DURING the first six decades of her life, my mother — who died some years ago, in her early nineties — led an active life but it did not involve any travel outside Australia.

Her sixties and seventies, however, were decades of almost frenetic travel — the UK and Europe on a number of occasions, China three times, India, the Middle East, a ten-day hike in the Himalayas and sundry other destinations. The travel was always in small groups of similarly adventurous people and, as I best recall, most of her fellow-travellers were middle-aged and well short of her age.

On a couple of occasions I suggested to her that she visit the United States but she showed absolutely no disposition to do so. I explained that it was not all crude, brassy and “in your face” and referred to the magnificent galleries, the museums, the music, the theatre, the national parks, the elegant nooks and crannies of New England and the vibrant melange of New Orleans and the Deep South. But no, she side-stepped all that and headed again for points north and north-west.

She never really articulated why she continued to ignore the American holiday option but she was one of a generation of Australians who had an instinctive distaste for America and Americans. She would not have met or seen many Americans before World War II and didn’t see many then — Tasmania not being a major leave destination for American service personnel — but would have read a good deal about them in the press. And those Americans to whom Australians were exposed during the war would possibly not have represented the most sophisticated profile of American life. They would have been young soldiers on leave who were described by Australians at the time as “Over-paid, over-sexed and over here!” The majority may well have been charming, intelligent, well-educated young men but they are not the kind of visitors who are readily noticed. So Mum was never to visit the United States — although she had quite a few American friends in Australia — but continued to harbour suspicions, I think, of too many Americans being a bit brash, as purveyors of indigestible fast food, indigestible soft drinks and indigestible television programmes.

Cunning but awful

My thoughts turned to my mother’s view of America and Americans when I was reflecting on the awful mess they have created for themselves in Iraq. And that, in turn, led me to think about American presidents in my lifetime because George W. Bush has been such a disaster. FDR was brilliant; Truman was pretty good; Eisenhower was pedestrian but OK; JFK looked good but had a loose zipper and mafia friends; Johnson was cunning but awful and certainly crooked in his early days in the south (read Caro’s biography); Nixon was worse than awful; Ford was so thick that, according to Johnson, he couldn’t “walk and chew gum at the same time”; Carter was solid but pedestrian; Reagan did reasonably well by agreeing with some good advisors; Bush senior was pedestrian; Clinton was the best of the lot except that his zipper was nearly as loose as Kennedy’s; and Bush junior got lost somewhere in a thicket of neocons and an apparent deficiency of neurons or judgement or both.

In The Spectator of 18 March, 2006 Con Coughlin cites the military expert Sir John Keegan as rightly concluding “… that the military campaign to overthrow Saddam’s regime … was a brilliant success, achieving all its stated military objectives within the space of just 21 days.” That, however, was the only successful segment of the war. The Americans were good on the high-tech. brute force stuff but, perhaps not surprisingly, quite inept in accommodating the subtleties of the follow-up.

Coughlin rightly reminds us that “Operation Iraqi Freedom was not launched as part of a crusade to promote democracy and good governance, as some neocons would like us to believe. We went to war because of Saddam’s refusal, over a period of more than 12 years, to comply with a succession of United Nations resolutions that required the Iraqi regime to dismantle, and give a full account of, its weapons of mass destruction stockpiles which, under Saddam, it singularly failed to do.” This is an important point that is frequently forgotten as the Iraqi disaster struggles on — at a huge cost in terms of both dollars and deaths.

No less craven than Blair

Coughlin also makes the point that things may have been different had the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, been prepared to advise against “… the folly of trying to impose an alien political system on an occupied people.” Indeed, Coughlin stresses the point that, while Blair is known to have strong views on various matters related to Iraq, he has never sought to put those views to Bush. He has a “… visceral dislike of unpleasant confrontations” and thus “… the abiding image of the lapdog is one that is hard to dislodge.” In the event that John Howard is no less craven than Blair we have the Gilbertian farce of two lapdogs being non-advisers to a seemingly gormless President. God help the world, especially as Bush would assume God to be also on his side. We can only hope that George W. Bush will not have thought of pursuing Iran and North Korea — and perhaps others — as possible diversions before his presidential term is up.

