The "War on Terror" and American foreign policy
In Wednesday's third debate, John Kerry quoted President Bush (accurately, although the President quickly denied it) as having said, early in 2002, that he was not very concerned about Osama Bin Laden anymore, because Bin Laden was no longer running a country. During the past three years, while Bin Laden hides in what is supposed to be a major non-NATO allied nation, Pakistan, we haven't been able to find him. Instead, we conquered Iraq.
The President and Vice President explain, again and again, that the most dangerous "nexus" today is the possibility that terorists might get weapons of mass destruction from a state. Based on their policies and strategies, I think it has become quite clear that they don't see that as the most dangerous threat, they see it as the only threat. This is parallel to how successive Administrations (Johnson and Nixon, mainly) approached the Vietnam War: the threat was the state of North Vietnam and could be solved by going after it and its armed forces, to persuade it to stop sponsoring revolutions. Of course, under the Bush/Cheney doctrine, we don't try to persuade hostile states, we destroy them.
It is really not clear how much we have done to stop attacks within the US. Although we have heightened airport security we don't seem to be very interested in the kind of attack that actually killed 3000 Americans in 2001. We do not seem to be very interested in what small groups of terrorists could do. Our policy shows no conern for public opinion in the Muslim world, where the growth of terrorism is blamed on us. (See today's NY Times article about Saudi Arabia: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/14/international/middleeast/14saudi.html?oref=login. It doesn't matter how many millions of people hate us, apparently, provided no state exists that could give them weapons. We are, of course, trying to create a friendly democracy in Iraq, but the recent attack in the Green Zone, which killed seven people, show that secure areas there have shrunk, literally, to zero. (Reporters have been telling the same story.)
In fact, the Bush Administration's "war on terror" has simply become a convenient excuse to pursue the essence of neoconservative foreign policy (developed during the Cold War) more vigorously. The neoconservative approach targets hostile states, which must be intimidated or brought down by a mixture of relentless hostile propaganda, superior weaponry, and either arms races or, if the state is sufficiently weak, conquest. Those in charge of our foreign policy have been shaped by the Cold War as they saw it--a drama in which Ronald Reagan's rhetoric and arms build-up somehow forced the Soviet Union to collapse. Even before that happened, they had become wedded to the idea of missile defense, which could theoretically enable the U.S. to disable a hostile enemy with a first strike.
To many Americans, most foreign policy professionals, and even the first President Bush, the end of the Cold War seemed to usher in an era of peace and true international cooperation. To neoconservatives--led by Paul Wolfowitz of the first Bush's Defense Department--it removed any obstacles to American worldwide supremacy. By preventing the emergence of a peer competitor, Wolfowitz suggested, the United States could indefinitely dominate the world. We no longer needed either to rely on interational coalitions or to respect the deterrent powers of other states. Any hostile regime could simply be removed from the scene. Out of power in the late 1990s, the neoconservatives began to identify Iraq--which we know now had been weakened by sanctions and inspections to the point where it no longer posed a threat--as the target for a new American offensive. Once in power in 2001, as Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill have both confirmed, they immediately began planning to implement this agenda.
A less ideological and more realistic approach would suggest that the real achievement of the Cold War period was to maintain a relatively peaceful world--a task in which the two major victors of the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union, actually collaborated. Athough the two superpowers inevitably competed for power and influence as well--often foolishly, especially in the Third World--they respected one another's vital interests, and, in very different ways, kept their spheres of influence under control. Now we need a new structure for peace, and the United States does not have enough power or enough ground troops, in particular, to impose one. (Our population is much smaller relative to the world's than it was in 1941, and even in the Second World War we only created a new world order with the help of the Soviets.) A successful structure for the future can only be a multilateral one.
Terrorism, as Clarke shows very clearly, was not initially a priority for the Adminstration, and it ignored the most explicit warnings the intelligence committee could draw up. But 9/11 immediately became an excuse to proceed, first against the Taliban, and then against Iraq. Even before the Iraq war we had also identified Iran and North Korea as the next targets.
The results of the Iraq war have been catastrophic because this policy essentially destroys for the sake of destroying. The Administration, to be sure, has emphasized the need to build democracy in Iraq, and President Bush himself, I think, takes this goal seriously. But had Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, John Bolton and the rest of the war planners really believed in it, I do not think they would have so fatuously disregarded all available advice on the size of the force that would be needed to occupy and rule Iraq in the meantime--one at least double the number of troops that we have put there. (The best source on this fiasco that I have found was written by James Fallows in the January/February Atlantic and can be purchased online.)
The situation in Iraq seems to be much worse than most people realize. We have enough troops there for various insurgencies to mobilize against, but not enough to occupy and control territory. Our troops are too stretched to protect themselves, and Senator Patty Murray has just written the Defense Department on behalf of a Washington unit that has asked for, and been refused, more troops to guard the huge supply base it occupies, which has taken numerous casualties from rocket and mortar attacks. Nor have we been successful in recruiting a cadre of Iraqis who share our views about the country's future that could contend with the insurgents--the topic of a later post on Iraq and Vietnam.
What the Bush Adminstration's policies have done is to create anarchy within an oil-rich nation of 25 million people. Should Bush be re-elected, we shall very likely see a new war against Iran or North Korea--but this time, I suspect, without any ground troops at all. This time we shall simply use precision weapons to take out nuclear facilities. Under Bush's leadership, the United States, which as the richest nation in the world has the greatest interest in a peaceful world, has begun smashing the international order and promoting international anarchy. This is a catastrophic policy that neither we, nor the world, can afford.