Copyright © Bernard Chazelle, Princeton, December 2003
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CounterPunch   January 2004

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Bush's Desolate Imperium

By Bernard Chazelle

Ah, the ease with which George W. Bush attracts superlatives! Helen Thomas calls him "the worst president ever." A kinder, gentler Jonathan Chait ranks him "among the worst presidents in US history." No such restraint from Paul Berman, who brands him "the worst president the US has ever had." Nobel Laureate George Akerlof rates his government as the "worst ever." Even Bushie du jour, Christopher Hitchens, calls the man "unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things." Only Fidel Castro, it would appear, has had kind words for our 43rd President. "Hopefully, he is not as stupid as he seems, nor as Mafia-like as his predecessors were."

Vain hopes. In a mere three years, President Bush has compiled a record of disasters that Fidel could only envy. While cutting taxes for the rich, starving out federal programs for the poor, dismantling environmental protections, riding roughshod over civil liberties, and running the largest budget deficit in history, his administration has pursued a "law of the jungle" brand of foreign policy fueled by overt paranoia and an imperious sense of omnipotence. Its shrill, threatening rhetoric, relentlessly echoed by a gang of media goons, has coarsened public discourse and alienated friends and allies.

At home, Bush has stoked the fears of a public traumatized by 9/11 and encountered rare success preaching an "us-against-them" Weltanschauung soaked in self-righteousness. Dissent has been equated with lack of patriotism, illegal detentions have gone unchallenged, and racial profiling has been given new life. In the run-up to the war, international disapproval met with sophomoric tantrums ("freedom fries, anyone?") and vindictive hissy fits (canceled exchange programs with French high schools): hardly America's finest hour.

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The Bush administration interpreted the tragedy of 9/11 as a clarion call to move hard power to the center of US foreign policy. Classical American hegemony, characterized by its ability to enforce an international order and a willingness to abide by it, was to give way to an "imperial ambition." This transformation did not spring up out of a sudden rethinking of US national security post 9/11. Rather, the terrorist attacks triggered into action a plan long in the making, of which the invasion of Iraq was Step 1. Bob Woodward reports that on 9/12, with no knowledge about the hijackers, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called for a US attack on Iraq at a cabinet meeting [1]. No one in the room registered much surprise. Why would they? They all knew that Rumsfeld had co-signed an open letter to President Clinton in January 1998 that read in part,
We urge you to... turn your Administration's attention to implementing a strategy for removing Saddam's regime from power [2].
Iraq was the first domino to topple. Others would follow, opening up a new era of US global domination. This project, now at the heart of Bush's foreign policy, is the brainchild of the PNAC, the leading neoconservative think-tank. (Neoconservatism is a misnomer: The godfather of the movement explains why [3].) It is laid out in various documents such as "Rebuilding America's Defenses" [4]. Briefly, the neocons dream of spreading democracy around the world by enforcing a Pax Americana that is strong enough militarily to deter any future challenge and discourage rival coalitions. Neocons present a coherent, if utterly unrealistic, vision of an American hyperpower that has broken all ties with namby-pamby Carterism and Kissinger-style realpolitik, and is hell-bent on sharing with the world the benefits of its moral superiority. Democracy by force, if you will. It is both highly principled and highly dangerous. Indeed, neocons can sometimes sound like little Mussolinis in training.

We are an awesome revolutionary force. Creative destruction is our middle name. We tear down the old order every day... Seeing America undo old conventions, they [our enemies] fear us, for they do not wish to be undone... We wage total war because we fight in the name of an idea... Stability is for those older, burnt-out countries, not for the American dynamo (Michael A. Ledeen, Freedom Chair holder at the American Enterprise Institute [5]).

Other times, they are merely auditioning for the part of the megalomaniac villain in the latest James Bond movie.

The maximum amount of force can and should be used as quickly as possible for psychological impact—to demonstrate that the empire cannot be challenged with impunity... [W]e are in the business of bringing down hostile governments and creating governments favorable to us (Harvard Professor Stephen P. Rosen [6]).
Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business (Michael A. Ledeen [7]).
[The US should] recognize obligations only when it's in our interest (Under Secretary of State John R. Bolton [8]).

