Our Very Own 1914

If anything was strikingly clear from President Bush’s de facto declaration of war this week, it was that the war is anything but pre-emptive. Pre-emption presupposes an imminent threat, and if Iraq actually posed an imminent threat, our government would hardly be giving Saddam & Sons a 48-hour advance notice that we were about to attack them. This is, rather, a preventive war, in which the threat from Iraq is something we must gauge in advance.

And one of the problems with this war is that while the United Nations’ monitors have not been granted much access to do their gauging, the United States’ decision makers haven’t really been much interested in impartial gauging in any event. The CIA’s George Tenet may have said last fall that Iraq did not constitute an offensive threat to the U.S., but Tenet is an intelligence pro who lacks the neocon and imperialist zeal to make it into Bush’s inner circle.

And the inner circle believes otherwise, though it increasingly asserts its belief free from any obligation to adduce evidence. Indeed, the core argument of Bush’s speech was precisely that Iraq did pose a mortal threat to the United States. And this past Sunday on Meet the Press, Dick Cheney was still asserting that Iraq had been acquiring the materials it needed to build nuclear weapons, though the documents we had released to expose this project have been shown to be forgeries — a fact that our government now acknowledges, except when the vice president chooses to forget it.

So the time for diplomacy has run out. France’s proposal for a 30-day ultimatum to Iraq, with detailed demands that the Baghdad regime would have to comply with, was a nonstarter at the White House, as was a similar proposal, with a time frame of roughly two weeks, floated by Canada. Time has run out because the administration evidently feared that the longer the international debate continued, the more that opposition to our course would rise in every nation except, possibly, our own. It ran out because our troops were already deployed — though it’s important to note that key military units have yet to arrive in the staging areas. In short, war is starting because we’re losing the international debate, so we may as well shift to something we know how to do: win a war.

In a way, the last half-year has been unfolding as a kind of absurd replay of 1914, set in a macabre hall of mirrors where the timetable of one nation determines the question of war and peace. In 1914, the governments of the major European nations plunged the world into bloody chaos because the logic of military mobilization rolled right over the attempts of every government’s foreign ministry to stop the war. The actual grounds for a continental war were close to nil, but as tensions rose, both Berlin and Paris grew suddenly fearful that the other could mobilize his army in just 14 days, and that he who hesitated to mobilize his own army would be not just lost, but, worse, the loser. The clock started ticking despite the lack of a casus belli between Germany and France, and on the 14th day, German troops pre-emptively crossed their frontiers lest France do the same.

Fast-forward to 2003, where the same rhetoric and urgency, the same catch phrases are, bizarrely, heard again. Time is running out. The time for diplomacy is exhausted. The armed forces are now at full readiness. The troops are already on the march.

This time, however, the ticking clock with which our government is trying to keep pace is entirely its own. Our deployment of forces has become in effect a massive argument for invasion; indeed, it’s been Cheney and Rumsfeld and the neocons’ ultimate argument against Colin Powell’s counsels of caution. Simply to keep the forces in the Kuwaiti desert, to stand down now, after all the times the administration has proclaimed its right to wage pre-emptive war against Iraq, would be to undercut all the administration has said and done. Thus the logic of unilateral mobilization has forced the United States into the war that its neocon champions have been seeking for more than a decade. In a nation that has proclaimed pre-emption as its strategic doctrine, to deploy a sizable force is now tantamount to declaring war.

Which is why the U.S. parted company from those Security Council members who voted for Resolution 1441 back in November. For a nation committed to a policy of pre-empt-and-deploy, weapons inspections were a sideshow, or better, a justification for starting the war as soon as the troops were in place. For the rest of the world — including the overwhelming majority of citizens of nations whose governments have sided with the U.S. — inspections were actually a valid process in themselves. (Though, paradoxically, it’s unlikely the inspections would yield anything unless backed by military force. Real inspections would require, for instance, U.N. inspectors being able to call in immediate [and necessarily, U.S.] air strikes on any facility to which they were denied entrance — a serious strategy in which the U.S. had no interest, and Europe, only slightly more.)


