Bush's Desolate Imperium, Copyright © Bernard Chazelle, Princeton, December 2003


Abroad, the image of the United States has never been worse. Ever. While the horrors of 9/11 prompted an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy for the US worldwide, Bush squandered it all away and morphed "America the Benevolent Giant" into "America the Shrill Bully." Bush's vision of a dog-eat-dog Hobbesian universe in which the US plays by its own rules is repellent to most nations. For all its shortcomings, the rule of international law has vital resonance to many: For Europeans it signifies the historical end of warfare as the preferred means of resolving disputes; for their former colonies it is a shield against the White Man's insufferable itch to force his wisdom down their throats. For weak nations it offers a deterrent against stronger neighbors. For all it promises the dignity of being heard and treated as equals on a global stage. International law might well be the worst form of utopia except, that is, for all others that have been tried.

It is overwhelmingly in America's interest to embrace international law, encourage liberal multilateralism, and leverage its formidable power through international partnerships. The world's sole superpower cannot go it alone. Perhaps it could fifty years ago. No longer. Besides the direct causes—mostly globalization and the emergence of rival economic blocs—there are two indirect factors behind the "Gulliverisation" of the US giant: The end of the Cold War has weakened its power of coercion; its increased exposure to terrorism has intensified its dependency on the goodwill of others.

The Bush administration does not see it that way. Its answer to terrorism and the threats of rogue nations is a doctrine of preventive warfare folded into an imperial ambition of global domination. It is Wilsonianism run amok. President Bush is a latter-day crusader on a mission to coerce everyone into freedom.

And what a better place to start the coercion than the land that is home to the world's second largest oil reserves! To drum up support for the invasion, Bush's mouthpieces served a credulous public a steady diet of lies and exaggerations. They hyped the threats to the hilt. More seriously, they lied about their certainty, presenting as rock-solid evidence what they knew were unproven allegations rejected by many in the intelligence community. The fake certitude—not the hype—was the lie. US forces invaded Iraq to eliminate a threat that proved to be entirely fictitious. The preventive warfare doctrine could not have failed in more spectacular fashion.

Supporters of the war have a single, powerful line of defense: "So what? A bloody dictatorship has been overthrown! Got a problem with that?" For its shaming effect, they will often throw in the rhetorical question, "Wasn't going after Hitler worth a little sacrifice?" with its intended subtext, "I Churchill, you Chamberlain." Saddam was a ghastly tyrant, but he was no Hitler. He was a Caligula-like monster and a second-tier dictator. The horrors he visited upon Iraq, gruesome as they were, were no worse than those visited on half a dozen nations in the last decade and not a patch on, say, the Congolese conflict (3 million people killed in 4 years). Absent the WMD justification, intervention in Iraq was thus a moral choice rather than a moral imperative. A decision had to be made that was based on the totality of arguments, for and against, and upheld the Hippocratic oath of foreign policy: Do no harm. What kind of mad surgeon would operate on a brain tumor before assessing the odds of success and gauging potential side effects?

Operating on the Saddam tumor had a number of predictable side effects: massive loss of innocent lives (over two 9/11s and counting), resentment of a proud people, precedent-setting in the violation of international law, etc. What were the chances of success? The experiences of the British in Mesopotamia, the French in Algeria, and the Israelis in Lebanon were hardly encouraging. Western incursions into the Arab world have had an uncanny way of failing miserably. One glimmer of hope, of course, was the sky-high credibility of American good intentions. Oh, really? Then, what was Bush's defense secretary doing in Baghdad back in the eighties, giving succor to a Saddam on top of his game busy gassing Iranians for breakfast? And why did his father allow the tyrant to murder 100,000 Kurds and Shi'ites in 1991? And what about the twelve years of US-led sanctions that enriched Saddam's cronies and raised the mortality rate among Iraqi children under 5 to a staggering 13 percent? One may forgive the Iraqis for being just a little wary of America's new-found solicitude.

President Bush saw no contradiction in preaching democracy in Iraq while forging new alliances with odious dictatorships in Central Asia, (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan), or in threatening Iran while coddling corrupt autocracies and cesspools of terrorism (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan). Bush is planting today the seeds of tomorrow's invasions. A recovered alcoholic, he has finally found an addiction that we can all enjoy together: perpetual war.

Hypocrisy comes laced with hair-raising incompetence. The Bush administration deluded itself about a painless war of liberation that would pay for itself. Much has been said already about postwar ineptitude, leading to radical policy shifts every few weeks. (Today's tuesday, so we must be trying to empower the Shi'ites.) For an example of incompetence that would be laughable were it not so tragic, consider Bush's gift of $43 million to the Taliban a mere six months before 9/11. Hey, what's wrong with a little Faustian deal when there is a war on drugs to be fought? (No doubt the families of 9/11 victims would nod in agreement.)

