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George Bush & the World

But Cheney always disagreed in a thoroughly agreeable fashion. In Congress, where he had served for ten years, he was thought of as a moderate even though he had a hard-line conservative voting record. Bush senior’s advisers respected him for his intelligence, his ability to work quietly to build a consensus, and, above all, his loyalty. In 1998 Cheney became one of Bush junior’s foreign policy advisers and, two years later, his running mate. The choice was unconventional, but many, including his father’s advisers, thought it useful to have Cheney, with his knowledge of Washington and experience in international affairs, backing up the insouciant Prince Hal of the family.

As Bush’s senior adviser, Cheney exercised great influence over appointments. Colin Powell had long been Bush’s choice for secretary of state; Condoleezza Rice, his tutor in such matters as the location of Kosovo, was his choice for national security adviser. But after the election most of the other national security posts remained to be filled. After one candidate for secretary of defense, former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, was interviewed and found wanting, Bush chose Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s Washington mentor in the late 1970s and his friend for over thirty years. As Ford’s chief of staff and later as his secretary of defense, Rumsfeld had moved the Ford administration sharply to the right and frustrated Kissinger’s attempt to conclude the SALT II treaty. It was Rumsfeld who arranged for Cheney, then thirty-five, to be appointed White House chief of staff.2

Secretary of defense for the second time, Rumsfeld took as his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, who had last served in government as Cheney’s undersecretary of defense for policy. In February 1992 Wolfowitz and Zalmay Khalilzad of the NSC staff—currently a member of Bush junior’s NSC staff and his envoy to Afghanistan—completed a project, initiated by Cheney two years before, to articulate America’s political and military mission in the post– cold war world. The document, a draft of what was called a Defense Planning Guidance, was leaked to The New York Times in early March 1992.3

By the Times‘s account, the policy paper asserted that America’s mission was to ensure that no rival superpower emerged in any part of the world. The United States could do this, it proposed, by convincing other advanced industrialized countries that the US would defend their legitimate interests and by maintaining sufficient military might. The United States, the document stated, “must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” It described Russia and China as potential threats and warned that Germany, Japan, and other industrial powers might be tempted to rearm and acquire nuclear weapons if their security was threatened, and this might start them on the way to competition with the United States.

The authors of the document therefore recommended that the Pentagon take measures—including the use of force, if necessary—to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in such countries as North Korea, Iraq, and some of the former Soviet republics. The document made no mention of collective action through the UN, and while acknowledging that military coalitions could be useful, it maintained, “we should expect future coalitions to be ad hoc assemblies, often not lasting beyond the crisis being confronted….” This was hardly Bush senior’s view of America’s role in the world. The US was to dominate the globe and to deter all competition, whatever it cost.

In his memoir My American Journey, published in 1995, Colin Powell recalls that Cheney and Wolfowitz had made Bush senior’s Pentagon policy staff “a refuge for Reagan-era hardliners.” In the Bush junior administration Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz have done the same for the Pentagon’s entire top civilian staff. To Wolfowitz’s former position they appointed Douglas Feith, who in the Reagan administration had been a protégé of its leading hawk, Richard Perle. (Perle himself was appointed chairman of the Defense Policy Board, which advises the Pentagon.) Out of office in the 1990s Feith had worked to stop the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention negotiated by Bush senior. In 1996 he and Perle wrote an advisory paper for the new Likud prime minister of Israel, Benyamin Netanyahu, calling upon him to “make a clean break” with the Oslo peace process and reassert Israel’s claim to the West Bank and Gaza. When Netanyahu did not oblige, Feith published an article calling upon Israel to reoccupy the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority. “The price in blood would be high,” he wrote, but it would be a necessary form of “detoxification—the only way out of Oslo’s web.”

To Perle’s old job as assistant secretary of defense for international security Rumsfeld appointed J.D. Crouch, who had served in Bush senior’s Defense Department but who later opposed the Chemical Weapons Convention and criticized Bush senior’s decision to withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea. In 1995 Crouch, as a private citizen, had advocated a military strike against North Korea’s nuclear plants and missile facilities—apparently accepting the risk of war on the Korean peninsula.

Colin Powell, for his part, brought into the State Department some like-minded internationalists, such as Richard Armitage and Richard Haas. But as undersecretary for arms control and international affairs, the number three post in the department, he had, at the insistence of Cheney, to appoint John R. Bolton, a protégé of Senator Jesse Helms and a self-proclaimed unilateralist. “There is no such thing as the United Nations,” Bolton said on one occasion. “There is an international community that can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that is the United States, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along.”4

What had been a minority position in the first Bush administration had become a majority position in the second. But then it had become a majority position in the Republican Party as well, and Bush junior had given voice to its basic elements when he made his bid for the Republican nomination in 1999. In a major speech on defense at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina—reportedly prepared with the help of Wolfowitz—he said: “For America this is a time of unrivaled military power, economic promise and cultural influence. It is in Franklin Roosevelt’s words, ‘the peace of overwhelming victory.’” Both in this speech and in a foreign policy speech that same year Bush spoke of the virtues of democracy and free enterprise but, unlike his father, made no mention of the rule of law.

