Bush’s Desolate Imperium


Ah, the ease with which George W. Bush attracts superlatives! Helen Thomas calls him “the worst president ever.” A kinder, gentler Jonathan Chait ranks him “among the worst presidents in US history.” No such restraint from Paul Berman, who brands him “the worst president the US has ever had.” Nobel Laureate George Akerlof rates his government as the “worst ever.” Even Bushie du jour, Christopher Hitchens, calls the man “unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things.” Only Fidel Castro, it would appear, has had kind words for our 43rd President. “Hopefully, he is not as stupid as he seems, nor as Mafia-like as his predecessors were.”

Vain hopes. In a mere three years, President Bush has compiled a record of disasters that Fidel could only envy. While cutting taxes for the rich, starving out federal programs for the poor, dismantling environmental protections, riding roughshod over civil liberties, and running the largest budget deficit in history, his administration has pursued a “law of the jungle” brand of foreign policy fueled by overt paranoia and an imperious sense of omnipotence. Its shrill, threatening rhetoric, relentlessly echoed by a gang of media goons, has coarsened public discourse and alienated friends and allies.

At home, Bush has stoked the fears of a public traumatized by 9/11 and encountered rare success preaching an “us-against-them” Weltanschauung soaked in self-righteousness. Dissent has been equated with lack of patriotism, illegal detentions have gone unchallenged, and racial profiling has been given new life. In the run-up to the war, international disapproval met with sophomoric tantrums (“freedom fries, anyone?”) and vindictive hissy fits (canceled exchange programs with French high schools): hardly America’s finest hour.

Abroad, the image of the United States has never been worse. Ever. While the horrors of 9/11 prompted an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy for the US worldwide, Bush squandered it all away and morphed “America the Benevolent Giant” into “America the Shrill Bully.” Bush’s vision of a dog-eat-dog Hobbesian universe in which the US plays by its own rules is repellent to most nations. For all its shortcomings, the rule of international law has vital resonance to many: For Europeans it signifies the historical end of warfare as the preferred means of resolving disputes; for their former colonies it is a shield against the White Man’s insufferable itch to force his wisdom down their throats. For weak nations it offers a deterrent against stronger neighbors. For all it promises the dignity of being heard and treated as equals on a global stage. International law might well be the worst form of utopia except, that is, for all others that have been tried.

It is overwhelmingly in America’s interest to embrace international law, encourage liberal multilateralism, and leverage its formidable power through international partnerships. The world’s sole superpower cannot go it alone. Perhaps it could fifty years ago. No longer. Besides the direct causes_mostly globalization and the emergence of rival economic blocs_there are two indirect factors behind the “Gulliverisation” of the US giant: The end of the Cold War has weakened its power of coercion; its increased exposure to terrorism has intensified its dependency on the goodwill of others.

The Bush administration does not see it that way. Its answer to terrorism and the threats of rogue nations is a doctrine of preventive warfare folded into an imperial ambition of global domination. It is Wilsonianism run amok. President Bush is a latter-day crusader on a mission to coerce everyone into freedom.

And what a better place to start the coercion than the land that is home to the world’s second largest oil reserves! To drum up support for the invasion, Bush’s mouthpieces served a credulous public a steady diet of lies and exaggerations. They hyped the threats to the hilt. More seriously, they lied about their certainty, presenting as rock-solid evidence what they knew were unproven allegations rejected by many in the intelligence community. The fake certitude_not the hype_was the lie. US forces invaded Iraq to eliminate a threat that proved to be entirely fictitious. The preventive warfare doctrine could not have failed in more spectacular fashion.

Supporters of the war have a single, powerful line of defense: “So what? A bloody dictatorship has been overthrown! Got a problem with that?” For its shaming effect, they will often throw in the rhetorical question, “Wasn’t going after Hitler worth a little sacrifice?” with its intended subtext, “I Churchill, you Chamberlain.” Saddam was a ghastly tyrant, but he was no Hitler. He was a Caligula-like monster and a second-tier dictator. The horrors he visited upon Iraq, gruesome as they were, were no worse than those visited on half a dozen nations in the last decade and not a patch on, say, the Congolese conflict (3 million people killed in 4 years). Absent the WMD justification, intervention in Iraq was thus a moral choice rather than a moral imperative. A decision had to be made that was based on the totality of arguments, for and against, and upheld the Hippocratic oath of foreign policy: Do no harm. What kind of mad surgeon would operate on a brain tumor before assessing the odds of success and gauging potential side effects?

Operating on the Saddam tumor had a number of predictable side effects: massive loss of innocent lives (over two 9/11s and counting), resentment of a proud people, precedent-setting in the violation of international law, etc. What were the chances of success? The experiences of the British in Mesopotamia, the French in Algeria, and the Israelis in Lebanon were hardly encouraging. Western incursions into the Arab world have had an uncanny way of failing miserably. One glimmer of hope, of course, was the sky-high credibility of American good intentions. Oh, really? Then, what was Bush’s defense secretary doing in Baghdad back in the eighties, giving succor to a Saddam on top of his game busy gassing Iranians for breakfast? And why did his father allow the tyrant to murder 100,000 Kurds and Shi’ites in 1991? And what about the twelve years of US-led sanctions that enriched Saddam’s cronies and raised the mortality rates among Iraqi children under 5 to a staggering 13 percent? One may forgive the Iraqis for being just a little wary of America’s new-found solicitude.

President Bush saw no contradiction in preaching democracy in Iraq while forging new alliances with odious dictatorships in Central Asia, (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan), or in threatening Iran while coddling corrupt autocracies and cesspools of terrorism (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan). Bush is planting today the seeds of tomorrow’s invasions. A recovered alcoholic, he has finally found an addiction that we can all enjoy together: perpetual war.

Hypocrisy comes laced with hair-raising incompetence. The Bush administration deluded itself about a painless war of liberation that would pay for itself. Much has been said already about postwar ineptitude, leading to radical policy shifts every few weeks. (Today’s tuesday, so we must be trying to empower the Shi’ites.) For an example of incompetence that would be laughable were it not so tragic, consider Bush’s gift of $43 million to the Taliban a mere six months before 9/11. Hey, what’s wrong with a little Faustian deal when there is a war on drugs to be fought? (No doubt the families of 9/11 victims would nod in agreement.)

The president’s folly will come crashing into the great Law of Unintended Consequences. This is the law that gave us Saddam, Khomeini, and Osama. Which is not to be confused with the Law of Intended Consequences, which gave us Pinochet, the Shah, the Greek Colonels, and Mobutu. Propping up nasty regimes in order to fight nastier ones (say, the Soviets) was always a dicey logic but a logic nevertheless. It is different today. Let us be clear. The war on terror was fully legitimized by 9/11; indeed, most of the world lined up behind the US campaign in Afghanistan. But Iraq is another story: an unprovoked aggression couched in a mendacious narrative of self-defense; a war of domination over a strategic region folded into a starry-eyed project of democratization; an encouragement to dictators everywhere to follow the lead of North Korea and get their nukes as soon as possible. Who can doubt that the incessant humiliation of Iraqis is fanning the flames of terror? Has it occurred to Bush that he might have become bin Laden’s unwitting recruiting sergeant, his useful idiot in the White House?

