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


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.


Pushing aside the UN, or refusing to accept curbs on the use of US force, can mean one of two things. The US may want to return to pre-1914 conditions, when the only international limitations on the right of each sovereign state to use force were rules dealing with the jus in bello—the ways in which force could be used—but not with the goals. This discards the progress accomplished in trying to form a modern jus ad bellum, a definition of the purposes for which force can legitimately be used (self-defense, collective security) and of the procedures that can authorize the resort to force. Treaties such as the genocide convention and international tribunals created to judge persons responsible for crimes against humanity or war crimes would be discarded. The post-1945 efforts to protect the human rights of individuals against states would also be scrapped. Security in the world jungle would depend exclusively on an efficiently functioning balance of power, or on voluntary self-restraint by a dominant superpower.

Or else the US, seeing itself as the guardian of world order, would leave restraints on other states standing (unless they are its allies), and reserve to itself the right to select those restraints of international law and institutions that serve its interests and to reject all the others. President Bush, in telling others what the US “expects” of them, is coming very close to that position.

It is sad to have to remind those who endorse such positions that in a world consisting of almost two hundred states of very uneven strength and cohesion, and where the many forms of interdependence reduce the actual sovereignty of all, a pure and simple return to the rule of the strongest would be a catastrophic regression. It would promote insecurity, not security or moderation. Those who approved of the war in Iraq for entirely understandable reasons of humanitarianism, of pity for the Iraqi people, and of horror at Saddam Hussein’s regime seldom considered that a precedent used for a “good” cause can easily be used by others for causes they would object to: Russia could use it against Georgia, India against Pakistan, North Korea against South Korea.

It is true that international law and the UN Charter are full of flaws, are not self-executing, and are used frequently as fig leaves for the naked expression of power. But all laws and all institutions exist in a kind of limbo, between the ideals they express and the daily transactions among the passions and interests they seek to control. In world affairs, devoid of central power, of a strong judiciary, of a world police, the gulf between the two is wider than within most states. This is a reason for trying to close it, to persuade states to change their definition of their own interests, to extend and deepen the range of their ideals. A legal code that would merely ratify what people do, and not codify what they ought to do, would be a bad joke.

Actually, as the American scholar David C. Hendrickson reminds us, most international legal and ethical norms are “also prudential in character,” and often simply register “the lessons of experience.”6 Observing them is in the interest of the US because the responsibility for world order cannot be carried by the US alone. The task would exceed the capacities of the US, despite its huge military forces. “Observance of basic principles of the law of nations, together with action within the constraints of an international consensus,” Hendrickson writes, “are two basic ways in which the United States has acquired such legitimacy as it now enjoys in the international system.”

Recent US doctrines and actions have damaged that legitimacy, a damage compounded by a contemptuous attitude even toward NATO, and toward allies that have disagreed with US tactics or with the US evaluation of the consequences of a war in Iraq. The language of “you’re either with us or against us,” of punishments and rewards, sounds imperious (and imperial). It is likely to be counterproductive in the long term: as the former US diplomat John Brady Kiesling has written, “the more aggressively we use our power to intimidate our foes, the more foes we create and the more we validate terrorism as the only effective weapon of the powerless against the powerful.”7 One of the many impulses behind the unprecedented antiwar demonstrations throughout the world by people of all ages and classes was to protest an American policy that gives to its military might, and threats to use it, pride of place among all the kinds of power it has at its disposal.


During the cold war the US lapsed into unilateral sponsorship of violence in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America; but in the main contest with the USSR it showed itself aware of the advantages that regional and global cooperation provide to the dominant power. International cooperation had the benefits of lightening the military and financial burdens of the US as well as giving it more influence and providing ways of monitoring and shaping the behavior of others. The alternative is a policy of hubris, in which international domination is presented under the mask of universal benign ideals. Such domination will certainly incite some enemies either to resort to terrorism or to obtain weapons of mass destruction, so as to avoid being crushed in conventional wars.

The choice between unilateralism and international cooperation will, in the near future, have to be made with respect to four challenges that the US faces. The first is the challenge of creating a workable Iraqi society and polity. The US has done a huge service to the Iraqi people by removing a sadistic dictatorship. But the lack of American preparation for the tasks that follow, in contrast with the preparation for war, has been shocking. US hopes of being greeted enthusiastically by Iraqis as liberators have been undermined by a familiar tendency to underestimate the depth of “native” nationalism (as in South Vietnam),8 by the failure to protect hospitals, the national museum and library, and other public buildings from looting (whereas American soldiers immediately protected the Oil Ministry), and by the failure to improve living conditions in the first phase of occupation.

Moreover, the early decision to entrust the reshaping of Iraq to the Pentagon not only confirmed the decisive role in foreign policy that the Defense Department had begun to play during the Clinton years but concealed the very different interests and concerns that are manifest in the administration. In the Defense Department, the civilian coterie of neoconservatives and hard-line pro-Israeli hawks has promoted a grandiose fantasy of using Iraq as the model for democratizing the Muslim world. This assumes that liberal democracy, pro-Americanism, and Arab moderation in dealing with Israel can all be obtained at the same time, and that nationalist, populist, and religious impulses won’t result in anti-Americanism and in even greater hostility toward Israel.

