To hell with all the treaties

Having flown over to London to watch England take on Pakistan - I find that my presence always helps the English cricketers, and was even at Lord's last summer on the very day they devastated the West Indies - I came back to the US on Monday evening. The film on the plane was Thirteen Days, dramatising the cold war and set in Washington in 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis; I was puzzled why President Kennedy and his brother Bobby kept referring to the Soviet leaders as "buzzards", until I realised that the film and its soundtrack had been "adapted" for showing on planes.

The following morning, courtesy of the 28(AC) Squadron Royal Air Force, I flew over the very different Washington of 2001 in perhaps the world's most advanced mid-size military helicopter: the EH-101. A joint Anglo-Italian project, it is 9ft longer than the cricket pitch at Lord's and has been enthusiastically ordered by the likes of Tokyo's police and the Canadian Air Force. But it will not, I suspect, ever see action with the US military - not so long as Donald Rumsfeld, Boy George's defence secretary, has his say.

Then, as we banked sharply over Springfield, I started to wonder: are the Washingtons of 1962 and 2001 actually that different? Do the same mindsets not still pervade, say, the Pentagon?

By the time Jack and Bobby Kennedy were dealing with the Soviet buzzards in 1962, after all, Rumsfeld had already served in the Eisenhower administration. That very year, he was elected to Congress. He went on to work for the Nixon and Ford administrations, making his debut as US defence secretary. Now, barely a year from his eighth decade, Rumsfeld is immersed in his own recreated cold-war fantasies: to shield the US with the Reaganesque Star Wars II (aka the Nuclear Missile Defence policy), and to hell with the rest of the world.

So, unilaterally, the US is in effect tearing up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it signed with the Soviet Union in 1972; the US no longer needs the Russian buzzards, so they can take it or leave it. The 1993 Start II agreement has yet to be implemented, and neither Russia nor the US has made any arms cuts since then. Talks on Start III are already doomed. The future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is now equally cloudy. The Kyoto protocol and all that trendy green nonsense? To hell with that and the 166 other countries which signed it. Tear it up. The international agreement implementing the 1972 treaty banning biological weapons? No deal, after all: America can damned well do what it likes now. Don't we know it's the unrivalled superpower and won't take nothing from nobody?

Slowly the realities of this primitive isolationism of the Boy George regime - which, naturally, you read about here first - are beginning to dawn on the rest of the world.

On my way to Heathrow last Monday, I read the Evening Standard and learnt that Boy George is an "oilman". That, as you also read here first, is true when it comes to Dubbya's domestic policies: pleasing the boardrooms of the polluting oil and energy companies is all he knows.

But when it comes to foreign policy, Boy George actually becomes more unstable and unpredictable. Rumsfeld is an absurdly anachronistic figure who belongs more to Thirteen Days, warning the US president about the red menace in the grey, plastic-rimmed glasses of the era. "We are more vulnerable now to the suitcase bomb, the cyber-terrorist, the raw and random violence of an outlaw regime or a rogue nation armed with nuclear missiles and weapons of mass destruction," he says.

So: tear up the ABM treaty, forget the NPT, and just let the rest of the world pull itself to pieces as long as America can repel these new perils that (along with China) are replacing those Soviet buzzards.

What makes Boy George so pivotal a figure in all this - and in whether the hawkish isolationism of Rumsfeld and his pal Dick Cheney can triumph over the cooler, wiser head of Colin Powell - is not that he is an oilman. It is true that what little experience he has had of the world was in the murky oil business of Texas - and, after his brief but untroubled spell as Texas governor, the self-image he most likes is that of a stetson-wearing, tall-walkin' Texan tough guy.

But the problem is that, in his real persona, this is confusingly blended with the insouciant complacency of a privileged, prissy Connecticut Yalie who summered at Kennebunkport and wintered in Hobe Sound. There is more of the latter than the former in Boy George, but the two conflicting backgrounds make a dangerously unusual combination.

There is a collective delusion here, fostered by this divided Boy George and his cronies, that the good old US is somehow holding the fort in Kosovo and Bosnia. It is a delusion born of lazy ignorance, but now promoted for emotional as well as political gratification by the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney; most Americans would be astonished to learn that the British and French, say, have vastly higher deployment of troops per capita than the US (and in potentially much more dangerous areas, too). But Rumsfeld, as part of the isolationism that the rest of the world is beginning to rumble, already wants to withdraw the 3,800 US troops in Bosnia and the 6,500 in Kosovo - just as progress is beginning to be made in both places.

I hope to visit the UK soon to make sure that England win the Ashes. But Rumsfeld v Powell: that will be the really enthralling battle, with Boy George as the umpire without a clue what to do.

Watch this space.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men