Flaws in the American way of life

What the New Statesman and several of its commentators such as John Pilger and Ziauddin Sardar have said for the past two years is now being accepted across the political spectrum. The Independent's ex-editor Andreas Whittam Smith compares George W Bush and Tony Blair to Stalin - a comparison at which even the most dedicated anti-Americans would have baulked until now. In the London Evening Standard, the political commentator Peter Oborne calls the US "a rogue state". The editor of Newsweek International, Fareed Zakaria, acknowledges that, to much of the world, the US is "an international outlaw". The proposition that America had the slightest interest in the welfare of the Iraqi people, and that a humanitarian mission could piggyback on its invasion, now looks wholly absurd. Attacked by Arabs on 9/11, it wanted to take the battle to Arab territory (that they were different Arabs was neither here nor there); alarmed by China's growing demand for oil, it wanted to strengthen its position in the oil-rich Middle East; dedicated to aggressive capitalism, it wanted to impose its ideology on the only region still largely resisting it.

As always, US leaders try to present America's crimes as an aberration. What happened at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, we are told, does not represent "American values". Yet as Stephen Grey shows in our cover story, the only exceptional thing is that Americans did the torturing themselves. More often, over the past two years, the US has used secret planes to move prisoners to allied regimes that have more skill and experience in torture. Again, the deaths of hundreds in Fallujah must be another aberration - or perhaps they didn't die at all or perhaps they were all armed terrorists.

Why we expect so much of America is a puzzle. During the Korean war, it bombed the north so intensively that it ran out of targets. In the 1960s and 1970s, it killed an estimated three million people in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. At the end of the first Gulf war, it killed retreating Iraqi conscripts in their tens of thousands. In Chile and Nicaragua, it helped armed opponents of democratically elected governments. It has tried to squeeze the life out of Cuba for decades and took new measures to stop Cuban Americans sending cash to their families back home only the other day. It opposes a host of international treaties - on banning nuclear tests and controlling carbon-dioxide emissions, for example - and now abjures the Geneva Conventions as well.

How a country conducts its internal affairs is a good guide to how it will behave abroad. It may treat foreigners worse than it treats its own people, but it will not treat them better. This is why tyrants' professions of peaceful intentions should never be trusted. What misleads us about the US is its commitment to many liberal values: free speech, a free press, a robust legal system and lots of voting, for example. But this is also a country that incarcerates two million (about one in every 140) of its residents - the world's highest rate of imprisonment. One in three black men spends some part of his life behind bars. Prison regimes are sometimes harsh and abuse is frequent, as a correspondent notes on page 35. The US also executes more than 50 people a year, some of them children.

The American way of life has many other shameful features: the subordination of politics to business interests; the uncontrolled possession of guns; huge social and racial inequalities; the pitiful provision of health and welfare for poor people. We tolerate these as an ally's flaw, rather as we might tolerate a few drunken binges in an otherwise amiable friend. We do not see how they add up to a vision of the world that America wishes to export - a way of life that seems comfortable enough for middle-class opinion-formers, but that brings misery to millions of others. We share, we think, "western values" and must unite against a common enemy. But are we sure that we and the Americans share the same understanding of western values? Are we sure that the extreme Christian fundamentalists who lurk behind President Bush, with their hair-raising attitudes to gays and abortionists, are a lesser threat than the extreme Muslim fundamentalists who lurk behind several Middle Eastern regimes?

Scoff if you like, and observe that the US does not behead people in cold blood. But who knows where its unshakeable belief in its own righteousness may lead it? Wiser rulers than Britain's would hedge their bets rather more, lest they find themselves obliged to defend worse things than beatings and sexual humiliation in a Baghdad prison. America, some say, is in a "pre-fascist" era. That now looks just a little less implausible than it did a month ago.

Help ministers to keep abreast

While welcoming the conversion of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former press chief, to freedom of information, we must ask if this is still the most urgent priority. Most of us feel saturated with information, but very little of it ever seems to reach ministers. Torture by UK and US troops, eastern Europeans pouring into the country, large donations to the Labour Party, a huge shortfall in funding to schools, even a newspaper headline that the country could be attacked within 45 minutes - the list of things our rulers did not know about is very long. It is no better in Washington, where nobody seems to tell President Bush anything, least of all about an imminent al-Qaeda attack. Where does all this information go? Why does nearly everybody else in the world know everything before leading politicians do? A wish to inform the public is admirable. But shouldn't somebody arrange to keep ministers abreast?