At best, the task would be long and hard, and require a long US stay in Iraq. Indeed, if Arab and Iranian rulers should embrace liberal reforms, it would be because of internal pressures, not because of democratic winds originating in Iraq and fanned by the US. Rumsfeld has in the past supported the views of his deputies and advisers, but his enthusiasm for a long military occupation appears very limited. Before Paul Bremer was announced as the new US proconsul on May 6, the Pentagon’s appointee in Iraq, retired general Jay Garner, favored Kurdish representatives and ex-Iraqi exiles as rulers of the country. With Garner now departing, the State Department and the CIA have their own favorites. All of them will ultimately have to choose between Iraq as a protectorate and Iraq as a self-determining country, which may or may not be democratic; America’s protégés in the Gulf and Egypt are anything but democracies.

In view of signs of Iraqi resentment of a protracted occupation, the American government may be tempted to keep it short, but the risks of chaos are great, especially if power is transferred to former Iraqi exiles with little support among the people. America has no easy choices. Should the US encourage all political and religious factions to assert themselves and to claim a share of power? This would sacrifice both effective governance and the chances of liberalism to achieve representativeness. Should it exclude groups deemed illiberal or intolerant, thus sacrificing representation to its own preferences and driving the excluded further into radical and anti-American positions?9

Such considerations underline the US interest in turning for help to others with more involvement in “nation-building”: to the UN, with its experience in the Balkans and East Timor, and to the EU and NATO, with their records in Kosovo and in Afghanistan. This would be helpful to the US in many ways: for peacekeeping, for administrative supervision, for sharing costs and political burdens. Such organizations could provide a fairer distribution of reconstruction contracts and a more impartial control of oil revenues than the US. If the US chooses to retain power over all these matters while relegating the UN to a fuzzy “coordinating” role, as could be the case under the recent US draft resolution, the hostility and suspicions it encounters in the Arab world could rise.

The second problem is as urgent as ever: peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The administration’s obsession with Iraq, the hawks’ conviction that the balance of forces between Israel and the Arabs would change in Israel’s favor if Iraq were first “liberated,” the President’s dislike of Yasser Arafat and dismay at the terrorism of suicide bombers—all these resulted in a postponement of American attempts to revive a peace process. Pressure from Tony Blair and from Colin Powell, and America’s current predominance in the Middle East, have led to the installation of Abu Mazen as Palestinian prime minister and the release of a “road map.” Few deny that ordinary Arabs as well as officials in palaces or ministries have been deeply disappointed by American delays and partiality toward Ariel Sharon, and by what they have seen as a double standard in the enforcement of UN resolutions. What remains to be shown is the will of the US to become, as was the case with Clinton in 2000, the chief force working for a fair settlement.

If the US delays again or leaves the bargaining to the parties, the Arabs’ sense of injustice and humiliation will grow. Combined with present misgivings among Muslims about the American war in Iraq, this might lead to more successes for fundamentalists, and to greater numbers of terrorists. The leadership of Abu Mazen may be an improvement over that of Arafat, but the gap between Palestinians and Israelis is much deeper than it was in 2000. Sharon seems unlikely to make as many concessions as Ehud Barak did. The problems of the settlements, Jerusalem, and the right of return are at least as difficult as ever. The powerful hard-line pro-Israel supporters in the White House, the Defense Department, and Congress may demand that before negotiations begin the new Palestinian government not only try energetically to curb terrorism, but give priority to obtaining a decisive success in a possibly bloody policy of antiterrorism.

In view of these lopsided pressures in and on the US, an American government concerned with its relations with the Arab world would be well advised to encourage the participation of the other coauthors of the “road map”: the EU, Russia, and the UN. Sharon views all these with deep distrust. Unilateralists and pro-Israel lobbyists, inside and outside the administration, would object. But if the US would end its monopoly on being the mediator between the two parties it would go far toward appeasing an old grievance of the allies of the US and of the members of the UN.

The third issue, nuclear policy, has been pushed to the forefront by the new American strategic doctrine. In US rhetoric, weapons of mass destruction in hostile hands have become a potential casus belli. The administration says it fears that waiting until its foes already have nuclear bombs may allow them to deter the US and make American deterrence impossible—a fear that nothing in our past experience with the USSR and China justifies. The current doctrine encourages American officials to envisage taking preventive action before nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction are produced. A policy of endorsing preventive threats and strikes is being put in place.

