A Nation Lost

EVEN BEFORE conclusions can be drawn about the war in Iraq (Saddam? Weapons of mass destruction? Iraqi stability? Cost to civilians? Syria?) a home front consensus is jelling around a radical revision of America's meaning in the world.

Centered on coercive unilateralism, the new doctrine assumes that the United States not only stands apart from other countries but above them. The primitive tribalism of boys at football games -- ''We're number one!'' -- has been transformed into an axiom of strategy. Military force has replaced democratic idealism as the main source of US influence.

Formerly conceived of as essentially defensive, US armed services are now unapologetically on the offense. Aggression is prevention. Diplomacy is reduced to making the case for impending war and then putting the best face on war's denouement. The aim of all this is not world dominance but world order. That world order in the new age requires American dominance is an unintended consequence of America's power-altruism. That ''We're number one'' makes the world safe for everybody -- if only they accept it.

This new vision is clear, its advocates are powerful, and with Iraq its main blocks are in place, with obvious implications for countries as geographically dispersed as Iran and North Korea. What are the elements of an alternative vision? In a world traumatized by terrorist threat, weapons proliferation, and the sensationalism of Fox and CNN, disruption is infinitely magnified.

When such horror strikes, whether from twin towers collapsing or twin snipers shooting strangers, can human beings put faith in something other than overwhelming force? What strategies should critics of the new US doctrine of coercive unilateralism employ in opposing it? Learning from the past, I think of several:

Don't cede the language of morality to the right wing. Manichaean bipolarity oversimplifies good and evil, banalizing both. Still, some things should be done because they are right or opposed because they are wrong.

Critics of the intended new Pax Americana should not hesitate to say that long-agreed ethical principles are being violated. It is wrong to break treaties, as the United States is doing in its treatment of POWs in Cuba. It is wrong to wage aggressive war, as the United States now openly does. To make decisions for or against such policies on supposedly pragmatic grounds is to break the crucial link between means and ends, as if an outcome (''regime change'') can justify whatever was done to accomplish it. In the long run, the only truly pragmatic act is the moral act.

Be skeptical of ''homeland security.'' The American tradition prefers the risks associated with liberty to the risks associated with bureaucratic control. The new homeland security state threatens the kind of excess that came with the national security state after World War II. It was the National Security Act of 1947, after all, that laid the groundwork for the univocal bureaucratizing of government based in the Pentagon that marginalized debate and eliminated the natural checks of multiple power centers.

''National security,'' defined by anti-Communist paranoia at home and abroad, was false security. ''Homeland security'' promises to be a paranoid reprise.

Be suspicious of foreign policy based on ''worst case'' thinking. During the Cold War, the United States made fearful assessments of Soviet capabilities and intentions that turned out to be entirely false -- assessments that shaped policy. Low-level intelligence estimates regularly reported mere possibilities of hostile threat, which, reported up the chain of command, were transformed into certain facts. Thus, Soviet troop strength was wildly overestimated in the beginning of the era; Soviet missile strength was overestimated in the middle; Soviet political strength was overestimated at the end. The result was a US-driven nuclear arms race, the effects of which still threaten the world.

The worst case for the Soviet Union existed only in Washington's fantasy. And now it seems that the Saddam worst case resides in the same place. A nation that is so driven by fear will always find things to be afraid of. That nation's gravest threat arises, of course, from what it then does to defend itself.

Beware of war as an organizing principle of society. It should be a source of alarm, not pride, that the United States is drawing such cohesive sustenance from the war in Iraq.

Photographic celebrations of our young warriors, glorifications of released American prisoners, heroic rituals of the war dead all take on the character of crass exploitation of the men and women in uniform. First they were forced into a dubious circumstance, and now they are themselves being mythologized as its main post-facto justification -- as if the United States went to Iraq not to seize Saddam (disappeared), or to dispose of weapons of mass destruction (missing), or to save the Iraqi people (chaos), but ''to support the troops.'' War thus becomes its own justification. Such confusion on this grave point, as on the others, signifies a nation lost.

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