George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine

What is President Bush’s ultimate objective in Iraq? Is it to make sure that Saddam Hussein does not have weapons of mass destruction? Or is it to remove Saddam by force and remake the politics of Iraq? And if the latter, would it be the first step toward a new American imperium?

Weeks of Bush administration rhetoric concentrated relentlessly on Iraq have left the answers to those questions in doubt and confusion. Thus on October 1 Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed to say that the United States was following the path of United Nations inspections. He held a press briefing to explain that, as inspectors planned a return to Iraq, American policy was to give them “new instructions, strong instructions, and the strongest support possible from the Security Council….” But on the same day President Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said, “The policy is regime change, and that remains the American position.” Mr. Fleischer went on to suggest that an efficient means to that end would be the murder of Saddam in a coup. He said:

The cost of a one-way ticket is substantially less than [that of an invasion]. The cost of one bullet, if the Iraqi people take it on themselves, is substantially less than that.

President Bush himself has sent sharply conflicting signals. At West Point last June he introduced the idea of preemption. The cold war strategies of deterrence and containment were no longer adequate, he said. “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” In September, when he began his drumbeat about the Iraqi threat and the need for “regime change,” he was generally thought to be planning a preemptive military attack.

Then, on September 12, Mr. Bush spoke in a very different way to the UN General Assembly. His emphasis was on the need for action by the Security Council to enforce its own past resolutions. “We want the United Nations to be effective, and respectful and successful,” he said. “We want the resolutions of the world’s most important multilateral body to be enforced.” The speech disarmed many of his critics, at home and overseas. They saw it as a step away from war as a first choice, a recognition of the inspection process as the right way to deal with the weapons threat in Iraq.

But on September 20 the administration published its lengthy paper, “The National Security Strategy of the United States.” Much of it was a thoughtful analysis of changed realities in the world. It said, for example, that “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.” But what attracted attention was an explicit, formal statement of the preemption doctrine. “The greater the threat,” the document said,

the greater is the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.

Senator Edward Kennedy pointed out that the national security document elided the historic distinction between preemption and preventive war. The former is a military attack on an enemy who is known to be about to strike; the classic example was Israel’s attack on Egypt as the Egyptians were marshaling their forces to strike in 1967. The latter is a war brought when there is no certainty of the time or even the likelihood of an enemy strike. Senator Kennedy noted that in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 President Kennedy had been urged to strike without warning at the missiles the Soviet Union had placed in Cuba in what would have been a preventive war; he declined, instead going openly to the UN Security Council and imposing a blockade on Cuba until the missiles were removed.

The national security document also declared an intention to maintain the United States’ overwhelming edge in military power. “Our forces will be strong enough,” it said, “to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing or equaling the power of the US.”

On October 7, speaking in Cincinnati, the President sought to reassure Americans that war on Iraq was not his first resort. The resolution he had put before Congress, he said, “does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable.” But he painted the menace of Saddam in dark terms, and he left no doubt that he would attack if Saddam did not meet a long list of demands.

If President Bush’s purpose was really just to see to it that Saddam Hussein has no chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, he greatly complicated his problem by his aggressive rhetoric. If from the beginning he had adopted the tone of his General Assembly speech, if he had concentrated on getting a genuinely enforceable inspection system, if he had reached out to the hesitant permanent members of the Security Council—China, Russia, France—I believe they would more readily have supported his effort and the necessary council resolution. They knew that Saddam Hussein was a monster in whose hands weapons of mass destruction would be extremely dangerous. But they needed to be convinced that George W. Bush would make a good-faith effort to avoid war.


The countries whose support the President needed could hardly have been reassured by the arrogant tone of so much that he and his associates said, their insistence on America’s right and duty to act alone. Nor could they have been impressed by the gangster talk of Ari Fleischer about having an enemy rubbed out. If Mr. Bush was serious about working through the United Nations, his tactics were extraordinarily inept.

But I find it increasingly hard to believe that Mr. Bush’s objective is limited to seeing that Saddam Hussein has no weapons of mass destruction. The history and the theology of the men whose advice now dominates Mr. Bush’s thinking point to much larger purposes. I think this president wants to overthrow the rules that have governed international life for the last fifty years.

Ten years ago Dick Cheney, then the secretary of defense, and Paul Wolfowitz, his undersecretary for policy, began assembling the doctrine of a world ruled from Washington. They are still at it now. But instead of the first President Bush, who was steeped in the post–World War II philosophy of alliances and multilateralism, they are advising a President Bush with no experience in that postwar world and, by all signs, with an instinct for the unilateral.

One fundamental that would be overthrown is the commitment that the United States and all other members have made in the United Nations Charter: to eschew attacks across international frontiers except in response to armed aggression. The idea of preemptive strikes in violation of that provision has worried even some conservatives who would like to move against Saddam Hussein but are concerned about the precedent an attack would set for others—India, say.

