Good Foreign Policy a Casualty of War
Today, it is we Americans who live in infamy.
By Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
We are at war again — not because of enemy attack, as in World War II, nor because of incremental drift, as in the Vietnam War — but because of the deliberate and premeditated choice of our own government.
Now that we are embarked on this misadventure, let us hope that our intervention will be swift and decisive, and that victory will come with minimal American, British and civilian Iraqi casualties.
But let us continue to ask why our government chose to impose this war. The choice reflects a fatal turn in U.S. foreign policy, in which the strategic doctrine of containment and deterrence that led us to peaceful victory during the Cold War has been replaced by the Bush Doctrine of preventive war. The president has adopted a policy of “anticipatory self-defense” that is alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor on a date which, as an earlier American president said it would, lives in infamy.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was right, but today it is we Americans who live in infa my. The global wave of sympathy that engulfed the United States after 9/11 has given way to a global wave of hatred of American arrogance and militarism. Public opinion polls in friendly countries regard George W. Bush as a greater threat to peace than Saddam Hussein. Demonstrations around the planet, instead of denouncing the vicious rule of the Iraqi president, assail the United States on a daily basis.
The Bush Doctrine converts us into the world’s judge, jury and executioner
a self-appointed status that, however benign our motives, is bound to corrupt our leadership. As John Quincy Adams warned on July 4, 1821, the fundamental maxims of our policy “would insensibly change from liberty to force … [America] might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.” Already the collateral damage to our civil liberties and constitutional rights, carried out by the religious fanatic who is our attorney general, is considerable — and more is still to come.
What drove the rush to war? Hussein has a significantly smaller military force than he had in 1990, and he has grown weaker as more weapons have been exposed and destroyed under the United Nations’ inspection regime. The cause of our rush to war was so trivial as to seem idiotic. It was the weather. American troops, our masters tell us, will lose their edge in the Persian Gulf’s midday sun; so we had to go to war before summer. This is a reason to rush to war? We have, after all, a professional army — and a professional army ought not to lose its edge so quickly and easily.
There is a base suspicion that we are going to war against Iraq because that is the only war we can win. We can’t win the war against Al Qaeda because Al Qaeda strikes from the shadows and disappears into them. We can’t win a war against North Korea because it has nuclear weapons. Indeed, the danger from North Korea is far more clear, present and compelling than the danger from Iraq, and our different treatment of the two countries is a potent incentive for other rogue states to develop their own nuclear arsenals.
How have we gotten into this tragic fix without searching debate? No war has been more extensively previewed than this one. Despite pro forma disclaimers, President Bush’s determination to go to war has been apparent from the start. Why then this absence of dialogue? Why the collapse of the Democratic Party? Why let the opposition movement fall into the hands of infantile leftists?
I think the media are greatly to blame. There have been congressional efforts to jump-start a debate. Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia have delivered strong and thoughtful speeches opposing the rush to war. They have been largely ignored by the media. Some philanthropist had to pay the New York Times to print the text of Byrd’s powerful Feb. 12 speech in a full-page advertisement — a speech ignored by the media when delivered. The media have played up mass demonstrations at the expense of the reasoned case against the war.
According to polls, a near majority of ill-informed Americans believes Hussein had something to do with the attacks on New York and the Pentagon and resulting massacre of nearly 3,000 innocent people. Hussein is a great villain, but he had nothing to do with 9/11. Many, perhaps most, Americans believe a war against Iraq will be a blow against international terrorism. But evidence from the region indicates very plainly that it will make recruitment much easier for Al Qaeda and other murderous gangs.
What should we have done? What if opposition to war had received a fair break from the media? There are two strong arguments for the war — that Hussein might down the road acquire nuclear weapons, and that the people of Iraq deserve liberation from his monstrous tyranny.
Unlike biological and chemical weapons, nuclear arms — and their production facilities — are hard to conceal. Inspection, surveillance, tapping telephone calls and espionage could check any nuclear initiative on Hussein’s part. He is containable, and he is not immortal.
The more powerful argument is humanitarian intervention. This comes with ill grace from an administration that includes people who showed no objections to Hussein’s human rights atrocities when he was at war with Iran. But do we have a moral obligation to fight despicable tyrants everywhere?
Hussein is unquestionably a monster. But does that mean we should forcibly remove him from power? “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled,” Adams said in the same July 4 speech, “there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” We are now going abroad to destroy a monster. The aftermath — how America conducts itself in Iraq and the world — will provide the crucial test as to whether the war can be justified.
America as the world’s self-appointed judge, jury and executioner? “We must face the fact,” President John F. Kennedy once said, “that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient — that we are only 6% of the world’s population — that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94% of mankind
that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity — and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is a historian and the author, most recently, of “A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings.” He served as special assistant to President John F. Kennedy.