Conflict & Justice

Letter from Britain: A dangerous American worldview intrudes on silly season


Dan Senor (L) with Paul Bremer in 2004.


Marco Di Lauro

LONDON, UK — Britain’s extended news vacuum continues as the annual fall party political conference season staggers on. The Conservatives are meeting in Birmingham this week.

We had been expecting an announcement from the Church of England about the next Archbishop of Canterbury. But the C of E is pathologically committed to seeing all sides of an issue and is therefore incapable of reaching decisions.

The issue holding things up is gay clergy and gay marriage. The Archbishop of York, Uganda-born John Sentamu, would be a shoo-in except for his vociferously anti-gay stance. Instead, the compromise choice is the Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, who found his religious vocation after making a small fortune in the oil business.

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Welby's previous career isn’t the problem; it’s the fact that he went to Eton. That’s a major strike against him at a time when so many British institutions are in the hands of the handful of sons of riches who attended that and a few other elite schools.

The Crown Nominations Commission, the official body that makes the choice, is trying to square the circle, but it’s clearly a difficult task.

Meanwhile, the political parties are busy rhetorically tacking to the center by stealing from each other's history. Last week in Manchester, Labour's Ed Milliband pulled a Mitt Romney by rising above low expectations to deliver a commanding performance when the cameras were on him. His speech rebranded Labour as a "one nation" party. But it just so happens that "One Nation" was the Conservative catchphrase for more than 150 years, since the time of Benjamin Disraeli.

Milliband’s claiming Dizzy for Labour was trumped yesterday when the Tories’ George Osborne called, a la Marx, for "Workers of the World to Unite" by embracing his plan for employees to acquire shares in the businesses they work for in exchange for giving up union membership and other employment rights.

Like I say: It's silly season.

So I found myself thinking of Dan Senor.

Britain’s political shenanigans reminded me of Mitt Romney's reboot of his foreign policy last week. I'm sure he thought his speech's neo-con nostrums were new and vibrant. I’m equally certain his political advisers are cynical enough to know they weren't. But they’re also aware that many Americans' sense of history doesn't extend further back than what they had for breakfast, therefore you can always claim something is new and shiny even when it’s old and never passed its road test in the first place.

Senor is one of Romney's key foreign policy advisers and one of the most visible of neo-cons. I thought of him because I passed through Baghdad in April 2004 when he was the chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority and attended one of the daily press briefings he oversaw.

It was an interesting day to be there. The regular Baghdad press corps had just got wind of the soon-to-be notorious abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and were asking pointed, detailed questions that indicated they were building a forensic case about some serious problems.

Senor wasn’t answering questions that day. He simply stood to one side as a military man and, I believe, the CPA’s administrator Paul Bremer batted away the questions by giving no comments. The reason I noticed him was he was wearing a Bush-Cheney 2004 election pin on his jacket collar, clearly visible to the cameras. It was free political advertising and it seemed inappropriate.

War, once waged, should remain above party politics. But the not-so-subtle message was that the war in Iraq was a Bush-Cheney enterprise. GOP supporters were first among equals.

That idea was reinforced by the fact that Bremer's security detail was provided by Blackwater, the notorious private military outfit whose founder Erik Prince has longstanding ties to the Republican Party. The company had obtained its multi-million dollar contract without bidding.

I thought that too was odd. US Marines have traditionally provided protection for American diplomats; relieving them of that duty seemed like taking privatization too far.

As an American who thought the overthrow of Saddam Hussein a good thing, I was offended that Senor and company seemed to be making foreign and security policy a subsidiary of the Republican Party.

I wanted to ask Senor about the pin but didn't — the questions my Baghdad colleagues were asking about Abu Ghraib were more important — but I still regret not having confronted him afterward with my tape recorder on.

A few days after I left Baghdad, four Blackwater mercenaries were lynched in the city of Fallujah. Around the same time, a long-planned confrontation with the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army began. The Mahdi Army fought back. Overnight, the United States found itself fighting a second war, and on two fronts. The following week, 60 Minutes broke the Abu Ghraib story.

If there were ever a sequence of events that should have left someone in government chastened, that was it. For even the truest believers in the neo-con worldview, surely Iraq’s catastrophic collapse precisely one year after Saddam’s successful overthrow should have been cause to re-assess the gap between their rhetoric and the reality that comes in the wake of overthrowing a government with military force.

However, in the eight years since Iraq spun out of control, neither Senor nor Bremer has said anything to indicate they absorbed the lessons of those weeks. Nor will you hear sadder but wiser words from John Bolton and William Kristol, two other prominent neo-cons who advise Mitt Romney.

That's why you won't have heard that chastened re-assessment of how America should conduct foreign policy in the dangerous words Mitt Romney spoke yesterday.

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Romney's idea that America today commands the world with the same force it did in the 18 months between 9/11 and the brief war to overthrow Saddam goes past delusional to clinically insane.

The second war in Iraq, the resilience of the Taliban and the financial crisis have all served to erode America's standing and undermine its ability to dictate the course of events.

When Romney regally says, as he did in his recent speech, that "I will call on our NATO allies to keep the greatest military alliance in history strong by honoring their commitment to each devote 2 percent of their GDP to security spending," then notes that only 3 of the 28 currently meet their commitment, I can hear the leaders of the other 25, mired in an economic recession spawned in America, saying, "Go f*** yourself."

More politically clued-in readers might counter that Romney is just spouting election tosh, that he wouldn’t be able to compel the alliance to do his bidding. But having seen how Dan Senor and co. ruined a country by standing by their rhetoric and ignoring reality, I'm not sure.

Foolish as the neo-cons' ideas are, they aren’t the product of silly seasons and should be treated very seriously.