Reflecting on all this I don’t think we should be overly surprised at Bush’s behaviour on Iraq. In other circumstances his primary source of advice on matters of this kind would have been the State Department which is normally, and overwhelmingly, the principal source of advice to the President and the Secretary of State on foreign policy matters. Clearly, in the case of GWB, he and his principal confidants — notably Vice President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and (now Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice — would seem to have assumed a direct advisory role in the foreign policy area. One might further assume from the mountains of paper already written on the topic that these three were the principal advisers in urging direct military action against the Saddam regime. The rest is history — they won the war in three weeks and have lost everything else in the ensuing years. I cannot imagine another President or Secretary of State in my life-time being even half as stupid. Were they all still alive, people like Marshall, Acheson, Dulles, Rusk and Albright would surely have been appalled at the rank stupidity of it all and Colin Powell chose to bail out, with great dignity, before being caught up in such folly.

Another reason why we should not be surprised is that we often forget how very young both the United States and Australia are. In Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South/Central America there have been advanced civilisations for many centuries. That has not been so in North America and Australia and, much as we might like to think otherwise, it shows. We are both very young countries. More importantly, we were both inclined for many generations to look inwards to develop our resources and because, in any event, we share no land borders and the Americans share only two borders, one to the north with Canada and one to the south with Mexico.

Cheek by jowl

Against that, the nations of Europe and elsewhere have been living cheek by jowl for many centuries. True, there have been conflicts of one kind or another — from border skirmishes to long and bloody wars — but there have been many more years of peace than there have of war. And living cheek by jowl also brings a feeling for survival and compromise and for reaching sensible collaboration with neighbours, otherwise known as diplomacy. Most nations, like most people, do not seek conflict but, rather, processes and periods of accommodation that allow people to get on with their lives in largely cohesive, co-operative societies. The Americans don’t have that background. They are, on the contrary, a marvellous pot-pourri of peoples from across the globe who have only evolved as a nation over a brief three centuries. They are new, fresh, brash and enormously affluent, albeit with severe distortions in terms of internal distribution. They are rich because, being young and vibrant, they rushed in where the old world feared to tread. And not always engagingly, they flaunted their success but that, in turn, has been leavened by a considerable generosity of spirit and of tangible assistance.

So, to me at least, it is not surprising that we are often wary of American motives because they are at once hypersensitive and hyperactive, generous in their view of the world and yet retaining a strong sense of fortress America. They look outwards with a complex mix of generosity and wariness; they look inwards with a no less complex mix of pride in their awesome achievements and, I hope, a sense of concern to address some distressing inequalities.

All nations have to live with the Americans and, for our part, we should seek to do so well and equally. To do that we should sit at their table — not at their feet. Recalling the earlier reference to Tony Blair’s handling of the Americans, if we are not open and honest with them then we are not good allies. In this context, we should remind ourselves that, in recent decades, we have followed the Americans into two lost causes — Vietnam and Iraq. Should there be another “next time” then it will be a very brave, and very short-term, Australian Prime Minister who commits Australian troops to a foreign war on grounds that Australians consider anything less than impeccable. Twice bitten; thrice very shy indeed.

The Black Math

Elsewhere in the same issue of The Spectator quoted above, Rod Liddle reminds us of the body count — the “black maths” as he calls it — of the Iraq disaster. “Some 2,500 Coalition troops killed, including 103 British servicemen. More than 17,000 wounded. The total number of Iraqi civilians killed since the overthrow of Saddam, at a conservative estimate, is 37,754. The murder rate has increased each month since April 2003. Some 20 killed per day in year one, 31 per day in year 2, 40 per day in year 3.” As Liddle suggests, there is now compelling evidence that Iraq was better off under Saddam Hussein than it is now — so much for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

We did not go into Iraq because we believed it was a cause worth supporting. We went in because George Bush wanted some kind of coalition — a pretend coalition, a phoney front window — and we, or at least our Prime Minister, agreed to participate, along with Britain and Spain. We were conned. We were stupid. We were craven in being lick-spittles to an American president who is seemingly the ready puppet of right-wing ideologues who seem presently to be the de facto government of the United States.

I think we as the government’s constituents have been far too passive about our nation’s participation in this disaster. We should remember it when the Americans next seek a coalition. We should remember it, too, when we next go to the polls although I accept that there can be many surprises, many changes to the script, before we are next required to vote.

Finally, I think that if my mother made a brief return trip to the land of the living she would take it all in — especially the antics of the Bush regime — and declare quietly, without smugness or venom, “Oh dear. But I can’t say that I’m surprised.”