War in Iraq revealed the likely limits to American imperial power

Saddam Hussein’s arrest provided a long overdue, and desperately needed, morale-booster for the American and British governments. The fact that they had succeeded in finding neither Saddam nor Osama bin Laden had lent an air of ridicule to American military grandiloquence. The failure to capture Saddam spoke eloquently of an occupation that had veered far off course from the confident predictions that had been made at the time of the invasion.

We will have to wait and see what the longer-term effect of Saddam’s arrest proves to be. Combined with Libya’s new contrition, it should, for a period at least, ease some of the domestic pressure on Bush and perhaps even Blair. But it seems unlikely that it will change much, especially where it matters most, on the ground in Iraq.

It is salutary to reflect on how the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent course of the occupation have tempered the ambitions and expectations of the Bush administration. We may now live in the era of American hyperpower and a new kind of American imperial ambition, but Iraq has served to demonstrate some of the likely limits to that power.

First, American unilateralism has come at a price. Far from commanding more or less universal acquiescence in its power and message – as happened with the first Gulf war – the invasion has provoked a reaction which has resulted in the appearance of new global fault lines. The most dramatic of these has been the schism between France and Germany on the one hand and the US on the other, a divide which calls into question the purpose and durability of the western alliance. Few would have thought that France and Germany would have had the courage or independence of mind and spirit to oppose the US, but that is exactly what they did.

Opposition, moreover, was not confined to the European powers. Russia was of similar mind, notwithstanding the fact that ever since the days of Boris Yeltsin, a man of ignominious and tainted memory, it had chosen to side with the US on issues of major import. China trod the same course, wearing Hush Puppies, desperate not to be noticed, because while there could be no doubt where China’s true sentiments lay, the world’s next superpower is playing a very long game, one of the longest history has ever known, subordinating temptation and instinct to its strategic desire not to alienate the US in the course of its breathless economic transformation.

Nor should we forget the manner in which the invasion has polarised public opinion in the vast majority of the countries of the world – including those nations like Italy, Spain, Japan and South Korea, whose governments supported the coalition partners – against the US, such that it is now more unpopular than it has ever been in the theatre of global opinion.

Second, the military opposition to the American occupation has confounded all expectations: no sooner had President Bush declared the war over and Iraq subdued than the real war seemed to start. The full repertoire of imperial responses to rebellion by a local population has been rehearsed: that these were the remnants of Saddam’s regime, or criminals, or al-Qaida sympathisers who had slipped over the border. As with Eoka, the Mau Mau, the Vietcong, the IRA, and countless others before, there has never been any admission that the guerrilla forces, motley, primitive and disorganised as they may be, enjoy popular support, bear the imprimatur of legitimacy invested in those nationalist forces who resist invading powers.

As time has passed, and the intensity of the opposition has grown, it has become clear that the opposition is far more diffuse and homegrown than has been admitted, enjoying widespread support, especially in central and northern Iraq. Saddam’s capture is unlikely to make much difference to this.

And who should be surprised? The second half of the last century was the era of successful anti-colonial struggles, culminating in the Vietnamese liberation movement. People do not like being occupied from afar by countries of different cultures and races, though the new American imperial hubris – like many before – convinced the Bush administration and our own prime minister that the coalition troops would be greeted like a liberating army, that the people of Iraq yearned for our values and our way of life.

Iraq has already demonstrated that American public opinion does not have the stomach for a prolonged occupation, that the Bush administration cannot afford the body bags, and that therefore their Iraqi appointees will have to assume, sooner rather than later, many of the frontline responsibilities. The occupation of Iraq has taught the US, not to mention the world, that overweening military power is not invincible, but on the contrary, is as vulnerable as ever when it tries to occupy another people’s country. Such was, and remains, the lesson of anti-colonial struggle.

Third, it seems possible, even probable, that further American imperial ambitions – as encapsulated in the so-called “axis of evil” – have been laid to rest, at least for the time being, in the streets of Baghdad, Samarra, Tikrit and neighbouring towns. There was much speculation in the early part of this year about which country would be next – Iran or North Korea. With the occupation of Afghanistan looking increasingly fragile – and more and more vulnerable – and the Iraqi guerrilla opposition obliging an imminent American retreat, at least of a kind, it is difficult to imagine the Americans taking on either of these regimes in the near future. Indeed, there has already been a marked shift in the mood music from the days of Rumsfeld’s high noon, with the Americans increasingly looking to China to assist with North Korea, and a clutch of other countries to defuse Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Fourth, as with all imperial endeavours, there has been much moralising about democracy, human rights and justice. It was ever so, but no more so than now. Yet these values have, as in the past, been the first casualties of imperial ambition. There are countless stories of the way in which American troops shoot first and ask questions later. The Americans don’t even bother to count the number of Iraqi dead. When Bush and Blair insist that the Iraqis should determine Saddam’s fate, by Iraqis they mean their own quisling Iraqi regime. The Guantanamo camp is an affront to human rights worldwide. Civil rights have been rolled back in the US in the name of the fight against terror. And, of course, there are no weapons of mass destruction: truth is the first casualty of war – and imperial ambition. It is difficult to imagine the US and Britain ever enjoying the same kind of respect again in their claim to be the mantle of democracy and human rights.

None of this is to suggest that we do not live in the age of the American imperium. Following 9/11, we have witnessed the birth of a new American unilateralism and self-interest to which every country in the world has been, and is being, obliged to respond and relate. Iraq is the first true test of that American imperial ambition and it has already served to suggest some of the limits to that power.