The doctrine of pre-emption is also the bomb with which the U.S. has blown to smithereens the Western alliance of the past 60 years. The United Nations was founded in part to diminish the prospects for pre-
emptive war; Article 51 of the U.N. Charter flatly outlaws such conflicts. NATO was established explicitly as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union; the notion of NATO initiating conflicts was never accepted, nor hardly ever discussed, by its member nations. Had the U.S. opted to pursue a strategy of rollback rather than containment against the USSR and its satellite states — of invading Hungary or Czechoslovakia, say, when rebellions in those nations threatened Soviet control — that would have tested NATO’s coherence. But from Harry Truman through Poppy Bush, no American administration seriously entertained such a policy.

By the very act of proclaiming pre-emption as our new national policy, then, Bush II was in effect also declaring a pre-emptive war on the system of international institutions that the U.S. built at the end of World War II. That was fine with the neoconservatives, who, with the fall of Soviet communism, sought a world over which the U.S. exerted unfettered control. That was fine with Bush himself, the first genuinely xenophobic president the United States has had since it rose to the status of a world power. (It’s clear already that Bush is far more comfortable running a war than he was practicing diplomacy.) But to build the world anew, they needed a new 1914 — a war to end old alliances, to blow away the United Nations, the European Union and other impediments to American power in much the manner that World War I destroyed the old Romanov, Hapsburg and Hohenzollern empires.

Okay, they’ve got their war. We’ll see if a 1914 level of wreckage will in time follow in its wake.


The rise of a belligerent unilateralism in the nation’s capital has also provoked the formation of what I would term the first mainstream anti-imperialist movement the U.S. has known since 1898, at the time of the Spanish-American War. The anti-war resolutions of many leading unions, including the AFL-CIO, and of more than 135 cities across the country, almost invariably condemn the wisdom and legitimacy of a unilateral conflict. That is, these resolutions state a clear preference for an international order of laws and standards, over the neocons’ vision of America as the arbiter and enforcer for the planet. And these resolutions — coming as they do not just from college towns but also from L.A., Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and many of America’s largest unions — are really the voice of the Democratic base in American politics.

The formation of a mainstream anti-imperialist movement is something for which the American left — home to what has been an insular and marginal anti-imperialist movement since the Vietnam War — is singularly ill-prepared. As anyone who has attended an anti-war demonstration over the past half-year can attest, these rallies often feature a stultifying array of speakers, championing niche left causes of uneven merit, alternately upsetting and boring the bejesus out of demonstrators who came out simply to oppose the looming war.

The movement is about to face an even more immediate challenge: that of its position on the U.S. presence in Iraq once Saddam is overthrown.

The left will have to weigh the relative merits of its post-Vietnam sensibility — in which the idea of American troops occupying a conquered nation is plainly something to be shunned — against the imperatives of nation building, the liberal doctrine that arose in the ’90s which states that America should provide the wherewithal for nations it has invaded to rebuild their physical, and build their democratic, infrastructures. It’s imperative that liberals separate the question of commitment of financial resources — which the U.S. needs to do in massive amounts as soon as Saddam is overthrown — from that of control. To foster the international legitimacy of the occupation and de-Saddamization of Iraq — and, no small thing, to avoid further inflaming anti-American sentiment in the region — the force should be placed under the command not of Tommy Franks but some U.N. commissioner, and the troops need to be drawn from a wide array of nations, not primarily from the U.S.


At all events, the battle lines over America’s proper role in the world have been drawn. On one side are the neo-imperialists, who have relearned the lesson of 1914 that to deploy — for the hegemon in a unipolar world — is to go to war. On the other side are the fledgling neo-anti-imperialists, who should look back to their forbears of 1898 to learn how to assemble a broad movement — and must go them one better if we are to curtail an administration determined to turn the world into a sullen imperium.

A version of this article has appeared in The American Prospect.


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