At least Bush meant well_one hears. Did he? Good intentions are cheap. As La Rochefoucauld said: “We all have enough strength to bear other people’s woes.” How not to see callousness, instead, in the spectacle of privileged old men calling for a “little sacrifice” from the comfort of their conservative perches? Whose sacrifice? Not theirs, that much we know. The Bushies would rather cut down veterans’ benefits_$21 billion reduction over 10 years_than give up their cherished tax cuts. No, the lucky ones slated for sacrifice are the GIs bogged down in Iraq and the likes of Ali Abbas, the boy who lost his entire family and his two arms in a US bombing raid over Baghdad. This war will prove a calamity for everyone, except, of course, for little Ali, who will eternally bless his luck that President Bush liberated him from the tyranny of his parents, his siblings, and his limbs.

The war had one positive consequence_removing Saddam from power_and will have countless adverse ones. But the case against it is not in the numbers. It lies in the near-certain prediction that the world will be worse off for it. As CIA veteran Milt Bearden reminded us recently (with only slight historical license), in the 20C “no nation that launched a war against another sovereign nation ever won. And every nationalist-based insurgency against a foreign occupation ultimately succeeded.” Why should the 21C be any different? Bush is building a world of mistrust and desolation that will not be easily mended. A fresh new wave of anti-Americanism is sweeping the planet today. No one should rejoice in this, for America matters and its estrangement is good for no one. This grave setback in international relations will be Bush’s lasting legacy. Once “the worst president ever” retires to his ranch in Crawford, the world will be left to pick up the pieces of a broken trust.

A Personal Note The debate has been divisive and emotional. For someone like me_hardly a knee-jerk pacifist, having supported military interventions in Somalia, Liberia, the Congo, and Afghanistan_the case against the war in Iraq is not an easy one. I will show in this article that, upon careful consideration of the evidence, the case for war collapses, both on principle and on practical grounds. The invasion was a huge miscalculation whose adverse consequences will greatly outweigh any potential benefit. My opponents will retort that I condone wife beating.

This gotcha argument is irresistible. Even I, not one to concede an inch to the other side, am sensitive to it. Indeed, it is not a pleasant thought that, had I had my way, Saddam would still be presiding over Iraq’s misfortunes. My anti-war position is based purely on moral and political cost-benefit considerations. If that is too crass, how else should one go about it? Unfortunately, I have not seen any serious counterargument. I believe that the irresistibility of the gotcha line is the reason why. It has been the black hole of pro-war thinking. The endless pro-invasion screeds that fill the pages of The Weekly Standard and National Review offer, in lieu of reasoning, little more than wishful thinking and intellectual sleight-of-hand. Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly and their Clear Channel/Fox News cohorts are entertaining buffoons who get paid to talk, not to think. Meanwhile, the intellectual heavyweights on the right have been too giddy with power to go to the effort of being intelligent.

If I have missed a serious pro-war argumentation that is not based on the empty WMD/terror threats, I am quite certain that the Bush people have missed it, too. All too often, the debate has been a sterile clash of unreasoned assertions. The pro-war camp has never dealt satisfactorily with a large number of questions (addressed in this article). For example, even if one is willing to suspend disbelief and picture a US-led democracy in Iraq, is one also to trust that, were the regime to be anti-American (a virtual certainty), the US would sheepishly acquiesce? Who in the world can believe such a thing?

The fatuity of much of the pro-war rhetoric gives me no comfort. As we all know, conservatives who cannot make it in the world of ideas settle for the next best thing, which is to run the country. Tom Lehrer may end up having the last word: “Though he may have won all the battles / We had all the good songs.” I do not think so. As a US citizen, I will do what I have to do at the ballot box on November 2, 2004. May this article inspire the American voters among you to do the same and return the man from Crawford to his ranch.


The Bush administration interpreted the tragedy of 9/11 as a clarion call to move hard power to the center of US foreign policy. Classical American hegemony, characterized by its ability to enforce an international order and a willingness to abide by it, was to give way to an “imperial ambition.” This transformation did not spring up out of a sudden rethinking of US national security post 9/11. Rather, the terrorist attacks triggered into action a plan long in the making, of which the invasion of Iraq was Step 1. Bob Woodward reports that on 9/12, with no knowledge about the hijackers, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called for a US attack on Iraq at a cabinet meeting [1]. No one in the room registered much surprise. Why would they? They all knew that Rumsfeld had co-signed an open letter to President Clinton in January 1998 that read in part, We urge you to… turn your Administration’s attention to implementing a strategy for removing Saddam’s regime from power [2].

Iraq was the first domino to topple. Others would follow, opening up a new era of US global domination. This project, now at the heart of Bush’s foreign policy, is the brainchild of the PNAC, the leading neoconservative think-tank. (Neoconservatism is a misnomer: The godfather of the movement explains why [3].) It is laid out in various documents such as “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” [4]. Briefly, the neocons dream of spreading democracy around the world by enforcing a Pax Americana that is strong enough militarily to deter any future challenge and discourage rival coalitions. Neocons present a coherent, if utterly unrealistic, vision of an American hyperpower that has broken all ties with namby-pamby Carterism and Kissinger-style realpolitik, and is hell-bent on sharing with the world the benefits of its moral superiority. Democracy by force, if you will. It is both highly principled and highly dangerous. Indeed, neocons can sometimes sound like little Mussolinis in training.

We are an awesome revolutionary force. Creative destruction is our middle name. We tear down the old order every day… Seeing America undo old conventions, they [our enemies] fear us, for they do not wish to be undone… We wage total war because we fight in the name of an idea… Stability is for those older, burnt-out countries, not for the American dynamo (Michael A. Ledeen, Freedom Chair holder at the American Enterprise Institute [5]).

Other times, they are merely auditioning for the part of the megalomaniac villain in the latest James Bond movie.

The maximum amount of force can and should be used as quickly as possible for psychological impact_to demonstrate that the empire cannot be challenged with impunity… [W]e are in the business of bringing down hostile governments and creating governments favorable to us (Harvard Professor Stephen P. Rosen [6]). Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business (Michael A. Ledeen [7]). [The US should] recognize obligations only when it’s in our interest (Under Secretary of State John R. Bolton [8]).

As Georgetown Professor John Ikenberry argues [9], the radical shift in American power from hegemonic to imperial requires that the “US break from the postwar norms and institutions of the international order and arrogate to itself the global role of setting standards.” Unconstrained by international law, Bush’s America is thereby entitled to play by the rules of its own making while challenging the right of others to do likewise. Which is fine by the neocons, because America is good and the rest of world, mostly, is not. In a case of paranoiac exceptionalism, the Bush administration has signaled its opposition to the Land Mine Treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the International Criminal Court Treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Biological Warfare Treaty.

Rejection of all things multilateral is a cornerstone of the Bush doctrine. It is a grotesque magnification of the traditional Republican leeriness toward international obligations. Indifferent to the fact that the United Nations, imperfect though it may be, is the only forum where the world’s poorest nations have a voice, Pat Buchanan (no Bushie he) fired the opening salvo: “Should We Evict the UN?” It has treated America and New York City like doormats long enough. [10]

Though Buchanan may represent only a fringe isolationist brand of right-wing thinking, his paranoia has been loudly echoed by Bush doctrine devotees. Here are two typical rants heard on the eve of the war. One is by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, a former psychiatrist who studied paranoia and now practices it: … in the Iraq crisis, the United Nations will sink once again into irrelevance. This time it will not recover. And the world will be better off for it. [11]

The other one is by Former Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle, far and away the most eloquent French-basher to own a summer house in France: Thank God for the death of the UN. [12]

This uniquely American fondness for dissing the UN is quite extraordinary. It is the height of hypocrisy, for no country has had its interests served better by the UN than the United States. And the arrogance. Remember the American sneering over the rights of Angola, Cameroon, and Guinea to use their rotations on the Security Council to pass judgment about Iraq. (No such sneering when senators from the microscopic states of Rhode Island or Delaware threaten to block a piece of legislation on Capitol Hill.) As Dag Hammarskjold famously said, The UN was not created to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell.