What is most curious about these speeches is the combination of triumphalism and almost unmitigated pessimism about the rest of the world. China was becoming a “strategic competitor” and an “espionage threat to our country.” Russia, whose thousands of unsecured nuclear weapons presented the threat of an accidental launch or nuclear theft, might revert to imperialism. That China and Russia might get together was another dire possibility. “On the Eurasian landmass,” Bush junior said, “our vision is that no great power, or coalition of powers, dominates or endangers our friends.” In the Citadel speech his list of threats included plutonium merchants, crime syndicates, car bombers, cyber-terrorists, drug cartels, biological, chemical, and nuclear terrorism, and ICBMs in North Korea. In his inaugural address he said nothing about foreign affairs but simply warned “the enemies of liberty” that the US would “meet aggression and bad faith with resolve and strength.” The pessimism was logical enough; if one decides to go it alone without allies or reliance on the rule of law, it is natural to see only danger abroad.

On one occasion during the campaign Bush junior confessed that he really didn’t know who the enemy was. “When I was coming up, with what was a dangerous world,” he said, “we knew exactly who the they were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who the them were. Today we’re not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there.” In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations this February Cheney admitted that before September 11 he had been similarly puzzled. “When America’s great enemy suddenly disappeared,” he said, “many wondered what new direction our foreign policy would take. We spoke, as always, of long-term problems and regional crises throughout the world, but there was no single, immediate, global threat that any roomful of experts could agree upon.” He added, “All of that changed five months ago. The threat is known and our role is clear now.”

What Cheney was saying, in a slightly more articulate fashion, was that the main purpose of American foreign policy was to confront an enemy—and that a worthy successor to the Soviet Union had finally emerged, in the form of international terrorism.

Yet the Bush administration has not become as narrowly focused as Cheney suggested it would. Rather, Bush and his advisers have used the huge domestic support the President acquired on September 11 to pursue their original objectives, some of them, such as nuclear superiority and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, newly justified as a part of the war on terrorism.

In the months before September 11, Secretary Rumsfeld and other officials argued that there was no need for a strategic arms agreement because arms negotiations were time-consuming, the cold war was over, and the Russians were our friends. A more plausible reason appeared in a conservative think tank report on US nuclear planning and arms control that was issued just as the administration took office. The authors included Stephen J. Hadley and Robert G. Joseph, the two officials now responsible for strategic planning on Bush’s NSC staff, and Stephen A. Cambone, who became deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. In the report they argued that the United States faced an unpredictable world, one potentially more dangerous than that of the cold war, and that nuclear arms control treaties hindered America’s flexibility to adapt its nuclear forces to future threats. “Washington,” they wrote, “cannot know today whether Russia, or for that matter China, will be neutral, friend, foe, or part of a hostile alliance in the future.” Thus “it cannot therefore be sensible now to codify the character and quantity of US strategic nuclear forces to some approximation of parity in US and Russian strategic nuclear force structures.” At present, they wrote, it may suit US interests to make deep reductions, but these cuts should be made unilaterally so that the US could increase its forces if necessary.

Implicit in the report is the assumption that the world is a Hobbesian place in which national interests never coincide and where the security of the United States can be assured only by unfettered autonomy and its ability to deploy superior military force.

In January of this year the Defense Department completed its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a reappraisal of US nuclear policy, and when Assistant Defense Secretary J.D. Crouch briefed reporters on the still-classified document, it was evident that the think-tank report had become the blueprint for the administration’s nuclear weapons policy. “We have a situation,” Crouch said, “where the United States may face multiple potential opponents, but we’re not sure who they might be.” Leaked in part a couple of months later, the NPR made clear what the Pentagon really meant by “strategic reductions”: the warheads would be taken off their launchers and some of both would be stored as a “responsive force” that could be redeployed if necessary. “In the event that US relations with Russia significantly worsen in the future, the US may need to revive its nuclear force levels and posture,” the NPR said.

In testimony to Congress on the strategic arms treaty this July Secretary Rumsfeld spoke of the possibility of “the sudden emergence of a hostile peer competitor on par with the old Soviet Union” and later said, “We are entering a period of surprise and uncertainty, when the sudden emergence of unexpected threats will be an increasingly common feature of our security environment” (emphasis added). As if to prove his point, he went on, “We were surprised on September 11—and, let there be no doubt, we will be surprised again.”