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On the heels of the Afghan campaign, an invasion that drew its legitimacy from the Taliban's harboring of al Qaeda, the Bush administration shifted its priorities to effect regime change in Iraq. On March 20, 2003, with no UN support and widespread opposition worldwide, a US-led coalition attacked Iraq. On May 1, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces proudly donned a flight suit in San Diego harbor, bravely landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln thirty miles offshore, and triumphantly declared the end of major combat operations. Bush had won the war.

On September 21, 2003, in a public forum at the New School, Paul Wolfowitz restated the three official reasons for the invasion [17]: Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (WMD); his connection to international terrorism; and the moral imperative of replacing a brutal dictatorship by a civil democracy that would serve as a model for the Middle East.

Other motives were suggested in the media. One of them, straight out of Comedy Central, was the desire to "save the UN." Yeah, so deep was Bush's affection toward the world body that he would go to war to save it from irrelevance. Never mind the anticipatory obituaries of the UN gleefuly prepared by Bush's neocon courtiers right before the war. The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman had another theory: therapeutic violence.
The "real reason" for this war, which was never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world. Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine. But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could... [18]

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Hyperventilating Tony and Condi blowing hot air again. The WMD argument has been shattered. After months of scouring the country for WMD at a cost of $300 million, the 1,400-strong Iraq Survey Group has come up empty-handed. With this appalling fiasco, Bush has unwittingly validated the work of Hans Blix's UN weapons inspection team, which his cabinet had gleefully ridiculed before the war. One could almost feel sorry for the president. Iraq may well have been one of only two countries on earth entirely free of WMD; and that is the one he chose to invade! I guess the Vatican was lucky.

Intelligence analysts and Iraqi defectors warned the administration of the existence of WMD but their evidence never rose above the level of hearsay and wishful thinking. CIA and State remained so unconvinced that the Defense Department decided to set up its own intelligence shop (separate from DIA), the Office of Special Plans. According to The New Yorker's Seymour M. Hersh (the reporter who broke the My Lai story), Special Plans cherry-picked intelligence to support Cheney and Rumsfeld's case for war [22]. None of the alarming evidence these intelligence amateurs gathered convinced anyone at the CIA. It did convince the president, however. With CIA Director George Tenet still fighting for his job after his fine performance on 9/11, traditional intelligence agencies rolled over and let the (neo)con artists at Special Plans run the show. Yet Bush could not say he had not heard divergent opinions:

[UN Sanctions] have worked. He [Saddam] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction (Secretary of State Colin Powell, 2/24/01).

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No evidence of WMD. Ditto with terror links. Who cares? Isn't Iraq better off now? If the pursuit of democracy in a land long oppressed by tyrants is not a noble cause, then what is?

Time to give that noble cause a closer look. Wolfowitz advanced three reasons for the war: The first two are shot; the third's the charm. With Saddam gone and the US in control, democracy shall now spread across the region like wildfire and the swamps of terror shall be drained. Hallelujah! Of course, it is not too reassuring that the prophets who today have "no doubt" about the bright future of Iraq are the same geniuses who yesterday had "no doubt" about the existence of WMD. The problems facing the US in Iraq are daunting: Is Iraq viable as a single unified nation? How does one go redistributing among tribal and religious groups power traditionally held by the 16% Sunni minority while avoiding a civil war? These are a few in a long list of urgent questions. To stabilize Iraq, let alone transform it into a liberal democracy, would be a Herculean task for the United Nations. For the US it is simply hopeless. In the plains of Mesopotamia, America will always be the problem, not the solution. The problem in question is foremost one of credibility. In Iraq, the US has none.

For starters, Iraqis will remember that democracy was also promised to Kuwait in 1991, and we all know how well that went. The New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, not a man given to cynicism, smells a rat [35]:
... the prattle about creating a democratic model on the Tigris is just a shrewd White House marketing attempt to bait and switch.

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Iraq is only the tip of the iceberg. A recent Pew survey indicates that a full 6% of Egyptians and 1% of Jordanians hold a favorable view of the US: some gratitude from the second and fourth largest recipients of US foreign aid! In Pakistan a whopping 2% of the public welcomes the spread of American ideas and customs [49] [50].

