A World Safe For Starbucks

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the 3rd World Water Forum
For Coffee is Thicker Than Blood
Philadelphia Independent, front page, Spring 2003 (approx. 1,800 words)

KYOTO, Japan — I’m on the Karasuma line of the Kyoto subway as Bush’s Iraq deadline passes, and I couldn’t feel further from the war. On either side of me, Japanese commuters are catching a last few minutes of sleep before they hit the office, and standing nearby is a beautiful young woman in kimono. This is the town for geisha, after all—though after checking around I realize she’s probably just a college student, dressed up for a night on the town to celebrate graduation. I’m a world away from home, from New York, Philadelphia, Baghdad, London. Bombs are falling, but in another time zone, far away.

Bombs almost fell here, in another era. Kyoto was on Harry Truman’s original A-bomb list in 1945, but was spared because of the city’s cultural history, which stretches back thousands of years. This is Japan’s garden city, the most beautiful spot in the country, filled with temples and cherry blossoms and the intricate history of samurai, shoguns and emperors. Once the country’s capital, it has also given rise to some of Japan’s greatest literature, and was the location for Akira Kurosawa’s oft-quoted film Rashomon. As the mellow recorded voice of the Japanese subway woman smoothly announces my stop, it is hard to picture the sandstorms sweeping Kuwait, let alone the firestorms that are about to sweep its neighbor to the northwest.

I’m on my way to cover an international gum-flap known as the 3rd World Water Forum, which has attracted thousands of people from all over the globe. They represent multilateral agencies, non-governmental organizations and corporations big and small, and they have come to discuss the world’s very real “water crisis”: 6,000 people die from water-related diseases every day; 1.1 billion people have insufficient access to safe drinking water; 2.4 billion have no sanitation facilities. You want mass destruction? Here it is.

Sadly, WWF3 is proving a bit of a bust. There are precious few concrete proposals for how to mobilize the funds it would take to give a billion people clean water, and those who control the cash—executives at big water companies like France’s Vivendi Environnement and Suez Ondeo, the UK’s Anglian Water, and Germany’s RWE (owner of Thames Water)—are met by protestors decrying the involvement of the private sector in such public works.

In fact, the four other gaijin on the subway car with me—otherwise known as “whiteys” in the parlance of a Japanese friend of mine—are among the hundreds of environmental lobbyists, indigenous peoples’ representatives and other water activists who have booths or press conferences or papers to hand out at the forum. I’ve seen them in the lobby of my hotel, taking up too many of the restaurant’s tables, munching corn flakes and talking about Bay Area real estate prices. Their hearts are in the right place—or near there, at any rate.

But on the subway, I notice something odd. All four of these staunch advocates of the thirsty guy are gripping America-sized paper to-go cups from which the aroma of fine espresso wafts.

And yes, the cups are from Starbucks.

The sight of four foot-stampers sucking on Starbucks cups is an enjoyable irony, but it’s somehow less delicious on this particular morning in Japan. After all, this is a country America bombed the shit out of half a century ago. It was here that we unleashed the first weapons of mass destruction the world had ever seen. No quick exit that time: we stayed to write a new constitution, gave the Japanese a crash course in representative democracy and market capitalism, and all but denied the country its right to bear arms. It’s not so much that we were afraid of what would happen if we didn’t refashion Japan in our own image. It’s just that, as a people, we tend to be small-minded. We don’t know how to rebuild a country any other way.

But the small-mindedness seems to work for us. On the subway I enjoy my laugh at the activists’ expense and then turn to the day-old newspaper I haven’t had time to read. There I see that despite the fact that more than three-quarters of the country opposes “the disarmament of Iraq,” as GWB so delicately described it that morning, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has trotted out his movie-star good looks to sign on for Bush’s war just hours before the first cruise missiles took off. It “wouldn’t be prudent,” as Papa Bush might have said, to do anything else, what with North Korea warming up its nukes nearby and Japan’s best defense being the 60,000 US troops that are stationed here. No one forced Koizumi to come on board. But somewhere along the line, America made his country an offer he couldn’t refuse.

In effect, the nationbuilding America did after World War Two made us into a kind of realpolitik Godfather, selling protection around the world for the same things Vito Corleone wanted: a measure of docility and a little tribute—only in our case tribute takes the form of a Starbucks-friendly economic system and a little lobbying of intransigent Security Council members.