The United Nations is imperfect because it mirrors the world, with its mix of democracies and tyrannies. But it is the only forum where humanity speaks as a whole. Except for a few well-publicized disasters (Rwanda, Bosnia), the UN has been remarkably effective. With an annual peacekeeping budget that is inferior to those of the NYC Fire and Police departments, the UN has brought peace and democracy in recent years to East Timor, Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, and Mozambique [13]. It has helped the US in Afghanistan and Haiti. American detractors are quick to point to the Rwanda genocide, which the UN shamefully sat out. They invariably omit to mention who blocked the Security Council from getting involved: the United States.

There are many problems with America’s new imperial aspiration, none more serious than its inherent unsustainability. A convergence of cultural, economic, military, diplomatic, and dependency factors will doom this ambition. In fact it will die a quick death. Briefly, here is why. First, there is the biological argument: Imperium is not in America’s DNA. Why would a land of immigrants develop an “emigrating” vocation to occupy foreign lands? Expatriation is unlikely ever to become the ticket for career advancement it was in the days of the Raj. It takes a vivid imagination to picture legions of American educators, administrators, engineers, and businessmen willing to relocate to far-flung lands whose languages they don’t speak, whose cultures they ignore, whose foods they detest, and whose anti-American sentiments they can only look forward to. Americans’ idea of living with the enemy is to move to Paris.

Georgetown Professor Charles A. Kupchan has argued that the European Union, with an economy the size of America’s, will be increasingly inclined to check its unbridled power [14]. The combined GDP of Northeast Asia already exceeds, and soon will eclipse, that of the United States. Both the US trade and budget deficits are astronomical. Annual foreign purchases of US assets exceed the budget of the Pentagon. (Picture this: all GIs on foreign payroll.) For all the talk of hyperpower, the US share of the world economy is roughly half of what it was in 1950. Bush’s unilateralism is likely to catalyze the coalition of rival forces; precisely what it sought to prevent.

At least America has the bayonets! Its military superiority is, indeed, overwhelming and likely to remain so for at least a generation. Its battlefield dominance over any potential enemy is something of which Queen Victoria could only have dreamed. With this comes the power to punish and conquer; and do little else. On the terrorist front, coordinated intelligence and police action have proven far more effective than brute force. Similarly, for all of America’s vaunted military power, Osama is still on the lam (as of this writing) and in Afghanistan little more than Kabul is under control. Not to speak of Iraq, where the world’s only superpower is proving unable to stabilize a nation of 25 million that has been crippled by twelve years of economic sanctions. As Talleyrand once observed to Napoleon: “You can do anything with a bayonet, Sire, except sit on it.”

While military strength has been oversold, diplomacy has suffered from neglect. Actually, ineptitude might be a better word. Casting aspersions on the United Nations while bribing and threatening its weaker members backfired miserably and dashed American hopes for a resolution authorizing war. Insulting and intimidating recalcitrant friends and allies, a signature move from the Bush playbook, proved spectacularly counterproductive. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s exhortation, “Punish France, ignore Germany, forgive Russia,” served only the purpose of showing America’s inability to do even just that. After Bush was spotted at the “irrelevant” UN in Fall 2003, hat in hand, it was the Europeans’ turn to ponder whether to punish, ignore, or forgive America.

Bad habits die hard. Berating Turkey’s democratic leaders for not listening more closely to their generals was a throwback to the Cold War, when a friendly government was defined as a military junta that took its orders from Washington. Over 95 percent of Turks opposed the war; and yet Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had the audacity to blame the Turkish military for not playing “the strong leadership role” that was expected of it (codeword for “putting a gun to the head of democratically elected Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan”). Mind you that Wolfowitz was then the loudest democracy promoter in neocon circles. Perhaps the decibels were needed to cover up the hum of insincerity.

America is the mightiest nation the world has ever known; vastly more powerful than Britain at the zenith of its empire. Is it really? If power is measured not in weaponry counts but, more usefully, in the ability to achieve one’s objectives, America can only envy British power. Indeed, President Bush needs the cooperation of the world far more than Queen Victoria ever did. Fewer and fewer countries even bother to listen to US diktats any more. (If you are not convinced, read up on the pathetic results of the US campaign to cut off aid to states supporting the International Criminal Court.) This year’s events proved that Turkey has learned to say no. With the end of the Cold War, France and Germany are terminally beyond US retaliatory reach_you can tell from the invectives: always a sure sign of weakness. In the war on terror, the US desperately needs the cooperation of such heavyweights as Pakistan, Indonesia, and India. As for China, it is simply too big to be bossed around. Add to this the interdependencies created by globalization, and the picture of a latter-day Gulliver tied down by Lilliputs begins to emerge. As the deputy director of the French Institute for International Relations, Dominique Moisi, puts it, … nothing in the world can be done without the United States. And the multiplicity of actors means that there is very little the United States can achieve alone. [15]

The dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Joseph S. Nye Jr, is right on target when he identifies soft power, ie, “the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals,” as a key component of any successful US foreign policy [16]. This echoes Kissinger’s dictum that the test of history for the United States will be its ability to convert its power into international consensus.

Bush’s foreign policy has been a high-octane mix of bellicosity and diplomatic ineptitude. It has also been remarkably “un-American.” The United States has always been better at persuasion than coercion. Attraction for its ideas and values, not its military strength, has been the root of its success. Tolerance, generosity, freedom, courage, energy, and optimism are the vocabulary of America’s greatness. Paranoia, selfishness, and fear are not.


On the heels of the Afghan campaign, an invasion that drew its legitimacy from the Taliban’s harboring of al Qaeda, the Bush administration shifted its priorities to effect regime change in Iraq. On March 20, 2003, with no UN support and widespread opposition worldwide, a US-led coalition attacked Iraq. On May 1, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces proudly donned a flight suit in San Diego harbor, bravely landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln thirty miles offshore, and triumphantly declared the end of major combat operations. Bush had won the war.

On September 21, 2003, in a public forum at the New School, Paul Wolfowitz restated the three official reasons for the invasion [17]: Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD); his connection to international terrorism; and the moral imperative of replacing a brutal dictatorship by a civil democracy that would serve as a model for the Middle East.

Other motives were suggested in the media. One of them, straight out of Comedy Central, was the desire to “save the UN.” Yeah, so deep was Bush’s affection toward the world body that he would go to war to save it from irrelevance. Never mind the anticipatory obituaries of the UN gleefuly prepared by Bush’s neocon courtiers right before the war. The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman had another theory: therapeutic violence. The “real reason” for this war, which was never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world. Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine. But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could… [18]

For the United States to act on a threat preemptively (or, in the case of Iraq, preventively) required a new national security doctrine. Aware of this, on September 20, 2002, the Bush administration articulated the need to act against “emerging threats before they are fully formed” in its new National Security Strategy [19]. The advocacy of anticipatory self-defense is nothing short of a revolution in US foreign policy. Yale History Professor John L. Gaddis calls it “the most important reformulation of US grand strategy in over half-a-century.” Recent presidents considered_and swiftly rejected_preemptive attacks, following Truman’s advice that “you don’t prevent anything by war… except peace.” The doctrine flies in the face of international and US law. As Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman points out [20], [The US Constitution] declares that treaties approved by the Senate are the “supreme Law of the Land” and it explicitly requires the president to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The UN Charter is a solemn treaty overwhelmingly ratified by the Senate in the aftermath of World War II.