Rumsfeld could hardly have made such an argument before September 11, for if anything is certain in international affairs, it is that Russia, with an economy smaller than that of the Netherlands, could not enter a Soviet-style strategic arms race with the United States by 2012; nor could any other nuclear power or combination of them. But now Rumsfeld deploys the argument to justify practically everything he and his top officials want. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs he called—among other things—for a defense for US space assets, an undersea warfare capability, and missile defenses. “Our challenge,” he wrote, “is to defend our nation against the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen, and the unexpected.”5


In mid-March Vice President Cheney traveled to the Middle East to elicit support for a US campaign to end the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. US forces were still engaged in Afghanistan and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict had become more violent than ever. The Arab leaders Cheney visited told him that, under current circumstances, a US attack on Iraq would be seen as a war between the West and Islam and, in view of Arab sympathies with the Palestinians, they could endorse it only at the price of destabilizing their own regimes. Two weeks later, at an Arab League meeting in Beirut, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and other leaders declared that an attack on Iraq would be a threat to the national security of all Arab states. At the same time they proposed a peace plan that—for the first time—included a full normalization of Arab relations with Israel. Abdullah told Bush he would put pressure on Arafat if Bush put pressure on Sharon to work toward an agreement.

Colin Powell considered the Saudi offer encouraging, and Bush endorsed it in a speech on April 4. Other officials, however, disagreed, and when Powell went to the Middle East at the President’s request, Sharon ignored him. In the internal debate that followed within the administration, Cheney and Rumsfeld argued, as they had before, that the US had to be consistent in fighting terrorism. It followed that the administration should support Sharon, just as it had been doing since Bush took office.

The President and other officials have repeatedly said that Saddam Hussein must go because he has links to terrorism and because he is developing weapons of mass destruction. But they have not yet clearly explained why they give the Iraqi regime priority over all the other threats to US national security. On the one hand, they have not shown that al-Qaeda depends in any significant way on Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, a part of their rationale for maintaining a large nuclear force is that it deters states like Iraq from using their most lethal weapons.6 The result is that more than a few people in this country have the fanciful notion that the whole thing has something to do with Bush’s relationship to his father.

Bush has made no connection between his planning for an attack on Iraq and his withdrawal from the Middle East peace process—except to say that “moral clarity” requires an attack on terror in all of its forms. In Bush’s rhetoric Saddam Hussein is a direct threat to the United States. However, for years before the Bush administration took office Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were calling for his overthrow on the grounds that he posed a danger to the region, and in particular to Israel. In January 1998 they, along with the prominent neoconservative William Kristol and others associated with Kristol’s Project for a New Century, wrote President Clinton a letter saying that if Saddam acquired the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction, he would pose a threat to American troops in the region, to Israel, to the moderate Arab states, and to the supply of oil. Four months later they wrote the Republican leaders in Congress warning that with such weapons Saddam Hussein would be in a position to blackmail “our friends and allies in the Middle East and Europe,” and this could make him “the driving force of Middle East politics, including on such important matters as the Middle East peace process.” These letters made no mention of terrorism, and they did not claim that Saddam Hussein posed a direct threat to the United States.7

In a panel discussion at the Washington Institute in June 1999 Wolfowitz made his view about Iraq’s connection to the peace process some-what clearer. Bush senior’s invasion of Iraq, he said, had not only averted the real possibility of a nuclear war between Iraq and Israel but “Yasir Arafat was forced to make peace once radical alternatives [he could turn to] like Iraq had disappeared.” Currently, he continued, “the containment of Iraq is failing. The United States needs to accelerate Saddam’s demise if it truly wants to help the peace process.”

Wolfowitz was right that Arafat became more accommodating after the Gulf War, but he failed to mention several relevant facts. First, it was the moderate Arab states that wanted a peace conference; the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir did not. Second, Bush senior not only put pressure on Shamir to take part in peace negotiations but, to show the Palestinians he was serious, he demanded that Israel curtail the settlements on the West Bank. By leaving out this history Wolfowitz was implying that with Saddam Hussein eliminated, Israel could choose the peace it wanted with the Palestinians.

Since September 11 William Kristol and his associates outside the administration have been urging the President to see Israel’s fight against terrorism as America’s battle and to make war on Saddam Hussein. On April 15 Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote that Bush should not play any role as Middle East peace negotiator but should stay focused on Iraq because “the road that leads to real security and peace—the road runs through Baghdad.” Apparently this was not just their own view, for speaking on background to Ha’aretz one week later, a senior Israeli official said that Pentagon officials were pushing the White House to decide to bring down Hussein before engaging in the peace process in the belief that a changed Iraq would affect the entire Middle East.8 And since then Israeli government officials such as Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres have called for an attack on Iraq sooner rather than later.

