It was to the Group of 20 summit in St Petersburg that the Nobel peace laureate, Barack Obama, turned in hope: he came, he saw, but failed, signally, to conquer enough hearts and minds among the assembled heads of state and government to follow him down his Damascene road, bombs and missiles in tow. The global economy should have held centre-stage; instead, Syrian dramatics dominated the scene. France, haunted by her defeat and surrender to Nazi Germany in 1940, shamed surely by the voluntary dispatch of her Jewish population to the Holocaust that awaited them at Auschwitz, Treblinka et al, has been attempting, ever since, to exculpate this historic humiliation and its guilt-ridden aftermath with small wars against obliging casts of the weak: Egypt over Suez in 1956, Libya more recently, plus a spate of conflicts in its former West African bailiwick. There is no Napoleon in Paris now, only a ventriloquist’s dummy in the Elysees echoing his master’s voice.
Obama, with his glib sales pitch, cleaves stubbornly to the well-worn script of America’s Manifest Destiny: its divine right to chastise the lesser breeds without the law, as and when he, as American president, sees it fit to do so. Campaigns of the United States of America in the past opened with similar heraldic calls to action, and supportive choleric salvos from corporate Citizen Kanes. Thunderous philippics — the ritual invocations of the Calvinist elect — have become integral to this absurdist theatre, their lines and postures fatiguing and worrisome. The Monroe Doctrine in 1823 was the prologue. Then, mid-century, Uncle Sam expended strength and ambition in acquiring from Mexico the prized territories of Texas, New Mexico (a wounding label) and California, before seizing Spain’s Caribbean colonies in the war of 1898, and its Philippine archipelago a decade later. Filipino leaders, encouraged to set up their own standard against the Spanish occupiers, with ringing references to the US’s war of independence and the holy writ that is the American constitution, soon discovered an outsized python in their midst from across the ocean, wrapping its coils round their body politic and swallowing it whole. “Hegel,” commented Marx, somewhat inaccurately, “remarks somewhere that all the great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” There can be no laughter amid the swollen tears of lost lives, the lost heritage of ancestral lands, mountains and forests and lost memories and traditions, leading eventually to the most complete genocide in human history of entire Indian communities of the North American plain. These melded themes shaped the US’s Iraqi narrative from 2003 onward, when the George W. Bush administration’s force majeure against Saddam Hussein’s autocratic Ba’athist regime reduced Iraq to its fragmented parts, a sectarian hell-hole and torture chamber whose rendition took tortured and torturers alike to distant climes, to Guantanamo, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Poland. Many of the torturers, it transpired, had been introduced to their black arts in Vietnam, honing their skills, thereafter, with US-backed death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador and with US-funded Contras in Nicaragua, leaving a desolation behind them and calling it peace.
Iraq was served up for the imperial high table with an appetizer: the prolix, spitfire United Nations address of the then secretary of state, Colin Powell, on Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” lacked only this engaging conclusion: “As I was going up the stair,/ I met a man who wasn’t there./He wasn’t there again today./ I do so wish he’d go away.” The solemn performance of the secretary of state, John Kerry, was a tawdry pantomime of Powell. The US’s ready call on amnesia regarding the use of its own chemical weapons in Vietnam and Iraq is a sore subject, violating, as it does, the sanctified self-image of the city on a hill, and a light unto the nations, each a heartbeat to favoured American disquisitions. Worse: the US is the only country in the world to have used nuclear weapons, dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Authorized explanations would have us believe that the end justified the means, that lives had been saved, and that World War II in the Pacific had been brought to an earlier conclusion than forecast. The following statement by the five-star Admiral William D. Leahy, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff (and the combined American-British chiefs of staff) and a friend of President Harry S. Truman contradicted hallowed fiction: “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war with Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.” An equally shocked and saddened General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied expeditionary force in Europe, echoed these dark sentiments. The truth is that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the starter’s signal for a cold war predicated on the mistaken assumption that the Soviet Union was ready for intimidation to American diktat. It simply speeded up the manufacture of the Soviet bomb and the subsequent balance of terror that was to haunt humankind.
Like Obama, another American Nobel peace laureate, the US national security advisor (subsequently secretary of state), Henry Kissinger, and his president, Richard Nixon (picture), sought to put uppity Indira Gandhi in a place appropriate to her situation as prime minister of a basket case during India’s war of 1971 with Pakistan. The backdrop of this conflict — the Pakistan military’s genocide in East Pakistan, is unsparingly revisited by the Princeton academic, Gary Bass, in The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide. Its pages lay bare the cynical realpolitik that informed the Nixon administration’s India policy. Teaming up with the Chinese chairman, Mao Zedong, and the premier, Zhou Enlai, Nixon and Kissinger, the quartet made clear their contempt for India’s leaders in a dialogue notable also for its condescending observations on the country’s feckless, poverty-stricken inhabitants. The state department’s published record of these exchanges under the title, “Kissinger Transcripts”, is well worth a read. The good doctor tried unsuccessfully to inveigle China to open a second front against India along its Himalayan border as a means of foiling India and relieving the pressure on their hard-pressed client, Pakistan; Beijing, fearfully aware of the massed Soviet formations on its own vulnerable frontier, declined the carrot. Both powers were to collude later in Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in their bid to keep India cabined, cribbed and confined to the subcontinent, which alignment and goal are vouchsafed by an American War College paper in 2006. The tumult against Iran’s alleged drive to attain nuclear weapon capability should in justice be no more than a whisper. Islamabad’s proliferating nuclear arsenal, made possible by a cornucopia of US and Saudi military and financial aid, may soon have the missiles to power warheads to far-flung corners of the earth, including Washington and Armageddon. Should this, heaven forbid, materialize, the Monster will have kept its tryst with Dr Frankenstein in Shiva’s fearsome dance of death.
Kissinger’s massive tome, White House Years, including its pharisaical justifications of the US stance, was so “replete with mendacity and conceit”, that the late Christopher Hitchens, enfant terrible of British scribes, reviewing the work “swore never to read another book by Henry Kissinger until the publication of his prison letters”. I.F. Stone, the doyen of radical American columnists, provided the most enduring epitaph to the machination of American and Chinese diplomacy: “The world has seen strange bedfellows before but never in a stranger and bloodier bed.” Not surprisingly Kissinger, and the kindred Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to the then president, Jimmy Carter, vigorously espouse a Sino-American condominium in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, maybe. The Polish American Brzezinski is especially dismissive of India’s irritating conflation of its unrealistic regional and global aspirations. India has clearly not digested the self-evident truth enshrined in the new tablets from Sinai, that all men may indeed be equal but some, alas, are more equal than others.
We end where we began: with the threatened American strike against Syria and the message it conveys. The American republic, in its 234-year history, has fought 70 wars, of which 10 have been large ones. War is the US’s abiding passion, even as the evening shadows fall on a misbegotten empire. The UN secretary general, the pope and numerous other luminaries have warned against the unforeseen consequences of a multidimensional conflict in the Syrian vortex. Their words of cautionary wisdom failed, initially, to evoke the desired response, but Russia’s intervention has induced a wise pause. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan: America’s Bourbons have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. Nemesis looms menacingly over imperial hubris.