But the danger of the Bush doctrine is really broader than that. The reach of the doctrine, and its dangers, were well described in an article in Foreign Affairs by Professor G. John Ikenberry of Georgetown University. The grand strategy, he wrote, “is a general depreciation of international rules, treaties, and security partnerships.”* Yet it was those very relationships that have so benefited this country since World War II. “The secret of the United States’ long brilliant run as the world’s leading state,” Professor Ikenberry wrote,

was its ability and willingness to exercise power within alliance and multinational frameworks, which made its power and agenda more acceptable to allies and other key states around the world.

He warned that

unchecked US power, shorn of legitimacy and disentangled from the postwar norms and institutions of the international order, will usher in a more hostile international system, making it far harder to achieve American interests.

What we may be seeing in the Iraq strategy, then, is the rejection of the old American view that, as Professor Ikenberry put it,

a rule-based international order, especially one in which the United States uses its political weight to derive congenial rules, will most fully protect American interests, conserve its power, and extend its influence.

The key phrase in that formulation is “rule-based.” For President Bush has shown, across the board, an unwillingness for his country or himself to be bound by the rules.

A dramatic example of this resistance to rules is the administration’s obsessive effort to destroy the new International Criminal Court, created under the leadership of our closest European allies to prosecute those suspected of genocide and crimes against humanity. Another is the avoidance of the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war; rather than comply with the rules that have bound us and the world for decades, the administration unilaterally described the Afghanistan captives it is holding at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as “unlawful combatants.” The conventions say that questions about the status of prisoners should be referred to a “competent tribunal.” The administration has declined to do that. It might have argued that al-Qaeda fighters were so obviously unlawful that international law would not requite the useless gesture of reference to a tribunal. But the Bush administration did not even bother to make the argument; it was not interested in the law. (In any event, it is hard to see how the Geneva process could be avoided in the case of Taliban prisoners; they were soldiers in the army of a government that controlled nearly all of Afghanistan.)


That same rejection of the rules—of the law—can be found at home. One example is the President’s order of November 2001 that noncitizens charged with terrorism or with “harboring” terrorists be tried by military tribunals. That order appeared to violate the holding of the Supreme Court in the great post–Civil War case of Ex parte Milligan that there can be no criminal trials by military tribunal in this country while the civil courts remain open. An even more astonishing assertion of presidential power is President Bush’s claim of a right to hold any American citizen whom he designates as an “enemy combatant” in military prison indefinitely, without trial and without the right to speak with a lawyer. Two men are now being held in military prisons, in Virginia and South Carolina, under that theory, forbidden to speak to a lawyer. Government lawyers argue that no court can examine the lawfulness of their detention.

Respect for the rule of law has been an essential element from the beginning in the survival and success of this vast, disputatious country—and a reason for other people’s admiration of American society. But George W. Bush, whatever else his qualities, seems to have no feeling for the law. That was evident when he was governor of Texas, in the cruel casualness of his handling of death penalty cases.

It might be regarded as surprising that a president who came to office with such dubious legitimacy would undertake so radical a transformation of America’s world policy. But Mr. Bush acquired legitimacy with the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. He was president, and he understood that the country looked to him for leadership in the response to terror.

He and his aides have tried hard to make Iraq part of “the war on terrorism,” but their propositions have been unconvincing. There is, so far, no clear evidence of collaboration between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz, and Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, have all said that connections have been found between al-Qaeda and Iraq. But their statements have been so vague that they have had little credibility. Moreover, the two parties are the opposite of natural collaborators. Al-Qaeda detests secular regimes in Muslim countries, of which Saddam’s is a prime example.

A war on Saddam Hussein might in fact distract our attention from the still urgent need for concern about terrorism. Al-Qaeda is in all likelihood a far greater threat to Americans than Saddam Hussein. Our defenses against that kind of terrorism, carried out by a handful of suicidal fanatics from inside this country, remain primitive.

One puzzle about the cry for war in Iraq is its timing. Why now? Why with such urgency? The President himself asked rhetorically, in his October 7 speech, “Why be concerned now?” His main answer was that the danger of terror weapons in Saddam’s hands was clear, and “the longer we wait, the stronger and bolder Saddam Hussein will become.”

President Bush had little or nothing to say about Iraq in the first year and more of his administration. (But a lengthy article in USA Today this September said that President Bush had secretly begun moving to a policy of ousting Saddam by force soon after September 11, 2001. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz urged that course, the article reported, at a Camp David meeting with the President on September 15; and Bernard Lewis, the Middle East historian, was invited to meetings with Vice President Cheney and other officials, where he said it was time to act for the sake of the oppressed people of Iraq.) Suddenly, as of about September 1, virtually his entire agenda became Iraq. Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, explained to the Times last month why the rhetorical campaign on Iraq started suddenly in September. His comment left many thinking that the timing had to do with politics. “From a marketing point of view,” he said, “you don’t introduce new products in August.”

