Jonathan Freedland: Emperor George (The Guardian, April 2, 2003)

What has become of American values and idealism? All swept away in this thoroughly un-American war

This war is un-American. That's an unlikely word to use, I know: it has an unhappy provenance, associated forever with the McCarthyite hunt for reds under the beds, purging anyone suspected of "un-American activities". Besides, for many outside the US, the problem with this war is not that it's un-American - but all too American.

But that does an injustice to the US and its history. It assumes that the Bush administration represents all America, at all times, when in fact the opposite is true. For this administration, and this war, are not typical of the US. On the contrary, on almost every measure, they are exceptions to the American rule.

The US was, after all, a country founded in a rebellion against imperialism. Born in a war against a hated colonial oppressor, in the form of George III, it still sees itself as the instinctive friend of all who struggle to kick out a foreign occupier - and the last nation on earth to play the role of outside ruler.

Not for it the Greek, Roman or British path. For most of the last century, the US steered well clear of the institutions of formal empire (the Philipines was a lamentable exception). Responsibility was thrust upon it after 1945 in Germany and Japan. But as a matter of deliberate intent, America sought neither viceroys ruling over faraway lands nor a world map coloured with the stars and stripes. Influence, yes; puppets and proxies, yes. But formal imperial rule, never.

Until now. George Bush has cast off the restraint which held back America's 42 previous presidents - including his father. Now he is seeking, as an unashamed objective, to get into the empire business, aiming to rule a post-Saddam Iraq directly through an American governor-general, the retired soldier Jay Garner. As the Guardian reported yesterday, Washington's plan for Baghdad consists of 23 ministries - each one to be headed by an American. This is a form of foreign rule so direct we have not seen its like since the last days of the British empire. It represents a break with everything America has long believed in.

This is not to pretend that there is a single American ideal, still less a single US foreign policy, maintained unbroken since 1776. There are, instead, competing traditions, each able to trace its lineage to the founding of the republic. But what's striking is that George Bush's war on Iraq is at odds with every single one of them. Perhaps best known is Thomas Jefferson's call for an America which would not only refuse to rule over other nations, it would avoid meddling in their affairs altogether. He wanted no "entangling alliances". If America wished to export its brand of liberty, it should do it not through force but by the simple power of its own example. John Quincy Adams (before Bush, the only son of a president to become president), put it best when he declared that America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy". Could there be a better description of Washington's pre-emptive pursuit of Saddam Hussein?

The Jeffersonian tradition is not the only one to be broken by Operation Iraqi Freedom. Last year the historian Walter Russell Mead identified three other schools of US foreign policy. Looking at them now, it's clear that all are equally incompatible with this war.

Those Mead calls Hamiltonians are keen on maintaining an international system and preserving a balance of power - that means acknowledging equals in the world, rather than seeking solo, hegemonic domination. So Bush, whose national security strategy last year explicitly forbade the emergence of an equal to the US, is no follower of Alexander Hamilton. Jacksonians, meanwhile, have always defined America's interests narrowly: they would see no logic in travelling halfway across the world to invade a country that poses no immediate, direct threat to the US. So Bush has defied Andrew Jackson. Woodrow Wilson liked the idea of the US spreading democracy and rights across the globe; banishing Saddam and freeing the people of Iraq might have appealed to him. But he was the father of the League of Nations and would have been distressed by Washington's disregard for the UN and its lack of international backing for this war.

Which brings us to a key un-American activity by this Bush administration. Today's Washington has not only broken from the different strands of wisdom which guided the US since its birth, but also from the model that shaped American foreign policy since 1945. It's easy to forget this now, as US politicians and commentators queue up to denounce international institutions as French-dominated, limp-wristed, euro-faggot bodies barely worth the candle, but those bodies were almost all American inventions. Whether it was Nato, the global financial architecture designed at Bretton Woods or the UN itself, multilateralism was, at least in part, America's gift to the world. Every president from Roosevelt to Bush Senior honoured those creations. Seeking to change them in order to adapt to the 21st century is wholly legitimate; but drowning them in derision is to trash an American idea.

The very notion of unprovoked, uninvited, long-term and country-wide invasion is pretty un-American, too. When it thinks of itself, the US is a firm believer in state sovereignty, refusing any innovation which might curb its jurisdiction over its own affairs. Hence its opposition to the new international criminal court or indeed any international treaties which might clip its wings. Yet the sovereignty of the state of Iraq has been cheerfully violated by the US invasion. That can be defended - the scholar and former Clinton official Philip Bobbitt says sovereignty is "forfeited" by regimes which choke their own peoples - but it is, at the very least, a contradiction. The US, which holds sovereignty sacred for itself, is engaged in a war which ignores it for others.

The result is a sight which can look bizarre for those who have spent much time in the US. Americans who, back home, resent even the most trivial state meddling in their own affairs are determined to run the lives of a people on the other side of the planet. In New Hampshire car number plates bear the legend, Live Free or Die; a state motto is Don't Tread on Me. If a "government bureaucrat" comes near, even to perform what would be considered a routine task in Britain, they are liable to get an earful about the tyranny of Washington, DC. Yet Americans - whose passion for liberty is so great they talk seriously about keeping guns in case they ever need to fight their own government - assume Iraqis will welcome military rule by a foreign power.

Talk like this is not that comfortable in America just now; you'd be denounced fairly swiftly as a Saddam apologist or a traitor. The limits of acceptable discussion have narrowed sharply, just as civil liberties have taken a hammering as part of the post-9/11 war on terror. You might fall foul of the Patriot Act, or be denounced for insufficient love of country. There is something McCarthyite about the atmosphere which has spawned this war, making Democrats too fearful to be an opposition worthy of the name and closing down national debate. And things don't get much more un-American than that.