation-building. This view has been characterised as Empire Lite by Michael Ignatieff in his new book of that title.

Ignatieff, from the human-rights Left, supported the Iraq war. He argues that the failure of many post-colonial states, and the wider threats they pose, justify such intervention. But that requires a long-term commitment of money and advice to encourage the development of local institutions and the rule of law. This is more important in the short term than endless elections, as Paddy Ashdown has argued from his experience as High Representative in Bosnia. Yet, as Ignatieff argues, in Afghanistan, the American strategy of high-level bombing allied to bribery of war lords has left the latter in control of much of the country outside Kabul. Life has improved, but the West has not lived up to its promises of financial aid.

From the Right, Niall Ferguson, the author a recent book and TV series on Empire, also highlights Pax Americana, the empire that dare not speak its name. There has been a lengthy, but ultimately, futile debate about whether America, a superpower, or hyperpower, is also an empire. Most Americans hate the label, wanting to believe in the spirit of 1776. Unlike the 19th-century empires, the US is not acquiring territory. But it is reshaping the world. American military power was decisive in Bosnia in 1995, in Kosovo in 1999, in Afghanistan in 2001 and, now, in Iraq, with limited, mainly British support (and also from France in the first two cases).

However, in each of these cases, the long-term military and humanitarian commitment has come from European countries, whether under the guise of Nato, or the EU in the case of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. British commanders were privately critical of US troops in Kosovo for being more interested in protecting their own forces than peacekeeping.

In Iraq, now, American politicians and commanders have been ill-prepared and bewildered by the disorder and the hostility to US rule shown by some Iraqis. There were insufficient forces to keep order and curb looting in Baghdad. Officials are reported to have been surprised by the strength of the Shias, as shown by the pilgrimage by hundreds of thousands to Karbala. With the fall of the Baath party, the mosques represent the main alternative power centre, with deeper local roots than Ahmad Chalabi, the Pentagons favourite. This is not what Washingtons neo-conservatives have in mind.

America needs to share its imperial burden, not just with Britain but more generally. Other countries and international institutions need to be involved if the Middle East is not to be made more unstable. This requires a change in attitudes and rhetoric, in Washington and especially Paris, where President Chirac has failed to remember that de Gaulle always knew when to end disputes with the US. The Bush Administration needs to live up to its public comments about implementing the road map for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, in the face of increasingly vocal opposition from many Republicans.

Mr Blair understands these dilemmas. But he is constrained by being the farthing in the penny-farthing bicycle of the alliance, as Lord Hurd of Westwell has said. He needs to spell out Britains postwar policies, if necessary to acknowledge disagreements with Washington, to avoid being dragged along in the wake of the US.

Britain can no longer pretend to be the bridge between Europe and the US. Mr Blair either speaks for Britain or, where possible, in alliance with other countries as part of a common EU foreign policy. Yes, Britain should be a candid friend of America. But candour should not require the suppression of British interests when, occasionally, these clash with American interests.