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On the Brink

The plans are laid, the troops are in place. All that America lacks as it stands on the brink of war are allies, international sanction and a plausible rationale for why we’re going to war in the first place.

Listening to the president justify the war he is about to start, one question that invariably springs to mind is whether the argument is really that weak, or the arguer just that inept. (As Yeats put it, “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?”) Bush has boiled down the case for the war to a soundbite that, as the Washington Post’s David Broder has pointed out, is internally consistent (but nothing else): Bush was sworn to protect the country; Saddam Hussein is or will be a threat to the country and is not disarming sufficiently; Bush must therefore order his removal.

To all the objections to this case, Bush’s robotic response, as anyone who heard last week’s press conference can attest, is to repeat his case. (Clearly, Bush’s chief goal during that press conference was to get through it without a smirk or anything that betrayed how utterly comfortable he is with the thought of going to war.) Since increasingly his case is based on the threat that Saddam presents, Bush is now stating baldly that Iraq poses a direct threat to the U.S., something the administration never bothered to bring up until the last couple of months.

Overthrowing Saddam has been an idée fixe of neoconservatives ever since Poppy Bush let him get away in 1991. For administration neocons such as deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith and defense policy board chairman Richard Perle, the attacks of 9/11 opened a window of opportunity to get back into Iraq and do the job for good. Wolfowitz raised the idea of attacking Iraq just two days after al Qaeda’s assaults on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and he quickly persuaded Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld that this time they had enough cover to take out Saddam.

In short order, the administration began to make a number of cases for the need to remove Saddam: He was linked to al Qaeda; he was a mortal threat and scourge to his own people; he was a threat to the Middle East; he was developing weapons of mass destruction; he was a threat to the United States; he was violating United Nations resolutions; he was an imminent threat to the United States; a liberated and democratic Iraq would help create other democracies in the Middle East and lead to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement; a liberated Iraq would stimulate our economy (this was the most short-lived case, though it was no less plausible than the notion that Bush’s tax cut would stimulate the economy). Some of these arguments were indisputably true (Saddam was indeed a scourge to his own people), some were utterly unsubstantiated (the al Qaeda link), some merited serious scrutiny (the Iraqi nuclear program, for instance, doesn’t seem to have advanced very far, if at all), some were fantastical (the war would help settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).

None of these arguments, however, remotely made the case that Iraq posed the kind of imminent threat that justified a pre-emptive war. And none of them countered the myriad counterarguments: that the war would inflame rather than domesticate Arab and Muslim public opinion; that justifying pre-emptive war for regime change opened the door to naked Darwinism in international affairs; that containment had held in check and ultimately destroyed Joseph Stalin and his heirs and could surely do the same for Saddam.

What really damaged the U.S. argument on the world stage, however, was that the administration so palpably wanted a war, and was so plainly eager to flout world opinion in the process. According to one report, what set French President Jacques Chirac on edge was Dick Cheney’s speech last summer in which Cheney asserted the right of the United States to go to war pre-emptively pretty much as his boss saw fit.

But Cheney’s speech, and Bush’s West Point address, and even the U.S. National Security strategy, were all just parts of the Grand World Plan that the administration’s neoconservatives (see above) and its ranking xenophobe (George W. Bush) have jointly cooked up. For them, it is the new century, not the tattered 20th, that will be the American century, and to that end they propose to project American power as far as it will go — which, militarily, is everywhere except those places where someone else’s nuclear weapons can stop us. That means that the only international bodies and accords the U.S. will support are those we can control, like the World Trade Organization. All others — the U.N., the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto protocols — will be the objects of our indifference or our wrath.

The upsurge of American unilateralism comes at a time when the accelerating integration of the world economy has led many nations to conclude that assuring the planet’s future depends on building stronger global bodies to regulate the economy, protect the environment, and minimize both state-sponsored and stateless violence. No part of the world is more wedded to that vision than Europe, where the construction of a continental supra-nation is well under way. The conflict between the U.S. and Europe, then, is over more than what to do in Iraq; it is really over the future of world governance.

It’s more than a conflict between the U.S. and Europe, of course; it’s really a conflict between the U.S. and the rest of the globe. In January, an international Gallup Poll asked respondents whether American foreign policy had a positive or negative effect on their countries, and what was truly stunning was the uniformity of their answers: In Spain, the margin was 57 percent negative to 9 percent positive; in Russia, the margin was 55 percent to 11 percent; in Argentina, 58 percent to 13 percent; in Pakistan, 46 percent to 8 percent.

Any other administration in American history would have been a tad daunted by those numbers; estranging the entire planet is normally not the goal of U.S. foreign policy. But neoconservatives can trace their intellectual roots back to anti-Stalinist Trotskyists (they don’t like to, but they can), and the two traits they retain from their ancestors are the Trotskyists’ certitude that history will vindicate them, and their concomitant utter indifference to universal rejection. (Think of it as secular predestination with no worldly confirmation of same.) For the neos, the projection of U.S. power cannot help but bring democracy in the end. Any ancillary problems will be overcome. And any opposition to their vision — most particularly, a world of agreed-upon and binding international norms — must be overcome and, if need be, crushed.

And Bush — the child of a father whose daily work was to deal with the world (Poppy, lest we forget, was ambassador to China, ambassador to the U.N. and CIA director) but who rejected his father’s world and traveled to Europe only once before his election, at age 48, as governor of Texas — is a provincial xenophobe with a chip on his shoulder. Not to be unduly Freudian about it, but Bush is flouting his father (remember, the original critics of this Iraqi adventure were Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker, Poppy’s retainers), avenging his father (Saddam did put out a contract on the old man) and completing his father’s work, all at once.

And so, the neocon-xenophobe administration has taken us to the brink of war. We will soon cross the Rubicon, with no real idea of what awaits us on the other side.


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