The president's folly will come crashing into the great Law of Unintended Consequences. This is the law that gave us Saddam, Khomeini, and Osama. Which is not to be confused with the Law of Intended Consequences, which gave us Pinochet, the Shah, the Greek Colonels, and Mobutu. Propping up nasty regimes in order to fight nastier ones (say, the Soviets) was always a dicey logic but a logic nevertheless. It is different today. Let us be clear. The war on terror was fully legitimized by 9/11; indeed, most of the world lined up behind the US campaign in Afghanistan. But Iraq is another story: an unprovoked aggression couched in a mendacious narrative of self-defense; a war of domination over a strategic region folded into a starry-eyed project of democratization; an encouragement to dictators everywhere to follow the lead of North Korea and get their nukes as soon as possible. Who can doubt that the incessant humiliation of Iraqis is fanning the flames of terror? Has it occurred to Bush that he might have become bin Laden's unwitting recruiting sergeant, his useful idiot in the White House?

At least Bush meant well—one hears. Did he? Good intentions are cheap. As La Rochefoucauld said: "We all have enough strength to bear other people's woes." How not to see callousness, instead, in the spectacle of privileged old men calling for a "little sacrifice" from the comfort of their conservative perches? Whose sacrifice? Not theirs, that much we know. The Bushies would rather cut down veterans' benefits—$21 billion reduction over 10 years—than give up their cherished tax cuts. No, the lucky ones slated for sacrifice are the GIs bogged down in Iraq and the likes of Ali Abbas, the boy who lost his entire family and his two arms in a US bombing raid over Baghdad. This war will prove a calamity for everyone, except, of course, for little Ali, who will eternally bless his luck that President Bush liberated him from the tyranny of his parents, his siblings, and his limbs.

The war had one positive consequence—removing Saddam from power—and will have countless adverse ones. But the case against it is not in the numbers. It lies in the near-certain prediction that the world will be worse off for it. As CIA veteran Milt Bearden reminded us recently (with only slight historical license), in the 20C "no nation that launched a war against another sovereign nation ever won. And every nationalist-based insurgency against a foreign occupation ultimately succeeded." Why should the 21C be any different? Bush is building a world of mistrust and desolation that will not be easily mended. A fresh new wave of anti-Americanism is sweeping the planet today. No one should rejoice in this, for America matters and its estrangement is good for no one. This grave setback in international relations will be Bush's lasting legacy. Once "the worst president ever" retires to his ranch in Crawford, the world will be left to pick up the pieces of a broken trust.

A Personal Note   The debate has been divisive and emotional. For someone like me—hardly a knee-jerk pacifist, having supported military interventions in Somalia, Liberia, the Congo, and Afghanistan—the case against the war in Iraq is not an easy one. I will show in this article that, upon careful consideration of the evidence, the case for war collapses, both on principle and on practical grounds. The invasion was a huge miscalculation whose adverse consequences will greatly outweigh any potential benefit. My opponents will retort that I condone wife beating.

This gotcha argument is irresistible. Even I, not one to concede an inch to the other side, am sensitive to it. Indeed, it is not a pleasant thought that, had I had my way, Saddam would still be presiding over Iraq's misfortunes. My anti-war position is based purely on moral and political cost-benefit considerations. If that is too crass, how else should one go about it? Unfortunately, I have not seen any serious counterargument. I believe that the irresistibility of the gotcha line is the reason why. It has been the black hole of pro-war thinking. The endless pro-invasion screeds that fill the pages of The Weekly Standard and National Review offer, in lieu of reasoning, little more than wishful thinking and intellectual sleight-of-hand. Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly and their Clear Channel/Fox News cohorts are entertaining buffoons who get paid to talk, not to think. Meanwhile, the intellectual heavyweights on the right have been too giddy with power to go to the effort of being intelligent.

If I have missed a serious pro-war argumentation that is not based on the empty WMD/terror threats, I am quite certain that the Bush people have missed it, too. All too often, the debate has been a sterile clash of unreasoned assertions. The pro-war camp has never dealt satisfactorily with a large number of questions (addressed in this article). For example, even if one is willing to suspend disbelief and picture a US-led democracy in Iraq, is one also to trust that, were the regime to be anti-American (a virtual certainty), the US would sheepishly acquiesce? Who in the world can believe such a thing?

The fatuity of much of the pro-war rhetoric gives me no comfort. As we all know, conservatives who cannot make it in the world of ideas settle for the next best thing, which is to run the country. Tom Lehrer may end up having the last word: "Though he may have won all the battles / We had all the good songs." I do not think so. As a US citizen, I will do what I have to do at the ballot box on November 2, 2004. May this article inspire the American voters among you to do the same and return the man from Crawford to his ranch.