"Why do they hate us?" has been the post-9/11 question par excellence. Its distinct resonance comes from its beguiling ambiguity. Who are they? The terrorists? But then why didn't we hear the same question after the Oklahoma City bombing? Perhaps they are the Muslims or the Arabs or any of those scary, dark-skinned bogeymen who haunt the imagery of right-wing radio talk shows. They are mired in poverty and oppression and spend every waking hour envying our wealth and freedoms. Or maybe only our wealth. President Bush, an expert on both subjects, assures us it is our freedoms they actually hate. Being the devilishly witty man that he is, the freedom he has in mind must surely be that of detaining Muslim teenagers in Guantanamo Bay indefinitely without charge, in contravention of basic international law.

Finer connoisseurs of human nature have suggested that Arab anti-Americanism stems from a scapegoating campaign meant to divert the people's attention from their own governments' failings. Its motto: Praise your leader for all that is good; blame America for all that is bad. After all, the scapegoat theory goes, isn't US policy unabashedly, overwhelmingly, ridiculously pro-Muslim? (Hint for those who are having trouble with this homework exercise: Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo.) Were it not for decades of manipulation at the hands of shameless leaders, the Arabs would know how good we are.

They would also know how stupid we are. For what else would you call people who give billions in financial assistance to Arab leaders only so that they can better whip their people into an anti-American frenzy? Why didn't the scapegoat theorists tell us earlier? If only we'd known! Of course, one may criticize al-Jazeera for lacking American-style impartiality, be it the fairness and balance of Fox News or the cool objectivity of Clear Channel. But to think that the Qatar-based TV news network is just a vehicle of power intended to keep the restless Arab masses from turning against their governments is borderline delusional. This is not to say that transference of self-pity into loathing of others might not play a role. (After all, John Ashcroft does it all the time.) But to claim that it is the whole story suggests that Arabs in dozens of nations, thousands of miles apart, suffer from some sort of collective mental disorder: a slur that does not even rise to the level of an idea.

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What if Bush fought a just war for the wrong reasons? So he lied to our faces, concealed his true motives, conjured up imaginary threats, tricked us into a war under false pretense. But does this necessarily rule out the morality of the war? To rescue a man from a lake with the sole intent of stealing his wallet is wrong but still better than to let him drown. No one with a conscience can bemoan the fall of Saddam. How does Bush's war fare by the standards of just war theory?

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When Condoleezza Rice calls us, war critics, racists, she misses the point [58]. We never said that Iraq could not be a democracy. We simply said that Condi and her friends could not make it into one. The most likely outcome for Iraq in the short term is Lebanon-style guerrilla warfare leading to a mini-Saddam or a civil war. It was ugly before. Bush has ensured that it will remain ugly for a long time to come. Meanwhile he has subverted the war on terror by diverting enormous resources away from it and redirecting them toward fanning the flames of anti-American hatred.

President Bush did not have to go to war. To explain his refusal, he could have simply said:
We should not march into Baghdad, turning the whole Arab world against us. Assigning young soldiers to a fruitless hunt for a securely entrenched dictator and condemning them to fight in what would be an unwinnable urban guerilla war, it could only plunge that part of the world into ever greater instability.
History would have kindly forgiven him such blatant plagiarism: for these were the words his father wrote in his memoirs [59].


[1] Bush at War, by Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster, 2002.


[3] The Neoconservative Persuasion, by Irving Kristol, Weekly Standard, August 25, 2003.


[5] We'll Win This War, by Michael A. Ledeen, The American Enterprise Online.

[6] The Future of War and the American Military, by Stephen P. Rosen, Harvard Magazine, May-June 2002, vol 104, no 5.

[7] Michael A. Ledeen, quoted by Jonah Goldberg in Baghdad Delenda Est, Part Two, National Review, April 23, 2002.

[8] Beware of Bolton, by Ian Williams, May 30, 2002.

[9] America's Imperial Ambition, by John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs, 2002.

