The Road from Baghdad
The Bush team has big plans
for the 21st century.
Can the rest of the worId stop them ?
by David Moberg
In These Times magazine,
Contrary to the smug pronouncements from
the Bush administration, it is foolhardy to predict how the war
in Iraq will end, let alone when. Considering how unpopular Saddam
Hussein is among both Iraqis and their neighbors, it is stunning
how quickly the American invasion increased support in and outside
of the country for Saddam-or at least resentment of Americans.
Iraqis may still rebel against a faltering
regime, but the blustering predictions from Bush's top officials
that the war would be a speedy "cakewalk," punctuated
by cheering crowds, against a government that was "a house
of cards" proved wrong. They were soon followed by recriminations
about flaws in the invasion strategy, including the number of
troops permitted by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, over the advice
of some generals. It is equally possible that the war will drag
on for many months with bloody urban warfare in the streets of
Baghdad while irregular forces harass the long U.S. supply lines
No matter how the war eventually ends,
the long-term consequences are likely to be damaging. First, there
are the immediate victims of this war, and those of future wars
that its strategists already anticipate. But the fallout looks
bad for both the world as a whole and the majority of people in
the United States. A quick end to the war, with Saddam largely
forced out by a popular uprising, would be the least damaging
outcome, but even that might embolden the United States to act
more unilaterally and aggressively in the future. Even a short
war will leave the world with new fault lines and wreck global
institutions, like the United Nations, leaving only remote prospects
for a progressive alternative to dominance by a rogue superpower.
The triumph of democracy in the Middle East, despite White House
rhetoric, is neither the real objective nor a probable result.
But truth was not simply the first casualty
of war: Lies and misinformation were the very foundations of the
public buildup to war. They ranged from forged documents to a
media campaign that convinced more than half of Americans, without
a shred of evidence, that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks. The
rosy scenarios of victory, besides encouraging the self-delusion
of the administration's war ideologues, were essential parts of
the disinformation campaign to persuade an American public that
was, all things considered, fairly skeptical. The invented rationales
were flimsy and shifting at best because the truth would not have
sold well anywhere, even in the United States.
The truth is that hawkish neoconservatives,
with roots in the Reagan administration, had pushed for overthrowing
Saddam long before September 11, 2001. This faction included Rumsfeld,
Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz,
Undersecretary of State John Bolton, Defense Policy Board member
Richard Perle (who resigned as chairman of the board after conflicts
of interest were exposed), and the frankly imperialist Project
for a New American Century.
With the demise of the Soviet Union as
a geopolitical rival, the neocons wanted to use the United States'
stature as the sole superpower to wield military might without
constraint. Promoting American global corporations and limited
government, they wanted to remake the planet in what they see
as national self-interest and to prevent any countervailing power
from emerging in the world. Their free-market fundamentalism conveniently
meshes with a religious fundamentalism that pervades the Bush
administration and taps into deep-seated American beliefs in this
country's divine mission creating, in the phrase of author Tariq
Ali, a "clash of fundamentalisms" with both retrograde
Islamicists and a relatively secular tyrant like Saddam.
Iraq was a convenient first target, but
many in this faction have made it clear that they have a long
list of other targets of opportunity, from Iran to North Korea
and beyond (the Chinese are feeling particularly threatened).
Besides the terrorist excuse, Iraq is important for its oil. A
new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, using previously
unpublished government papers, documents how Rumsfeld and other
Reagan aides worked closely with Saddam from 1983 to 1987-after
public revelation of his use of poison gas in his war with Iran-in
an ultimately failed bid to help Bechtel Corporation construct
a new pipeline for Iraqi oil.
Some strategists also hold to a misguided
notion that attacking Iraq might help Israel, rather than simply
fan existing hatreds. But the main political objective seems to
be the exercise and consolidation of American global power. The
irony- or tragedy, given the number of probable casualties-is
that this flagrant use of U.S. military power is likely to actually
hasten the decline of American global political power.
The Bush administration strategy, as played
out in Iraq, represents a break with the past, but less dramatically
than many Bush critics acknowledge. In a strong critique of Bush's
unilateralism, Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria wrote, "The
real question is how America should wield its power. For the past
half century, it has done so through alliances and global institutions
and in a consensual manner." There have been occasional examples
of global cooperation by the United States that also represented
enlightened self-interest, such as the Marshall Plan after World
War 11. But more typically, the United States has for decades
sought to make global institutions and alliances subservient to
its strategic aims, often bullying and bribing allies of questionable
character as much as winning real consensus.
America also has a long and sordid history
of backing corrupt and undemocratic regimes, including Saddam
himself, making it suspect now as a putative defender of democracy.
Often it has acted unilaterally-even pre-emptively-against alleged
threats, such as in Grenada (where afterwards even the United
States acknowledged there was no threat) or Panama. But the need
to compete ideologically with communism as well as to compete
with the Soviet Union for political allegiances of many countries
often constrained the United States and forced some consensuality.
The demise of the Soviet bloc gave the
United States a new freedom of action. Both the Bush I and Clinton
administrations in different ways continued to balance multilateralism
and international consensus with American unilateralism. But the
current Bush administration has made a flagrant point of abandoning
global agreements, multilateralism and international organizations,
while asserting its right to pre-emptively make war on its own,
effectively repudiating the fundamental principles of the United
Nations charter. The shift in national strategy is underlined
by a new undiplomatic, swaggering style exhibited by officials
from Rumsfeld to Bush himself.
