On the morning before Yom Kippur late this past September, I found myself standing at the western end of the White House, watching as the colour guard paraded the flag of the United States (and the republic for which it stands) along with that of the Emirate of Kuwait.footnote The young men of George Bush’s palace guard made a brave showing, but their immaculate uniforms and webbing could do little but summon the discomforting contrasting image—marching across our tv screens nightly—of their hot, thirsty, encumbered brothers and sisters in the Saudi Arabian desert. I looked away and had my attention fixed by a cortege of limousines turning in at the gate. There was a quick flash of dark beard and white teeth, between burnoose and kaffiyeh, as Sheikh jabir al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the exiled Kuwaiti emir, scuttled past a clutch of photographers and through the portals. End of photo op, but not of story.

Let us imagine a photograph of the emir of Kuwait entering the White House, and let us see it as a historian might years from now. What might such a picture disclose under analysis? How did this oleaginous monarch, whose very name was unknown just weeks before to most members of the Bush administration and the Congress, never mind most newspaper editors, reporters and their readers, become a crucial visitor—perhaps the crucial visitor—on the President’s autumn calendar? How did he emerge as someone on whose behalf the President was preparing to go to war? We know already, as every historian will, that the President, in having the emir come by, was not concerned with dispelling any impression that he was the one who had ‘lost Kuwait’ to Iraq in early August. The tiny kingdom had never been understood as ‘ours’ to lose, as far as the American people and their representatives knew. Those few citizens who did know Kuwait (human-rights monitors, scholars, foreign correspondents) knew it was held together by a relatively loose yet unmistakably persistent form of feudalism. It could have been ‘lost’ only by its sole owners, the Al-Sabah family, not by the United States or by the ‘free world’. What a historian might make of our imaginary photo document of this moment in diplomatic history that most citizens surely would not is that it is, in fact, less a discreet snapshot than a still from an epic movie—a dark and bloody farce, one that chronicles the past two decades of us involvement in the Persian Gulf. Call the film Rules of the Game of Nations or Metternich of Arabia—you get the idea. In this particular scene, the President was meeting at the White House with the emir to send a ‘signal’ to Iraqi president Saddam Hussein that he, Bush, ‘stood with’ Kuwait in wanting Iraq to pull out its troops. After the meeting, Bush emerged to meet the press, not alone but with his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. This, of course, was a signal, too: Bush meant business, of a potentially military kind. In the game of nations, however, one does not come right out and say one is signalling (that would, by definition, no longer be signalling); one waits for reporters to ask about signals, one denies signalling is going on, and then one trusts that unnamed White House aides and State Department officials will provide the desired ‘spin’ and perceptions of ‘tilt’.

On ordinary days the trivial and empty language of Washington isn’t especially awful. The drizzle of repetitive key words—‘perception’, ‘agenda’, ‘address’, ‘concern’, ‘process’, ‘bipartisan’—does its job of masking and dulling reality. But on this rather important day in an altogether unprecedented process—a lengthy and deliberate preparation for a full-scale ground and air war in a faraway region—there was not a word from George Bush—not a word—that matched the occasion. Instead, citizens and soldiers alike would read or hear inane questions from reporters, followed by boilerplate answers from their President and interpretations by his aides, about whether the drop-by of a feudal potentate had or had not signalled this or that intent. There is a rank offence here to the idea of measure and proportion. Great matters of power and principle are in play, and there does in fact exist a chance to evolve a new standard for international relations rather than persist in the old follies of superpower raisons d’état; and still the official tongue stammers and barks. Behind all the precious, brittle, Beltway in-talk lies the only idea young Americans will die for in the desert: the idea that in matters of foreign policy, even in a democratic republic, the rule is ‘leave it to us’. Not everybody, after all, can be fitted out with the wildly expensive stealth equipment that the political priesthood requires to relay and decipher the signal flow.

The word concocted in the nineteenth century for this process—the shorthand of Palmerston and Metternich—was ‘realpolitik’. Maxims of cynicism and realism—to the effect that great states have no permanent friends or permanent principles, but only permanent interests—became common currency in post-Napoleonic Europe. Well, there isn’t a soul today in Washington who doesn’t pride himself on the purity of his realpolitik. And an organization supposedly devoted to the study and promulgation of such nineteenth-century realism—the firm of Henry Kissinger Associates—has furnished the Bush administration with several of its high officers, including Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, along with much of its expertise.

Realpolitik, with its tilts and signals, is believed by the faithful to keep nations from war, balancing the powers and interests, as they say. Is what we are witnessing in the Persian Gulf, then, the breakdown and failure of realpolitik? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that American troops have been called upon to restore the balance that existed before 2 August 1990. But that regional status quo has for the past two decades known scarcely a day of peace—in the Persian Gulf, it has been a balance of terror for a long time. Realpolitik, as practised by Washington, has played no small part in this grim situation. To even begin to understand this, one must get beyond today’s tilts and signals and attempt to grasp a bit of history—something the realpoliticians are loath for you to do. History is for those clutching values and seeking truths; realpolitik has little time for such sentiment. The world, after all, is a cold place requiring hard calculation, detachment.