Joan Didion: War is Bush's fixed idea. From sea to shining sea, people reject it

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All through the summer of 2002, the inevitability of going to war with Iraq was accepted as if predestined. The "when" had already been settled. "Time is getting short," the New York Times warned Americans in July, "for decisions that have to be made if the goal is to take action early next year, before the presidential election cycle intrudes." That last clause bore study.

All through the summer of 2002, the inevitability of going to war with Iraq was accepted as if predestined. The "when" had already been settled. "Time is getting short," the New York Times warned Americans in July, "for decisions that have to be made if the goal is to take action early next year, before the presidential election cycle intrudes." That last clause bore study.

"Before the presidential election cycle intrudes." In case the priorities were still unclear.

The "why" had also been settled. The President had identified Saddam Hussein as one of the evildoers. Yes, there were questions about whether the evildoer in question had the weapons Americans feared he had, and yes, there were questions about whether he would use them if he did have them, and yes, there were questions about whether attacking Iraq might not in fact ensure that he would use them. But to ask those questions was sissy, not muscular, because the President had said we were going to do it and the President, if he were to back down, risked losing the points he got on the muscular "moral clarity" front.

"I made up my mind," he had said in April, "that Saddam needs to go." This was one of many curious, almost petulant statements offered in lieu of actually presenting a case. I've made up my mind, I've said in speech after speech, I've made myself clear. The repeated statements became their own reason: "Given all we have said as a leading world power about the necessity for regime change in Iraq," James R Schlesinger, who is now a member of Richard Perle's Defence Policy Board, told The Washington Post in July, "our credibility would be badly damaged if that regime change did not take place".

There was, of course, for better or for worse, a theory, or a fixed idea, behind these pronouncements from the President – actually not so much behind them as coinciding with them, dovetailing in a way that made it possible for many to suggest that the President was in on the thinking. The theory, which not only predated 11 September but went back to the Reagan administration and its heady dreams of rollback, had been employed to provide a rationale for the President's tendency to exhibit a certain truculence towards those who were not Americans. Within the theory, any such truculence could be inflated into "The Bush Doctrine", or "The New American Unilateralism". The theory was this: the collapse of the Soviet Union had opened the door to the inevitability of American pre-eminence, a mantle of beneficent power that all nations except rogue nations – whatever they might say on the subject – were yearning for America to assume.

Given this fixed idea, as if in a dream from which there is no waking, and given the correlative dream notion that a US president, Ronald Reagan, had himself caused the collapse of the Soviet Union with a specific magical incantation, the "Evil Empire" speech, the need to bring America's force for good to bear on the Middle East could only become an imperative. By June 2002, Jim Hoagland was noting in the Washington Post that there was "a growing acceptance at the White House of the need for an overwhelming US invasion force that would remain on the ground in Iraq for several years. The US presence will serve as the linchpin for democratic transformation of a major Arab country that can be a model for the region. A new Iraq would also help provide greater energy security for Americans".

A few weeks later in the Post, the columnist Michael Kelly was sketching an even rosier outcome, based on his eccentric reading of the generation coming of age in the Middle East as a population poised by history to see the US not as its enemy but as its "natural liberator". "It is right to think that we are living in a hinge moment in history," he wrote, and then argued against those who believe that the moment is not necessarily America's to control. "But it is wrong to think that the large forces of this moment act on the hinge to shut the door against American interests." The contrary might be true, he wrote, if only the United States took the next step, which was "to destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein and liberate the people of Iraq." This would be, he said, when history really began to turn on its hinge.

It so happened that I was travelling around the US recently, talking and listening to people in St Louis and Columbia and Philadelphia and San Diego and Los Angeles and San Francisco and Pittsburgh and Boston. I heard very few of the fixed ideas about the US's correct role in the world that had come to dominate the dialogue in New York and Washington. I encountered many people who believed there was still what Americans had come to call a disconnect between the government and the citizens. I did not encounter conviction that going to war with Iraq would result in a democratic transformation of the Middle East. Most seemed resigned to the prospect that their country would none the less go to war with Iraq. Many mentioned a sense of "inevitability", or "dread".

A few mentioned August 1914 and its similar sense of an irreversible drift toward something that would not work out well. Several mentioned Vietnam, and the similar bright hopefulness of those who had seen yet another part of the world as a blackboard on which to demonstrate their own superior plays. A few said that, had they lost relatives on 11 September, they would be deeply angered at having those deaths cheapened by being put to use to justify this new war. They did not understand what this new war was about, but they knew it wasn't about that promising-but-never-quite-substantiated meeting in Prague between Iraqi intelligence and Mohamed Atta. They did not want to believe that it was about oil. Nor did they want to believe that it was about domestic politics. If I had to characterise a common attitude among them I would call it waiting to see. At a remove.

Like most of them, I no longer remembered all the arguments and inconsistencies and downright contradictions of the summer and early fall. I did remember one thing: a sequence of reports. It was 1 June when the President announced, in an address at West Point [America's Sandhurst], that the US military would henceforth act not defensively but pre-emptively against terrorists and hostile states in possession of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. It was 6 June when the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, advised Nato in Brussels that Nato could no longer wait for "absolute proof" of such possession before taking action. It was 10 June when Thomas E Ricks and Vernon Loeb reported in The Washington Post that under this new doctrine, according to Pentagon officials, the US would consider using high-yield nuclear weapons on a first-strike basis.

The use of such weapons would be reserved, according to these officials, for deployment "against biological weapons that can be best destroyed by sustained exposure to the high heat of a nuclear blast". Some bunkers in Iraq, the Post was told by Stephen M Younger, the director of the Defence Department's Defence Threat Reduction Agency, are in fact "so incredibly hard" that "they do require high-yield nuclear weapons".

I never saw this mentioned again. I never heard anyone refer to it. Not even during the discussions of nuclear intentions that occurred six months later, after the administration released a reminder that the United States reserved the right, if it or its allies were attacked with weapons of mass destruction, to respond with nuclear as well as conventional force. But let's look at where we are.

The idealists of the process are talking about the hinge of history. And the Department of Defence was talking as early as last June about unloosing, for the first time since 1945, high-yield nuclear weapons.

In the early 1980s I happened to attend, at a Conservative Political Action conference in Washington, a session called "Rolling Back the Soviet Empire". One of the speakers that day was a kind of adventurer-ideologue named Jack Wheeler, who was very much of the moment because he had always just come back from spending time with our freedom fighters in Afghanistan, also known as the mujahedin. I recall that he received a standing ovation after urging that copies of the Koran be smuggled into the Soviet Union to "stimulate an Islamic revival" and the subsequent "death of a thousand cuts".

We all saw that idea come home.

This is an extract from an essay first published in 'The New York Review of Books'.