The 9/11 attacks momentarily created a
sense of sympathy for the United States that offset rising worldwide
unease about Bush's cowboy foreign policy, but the war in Iraq
has intensified new splits. First is the division between the
United States and most governments in the world. The "coalition"
fighting in Iraq consists of U.S., British and a small number
of Australian troops, but even the entire list of governments
offering verbal support- including those too ashamed or fearful
of their own constituents to do so publicly-is relatively small
and unenthusiastic, or even listed without the country's awareness,
as in the case of Colombia and Slovenia. Nor is it a particularly
inspiring list. According to a Foreign Policy in Focus report,
17 of the 45 are described by Freedom House as "not free"
or "partially free," nearly half had significant corruption,
and 9 had "extremely poor" human rights records, according
to the State Department.
The high-profile splits within Europe
endanger continental political integration, which may please Bush
officials. But the broader antagonism between the United States
and most governments of the world will hurt any ability of the
United States to win international cooperation on fighting terrorism.
Ultimately, this schism will encourage other countries to seek
new alliances to offset or restrain American power, potentially
increasing tensions if the Bush strategy of being the world's
unipolar power continues. While the Bush administration may be
pleased to undermine the United Nations, it may be less happy
with damage to NATO.
The governmental schism will also undercut
U.S. efforts on trade and global economic agreements, as well
as its use of the International Monetary Fund and other global
financial institutions to promote the "Washington consensus."
That could be a blessing in disguise. But the United States may
also suffer economically if countries prefer other currencies
to the dollar, such as the euro, shun U.S. corporations or products,
or adopt more nationalist stances in trade disputes. Unilateral
aggressiveness also increases instability, which depresses investment
and growth but can also create other disturbances, like oil price
hikes. By militarily and unilaterally asserting its dominance,
the United States may undermine the globalization policies that
have benefited the biggest multinational corporations. However,
the victims of contemporary globalization are likely to suffer
as well in a more fractious, unstable world economy.
Another split is broader and deeper-the
schism between the United States and the world's people. With
the sole exception of Israel, even in countries whose governments
support the U.S. war effort, there is strong- usually overwhelming-majority
opposition. The backlash goes beyond a single policy. Within the
past half-year, in most countries the feeling of general admiration
for the United Sates has plummeted, often to no more than tiny
minorities. With such popular antagonism to the United States,
politicians in those countries will have much more to gain by
appealing to anti-American sentiments and by standing up to Washington,
rather than risking hostility from their own people.
Throughout much of the world, good feelings
about the United States have long translated into political influence
and economic advantage. The United States is losing much of that
thanks to Bush's war. It's quite an achievement to squander the
goodwill from 9/11 and, for all practical purposes, to lose a
popularity contest with a thug like Saddam Hussein in less than
two years. Those, however, are Bush's primary foreign policy accomplishments.
He is now unintentionally working to convince people around the
world that Osama bin Laden's view of the United States is correct,
just as he is helping recruit new anti-American terrorists.
Indeed, the Bush strategy increases the
odds that any destabilization of the corrupt and undemocratic
governments of the Middle East will lead to Islamic fundamentalist
regimes rather than liberal democratic republics. For many decades,
the United States allied with conservative leaders to suppress
progressive and secular movements in the Middle East, leaving
right-wing religious fundamentalist populism as one of the few
channels of protest. Now some analysts are using the common failures
of undeveloped countries that possess oil wealth to develop political
democracies as an excuse for turning over the oil wealth to private,
Ultimately, the unilateral exercise of
American power is likely to undermine American leadership. "Real
power is influence and example, backed up by understated reminders
of military force," argues New York University professor
Tony Judt in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books. "When
a great power has to buy its allies, bribe its friends, and blackmail
its critics, something is amiss." Judt criticizes the work
of Robert Kagan, an apologist for American unilateralism and the
war in Iraq, for misunderstanding European desires for international
cooperation as wimpy pacifism. He also chides Kagan for ignoring
the role of the United Sates-presented by Kagan as the only world
power ready and able to fight for freedom-in creating international
institutions from which it has benefited. With the end of the
Cold War, the United States had an opportunity to use its wealth
and power to create stronger international institutions that could
have encouraged democracy and peaceful resolution of conflicts.
But the Bush crowd wants neither of those: It simply wants American
On the eve of the war, a Gallup poll showed
Americans opposing by 50 to 47 percent a war on Iraq without going
to the U.N. Security Council for a second resolution. Although
support for the war rose sharply with the invasion, it is likely
to decline as time passes and casualties mount. But the divisions
in the United States are also likely to have economic dimensions.
Bush avoided putting a price tag on the war until after the invasion,
then asked for $75 billion for this fiscal year, assuming a six-week
war and allowing very little for any cost of occupation or reconstruction
of the country. If the fighting persists, the cost will go up.
Combined with even the Senate's scaled-down tax cut, the cost
of the war-not to mention future unilateral adventures-will further
squeeze budgets for programs that help the majority of Americans.
Furthermore, if the war goes badly, we
are likely to see an intensification of militarist propaganda
and repression against dissent from both the administration and
the right-wing media, where cable channel "news" wars
are already narrowing the range of voices most Americans hear
about the war. But will the Democrats, as an alternative to the
Bush imperial strategy, be willing to argue for American leadership
in developing new multilateral, cooperative international strategies
as a better path to national security and a more just and stable
If the United States does not shift gears
and assume such a role under a new Democratic administration,
it is unclear whether Europe could or would take the lead, especially
if it means challenging U.S. policy. The alternative might be
a more fragmented, multipolar world, including an Islamic community
increasingly resentful of the United States but providing a reactionary
option that is worse than what the United States advocates. The
global justice movement against corporate globalization has less
to offer on international security than on international trade,
and it can claim few, if any, governments in power that share
Public opinion worldwide may be massively
against the war in Iraq and against the emerging U.S. international
strategy, but it does not yet constitute a coherent force for
a new approach to promoting both justice and peace globally by
containing rogue leaders-from Saddam Hussein to George W. Bush.