It just so happens that the UN Charter explicitly prohibits preemptive (let alone preventive) strikes, except in cases of immediate self-defense. For this reason, Condi Rice’s National Security Strategy required at the very least new legislation from Capitol Hill. Instead, the US Congress turned a blind eye and swallowed the Strategy wholesale.

Aside from legal considerations, what are the practical ramifications of the Strategy? It is obviously a major destabilizing factor for dueling countries, eg, India vs Pakistan or China vs Taiwan. If X feels threatened by Y, it might be tempted by the use of preemptive self-defense. This alone might cause Y to feel threatened by X and, in turn, consider a preemptive strike on X. But, of course, this would only add to X’s original mistrust, thus fueling a self-reinforcing feedback loop of mutual suspicion. The Strategy also encourages dictatorships everywhere to follow the North Korea model and speed up the development of nuclear weapons in order to deter a US invasion.

As Ackerman reminds us, the limited doctrine of self-defense enshrined in traditional law goes back to the Nuremberg trials, whose main focus was not, as is commonly believed, the prosecution of genocide but the condemnation of aggressive wars. The classic case of preventive warfare is Pearl Harbor. Japan was under a US-imposed oil embargo in 1941 and felt threatened. Was it thus justified in attacking the United States? The UN Charter says no. The National Security Strategy says yes.

No one disputes the intuitive appeal of preemption: Hit ’em before they hit you. But how sure are you they have it in for you? What if you attack them because of a threat of WMD only to discover later that they have no such weapons? (Not that this would ever happen to us, of course.) Bush’s solution to this conundrum_and to the Pearl Harbor paradox_is the sort of exceptionalism that does not even pass the laugh-test. It goes like this. The risks of error are, indeed, high enough that preemption should be the exclusive right of the good guys (that’s us). The National Security Strategy puts it more delicately [19]: … nations [should not] use preemption as a pretext for aggression.

Translation: We preempt; you don’t. Mercifully, the document reassures the world that we can be trusted to preempt in moderation. The United States will not use force in all cases to preempt emerging threats.

Why not in all cases? Why such lily-livered restraint? Really, who writes this sort of thing: an assembly of fifth-graders? University of Chicago History Professor Bruce Cumings is kinder: “[the logic] would flunk even a freshman class.”

Which brings us back to Iraq. The Strategy had no legal value, so what did the law say? International lawyers are unanimous [21]: The war was illegal. In no way did UN Resolution 1441 [36] or any of its predecessors give legal authority for an attack on Iraq. Those who disagree are about as numerous as the WMD buried in Saddam’s backyard.

Legalism, shmegalism! Didn’t Tony Blair speak of WMD deployments on 45 minutes’ notice? Didn’t Condi Rice famously suggest that the smoking gun might come in the shape of a mushroom cloud? Don’t talk to us about legalism!


Hyperventilating Tony and Condi blowing hot air again. The WMD argument has been shattered. After months of scouring the country for WMD at a cost of $300 million, the 1,400-strong Iraq Survey Group has come up empty-handed. With this appalling fiasco, Bush has unwittingly validated the work of Hans Blix’s UN weapons inspection team, which his cabinet had gleefully ridiculed before the war. One could almost feel sorry for the president. Iraq may well have been one of only two countries on earth entirely free of WMD; and that is the one he chose to invade! I guess the Vatican was lucky.

Intelligence analysts and Iraqi defectors warned the administration of the existence of WMD but their evidence never rose above the level of hearsay and wishful thinking. CIA and State remained so unconvinced that the Defense Department decided to set up its own intelligence shop (separate from DIA), the Office of Special Plans. According to The New Yorker’s Seymour M. Hersh (the reporter who broke the My Lai story), Special Plans cherry-picked intelligence to support Cheney and Rumsfeld’s case for war [22]. None of the alarming evidence these intelligence amateurs gathered convinced anyone at the CIA. It did convince the president, however. With CIA Director George Tenet still fighting for his job after his fine performance on 9/11, traditional intelligence agencies rolled over and let the (neo)con artists at Special Plans run the show. Yet Bush could not say he had not heard divergent opinions:

[UN Sanctions] have worked. He [Saddam] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction (Secretary of State Colin Powell, 2/24/01). I don’t think that Iraq is especially eager in the biological and chemical area to produce such weapons for storage (Former UNSCOM chief, Rolf Ekeus, 3/00). When I left Iraq in 1998… the [nuclear] infrastructure and facilities had been 100% eliminated. There’s no debate about that. All of their instruments and facilities had been destroyed. The weapons design facility had been destroyed. The production equipment had been hunted down and destroyed (Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, 9/02).

Britain compiled a “dossier” that led Tony Blair to declare the level of threat “serious and current.” And yet his own chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, wrote in an email: The dossier does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat. [23]

According to Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy, Israel’s previous director of Military Intelligence, Amos Malka, declared in Fall 2002 that “he was more concerned about traffic accidents” in Israel than WMD in Iraq [24]. As we all know now, the terrorist threat from Iraq was equally nonexistent (today, of course, thanks to Bush, it is a different story). A review of the prewar intelligence revealed an astonishing level of doubt and uncertainty. The Nation’s David Corn has revealed that these doubts were acknowledged by no less than a former deputy CIA director, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House intelligence committee, the chief weapons hunter, and the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee [25]. And yet Bush had no compunction about saying: You can’t distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror (George W. Bush, 09/02 [26]). We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases… Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints (George W. Bush, 10/7/03 [27]).

It worked. In August 2003, up to 82% of Americans believed that Saddam provided assistance to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, and 69% of them found it likely that Saddam was “personally involved” in 9/11 [28]. (All those Elvis sightings are beginning to make sense, aren’t they?) Was it the trauma of 9/11 that allowed such brainwashing to take place in a vacuum of media criticism? What happened to the proud institutions that gave us the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate investigations? Why such abject subservience of the national media to the powers in Washington? Why such spinelessness? A story for another day.

The obvious question: Why would the Bush administration choose to humiliate Blix and his team, cherry-pick intelligence, hype the threat of WMD, and dream up imaginary Saddam-al Qaeda links? The Rumsfeld outburst mentioned earlier holds the answer. Regime change in Iraq was high on the neocon agenda throughout the nineties. After 9/11 Bush was sold on the idea. The first indication that he would take us to war regardless of the outcome of any future weapons inspections came in March 2002 [29]. Referring to Saddam, Bush bellowed to a group of senators: “We’re taking him out!” Dispelling any doubt about the president’s intentions, Cheney reiterated the same message shortly after. The decision having been made, the only job left was to sell it to the public. Since remaking the Middle East to conform to Bush’s imperial dreams was likely to sell as briskly as an Edsel, the White House decided to play to 9/11 anxieties instead; hence, the WMD threat, terror links, etc. The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction, as the core reason (Paul Wolfowitz [30]).

Britain’s insistence in Fall 2002 on going to the UN and getting Resolution 1441 passed was welcome by the US as a convenient way of appearing conciliatory while buying time for a military assault not yet ready for launch. Richard Perle has recently revealed that a last-ditch attempt by Iraqi officials to avoid military confrontation in March 2003 was rebuffed by the US [31]. Nothing was to stand in the way of war.

Not only was Bush determined to go to war regardless of the sideshow at the UN, he literally rushed into it. The evidence is abundant and incontrovertible. The UN weapons inspection team reported progress and protested its dismissal in March 2003. With hindsight it did an excellent job in not finding what did not exist. A British draft of a UN resolution authorizing war was certain to garner at least 10 votes (enough to pass), thus leaving France with the dreaded option of vetoing it. As Clinton’s former Assistant Secretary of State James P. Rubin explains [32], Merely offering several more weeks would likely have yielded ten votes for the British resolution, but Bush refused.

