An Iraqi journalist threw both his shoes at George Bush during the president’s weekend visit to Iraq; the showing of the soles of one’s shoes being an expression of contempt in Arab culture. The journalist will be amongst the many who will be delighted at the departure of George W. Bush from the White House in five weeks time. Perhaps, though, people should be careful what they wish for. Opposition to Bush has often been no more than a thinly veiled anti-Americanism; a desire to rid the world of American influence, but a world without American power may not be the utopia people believe.
The United States is the only power capable of any effective policing intervention on the international stage; without US power, even the United Nations is impotent.
Certainly, US politicians have got things seriously wrong and the shoe-throwing journalist could recite a litany of death and destruction in his home country after an intervention that threatens to create a last state that was worse than the first. Certainly, the sanctions policy of the previous Clinton regime had not been exactly benign in its effects, costing the lives of hundreds of thousands. Certainly, many people in Iraq might feel a world free of American influence might not be such a bad place.
But what happens to the world when there are not US soldiers available to leap from Black Hawk helicopters? What happens when there is not a Humvee for hundreds of miles around? What happens when US warships are not on hand to launch missions into areas?
A United Nations’ force, without American teeth was in Kigali, capital of Rwanda in 1994. The Hutu population had launched full scale genocide against their Tutsi neighbours and 2,500 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had sought refuge in a school that was the base for Belgian UN peacekeeping troops. The troops ensured the evacuation of white expatriates from the city before withdrawing from the school, leaving the fugitives there to be butchered. The soldiers did not fire a shot until dogs began eating the corpses and the commanding officer told his men to shoot the dogs.
It would be hard to imagine an American commander acting in a similar way, for the reason that he would not have to do so. He would generally be present with such overwhelming force and with such sophisticated equipment that a machete-wielding mob would present little danger.
In a world without an American presence, who is there left that might stop deliberate, wilful mass slaughter?
In 1995 Dutch UN troops were powerless to prevent the massacre of 8,000 men and boys by Serbian forces in the supposedly “safe area” of Srebrenica. Would an American commander on the ground have been left in such a position of uselessness?
Barack Obama has appointed George Bush’s defence secretary Robert Gates as defence secretary in the incoming administration; a signal that extensive disengagement from the affairs of the “Old World” is not imminent. An isolationist America would bring comfort and delight to many people; few of them with democratic intentions.
Many Europeans would have taken the chance to shoe the soles of their shoes to the outgoing president, but one man is not a nation, and without that nation being prepared to intervene, the world would be a much more dangerous and much less liberal place.