Published on Wednesday, February 19, 2003 by the Boston Globe
Grasping Bush's Overreach
by Robert Kuttner
PRESIDENT BUSH'S Iraq policy is frightening in its own right, but it is even more ominous as the first step in a new global grand design. The emerging Bush Doctrine goes something like this: The 9/11 attacks signaled a new kind of threat to America and all open societies. Unlike ''mutually assured destruction,'' in which the United States and USSR essentially held each other's civilian population hostage, nuclear deterrence can't work against terrorists, since terrorists are both stateless and suicidal.
While it is necessary to increase border security, civil defense, and intelligence efforts drastically, these are not sufficient. For terrorism is so far-flung, and so easily concealed, that a free society can never fully protect itself. What, then, to do?
Bush's strategists have an answer as audacious as it is grandiose: Just get rid of hostile regimes and societies. As Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith told The New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann, a war to establish democracy in Iraq ''might be inspirational for people throughout the Middle East.'' And what the administration can't achieve via inspiration, it will do by force.
This strategy is one part Woodrow Wilson (''make the world safe for democracy'') and one part Winston Churchill -- not the aging bulldog who stood up to Hitler in 1939, but the Churchill, who as colonies minister in 1921, redrew the map of the Middle East and installed friendly monarchs. These were the regimes overthrown half a century later by Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Shiite mullahs in Iran -- very different tyrannies with an abiding hatred of each other and a common hatred of the United States. The trouble is that Wilson and Churchill don't mix. But Bush's grand strategists would combine the idealistic expansion of liberal democracy with the realpolitik of American dominion and imagine a blend that produces regional stability and global trust.
A related false premise is that most of the world, given the choice, really wants to be just like us. Isn't that why they all want to migrate here? But much of the Middle East -- particularly our closest Arab allies -- are far from Western-style democracies. How will these friendly, authoritarian regimes react to an American grand design that essentially plans their demise? Saudi Arabia has already reacted by deciding to speed up eviction of US troops.
There is also a wishful analogy to Western Europe after World War II or Eastern Europe after the Cold War, when America was a role model and liberating hero. But many decent Muslims, even those who want press freedoms, free elections, and civil rights for women, view Western commercial culture as decadent and America as a bully. After an Iraq war, with civilian casualties, will we be welcomed as liberators or resented as occupying puppetmasters?
The Middle East has too many distant memories of Christian crusades and too many recent memories of American alliances with dictators. In free, democratic elections, much of the region would elect radical Islamists.
Finally, military adventures in unfriendly territory seldom work out as planned. An Iraq war would lead to greater regional instability and unforeseen complications long before it led, if ever, to a Muslim Switzerland. The saber-rattling on Iraq has already inflamed a more serious threat in Korea. What's next? Will Muslim, nuclear Pakistan, nominally a US ally, use the distraction to settle scores with secular, nuclear India?
Still, the Bush people win reluctant converts because they at least have an over-arching conception, however excessive, of American leadership in a new, terrorized world.
As skeptical an analyst as The New York Times's Thomas Friedman recently wrote that the new global division is between the forces of order and of disorder. The former includes the United States, European Union, Russia, China, India, and smaller orderly nations. The ''disorderly'' include ''rogue states'' (like Iraq), ''failed states'' (like Liberia), ''messy states'' (Pakistan, Columbia), and terrorists. According to Friedman, the orderly must bring order to the rest. Only the United States can lead, and the others should get with the program. ''Too little American power will only lead to the World of Disorder expanding.''
But this conclusion lets Bush off the hook far too easily. For it is Bush's grandiose unilateralism that frightens allies and fragments the alliance of the orderly. Here is the paradox of American power: Unlike a pure occupying force, our authority must be earned.
Yes, we do need to expand the realm of democratic liberty, just as we need to constrain rogue regimes and terrorists. But for that to succeed, America more than anything needs international collaboration and respect. Bush's overreach is squandering both.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company