[10] Should We Evict the UN? by Patrick Buchanan, New York Post, December 27, 1997, page 15.

[11] Washington Post, January 31, 2003.

[12] The Guardian, March 21, 2003.

[13] Why America Still Needs the United Nations, by Shashi Tharoor, Foreign Affairs, Sept/Oct 2003

[14] The End of the American Era: US Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-first Century, by Charles A. Kupchan, Knopf, October 29, 2002.

[15] The Real Crisis Over the Atlantic, by Dominique Moisi, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2001.

[16] Propaganda Isn't the Way: Soft Power, by Joseph S. Nye Jr., The International Herald Tribune, January 10, 2003.

[17] Wolfowitz Stands Fast Amid the Antiwarriors, by Eric Schmitt, The New York Times, September 22, 2003.

[18] Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, June 2003.

[19] The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, September 17, 2002.

[20] But What's the Legal Case for Preemption? by Bruce Ackerman, Washington Post, August 18, 2002.

[21] Law unto Themselves, by Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, March 14, 2003.

[22] Selective Intelligence, by Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, May 5, 2003.

[23] The Economist, October 4, 2003.

[24] A deafening silence, by Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz, October 6, 2002.

[25] Bush's Unreliable Intelligence, by David Corn, The Nation, November 12, 2003.

[26] Rice: Iraq trained al Qaeda in chemical weapons, CNN, September 26, 2002.

[27] President Bush Outlines Iraqi Threat, by George W. Bush, Cincinnati, October 7, 2002.

[28] Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 Attacks, Washington Post Poll, September 6, 2003.

[29] We're Taking Him Out, CNN, May 6, 2002.

[30] May 9, 2003 interview of Paul Wolfowitz by Sam Tannenbaus, published in Vanity Fair, July 2003.

[31] Iraq Said to Have Tried to Reach Last-Minute Deal to Avert War, by James Risen, The New York Times, November 6, 2003. Original article.

[32] Stumbling into War, by James P. Rubin, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2003.

[33] Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History, by George Crile, Atlantic Monthly Press, April 2003.

[34] Bush's Faustian Deal With the Taliban, by Robert Scheer, Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2001.

[35] Iraqi Democracy Is a Pipe Dream, by Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times, October 19, 2002.

[36] UN Resolution 1441, The Security Council, November 8, 2002.

[37] Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, July 7, 1991.

[38] A War for Oil?, by Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, January 5, 2003.

[39] US Diplomatic and Commercial Relationships with Iraq, 1980 - 2 August 1990.

[40] US Support for Iraq in the 1980s, Center for Cooperative Research.

[41] The Ghosts of 1991, by Peter W. Galbraith, Washington Post, Saturday, April 12, 2003.

[42] Making of a Monster: How the US Helped Build Iraq's War Machine, by William P. Hoar, The New American, September 1992.

[43] A Hard Look at Iraq Sanctions, by David Cortright, The Nation, December 3, 2001.

[44] Iraq surveys show 'humanitarian emergency, Unicef Information Newsline, August 12, 1999.

[45] Columbia News Video, by Prof. Richard Garfield, March 03, 2000.

[46] Cool War, by Joy Gordon, Harper's Magazine, November 2002.

[47] Squeezed to death, by John Pilger, The Guardian, Saturday March 4, 2000.

[48] Iraq 'smart sanctions' derailed by Russia, by Anton La Guardia,, April 7, 2001.

[49] Pew's Global Attitudes Project, June 2003.

[50] Andrew Kohut's Senate Testimony, February 27, 2003.

[51] Jihad: Expansion et declin de l'Islamisme, by Gilles Kepel, Gallimard, 2003.

[52] Terror and Liberalism, by Paul Berman, Norton, 2003.

[53] Jerry Falwell, September 13, 2001.

[54] General William Boykin, 2002-2003.

[55] State of the Union Address to Congress, by President Carter, January 21, 1980.

[56] Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, May 4, 2003.

[57] Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, by Niall Ferguson, Basic Books, 2003.

[58] Critics of US policy are racist, says Rice, by David Rennie,, September 8, 2003.

[59] A World Transformed, by Brent Scowcroft and George H. W. Bush, Knopf, September 1998.