Bush and the Neo-Con Vigilantes

Leftists, progressives, liberals, and moderate conservatives all have a legacy to live down–an inclination to peace over war, diplomacy and compromise over military solutions. That’s how the neoconservatives see it, and they intend that this kind of fuzzy thinking does not enter into current U.S. foreign policy. A worldview that puts peace before strength and diplomacy before “moral clarity” leads inevitably, they argue, to a compromise with evil–to appeasement. Instead, they stand behind a “peace through strength” credo.

President Bush took this message to the Czech Republic last month when he addressed the NATO leaders. Europeans need to take off their rose-colored glasses, rid themselves of the new fixation on diplomatic solutions, and face the “great evil” that is stirring in the world. He reminded Europeans that they, more than most, should know that evil cannot be placated but must be opposed–not when the barbarians are at the gate but at the first glimpse of the “face of evil.”

Like the Nazis and the Communists, Bush said, “the terrorists seek to end lives and control all life.” But the visage of evil conjured up by Bush during his European trip was not that of Bin Laden, who still lives and threatens, but that of Saddam Hussein. Iraq’s dictator was singled out as the “great evil” who “by his search for terrible weapons, by his ties to terrorist groups, threatens the security of every free nation, including the free nations of Europe.”

This was a call for peace through strength, peace through war–not diplomacy, arms control, or inspection teams. It was a reminder that appeasement with evil only gives evil a chance to breed.

America’s president is not a historian, but he is surrounded by neoconservative ideologues who are obsessed with the history of appeasement. In the writings of Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, William Bennett, Peter Rodman, and others so influential in forging the radical foreign policy doctrines of the Bush administration, the history of appeasement with Hitler at Munich in 1938 and the cold war’s policies of detente and containment (rather than rollback) with the Soviet Union and China are constant themes.

These hawks and ideologues have since the early 1990s argued that unipolar America should use its supreme power to effect “regime changes” around the world rather than hope and prod for reform and transitions. During the 1990s, they railed against the “return to normalcy” of a post-cold war foreign policy that lacked “moral clarity” and a conviction to be strong.

Although not directly chastising the Europeans for past policies of appeasement, President Bush took the “peace through strength” message of the U.S. neoconservative hawks to the heart of Europe. “The world needs the nations of this continent to be active in the defense of freedom, not inward-looking or isolated by indifference. Ignoring dangers or excusing aggression may temporarily avert conflict, but they don’t bring peace,” he said.

This is a message directed not only at Europeans who prefer to talk of inspections, embargoes, and negotiations rather than to applaud Bush’s promise that the U.S. will inflict on Iraq the “severest of consequences.” It is also a message directed at U.S. progressives and the anti-war public.

For the hardliners running U.S. foreign policy, the Europeans and America’s peace and multilateralism constituencies are similarly deluded by their liberal tendencies. The mentors of the conservatives, Robert Kagan and William Kristol, recall the words of the Teddy Roosevelt, the hero of the conservative internationalists, to describe today’s lack of moral clarity and resolve. “Isolated from the struggles of the rest of the world, and so immersed in their own material prosperity,” Americans were becoming “effete,” proclaimed Roosevelt.

There’s no doubt, as the neoconservatives constantly remind us, that the history of international relations is not just one of inept diplomacy, miscommunication, and misplaced nationalism. The “face of evil” has lurked in our midst before. Who can deny it?

But have the Europeans, who have suffered from the horrors of Hitler and Stalin, forgotten this sad lesson of history, and need Bush the younger to remind them of their ravaged past? And is the U.S. peace movement by saying no to war with Iraq so blinded by its ideals of peace and diplomacy that it misses the “face of evil” in Iraq? Are we more worried about the “great power” than the “great evil”?

At least part of the answer is that progressives since World War II have consistently opposed the use of U.S. military power abroad because of the lies, abuses, and humanitarian crimes that it seems have invariably accompanied U.S. military intervention in the name of freedom and democracy. At the same time, this focus on the misuse and crimes of U.S. military power has often led progressives to downplay, ignore, or even tacitly support undemocratic, abusive regimes and movements abroad that have contested U.S. power.

Because of this reflexive anti-U.S. military interventionism and pacifism–which has been reinforced by the history of international relations since World War II–are we ignoring the “great evil” that now confronts us?

Responding to the Bush team’s war plans in Iraq and its doctrine of preemptive strikes, we must acknowledge that “great evil” cannot and should not be negotiated with. At the same, time, however, we must question the analogy that likens the designated “rogue states” of North Korea, Iraq, and Iran (with Cuba, Syria, Libya, and China sometimes added to the list of “evildoers”) to the aggression and genocide of Hitler and Stalin.

Bush and his foreign policy team are not the only ones with a historical memory. One can agree that Hussein is evil and Iraq a dictatorship without accepting the analogy that places the Iraqi regime in the same “great evil” category in which Hitler or Stalin rightly belong. One may accept that Saddam Hussein is the “face of evil” while at the same time rejecting the lies and exaggerations of Bush that he threatens all free nations, has nuclear weapons, or supports terrorist networks.

With no clear and present danger posed by Iraq (or by North Korea), the policies of inspections, elimination of any weapons of mass destruction by UN teams, embargoes, and deterrence are the appropriate response at the moment–and do not constitute a policy of appeasement, as Bush implies.

There is a “great power” lurking around the world that has assumed for itself the right of vigilante justice. There is also a face of evil that promises new attacks on America and the West in figure of Bin Laden. By conjuring up the image of Saddam Hussein as “the great evil,” Bush has manipulated the history of the past century to serve his own purposes, and in the process has lost focus on the actual terrorist threat and badly undermined America’s credibility as a world leader.

TOM BARRY is a senior analyst at the Interhemispheric Resource Center and codirector of Foreign Policy In Focus. He can be reached at: tom@irc-online.org


Tom Barry directs the Transborder Program at the Center for International Policy and is a contributor to the Americas Program www.cipamericas.org.