Rubin also refutes the canard that France forced Bush into war by its uncompromising refusal to entertain a military outcome. … Chirac would have gone along with the use of force if a nine-month schedule had been set at the beginning.

Nine extra months? You must surely be joking! Now that we know how close we came to nuclear annihilation at the hands of Saddam, blessed be Bush’s soul for ignoring Chirac’s craven advice…

The White House’s burning desire to attack Iraq required a new language of certitude and foreboding. Public support for the war might not have survived a candid presentation of the available intelligence, based as it was on conflicting reports, dubious testimonies by Iraqi defectors, plagiarized PhD theses, forged documentation of uranium sales, misidentification of aluminum tubes, etc. The lack of any smoking gun did not help either. Faced with this conundrum, the White House pulled out all the stops and launched what may go down in history as the most egregious, guileful, sedulous, systematic campaign of lies ever orchestrated by a US administration. There we have it, the hype, the fabricated trepidation, the faked certainty of the uncertain:

Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction (Dick Cheney, 8/26/02). There is no doubt that [Saddam] has chemical weapons stocks (Colin Powell, 9/8/02). Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised (George W. Bush, 3/17/03). Well, there is no question that we have evidence and information that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical particularly… (Former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, 3/21/03). There is no doubt that the regime of Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction, (Head of US Central Command Gen. Tommy Franks, 3/22/03). I have no doubt we’re going to find big stores of weapons of mass destruction (Defense Policy Board member, Kenneth Adelman, 3/23/03). I’m absolutely sure that there are weapons of mass destruction there and the evidence will be forthcoming. We’re just getting it just now (Colin Powell, 5/4/03). I have absolutely no doubt at all about the existence of weapons of mass destruction (Tony Blair, 5/29/03).

Never in the field of human conflict was so much bunk served by so few to so many.

While no terrorist link between Saddam and Osama has been established, unfortunately the same cannot be said of the US government and the Taliban. This is the story of an intrepid Texan congressman named Charlie Wilson and a belly-dancer, former Miss World contender, named Joanne Herring, convincing the US government to arm the Afghan Mujahideen with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to help them defeat the Russians [33]. The sequel, entitled “freedom fighter today, terrorist tomorrow,” is about the most spectacular case of blowback the US has ever suffered, featuring a certain Osama bin Laden in the role of the snake that we thought was a pet. Meanwhile, Bush’s obsession with Saddam led him to drop the ball in Afghanistan and move the war on terror to the back burner.

Another story, less well known but just as riveting, is the Bush administration’s bestowing $43 million on the Taliban just a few months before 9/11. Those nasty hand choppers might be reviled for their enslavement of women, their theocratic subjugation of men, their destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and their virulent brand of anti-Americanism. But, you see, the Taliban frown on drugs as much as Bush fancied them in his youth; and they are just so much better at drug law enforcement than our own DEA (they do chop hands after all). So, what more natural than for Colin Powell to declare in May 2001 that the US would reward their efficiency by becoming the single largest sponsor of the Taliban? Savor, and shudder at, Robert Scheer’s prescient words in the Los Angeles Times [34]: The Taliban may suddenly be the dream regime of our own drug war zealots, but in the end this alliance will prove a costly failure. Our long sad history of signing up dictators in the war on drugs demonstrates the futility of building a foreign policy on a domestic obsession.


No evidence of WMD. Ditto with terror links. Who cares? Isn’t Iraq better off now? If the pursuit of democracy in a land long oppressed by tyrants is not a noble cause, then what is?

Time to give that noble cause a closer look. Wolfowitz advanced three reasons for the war: The first two are shot; the third’s the charm. With Saddam gone and the US in control, democracy shall now spread across the region like wildfire and the swamps of terror shall be drained. Hallelujah! Of course, it is not too reassuring that the prophets who today have “no doubt” about the bright future of Iraq are the same geniuses who yesterday had “no doubt” about the existence of WMD. The problems facing the US in Iraq are daunting: Is Iraq viable as a single unified nation? How does one go redistributing among tribal and religious groups power traditionally held by the 16% Sunni minority while avoiding a civil war? These are a few in a long list of urgent questions. To stabilize Iraq, let alone transform it into a liberal democracy, would be a Herculean task for the United Nations. For the US it is simply hopeless. In the plains of Mesopotamia, America will always be the problem, not the solution. The problem in question is foremost one of credibility. In Iraq, the US has none.

For starters, Iraqis will remember that democracy was also promised to Kuwait in 1991, and we all know how well that went. The New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, not a man given to cynicism, smells a rat [35]: … the prattle about creating a democratic model on the Tigris is just a shrewd White House marketing attempt to bait and switch.

If what Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair was true and, indeed, democracy and human rights were preeminent American concerns, then why did the US before the war put no pressure on Saddam to release political prisoners, allow inspections by ICRC officials, or supply the UN with lists of missing individuals? If NATO could threaten Milosevic over humanitarian considerations, why could the US not threaten Saddam on the same grounds? UN Resolution 1441 addresses only the issue of UNMOVIC and IAEA access to weapons sites in Iraq; not a word about human rights in its decisions [36]. There is no merit to the argument that Russia and China might have vetoed any UN resolution referring to human rights. For one thing, neither of them vetoed Resolution 688, which addressed the plight of the Kurds in 1991. But even if they did this time around, so what? The United States showed that it was willing to bypass the UN anyway. The issue of credibility goes far beyond missed opportunities, however. There are the intentions and then there is the history, the nefarious history of American involvement in Iraq.

First, the intentions. Apart from the Bush doctrinaires, few have clamored more loudly for a remaking of the Middle East along progressive lines than liberal columnist Thomas Friedman. (The pro-war camp cuts right through party lines.) His heartfelt longing for Iraqi democracy is unassailable; at least on the off days when he is not calling for a dictatorship: … the best of all worlds: an iron-fisted Iraqi junta without Saddam Hussein. [37]

That was in the aftermath of Desert Storm. In early 2003, while keeping the welfare of Iraqis close to this heart, Friedman still displayed his legendary knack for cutting through the smarmy sentimentality of naive do-gooders. … a war for oil? My short answer is yes. Any war we launch in Iraq will certainly be_in part_about oil. To deny that is laughable. [38]

Refreshing straight talk brought to you 100% sarcasm-free: The man actually approves. Now, why in the world would any Iraqi reading Friedman doubt the purity of American intentions? And keep in mind that this is not even one of those megalomaniac Bushies speaking but rather a pillar of the liberal establishment.

Another chink in the intentional argument is the widely shared belief that the US would never allow a democracy to take root if it were anti-American. The reality must be faced: A true democracy in Iraq today would almost certainly be anti-American. Does anyone in Washington seriously believe that a US promise not to mess with such an outcome would be taken seriously by anyone in the region? Of course, not. Unfortunately, Iraqi politicians know that, too; therefore, they would be less than impressed by a reassurance of noninterference coming from someone who they know full well does not even believe that his own reassurance is credible. A dialogue of the deaf.

