‘High Noon’ in Baghdad

The impending attack on Iraq by the USA has elicited skepticism, protests and, on occasion, genuine bafflement on both sides of the Atlantic. Any serious evaluation of the policies of the Bush administration requires a better understanding of the way that key policymakers in Washington, DC are thinking about contemporary international affairs. During the past decade, the USA has consistently sought the broadest possible multilateral support for its major foreign policy interventions and resultant wars. For example, the 1991 Gulf War followed strictly the mandates of the UN Security Council and was financed to a considerable extent by a number of states, including Japan, Germany and Saudi Arabia. More recently, the Kosovo conflict was undertaken by NATO, an organization in which decision making requires the consensus of all its members. It is precisely this multilateralist tradition, which was the norm after the end of the Cold War (actually it dates back to the end of World War II), that the Bush administration appears willing to negate in pursuit of a regime change in Iraq. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, the administration’s most prominent supporter of moderation and multilateralism, has explained that although it is important to have a UN resolution, this does not mean that the administration will «lose the option to do what we think is appropriate to do.» Could this simply be the case of a small but influential group of hard-liners who have hijacked the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful state in pursuit of an extreme realist (ie military power-oriented) agenda? The answer will have to be negative based on the study of the history of American foreign relations. More specifically, the Bush administration’s attitude has its antecedents in a political tradition that Walter Russell Meade, in a seminal essay, has aptly characterized as Jacksonian. Jacksonians are democratic but also populist and give emphasis to qualities such as self-reliance and individualism. They «approach foreign policy in a spirit… in which honor, concern for reputation, and faith in military institutions play a… greater role. Jacksonians have the least regard for international law and international institutions… [and] believe that international life is, and will remain, both anarchic and violent. The United States must [thus] be vigilant and strongly armed.» Jacksonians are willing to fight with all available means when provoked, convinced that the country’s honor or vital interests are at stake. Once victorious, though, they tend to advocate magnanimous policies toward the vanquished. A considerably simpler way of understanding the Jacksonian tradition is as a «John Wayne» approach to international relations. This brings us to the classic western «High Noon.» We suggest that a careful viewing of this film helps reveal crucial attitudes and illuminates an important strain in the American psyche. It is this strain we propose that has deeply influenced the Bush administration. In «High Noon,» Will Kane (Gary Cooper) had just married Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) when he found out that an arch-villain had been pardoned and would return to town. He knew that, sooner or later, the villain would probably come after him and his new wife. Kane also realized that the town still needed his services on his very last day as marshal, while he welcomed all the help that he could get from the townspeople. Unfortunately, the town’s response was disheartening. Some people were openly supportive of the arch-villain. Others adopted a pacifist position, or a wait-and-see attitude. Kane’s last chance was to address the town’s assembly, gathered in a church. A multitude of arguments were heard: legal sophistries, confusing observations and empty braggadocio. The argument that carried the day related to financial interests. It was wrapped, however, in a principled stance, emphasizing the risk of hampering future investment and growth. In the end, Will Kane was left alone. So, he decided to act alone. His conscience dictated that he had to do it. It was the moral choice. It would uphold honor, protect his wife and himself in the long run, and also save the town from certain decline. Risks did exist, including the ultimate one, and he was fully aware of them. Nevertheless, Kane got the job done, killed the villain and his cronies and then, (and only then) left town. The parallels are truly striking. Key members of the Bush administration view the reactions of their European allies, the United Nations, the anti-war movement, and friendly states in the Middle East as the equivalent of those of the townspeople. The villain, of course, is Saddam’s Iraq. This should not be surprising. The Jacksonian tradition demands that if it has to, the USA must act alone. Thus, what we may call the «High Noon» principle of American foreign policy seems currently to be in full operation. But a word of caution: Will Kane was clearly in danger and palpably provoked. He may have killed the villain but he did not pull the trigger first. That is, perhaps, where the parallel stops. Theodore Couloumbis is emeritus professor of international relations at the University of Athens and general director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). Aristotle Tziampiris is lecturer of international relations at the University of Piraeus and research fellow at ELIAMEP.