Running the Iraq rapids with an "exceptionalist" United States

What hasn’t changed in your life since September 11 2001? Almost everything hasn’t changed. Helen Clark is still Prime Minister. The economy bowled on with hardly a hiccup. The big change was to be searched at airports by paranoiacs who believed you could destroy tall buildings with nail scissors.

So why the wash of remembrance? Because it was spectacular television. Because it was the United States.

Contrast the 3212 dead in the attacks on New York and Washington with the millions being herded to starvation by Zimbabwe’s demented ruler. They are black and in Africa and out of sight.

Black Africans don’t “change the world”. Americans do. They do it economically, militarily and culturally.

So there is no cathedral service or wave of books, programmes and newspaper supplements for the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 as there is for New York’s dead. Flick through newspapers from the New York Times to the Herald over the past few days and marvel at the creative talent and insightful writing dedicated to this event.

On Friday the United States embassy put out three pages of scheduled events in this country, with times “strictly not for publication”, no doubt for fear some nail-scissors-wielding Islamo-fascist might turn up.

The most useful article was by Paul Kelly, an Australian journalist who knows the United States well. George Bush, he wrote on Saturday, had “lost an historic opportunity” to present the Twin Towers attack as an assault on “the universal values of tolerance, democracy, freedom and human rights that unite mankind”.

Instead, Bush cast it as a “unique American event and only Americans could understand its tragedy”, Kelly argued. This had led Bush to adopt a “language and style that is more exclusive than inclusive: the more he talked, the more sympathy for the United States declined across the world”.

Ponder that, for it is true on three counts.

* The United States does most nearly embody, in its birth as a nation, in its constitution and in its practices, those “universal values” — which, however, are, Robert Mugabe reminds us, not at all universal. It is a nation founded on an “idea”.

* Americans therefore believe they are both superior and different. This makes the United States “exceptionalist”. It is, said one essayist, “the greatest beacon of freedom, charity, opportunity and affection in history”. Its democracy, says another commentator, is “the best system on earth”.

So it believes it may act in its own interests with confidence it is right. Bush could say: “You are either with us or with the terrorists”. The danger of that, American scholar Francis Fukuyama said here last month, is that the United States risks becoming the issue, instead of terrorism.

* And, indeed, anti-Americanism is on the rise in Europe. Sympathy for the Twin Towers dead is one thing. Being lectured that to invade Iraq is proper because the United States fears an attack from that quarter is quite another.

European leaders have jibbed. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who backed Bush in Afghanistan, said last week of Iraq that “it would be a big mistake if this [post-Afghanistan] feeling of need for one another should be destroyed by excessively unilateral actions”.

Britain’s Tony Blair, who backs Bush on Iraq, nevertheless urged him at the weekend to push hard at the United Nations first (and he will). The United States has the military might to do what it wants where it wants — and it will. But for durable support for its “war on terrorism” it needs others onside over Iraq, some wider mandate.

Australia is onside over Iraq. It hopes its “loyalty dividend” will be a free trade agreement.

With whom is New Zealand onside? Europe and the notion that international law and multilateral mandate is relevant over Iraq.

That may steepen our climb to a free trade agreement with the exceptionalist United States — especially if our enemies there (given comfort last week by Lockwood Smith and Ken Shirley) bang the Iraq drum against us.

So Phil Goff is on a delicate mission in the United States this week. Afghanistan gave Helen Clark an opening to get back in favour which she exploited skilfully. But negotiating the Iraq rapids will test her diplomatic skills to the limit, at home and abroad.