The debate on Iraq has only begun. In congressional hearings experts from outside the government have raised the possibility that a war would lead to a Palestinian revolt in Jordan and uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as oil shortages and terrorist attacks on Americans. Other experts have warned that if the US manages to unseat Saddam Hussein, US forces will have to stay in Iraq for years and conduct the greatest nation-building project since General MacArthur’s in Japan. Scowcroft, who had thus far been tactful about administration policies, said in early August that an attack could “turn the whole region into a cauldron and, thus, destroy the war on terrorism.” In a Wall Street Journal article of August 15 he expanded on this argument, mounting what became the most widely publicized challenge to Bush’s plan to invade Iraq and by implication criticizing the President’s entire unilateralist approach to foreign policy.

In his article, Scowcroft warned that a military campaign against Iraq could be extremely dangerous, for with nothing left to lose, Saddam might unleash his weapons of mass destruction, attack Israel, and possibly provoke an Armageddon in the Middle East. “But the central point,” he wrote,

is that any campaign against Iraq, whatever the strategy, cost and risks, is certain to divert us for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism. Worse, there is a virtual consensus in the world against an attack on Iraq at this time. So long as that sentiment persists, it would require the US to pursue a virtual go-it-alone strategy against Iraq, making any military operations correspondingly more difficult and expensive. The most serious cost, however, would be to the war on terrorism. Ignoring that clear sentiment would result in a serious degradation in international cooperation with us against terrorism. And make no mistake, we simply cannot win that war without enthusiastic international cooperation, especially on intelligence.

Possibly, he continued, the most dire consequences would be the effect in the region, for if the US was seen to be turning its back on the bitter Israeli– Palestinian conflict in order to go after Iraq,

there would be an explosion of outrage against us. We would be seen as ignoring a key interest of the Muslim world in order to satisfy what is seen to be a narrow American interest. Even without Israeli involvement, the results could well destabilize Arab regimes in the region, ironically facilitating one of Saddam’s strategic objectives.

At some point Bush will have to explain not just why Saddam Hussein is evil but what he envisions for the future of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. He will have to go beyond Vice President Cheney’s recent vague statement that “moderates throughout the region would take heart” from American action, “and our ability to advance the Israeli–Palestinian peace process would be enhanced.” If Bush really thinks that a war in Iraq at this point will help Israel and further other US strategic objectives in the region, he must make a detailed case. He should also tell us about the risks.

—August 29, 2002

  1. 2

    In 1977 Rumsfeld took up a career in business, but during the Reagan and Bush administrations he served on a number of government advisory committees. In 1998 he chaired a congressional commission that reported that “rogue states,” such as North Korea and Iran, would have the capacity to deploy ICBMs “with little or no warning” in about five years’ time. Two years later, as head of a commission on US space assets, he reported that the US would face a “space Pearl Harbor” if the Defense Department did not take seriously the possibility of an attack and provide the president with “an option to deploy weapons in space.”

  2. 3

    The Pentagon’s draft Defense Planning Guidance for the Fiscal Years 1994– 1999 was drawn up in early February and circulated at the highest levels of the Pentagon. It was due to be released in March but it was leaked, and The New York Times published its account of the document on March 8, 1992. A furor erupted. Cheney’s staff denied it was a final draft, and a much-modified version of the document was written and counter-leaked.

  3. 4

    John R. Bolton was an assistant secretary of state in the administration of Bush senior.

  4. 5

    In recent months the Defense Department has gone from a so-called “threat-based strategy” to a “capabilities-based approach.” This means, Rumsfeld tells us in Foreign Affairs (May/June 2002), that rather than focusing on who might threaten the United States, officials are now concentrating on how the nation might be threatened and how to defend against its vulnerabilities. Like the idea of preemptive war, this new approach could make sense where terrorism is concerned. However, for the overall defense budget a “capabilities-based approach” means simply that the Pentagon can ask for whatever it wants without having to justify its requests by the existence of even a potential enemy.

  5. 6

    In a 1998 argument for maintaining the US nuclear deterrent, Robert G. Joseph made the case that Iraq did not use its chemical weapons in the Gulf War because Bush senior warned that catastrophic consequences would ensue if it did.

  6. 7

    The letter to Republican congressional leaders was also signed by John Bolton and Zalmay Khalilzad.

  7. 8

    Ha’aretz, June 21, 2002.

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