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America Goes Backward


Less than two and a half years after it came to power, the Bush administration, elected by fewer than half of the voters, has an impressive but depressing record. It has, in self-defense, declared one war—the war on terrorism—that has no end in sight. It has started, and won, two other wars. It has drastically changed the strategic doctrine and the diplomatic position of the United States, arguing that the nation’s previous positions were obsolete and that the US has enough power to do pretty much as it pleases. At home, as part of the war on terrorism, it has curbed civil liberties, the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, and the access of foreign students to US schools and universities. It holds in custody an unknown number of aliens and some Americans treated as “enemy combatants,” suspected but not indicted, whose access to hearings and lawyers has been denied. The Republican majority in both houses of Congress and the courts’ acceptance of the notion that the President’s war powers override all other concerns have given him effective control of all the branches of government. The administration’s nominees to the courts would consolidate its domination of the judiciary.

The Justice Department is also supporting efforts to have the Supreme Court reverse its previous decisions on affirmative action and on women’s rights. The social programs that have softened the harshness of capitalism since the New Deal, inferior as they are to those of other liberal democracies, are threatened by the Republicans’ relentless war against the state’s welfare functions, their preference for voluntary over mandated solutions to health care, and for private over public schools. Large numbers of old, sick, or very young people, mainly among the poor, will be deprived of financial assistance as the result of administration policies. Those policies include the cuts that will result from the huge deficits caused by military expenditures and reduced taxes and revenues, and the gradual transfer of many welfare and educational costs to states that are broke, must balance their budgets, and receive little aid from the federal government.

The political forces that many expected to question policies and express dissent have been remarkably meek and mute. The Democrats are reluctant to attack a popular president. Before the war against Iraq and during the war itself, the press and television gave Bush the benefit of the doubt, with chauvinistic support being offered under the guise of patriotism. Anyone who tunes into BBC radio and television can only be struck by the contrast in style and substance between its news programs and those on the American networks. (In no US newspaper or broadcast that I have seen has the French position on Iraq been accurately presented.1 ) It sometimes seemed that the press had become “embedded” not only in the fighting forces but in Washington officialdom itself.

The US remains a liberal democracy, but those who have hoped for progressive policies at home and enlightened policies abroad may be forgiven if they have become deeply discouraged by a not-so-benign soft imperialism, by a fiscal and social policy that takes good care of the rich but shuns the poor on grounds of a far from “compassionate conservatism,” and by the conformism, both dictated by the administration and often spontaneous among the public, that Tocqueville observed 130 years ago. Some will say that it could have been worse; but a blunter form of domination might have resulted in sharper and more organized opposition.

The administration has proceeded more stealthily. Welfare cuts can be blamed on the states. The lopsided tax cuts are misleadingly presented as benefiting us all. Shrinking environmental protection can be justified as a defense of the economy. Increased surveillance of citizens’ private activities and of aliens’ movements are said to be “required” by homeland security. A military budget equal to those of all other nations combined can be justified by the vulnerability of the US revealed on September 11, and by the proliferation of threats. Every decision or move can be defended in reassuring language. The public is invited both to take pride in America’s unique might and to worry about the perils that lurk everywhere.

Indeed, a technique that the administration has used brilliantly is the manipulation of fear. Americans have been “shocked and awed” by September 11, and the President has found in this criminal act not just a rationale, hitherto missing, for his administration, but a lever he could use to increase his, and his country’s, power. All that was needed was, first, to proclaim that we were at war (something other societies attacked by terrorists have not done), second, to extend that war to states sheltering or aiding terrorist groups, and third, to allege connections between Islamist terrorists and “rogue states,” such as Iraq and Iran, engaged in efforts to obtain or build weapons of mass terror. When, a few days before the war on Iraq began, the President several times linked Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda at a press conference, not one of the sixteen journalists who asked questions about Iraq challenged him.

The case against Iraq’s regime was at first based on stoking American fears about hidden weapons of mass destruction (while downplaying fears that North Korean nuclear bombs might provoke). When it became clear that Saddam Hussein’s ability to threaten American security had been much exaggerated since the weapons proved hard to find, and the possession by Iraq of nuclear weapons was effectively denied by the UN inspectors, the reason for the war was shifted to human rights and democracy.

Another technique was a resort to Orwellian rhetoric. The President told Americans that the war was not a policy chosen among others, but a necessity imposed by Saddam. Nations that resisted the administration’s rush to war were presented as hostile for reasons of greed or of an incurable anti-Americanism. Colin Powell stated that Jacques Chirac had said that France wouldn’t go to war against Iraq “under any circumstances.” In fact, as Powell must have known, and as I have been told on very good authority, the French President had earmarked French forces for war if the inspectors, after a limited number of weeks and after having followed a series of “benchmarks” not dissimilar from those Tony Blair had demanded, concluded that Iraq did have forbidden weapons and could not be disarmed peacefully. French diplomacy could be faulted for not making its positions clearer; but Chirac’s statement referred only to the text of the second resolution drafted by the US and Britain for submission to the Security Council, and then withdrawn. On March 16, after the US turned down Chirac’s proposal to consider using force if the inspectors reached an impasse in Iraq in thirty days, he told Christiane Amanpour on 60 Minutes that if “our strategy, inspections, were failing, we would consider all the options, including war.” Equally Orwellian on the part of the US was the talk about “the coalition,” used even when a military move was made only by US forces.


