The American Future

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Simon Schama, The Bodley Head, £20

Simon Schama was one of the historians invited by Gordon Brown to meet George Bush at Downing Street on 16 June 2008. Attendance at the event was not easy, Schama tells us: he had to reconcile his "uneasy conscience" by telling himself that if he was in the history business, how could he possibly stay away? He was worried that he was being somehow "implicated". And, indeed, he was. You cannot play the role of courtier, with no matter how many private reservations, to a torturer, a mass murderer and a war criminal without being "implicated".

Moreover, what Schama was in pursuit of in Downing Street was not history, but celebrity. History would have been made if he had confronted Bush with his crimes and repudiated US imperialism. Instead he told Bush how much he agreed with his liberal immigration policy!

Schama recounts the inglorious story of his Downing Street visit in his new book, The American Future: A History, written to accompany a new BBC2 documentary series. It securely establishes him as Britain's premier celebrity historian, as history's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, so to speak.

The American Future sets out to reassure those appalled by the Bush presidency that there is hope for the US - and its name is Barack Obama. "The American future", he tells us, "is all vision, numinous, unformed, light-headed with anticipation. The American past is baggy with sobering truth. In between is the quicksilver Now, beads of glittering elation that slip and scatter, resisting prosaic definition. Obama wants to personify all these tenses." Leaving aside the fact that this is excruciatingly bad writing, the reason Schama is forced to resort to such empty, meaning less rhetoric is because any "prosaic" examination of Obama reveals a man wholeheartedly committed to the interests of US imperialism, both at home and abroad. Indeed, his most prosaic foreign policy statements have, for example, been endorsement of the Zionist claim to Jerusalem and a declaration that he will violate Pakistan's sovereignty if and when he likes, once president.

On another occasion Schama rubs shoulders with veterans of US colonial wars in the Drop Zone cafe in San Antonio. He meets the "good-natured General Valenzuela". He, we are told, had "taken on the Farc in Colombia and was therefore unlikely to be a pussycat". Unlikely to be a pussycat! The US proxy war in Colombia is a history of torture and massacre, with many people horrifically put to death for the crime of belonging to a trade union. "Unlikely to be a pussycat" is an obscene response to the crimes that have been committed there.

To be fair, he does condemn the "unspeakable sadism at Abu Ghraib" and there is no doubting his personal opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The problem is that anyone reading this book in the hope of finding out why the US invaded Iraq will be none the wiser once they've finished it. The book does not provide a serious history of the US empire, of why the US spends more on arms than the rest of the world put together, of why there are US bases in over 60 foreign countries, of how this empire in decline is increasingly resorting to military force to maintain its international position. Similarly, there is no account whatsoever of that great US institution that figures in the history of so many other countries, the CIA. On top of this, much of the book is very badly written with passage after passage of excruciatingly embarrassing prose as Schama strains after the common touch. This is a bad book, regardless of any political disagreements. An ideal Christmas present for people you don't like.