This is a doubly dangerous approach. First, nuclear weapons are far more formidable than biological and chemical ones, and far more detectable. Chemical and biological programs are difficult to prevent but it is not impossible to neutralize their effects.10 Second, American unilateral preventive action against states that try to acquire a nuclear arsenal would encourage other states to do the same in order to protect against countries they consider to be their foes—once again, a recipe for turning the world into a jungle. On the other hand, the experience with sanctions against states alleged to have such weapons—whether the sanctions are sponsored by the UN or the US—has been disappointing, sometimes less damaging to a targeted government than to its citizens. There is no substitute for a policy of concerted diplomatic pressure exerted by the UN and of collective, and selective, measures of coercion. These range from much stronger international controls on imported technologies to more intrusive inspections than in the past. They could ultimately include the use of force under international auspices against nuclear power plants that are being built or operated. This means a reinforcement, not—as Bush proposes—a repudiation, of the present nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Finally, the case of Saddam Hussein has raised the difficult issue of international action against regimes that pursue policies of ferocious repression of the opposition, real or suspected. Here international law has failed, and the UN has legitimized only limited interventions. International law and the UN Charter ban armed interventions in the domestic affairs of states. This was one of the grounds of the policy of nonintervention followed by the US under Bush senior in 1991, when Saddam Hussein savagely crushed the groups the US had encouraged to revolt. Soon after, the US supported collective interventions to protect the Kurds from further massacres by the Saddam Hussein regime (which made Kurdish autonomy within Iraq possible), to stop the chaos and famine in Somalia (a fiasco), and to prevent massacres on ethnic grounds (in Bosnia, very late, and in Kosovo and East Timor). No such intervention took place in the biggest case of genocide, Rwanda, where the UN and the US behaved equally badly.11 In Kosovo, the Security Council, despite the formal requirements of the UN Charter, was ignored because Russian and Chinese vetoes were certain; the US and its European allies used NATO to legitimize their action (and the Security Council and the secretary-general refused to condemn it). Thus a new norm was established: collective intervention against a government committing serious human rights violations could be justified, especially when these violations threaten regional or international peace and security.

None of these cases entailed “regime change.” To limit a state’s sovereignty by collective intervention against its government’s assault on human rights is one thing; to forcibly remove a government and replace it with one more acceptable to the interveners is a far more radical attack on sovereignty. The US was passive when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in the 1980s, and killed Kurds and Shiites in large numbers in 1991; it never raised in the UN the issue of regime change on human rights grounds. When this issue became, in the US and Britain, the most effective argument for war, humanitarians and liberals were split. For some, the demise of an evil regime was what mattered most, although they were often worried about American intentions. Others, who were equally troubled by Saddam Hussein’s terror, were unwilling to approve of a unilateral American attack, especially since it opened the way for other countries to change whatever regimes they claimed were guilty of atrocities. They plausibly argued that, thanks in part to the presence of US troops in the region, the US could have worked out a multilateral consensus for continuing inspections and for disarmament, but refused to do so.

The issue of humanitarian intervention for “regime change” has now been raised, and we cannot push it back into the bottle by deliberately avoiding it. But it is not an issue the UN is likely to deal with effectively. Too many states among UN members have bloody domestic records, and they can be expected to block any proposal for a forcible collective intervention to change a regime.

What would be needed would be a new, two-stage system: (1) a group of UN members would ask the Security Council to authorize collective intervention to overthrow an evil regime, one clearly responsible for atrocities; (2) if the Security Council refuses or is unable to act, an appeal would be made to a new institution: an Association of Democratic Nations that would, in addition to members of NATO, be made up of Asian, African, and Latin American liberal democracies, such as India, South Africa, and Chile, as well as Australia and New Zealand. Only liberal democracies would be admitted as members.

If such an association approved a collective intervention to change a regime, it would report its reasons and its decisions to the secretary-general of the UN, and could proceed to act. Such an association of democratic nations could also provide useful advice to new democracies, and bring before the International Criminal Court or a special international court military or civilian leaders involved in crimes against humanity, war crimes, or genocide. Alas, the Bush administration cannot be expected to try to work out such a needed reform.

Too often, this administration has given, to many Americans and even more to foreigners, the impression that it is drunk with power, that it has somehow absorbed not the lessons of prudent realists such as George Kennan, but the spirit of the Athenian generals who, Thucydides tells us, informed the Melians that, between the strong and the weak, only the language of power matters. It seems futile to recall from the history of empire that even when imperialism imposes direct rule it is always threatened by rebellions and rising costs. Moreover, the shrinking of democracy at home does not go well with the spread of democracy abroad.

Perhaps it is also futile to say that in occupied Iraq the best advice would suggest what not to do: don’t hand-pick favorites who will be discredited; don’t allow the men in the “deck of cards” to be tried by a purely American instead of an international court; don’t appoint or select American companies to rewrite the history textbooks for young Iraqis or to exploit the oil fields. In foreign policy, following norms of self-restraint and international law and institutions can augment the real power of a strong country even if such norms curb the harshest uses of military power. The anti-Americanism on the rise throughout the world is not just hostility toward the most powerful nation, or based on the old clichés of the left and the right; nor is it only envy or hatred of our values. It is, more often than not, a resentment of double standards and double talk, of crass ignorance and arrogance, of wrong assumptions and dubious policies. Whether our current leaders are capable of self-examination at a time of military victory may affect the planet for a long time to come.

—May 15, 2003

This Issue

June 12, 2003