From the marketing point of view, the key fact is that there is a mid-term election on November 5, with control of both houses of Congress at stake: a matter of the greatest importance to President Bush. Republicans are running as supporters of a war president, and it is much more effective for them to do that than to rest on Mr. Bush’s record. It is, in truth, the most dismal record of any president in memory. That is especially so on the issue that usually counts most with the voters, the economy. Millions of Americans have lost a good part of their savings in the falling stock market. The federal budget, which showed a fat surplus when Mr. Bush took over, is now deeply in the red—and heading for more deficits. Iraq also takes attention away from the shenanigans of corporate executives and questions about connections between the wrongdoers and President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and others.

Protection of the environment, another meaningful subject for many, has taken a terrible beating at the hands of the Bush administration. The integrity of our surroundings has repeatedly been sacrificed to the financial interests of a few. My favorite example is the cancellation of the Clinton administration’s rules limiting the use of snowmobiles in national parks, thus inflicting their noise and fumes on the many for the sake of a handful of snowmobile manufacturers. But there have been more profound retreats, such as the stripping of protection from the national forests.

Also suggestive of politics has been the violent reaction to criticism of President Bush on Iraq. When former vice-president Al Gore made a critical speech on September 23, Michael Kelly, a columnist whose obsession used to be hatred of Bill Clinton, called the speech “dishonest, cheap, low…hollow…wretched…vile, contemptible” and full of “embarrassingly obvious lies.” When Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to the first President Bush, questioned the case for war on Iraq, he was excoriated by The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal.

The chief ideological designer of the case for war on Iraq, Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz, has a different motive. An illuminating piece on Wolfowitz, “The Sunshine Warrior” by Bill Keller, appeared in The New York Times Magazine on September 22. It gave a sympathetic view of his belief that the assertion of American power can turn Iraq into a democracy and help transform the entire Middle East. I was moved by his optimism as I read, but I kept thinking of one thing: Vietnam. Here, as in Vietnam, the advocates are sure that American power can prevail—and sure that the result will be a happy one. But here, as in Vietnam, so many things could go wrong. Iraq is a large, modern, heavily urbanized country. If we bomb it apart, are we going to be wise enough to put it back together? Have Mr. Wolfowitz and his fellow sunshine warriors calculated the effects of an American war on feelings among Arabs and other Muslims? What would follow Saddam? The nature of a post-Saddam government in Iraq is a crucial concern for Iran, Turkey, Syria, and others; but the Bush administration has shown no sign of having an answer to that question.

Jane Perlez of The New York Times spoke with women students at the United Arab Emirates University, an island of modern education in the Persian Gulf world. She found that although they saw Saddam Hussein as a dictator, they felt strongly that a war on him would be a war on them. Mr. Wolfowitz should read her story. He might also look at a September 17 Financial Times interview with Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister of Malaysia for the last twenty-one years and no softy. War on Iraq “will lengthen the anti-terrorist campaign,” he said:

It will undermine the world economy, it will create a sense of uncertainty and fear throughout the world. If America persists in removing Saddam Hussein by military means it will only anger the Muslim world…. There will be more willing recruits to the terrorist ranks.

American business leaders and economists have started to express their fears about the effect of rising oil prices resulting from a war on Iraq.

Mr. Wolfowitz may mean well. But he and his colleagues are members of that most dangerous breed of men, utopians. They think they can straighten out the untidy world in which we live, and they know they are right. To others, their certainty is arrogance. They have in George W. Bush an untutored believer in the verities of American goodness and American power. The odds are that, one way or another, he will press for war on Iraq. He will see it as the beginning of a great new opportunity for the United States to impose its views on the world: the Bush doctrine.

The power of a president to take this country into war is enormous. The fear of looking unpatriotic inhibits dissent, as congressional Democrats have demonstrated. But around the country there are a great many Americans who are fearful of this war. Opinion polls consistently show opposition to a unilateral American attack on Iraq, but polls cannot show the anguish being expressed at town meetings here and there.

Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, writing in the London Review of Books, said the aim of the planned war on Iraq is not just to remove Saddam Hussein but to create there a ramshackle coalition of ethnic groups and warlords utterly subservient to the United States. The larger goal, he said, was “unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority.” Then he wrote:

The American people would never knowingly support such a programme—nor for that matter would the US military. Even after September 11, this is not by historical standards a militarist country; and whatever the increasingly open imperialism of the nationalist think-tank class, neither the military nor the mass of the population wishes to see itself as imperialist.

We can only hope he is right.

—October 10, 2002

This Issue

November 7, 2002