America Shows Its Colors

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As war began last week, the American army in Kuwait received a remarkable order from the brass: stow your flags. The fearsome steel coil of tanks and artillery and Bradley fighting vehicles was told to enter enemy territory humbly, stripped of all banners, including the Stars and Stripes. This seemed slightly un-American — we're flag crazed to the point of silliness — and entirely appropriate; liberation, not conquest, was the stated purpose of the war. And so, when the Marines captured their first town, Umm Qasr, and the American flag was reflexively raised in triumph, it was quickly hauled down. In the early hours of Operation Iraqi Freedom, its diplomacy was as stunning as its precision: from the reluctance to use maximum force for the first few nights to the patient efforts to secure a mass surrender to the decision — even after the awesome bombing began — to leave the electricity in Baghdad untouched and the public infrastructure intact. Donald Rumsfeld at war seems far more tactful than Donald Rumsfeld in peace.

The military's early restraint suggests a question: How will America face the post-Saddam world — brazenly, with Old Glory flying, or with quiet authority? Will it be hubris or humility? Humility was, of course, George W. Bush's campaign promise. "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us," he said in his second presidential debate against Al Gore in 2000. "If we're a humble nation but strong, they'll welcome us."

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That sounded just right. ("I agree with that. I agree with that," was Gore's response.) But humility was lost in the anger, dust and blood of Sept. 11; it will be nearly impossible to recover when victory is won in Iraq. Hubris could easily masquerade as reality. We are incomparably strong and admirably free, the most benign superpower in history. But the truths inherent in that proposition could easily lead to a falsehood — that we are justified in remaking the world as we choose. Certainly the world seems ripe to be remade. "We had certain strategies and policies and institutions that were built to deal with the conflicts of the 20th century," Vice President Dick Cheney said recently. "They might not be the right strategies and policies and institutions to deal with the threat we face now."

The old order did not distinguish itself in the run-up to Iraq. The French preened for the pacifist European street. Hans Blix's inspection regime wasn't nearly as muscular as it needed to be. NATO fiddled; the U.N. failed. Reality dictates that changes will come. At the very least, American forces — an inexact but not insignificant barometer of American interests — will be drawn down in Western Europe and moved east to friendlier (and less expensive) billets like Hungary. But a more important transition is imminent as Asia supplants Europe as the focus of American foreign policy. This may well lead to new alliances, institutions and military arrangements.

Europe is where the bulk of history happened in the 20th century, at least as Americans perceived it. Asia is where it will take place in the 21st — in Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, China and Japan, not to mention Iran, North Korea and the floating fester of Islamic radicalism. The saga began last week in Iraq, a country that may soon be perceived as an American showcase, whether we like it or not. Iraq's reconstruction will be as symbolically important as West Germany's was after World War II, but it will be a much tougher project. With three vehement ethnic and religious groups within, and Islamic radicals in the hills nearby, it looks more like Yugoslavia than Germany. In that sense, Iraq predicts the complexities of Asia: the religions, cultures and traditions of governance are profoundly different from ours, the chances of lethal misunderstandings far greater than they were in Europe. President Bush seemed to dismiss this concern in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute on Feb. 26: "It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life. Human cultures can be vastly different, yet the human heart desires the same good things everywhere on earth."

But surely it is not presumptuous to suggest that freedom isn't easily imposed by outsiders, that it is nurtured slowly and indigenously and may develop in ways that we find strange. A disciplined American humility will be essential, and the reconstruction of Iraq is the first test. Will we welcome other countries as partners — and take the edge off the occupation by inviting the U.N. to play an active role in rebuilding the government — or will we run it arrogantly, unilaterally, colonially? The second test, an evenhanded effort to resolve the Middle East conflict, will be harder still. Beyond those will be many others, and the challenge will often be the same: Can we learn to use diplomacy as exquisitely as we do force? The American military taught a lesson by example last week: it is far better for others to wave our flag in tribute than for us to wave it in triumph.