And now, as promised, the history. Sadly, the United States has had a hand in virtually all of the calamities that have befallen Iraq in the last 40 years. The CIA funded the 1963 coup that brought the Ba’ath party to power and paved the way for Saddam’s bloody takeover in 1979. In late 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, then President Reagan’s special Mideast envoy, flew to Baghdad to assure Saddam of US support in the Iran-Iraq war (Washington’s favorite spectator war). In the mid-eighties, State Department reports of Iraq’s daily use of chemical weapons on Iranian troops did nothing to dent Saddam’s image in the White House as our bulwark against Iran, the enemy du jour. That Iraq was a true ally was demonstrated in May 1987, when an Iraqi attack on the USS Stark killed 37 American sailors. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger immediately threatened Iran (no, this is not a typo), while the US quickly accepted an apology from Saddam. In March 1988, Saddam’s forces killed over 5,000 Kurdish civilians by poison gas in Halabja. Repelled by this atrocity, the US Senate passed sweeping sanctions against Iraq. Reagan’s fierce opposition killed the bill in the House. For good measure, his administration granted Iraq 65 licenses for dual-use technology exports in the weeks following the attack [39]. A year later, the White House provided Saddam with a billion-dollar loan [40]. Now, that’s a friend for you.

Alas, the Washington-Baghdad lovefest did not last. On August 2, 1990, Saddam foolishly sent his tanks rolling into Kuwait. What gassing civilians, invading Iran, and slaughtering political opponents could not do, Saddam’s designs on Kuwaiti oil did. He had crossed the red line. With an eloquence to rival his son’s, Bush Sr declared three days later: “This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” On January 16, 1991, his spokesman Marlin Fitzwater proudly announced, “The liberation of Kuwait has begun.” To save anyone the embarrassment of taking the word liberation too seriously, Secretary of State James Baker had this pithy line: “It’s about jobs, jobs, jobs!”

At the end of the conflict, the United States committed one of the most shameful betrayals in modern times [41]. Bush Sr encouraged Kurdish and Shi’ite uprisings, only to withdraw US support at the last moment and allow Saddam to slaughter as many as 100,000 people. Thomas Friedman had to see the “the mass graves and the true extent of Saddam’s genocidal evil” to find justification for the war [18]. You mean to say, Mr. Friedman, you didn’t know? You did not know that Saddam did the bulk of his butchering while enjoying full US support. To paraphrase FDR, Saddam was a son of a bitch, but he was our son of a bitch. We created this monster. If you want to know who’s to blame for all this, we are (Stephen D. Bryen, TIME interview [42]).

Who is this Stephen Bryen to accuse the US of creating the monster of Baghdad? Some anti-American pinko commie bastard? Actually, Reagan’s Deputy Under Secretary of Defense.

If that were not enough, America bestowed other gifts on poor Iraqi citizens, no doubt cementing enduring gratitude. A 12-year regime of sanctions crippled an impoverished nation while doing nothing to hurt Saddam or threaten his grip on power. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that sanctions had caused the deaths of 567,000 children by 1995 [43]. UNICEF estimated that half a million children under the age of five had died as a result of sanctions [44]. Even a skeptic such as Columbia Professor Richard Garfield conceded a minimum of at least 150,000 excess deaths among young children [45]. UNICEF senior representative in Iraq, Anupama Rao Singh, reported on March 20, 2000 that mortality rates for young children had more than doubled by 1994. (As Garfield pointed out, not even World War II produced similar increases in child mortality.) By 1999, 13 percent of all Iraqi children were dead before their 5th birthday, mostly from contaminated water [46]. As John Pilger wrote in The Guardian on March 4, 2000 [47], Chlorine, that universal guardian of safe water, has been blocked by the Sanctions Committee. In 1990, an Iraqi infant with dysentery stood a one in 600 chance of dying. This is now one in 50.

In early 2001, over the strenuous objection of health agencies worldwide, the Bush administration placed holds on $280 million worth of medical supplies such as vaccines against infant hepatitis, tetanus, and diphtheria for fear of dual use (a fear which biological weapons experts in Europe scoffed at). Only in March 2001, when the Washington Post and Reuters began to run stories about it, did the US relent and lift the holds. (Read Joy Gordon’s chilling account in Harper’s Magazine for the gory details [46].) Admittedly, the Clinton administration was no less shameful in its defense of the status quo. Here is a classic exchange on CBS’s 60 Minutes between Lesley Stahl and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (December 5, 1996):

Stahl: We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it? Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price_we think the price is worth it.

The US rebuffed repeated efforts by UN Security Council members to amend the sanctions regime. If the proposed alternatives were found wanting, wasn’t it incumbent upon the US and the UK to find better ones? They never even tried. At least not until 2001, when international pressure became too strong and a “smart sanctions” initiative (though barely less punitive) was introduced by the British_only to be scuttled by the Russians [48]. The sanctions hurt the people of Iraq while strengthening the grip of its ruling elite. Tellingly, Saddam’s numerous palaces survived years of US-British strikes. The American position of keeping the status quo while blaming Saddam for all of Iraq’s woes and doing nothing to hurt him was unconscionable. Few Iraqis will forgive, let alone forget, their grievous, unnecessary suffering.

The purpose of this brief journey through the sorrowful history of Iraq was not to criticize US policy (which, in fact, deserves even more criticism than this account suggests). It was to make the point that, whenever Bush talks about helping Iraq, its citizens can only laugh; and then cry.


Iraq is only the tip of the iceberg. A recent Pew survey indicates that a full 6% of Egyptians and 1% of Jordanians hold a favorable view of the US: some gratitude from the second and fourth largest recipients of US foreign aid! In Pakistan a whopping 2% of the public welcomes the spread of American ideas and customs [49] [50].

“Why do they hate us?” has been the post-9/11 question par excellence. Its distinct resonance comes from its beguiling ambiguity. Who are they? The terrorists? But then why didn’t we hear the same question after the Oklahoma City bombing? Perhaps they are the Muslims or the Arabs or any of those scary, dark-skinned bogeymen who haunt the imagery of right-wing radio talk shows. They are mired in poverty and oppression and spend every waking hour envying our wealth and freedoms. Or maybe only our wealth. President Bush, an expert on both subjects, assures us it is our freedoms they actually hate. Being the devilishly witty man that he is, the freedom he has in mind must surely be that of detaining Muslim teenagers in Guantanamo Bay indefinitely without charge, in contravention of basic international law.

Finer connoisseurs of human nature have suggested that Arab anti-Americanism stems from a scapegoating campaign meant to divert the people’s attention from their own governments’ failings. Its motto: Praise your leader for all that is good; blame America for all that is bad. After all, the scapegoat theory goes, isn’t US policy unabashedly, overwhelmingly, ridiculously pro-Muslim? (Hint for those who are having trouble with this homework exercise: Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo.) Were it not for decades of manipulation at the hands of shameless leaders, the Arabs would know how good we are.

They would also know how stupid we are. For what else would you call people who give billions in financial assistance to Arab leaders only so that they can better whip their people into an anti-American frenzy? Why didn’t the scapegoat theorists tell us earlier? If only we’d known! Of course, one may criticize al-Jazeera for lacking American-style impartiality, be it the fairness and balance of Fox News or the cool objectivity of Clear Channel. But to think that the Qatar-based TV news network is just a vehicle of power intended to keep the restless Arab masses from turning against their governments is borderline delusional. This is not to say that transference of self-pity into loathing of others might not play a role. (After all, John Ashcroft does it all the time.) But to claim that it is the whole story suggests that Arabs in dozens of nations, thousands of miles apart, suffer from some sort of collective mental disorder: a slur that does not even rise to the level of an idea.