One aspect of the wrecking operation that the administration has undertaken is worth special attention—the destruction of some of the main schemes of cooperation that have been established since 1945 and are aimed at introducing some order and moderation into the jungle of traditional international conflicts. In order to remove Saddam Hussein from power before the weather became too hot, and to replace a policy of containment of Iraq that had, after 1991, worked reasonably well2 with the policy of preventive war projected in the National Secu-rity doctrine published in September 2002, the US did not hesitate to do the following.

  1. It indicated bluntly that it might act unilaterally, on the basis of much earlier UN resolutions, which demanded proof of the destruction of weapons of mass destruction. Only pressure from Tony Blair led Bush to abandon this course, while Bush also made it clear that he distrusted UN inspectors. Resolution 1441, adopted unanimously in November after weeks of negotiations, was, not unexpectedly, sufficiently vague to allow both the Americans and the French to believe that they had prevailed. When, on British insistence, the US introduced in March a second resolution promising war despite the reports of the UN inspectors’ evidence of some progress toward compliance, the administration resorted to a crude display of threats and inducements aimed at obtaining the nine votes needed for the resolution to pass. When it became clear that those votes could not be secured and the text would be vetoed by France and Russia, the US withdrew it, went to war, denounced the UN as a failure comparable to the League of Nations, and made no effort to repair the breach: the UN had not been “with us,” and thus it was “against us.”

  2. The US split NATO in order to isolate the French and the Germans, provoking both countries by asking for NATO military assistance to Turkey that the Turks themselves had not solicited. The US obtained this aid through the Military Committee of NATO, of which France is not a member. The US then left NATO—which had been so useful to the US in Kosovo—on the sidelines.

  3. The US engaged, along with Blair, in an effort to divide the European Union by obtaining the signatures for a statement in support of the US by leaders of several longstanding members and most of the new Eastern European members. As a result, the attempt at shaping a common foreign and security policy for the EU, undertaken in 1998, collapsed.3

This disdain for international institutions, and adoption of a strategic doctrine that gives a prominent place to preemptive war in violation of the provisions of the UN Charter, along with the decision to go to war without the support of the Security Council required by the charter, are all part of a tough new policy of US predominance whose implications are extremely serious but remain largely unexamined.4

Defenders of Bush’s policy look at international organizations as unacceptable if they constrain US national interests. As for international law, it is seen as little more than words on paper, unless it is backed by force. For the Bush administration, functional institutions such as UNAID have their merits in dealing with technical needs; but the UN’s political institutions, far from providing justification for the resort to force according to the rules of the UN Charter, are seen as on trial and are usually found wanting.5 In the case of Iraq, the administration’s claims of the UN’s inadequacy were based on its failure, after 1991, to obtain Saddam Hussein’s disarmament, and its failure to act to prevent a terrible tyranny from committing vast crimes against its subjects.

The defenders of Bush’s post– September 11 policy present it, by contrast, as a realistic evaluation of a world still based on the principle of national sovereignty. Only states have power, and are or can be held accountable for their acts (hence, for example, the Bush administration’s rejection of the International Criminal Court). In the special case of the US, it holds its Constitution and domestic laws superior to international law and particularly to supranational rules of the kind the members of the EU have accepted. The problem is, of course, that, as a result, the UN is condemned both for its incapacity to decide or to enforce its decisions and for its occasional attempts to put restraints on the actions of its members. In the case of Iraq, the two UN failures I have mentioned were actually those of the member states.

  1. 1

    It was not a journalist, but the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who revealed in The Washington Post on April 13, 2003, that the French ambassador to Washington had relayed to the administration a French proposal that could have avoided the bitter Franco-American break: the US would have given up the idea of proposing a second resolution (which it finally had to withdraw since there weren’t enough votes for it), and France and the US would have “agreed to disagree.” This would have made the threat of a French veto unnecessary, and allowed the US to proceed with its war and to invoke resolution 1441 as a basis for it. But Bush preferred a public showdown on a second resolution which Tony Blair needed at home. It preferred helping Blair, a loyal ally, to a deal with Chirac, a dissenting and thus lapsed ally.

  2. 2

    The sanctions part of this containment policy did, however, hurt the Iraqi public—mainly children—without much affecting the regime.

  3. 3

    The new policy of the administration is to substitute ad hoc “coalitions of the willing,” led by Washington, for established institutions. (One such coalition may be a force composed of pro-US Europeans under Polish command, aimed at helping US and British forces to “stabilize” Iraq.)

  4. 4

    See my “The High and the Mighty,” The American Prospect, January 13, 2003.

  5. 5

    See the exegesis of the new strategic doctrine by Philip Zelikow, “The Transformation of National Security,” The National Interest, Spring 2003.

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