It doesn’t always work, of course (viz., Germany, which is bucking the system by denying us its UN sway). But it’s a nice little trick America has for turning enemies into friends. If you do the reconstruction right, even a country you’ve atom-bombed can become a comfortable place to eat corn flakes and complain about the gentrification of your neighborhood back home.

And that’s when it hits me, staring at the cappuccinos, laughing silently to myself at the folly of these smug, cause-proud Americans who can’t be bothered to sample even as much of the culture as it would take to eat a Japanese breakfast: this is what we’re doing in Iraq. It isn’t about oil or religion or terrorism or policing the world or striking back. Yes, tangentially it’s about all those things. But politicians, and especially presidents—even ones like Dubya, who only holds the job as a stepping stone to becoming baseball commissioner—presidents think in longer terms than that. They’re like novelists: they work because they want to be remembered.

How much do you know about James Monroe’s presidency? Not much, probably, but you’ve heard of the Monroe Doctrine, which first set up America as a policeman outside its own borders. More to the point, though it wasn’t dreamt up by a president, same goes for the Marshall Plan. You think George Marshall cares that no one knows his first name? No way. There are three secrets to a successful political career: legacy, legacy and legacy.

George W. Bush’s legacy will be made not in this war but in the post-war rethink in which Bush and his friends and business associates sit down to refashion Iraq. It won’t be an easy job, but if he gets his reconstruction right, Bush’s legacy will be an American pied-a-terre in the Middle East—which would constitute nothing less than a huge, historic victory for the loosely connected shadow empire we maintain all over the world. We can drink the sweet aroma of Japan’s cherry blossoms, we can quaff German beer, sip Italian espresso. We can move anywhere we want in the developed world. But the Middle East is one of the few regions without a comfortable country where Americans can drift about blithely spending their money on American companies, free of any more fear of crime, suicide bombers or terrorist assault than they’re wracked with back home. It might take a couple of decades to bring about, but you know the president who sets the change in motion is going to be long remembered for his good works. Plus which, maybe then we could even jettison Israel, where our tactics haven’t worked out so well, you’ll have to admit.

Understand that I’m not talking client-states. We don’t want to force anyone’s allegiance; we just want to make it really, really hard for them to do anything else. It’s moral suasion through infrastructure. We want to make Westernization into the path of least resistance. We want to give visiting protestors easy access to Starbucks. You think real estate prices in Oakland are bad? Wait till we gentrify your country.

If you think that’s not what we’re up to, look again at the news. Yes, we’re going to occupy the place and install a democratic government, but that’s just SOP. Most countries eventually find their way to some form of democracy and capitalism anyway. Far more interesting than the political edicts, though, will be the redevelopment contracts, which will go to big American businesses like Bechtel and any company Dick Cheney’s ever had anything to do with. Not even Tony Blair gets a piece of the action. We’re going to do things right.

Of course, we’ve first got to win the war. It could all be over by the time you read this. “Shock and awe” may just carry the day. Then again, Baghdad could become Stalingrad. For the Iraqis’ sake, we need a quick victory. Better to go in as a compassionate conqueror than as a bitter little general resentful at having had his fingers burned.

Saddam is not Stalin; he is not Hirohito; and he is not Hitler (though this is one of the few places that last comparison can even be made). He is crazy and evil and continues to do horrible things and he needs to be stopped, and for a variety of reasons war may be the best course of action right now, I don’t know. Bush may not be the best president for the job, but he’s the one we’ve got. If you don’t like it, vote more often in the next election.

Actually, Bush is an ass. No argument there. But I always thought he and his cronies were not quite the swiftest scuds in the silo. I thought they just wanted contracts for their friends, oil for their country, vengeance for their wounded pride. It took the Japanese subway to convince me otherwise. You’ve at least got to admire the guy for the range of his vision.

And it really is a brilliant vision that Bush and his handmaidens have of the world. What a great thing, if decades from now Baghdad could become the next Kyoto or Berlin and we could one day hold a big international conference there—on, say, water—and politicians could do a little sightseeing in between their pointless chin-wags and people could fly in from all over the world to protest the involvement of big business in social works while sipping from big business’s to-go cup.

It’s a totally brilliant plan, and you have to admire the people who came up with it. Not Bush and Cheney and the smoldering Condoleeza Rice, but you and me, very gradually, over the course of the last two and a quarter centuries. If you don’t agree, I’d be happy to discuss it with you over a cappuccino at Starbucks. Anywhere in the world.