Much of the Arab world seems frozen in time, torn between the corrupt remnants of pan-Arab nationalist movements and the siren call of Islamic “liberation” theology. This Hobbesian choice leads some Western observers to comment, rather disingenuously, “Arabs give us hell for the hell they’re in, but they have only themselves to blame.” The truth is, there is plenty of blame to go around. Arabs may have dug the hole they are in, but the West has sealed the top and made sure there is no way out. Whose fault is it if, in the year the novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize, Egypt published only 300 books but ten times as many thirty years earlier? Probably Egypt’s. But whose fault is it if Mubarak is a despot whose jails are teeming with political prisoners? Fewer fingers would point at the US if its government did not prop up the Egyptian leader to the tune of $2 billion a year.

Westerners like to aver, “Better a corrupt autocrat friendly to us than an Islamist in charge.” But hasn’t Turkey put to rest the notion that all Islamists are incorrigibly theocratic? While far from ideal, Iran offers a mix of Islamic and democratic governance, with genuine elections and a painful but real public debate, that at least offers a glimmer of hope for the future and is, in so many ways, preferable to Egypt’s ossified autocracy and Saudi Arabia’s feudal monarchy. A leading Middle East scholar, Gilles Kepel, contends that radical Islamism, having failed miserably wherever it has been tried (Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan), is actually in decline [51]. So, yes, terrorism is a deadly serious threat, but is the current hysteria fully justified? New Republic editor Paul Berman’s attempt to connect Islamism and Nazism is an intellectually interesting panic-inducing exercise; though little more insightful than the zoologist’s observation that mice and elephants all have four legs [52]. This is the sort of fear-mongering that leads the US to choose the vilest secular dictatorship over any sort of Islamic government.

Fortunately, the current administration has a more balanced view of things. It offsets its allergy to Muslim fundamentalism with an exquisite tenderness toward all things Christian; especially sermons that blame gays and feminists for the tragedy of 9/11 [53] or military harangues that extol the superiority of the Christian god [54].

Supporting despotic regimes often has much to do with oil. It is longstanding US policy to view the free and stable flow of oil in the Persian Gulf as a vital interest of the United States. In a State of the Union address, the president declared: Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

The president was Jimmy Carter and the year was 1980 [55]. (Let us only hope the Chinese never declare the wood-rich American Rockies part of their vital interests.) It is a common misconception to read in US policy a crass pretext for an oil grab. The objective was_and still is_to prevent outside forces from controlling oil prices. (In Jimmy Carter’s English, the word ‘outside’ means non-American.) Being home to the world’s second largest oil reserves, Iraq has an inordinate potential to influence oil prices.

If coveting thy neighbor’s oil were not bad enough, the US has made a habit of supporting bloody dictatorships in the region. Saddam’s was only one of several. Few in Iran have forgotten how their fledgling democracy under Mohammed Mossadegh was crushed by the CIA in 1953 and replaced by the Shah’s police state. This was the start of a chain reaction that takes us all the way to today’s crisis in a perfect illustration of the great Law of Unintended Consequences.

<1.British> oil interests threatened by Mossadegh; Mossadegh replaced by Shah in CIA-led coup. <2.Shah> replaced by Ayatollah; Ayatollah threatened by Saddam the Good with full US support. <3.Saddam> the Good replaced by Saddam the Bad (after Kuwaiti oil grab); Saddam the Bad defeated by US forces.

Many of the Arab world’s grievances against Europe and America are genuine and legitimate. Colonizers rarely endear themselves to their subjects and European colonization was no exception. As a parting gift, Europe broke up vast chunks of the Arab world into a jumble of artificial states. The mess is yet to be sorted out. The Arabs’ despair at America is more present and serious. It feeds on three perceptions:

US support of despised Arab autocracies. Washington’s unwillingness to actualize an equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The humiliation of what was once the world’s preeminent civilization at the hands of a giant rubbing its superpower status in its face.

Occupation humiliates and humiliation motivates. The picture of an Abrams tank rolling down Baghdad is the best recruiting tool bin Laden could ever hope for. (Obviously, Bush has the bin Laden vote locked up in ’04.) US arrogance_blind though it may be at times_does not help either. Here is again America’s most influential foreign affairs columnist at his patronizing best [56]: We just adopted a baby called Baghdad_and this is no time for the parents to get a divorce. Because raising that baby, in the neighborhood it lives in, is going to be a mammoth task (Thomas L. Friedman, 5/4/03).

If America’s elite is so damn supercilious to think it can “raise” the inhabitants of the world’s oldest civilization, it will come out of the experience battered and humbled. This colonizing impulse is key to this discussion and deserves a little detour.

Empire is back in vogue. The brilliant colonial apologist Niall Ferguson makes a compelling case that taking up the White Man’s burden was a magnificent gift to the world [57]. (I am always struck by the fact_no doubt a coincidence_that it is always the colonizer, not the colonized, who gushes over the magnificent gift.) The revisionists’ arguments are quantitative and utilitarian; hence their persuasive power. For example, they explain that African-Americans are richer, healthier, and live longer than black Africans (all true); therefore, slavery was a good thing. Well, they do not actually say that, but their methodology not only allows such a conclusion, it actually makes it inescapable.

India’s superb universities, its vibrant democracy, its extensive railway network, even the great cities of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, are all byproducts of the British conquest. Ferguson does not simply call them positive, happy, or even wonderful consequences of colonization_though they might well be all of these. He actually uses these achievements retroactively to justify the conquest itself. His logic is flawed in at least two major ways. To begin with, we know that the Brits did not conquer India in order to build universities, railroads, and cities, but, rather, to expand trade. In justifying an enterprise, intentions do matter. There is also this little thing called freedom. By Ferguson’s thesis, it would be quite all right for Bill Gates to kidnap poor children in Sri Lanka, since they would be better fed and better educated in his hometown of Redmond. Or perhaps, for similar reasons, we could have a law that requires poor American parents to give up their kids for adoption. In fact, why not pay Mexican immigrants working at McDonald’s only half-wages? They would still be much better off than in Mexico, and McDonald’s would thus be able to lower the cost of a Big Mac, which would help everyone. Niall Ferguson’s brilliant mind opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities.

The revisionists privilege hard variables, such as literacy, health, wealth, and property laws, over such soft, subjective, quaint notions as humiliation, deculturation, discrimination, degradation, servitude, respect, and freedom. And actually, come to think of it, the economic argument is not all that convincing, anyway. In 1750, India’s share of the world’s GDP was 25 percent. In 1900, it had fallen to 1.7 percent. But by then, of course, it had cricket.

If you naively thought, as I did, that one of the greatest moral achievements of the last half-century was the universal, irreversible recognition that colonization was on the whole a ghastly affair, then think again. Lord Curzon’s judgment that the British empire was “under Providence, the greatest instrument for good the world has seen” has gone full circle from serious, to farcical, back to serious. I guess it is only a matter of time before we hear again about the glory of getting the trains to run on time. Scary.

The US should resist the temptation to take up the White Man’s burden again. Past imperial ambitions have all been tainted by phenomenal amounts of arrogance. Bush’s Iraqi adventure is proving to be no different. America’s racist past should also invite an extra dose of humility and restraint. We have learned that dropping bombs on other people’s heads for their own good is not always the wisest course. The US failed to save Vietnam from communism; and even that required two million dead. Fighting in self-defense is one thing; to do so in the name of educating the “natives” about one’s superior ways stinks to the heavens. This is a lose-lose proposition: In trying to save others’ souls, the US risks losing its own.


What if Bush fought a just war for the wrong reasons? So he lied to our faces, concealed his true motives, conjured up imaginary threats, tricked us into a war under false pretense. But does this necessarily rule out the morality of the war? To rescue a man from a lake with the sole intent of stealing his wallet is wrong but still better than to let him drown. No one with a conscience can bemoan the fall of Saddam. How does Bush’s war fare by the standards of just war theory?

Not well. I have covered some of this ground already; for example, the war violated international law and it was anything but a solution of last resort. Just war theory also asks: Were the intentions right? Not an easy question. Hell is, as we know, paved with good intentions; add to this my rescuer-robber example, and it is easy to reply: Who cares? While imputing good intentions to the likes of Rumsfeld or Cheney would be the height of naivete (the latter being, coincidentally, the former CEO of Halliburton, the lucky beneficiary of a no-bid engineering contract in Iraq), others in the Bush entourage may have been motivated by a genuine desire to help the Middle East break out of its cycle of violence and despair. Before falling into rapture over their purity of heart, however, one must ask: How can well-intentioned people lie with abandon, coddle dictators, and display such shocking indifference toward the sort of horrors seen in Africa?

A just war requires both a just cause and a reasonable chance of success. Since the “causes” stated by the administration changed so often, one must be ready, for the sake of argument, to give Bush the benefit of the doubt and assume that the cause was bringing civil democracy to Iraq. Indeed, since the WMD threat was a farce, any other possible cause, say, Friedman’s iron-fisted junta, can be dismissed peremptorily as unjust. The problem is that transforming Iraq into a civil democracy is, as Nicholas Kristof puts it [35], nothing but a pipe dream. I went over the reasons already: credibility, history, economic interests, humiliation, and a giant cultural wall of incomprehension.


When Condoleezza Rice calls us, war critics, racists, she misses the point [58]. We never said that Iraq could not be a democracy. We simply said that Condi and her friends could not make it into one. The most likely outcome for Iraq in the short term is Lebanon-style guerrilla warfare leading to a mini-Saddam or a civil war. It was ugly before. Bush has ensured that it will remain ugly for a long time to come. Meanwhile he has subverted the war on terror by diverting enormous resources away from it and redirecting them toward fanning the flames of anti-American hatred.

President Bush did not have to go to war. To explain his refusal, he could have simply said: We should not march into Baghdad, turning the whole Arab world against us. Assigning young soldiers to a fruitless hunt for a securely entrenched dictator and condemning them to fight in what would be an unwinnable urban guerilla war, it could only plunge that part of the world into ever greater instability.

History would have kindly forgiven him such blatant plagiarism: for these were the words his father wrote in his memoirs [59].

BERNARD CHAZELLE is a professor of computer science at Princeton University and author of The Discrepancy Method: Randomness and Complexity. He can be reached at: chazelle@CS.Princeton.EDU

This article and others are available on Professor Chazelle’s website.



[1] Bush at War, by Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster, 2002.

[2] http://www.newamericancentury.org/iraqclintonletter.htm

[3] The Neoconservative Persuasion, by Irving Kristol, Weekly Standard, August 25, 2003.

[4] http://newamericancentury.org/

[5] We’ll Win This War, by Michael A. Ledeen, The American Enterprise Online.

[6] The Future of War and the American Military, by Stephen P. Rosen, Harvard Magazine, May-June 2002, vol 104, no 5.

[7] Michael A. Ledeen, quoted by Jonah Goldberg in Baghdad Delenda Est, Part Two, National Review, April 23, 2002.

[8] Beware of Bolton, by Ian Williams, May 30, 2002.

[9] America’s Imperial Ambition, by John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs, 2002.

[10] Should We Evict the UN? by Patrick Buchanan, New York Post, December 27, 1997, page 15.

[11] Washington Post, January 31, 2003.

[12] The Guardian, March 21, 2003.

[13] Why America Still Needs the United Nations, by Shashi Tharoor, Foreign Affairs, Sept/Oct 2003

[14] The End of the American Era: US Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-first Century, by Charles A. Kupchan, Knopf, October 29, 2002.

[15] The Real Crisis Over the Atlantic, by Dominique Moisi, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2001.

[16] Propaganda Isn’t the Way: Soft Power, by Joseph S. Nye Jr., The International Herald Tribune, January 10, 2003.

[17] Wolfowitz Stands Fast Amid the Antiwarriors, by Eric Schmitt, The New York Times, September 22, 2003.

[18] Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, June 2003.

[19] The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, September 17, 2002.

[20] But What’s the Legal Case for Preemption? by Bruce Ackerman, Washington Post, August 18, 2002.

[21] Law unto Themselves, by Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, March 14, 2003.

[22] Selective Intelligence, by Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, May 5, 2003.

[23] The Economist, October 4, 2003.

[24] A deafening silence, by Gideon Levy, Ha’aretz, October 6, 2002.

[25] Bush’s Unreliable Intelligence, by David Corn, The Nation, November 12, 2003.

[26] Rice: Iraq trained al Qaeda in chemical weapons, CNN, September 26, 2002.

[27] President Bush Outlines Iraqi Threat, by George W. Bush, Cincinnati, October 7, 2002.

[28] Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 Attacks, Washington Post Poll, September 6, 2003.

[29] We’re Taking Him Out, CNN, May 6, 2002.

[30] May 9, 2003 interview of Paul Wolfowitz by Sam Tannenbaus, published in Vanity Fair, July 2003.

[31] Iraq Said to Have Tried to Reach Last-Minute Deal to Avert War, by James Risen, The New York Times, November 6, 2003. Original article.

[32] Stumbling into War, by James P. Rubin, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2003.

[33] Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History, by George Crile, Atlantic Monthly Press, April 2003.

[34] Bush’s Faustian Deal With the Taliban, by Robert Scheer, Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2001.

[35] Iraqi Democracy Is a Pipe Dream, by Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times, October 19, 2002.

[36] UN Resolution 1441, The Security Council, November 8, 2002.

[37] Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, July 7, 1991.

[38] A War for Oil?, by Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, January 5, 2003.

[39] US Diplomatic and Commercial Relationships with Iraq, 1980 – 2 August 1990.

[40] US Support for Iraq in the 1980s, Center for Cooperative Research.

[41] The Ghosts of 1991, by Peter W. Galbraith, Washington Post, Saturday, April 12, 2003.

[42] Making of a Monster: How the US Helped Build Iraq’s War Machine, by William P. Hoar, The New American, September 1992.

[43] A Hard Look at Iraq Sanctions, by David Cortright, The Nation, December 3, 2001.

[44] Iraq surveys show ‘humanitarian emergency, Unicef Information Newsline, August 12, 1999.

[45] Columbia News Video, by Prof. Richard Garfield, March 03, 2000.

[46] Cool War, by Joy Gordon, Harper’s Magazine, November 2002.

[47] Squeezed to death, by John Pilger The Guardian, Saturday March 4, 2000.

[48] Iraq ‘smart sanctions’ derailed by Russia, by Anton La Guardia, <telegraph.co.uk>, April 7, 2001.

[49] Pew’s Global Attitudes Project, June 2003.

[50] Andrew Kohut’s Senate Testimony, February 27, 2003.

[51] Jihad: Expansion et declin de l’Islamisme, by Gilles Kepel, Gallimard, 2003.

[52] Terror and Liberalism, by Paul Berman, Norton, 2003.

[53] Jerry Falwell, September 13, 2001.

[54] General William Boykin, 2002-2003.

[55] State of the Union Address to Congress, by President Carter, January 21, 1980.

[56] Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, May 4, 2003.

[57] Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, by Niall Ferguson, Basic Books, 2003.

[58] Critics of US policy are racist, says Rice, by David Rennie, <telegraph.co.uk>, September 8, 2003.

[59] A World Transformed, by Brent Scowcroft and George H. W. Bush, Knopf, September 1998.