of the Union at War
might argue that I should be grateful at having my prejudices confirmed.
But there's plenty of evidence on the historical record. I could
have lived a long time a lifetime, perhaps? without
a contemporary, up-to-the-minute demonstration of the old Bournean
adage that war is the health of the state.
My preferences aside, however, we have the example before us, presented
boldly, without apology and without a hint of irony by President
Bush, so we might as well explore it a bit. As Richard Stevenson
noted in a
Monday New York Times story, "The budget that President
Bush will send to Congress a week from Monday strays far from the
agenda of small government and fiscal conservatism that the administration
advocated on taking office a year ago."
Specifically, the budget will call for a spending increase for the
national government of 9 percent, "more than any big-government
Democrat would dare to put on the table," as Stevenson put it. That
will include a $48 billion increases in defense spending only
$10 billion of which is skated for the direct costs of the vaunted
war on terrorism. The other $38 billion amounts to an annual increase
of about 11.6 percent over this year's Pentagon budget.
most striking aspect of the speech was the open-ended, almost limitless
ambition and scope of the promises and commitments. Not only is
the U.S. military and government to be given the widest possible
latitude in carrying out the war on evil whose battlefields could
be anywhere and everywhere, but the government is to be trusted
completely in this matter. And the people are to be grateful to
be treated in such a cavalier fashion.
I don't think it is possible to exaggerate and perhaps we should
be grateful to Mr. Bush for his relative honesty. I didn't write
the line, "What we have found in Afghanistan confirms that far
from ending there our war against terror is only beginning."
Mr. Bush's speechwriters wrote it, he approved it, and he delivered
it with passion and something resembling conviction.
He went on to promise virtually limitless future commitments, lamenting
that "some governments may be timid in the face of terror. And make
no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will."
Does that mean the United States is promulgating the doctrine that
this country declares it has the right to send troops and bombs
to any country in the world, anytime, on mere scraps of evidence
that something is going on there that displeases us or has some
tenuous connection to an organized international terrorist ring?
The words imply it and the administration's actions reinforce the
PRETENSE OF DEFENSE
was when the United States was usually at some pains to declare
that its overseas military operations were either defensive in nature
or came at the behest of some country that was the victim of aggression
and had called for our help. Often enough this was more pretense
than reality, as in the Tonkin Gulf incident that was spun to create
a self-defense rationale for the Vietnam war. But at least our leaders
had the decency to bow to the norms of decency and make believe.
Even the Persian Gulf war waged by Bush 41 had to wait for an actual
invasion of Kuwait and was reinforced by propaganda about the heartbreaking
terrors Saddam's minions were imposing on the innocent Kuwaitis.
No more. We don't need even the pretense of self-defense or helping
an innocent victim any more. Displeasing our policy elites on almost
any level is now enough. President Clinton shattered the old self-defense
paradigm some years ago with the bombing of Bosnia, then Kosovo,
mounting what amounted to invasions of a country that while certainly
reprehensible enough had not ventured outside its own internationally
recognized and sanctioned borders.
Mr. Bush has taken up the torch of imperial maintenance with enthusiasm.
The two examples he mentioned of countries where US forces are already
involved or will be soon the Philippines and Somalia
have only the most tenuous connection to international terrorism.
According to virtually everything I have read and most of the area
experts I've talked to, for example, the Abu Sayyaf Group in the
Philippines is a thoroughly nasty lot, raising funds mainly through
kidnapping and extortion. But while there was some contact with
Al Qaida in the middle 1990s, there's almost no evidence of close
contact between Abu Sayyaf and Al Qaida currently, let alone that
Al Qaida is somehow masterminding or pulling the strings on Abu
Sayyaf, which has degenerated into something closer to a criminal
gang clinging to a political pretext.
Likewise in Somalia, there seem to be some essentially criminal
terrorist cells in various rural regions. But there's no widespread
terror campaign and just a little contact with other terrorist groups
While Abu Sayyaf has kidnapped some individual US citizens in the
Philippines, neither that group nor terrorist cells in Somalia have
attacked any US installations or declared that they are devoted
to wiping the Great Satan from the face of the earth. They are essentially
local insurgencies. The contacts they have had with groups overseas
reflect more the capabilities of modern communications than the
presence of a tight, interlocking international terrorist conspiracy
that threatens to attack American interests in a concerted fashion
EVIDENCE? NO PROBLEM
to which Mr. Bush devoted a full paragraph of denunciation rather
then merely a tossed-off line or two, presents a similar situation.
The extra attention to Iraq seems to signal (we have to try to parse
the statements of our leaders like the Kremlinologists of old trying
to infer power relationships from the positions on reviewing stands
during May Day parades) that Iraq will be a target sooner rather
than later. Whether that will involve military action or merely
intensified diplomatic and commercial pressure is something Mr.
Bush did not vouchsafe to us mere citizens.
What seems clear is that the inconvenient fact that Iraq does not
seem to have had any direct or even indirect involvement in the
9/11 terrorist attacks that have been the primary justification
for military action elsewhere is of little or no concern to the
In addition, there's no particular evidence that North Korea or
Iran, the other two countries mentioned by name, pose a clear and
present danger to the United States at this time. To be sure, Iran
is said to have furnished the boatload of weapons for the Palestinians
that the Israelis intercepted, but by and large the news from Iran
is that it has been trying haltingly and perhaps with mixed sincerity
to improve relations with the United States.
But being a threat, danger or declared enemy doesn't seem to be
a prerequisite for being targeted by the American war machine.
Bush didn't discuss directly the troubling situation in the Middle
East, where tit-for-tat violence has become an almost daily occurrence.
But the groups he mentioned by name in discussing the "terrorist
underworld" he wants to put out of business included mostly those
who have targeted Israel: Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad.
This suggests that the hints Mr. Bush and others have been dropping
that Yasser Arafat has had his day as the leader of the Palestinian
Authority and a "reliable partner for peace" mean that the
US government has swung around from any pretense of being an arbiter
in the Middle East to being what most Arabs have thought the US
has been all along an unvarnished and unapologetic supporter
of whatever Israel wants.
There's a case to be made for this (within the context of the overall
ideology of an imperial America that sides with its friends and
allies) and a lot of Americans believe the US should support Israel
almost unconditionally. But a lot of Americans believe otherwise
as well. And with the elimination of the Soviet Communist threat,
the conflict in the Middle East more and more resembles scores of
conflicts elsewhere a local battle whose outcome will not
affect United States core national interests (even its major imperial
interests) one way or another.
The United States would be better advised to stop trying to micro-manage
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and stop subsidizing both sides
rather than openly backing one side or the other.
came across most clearly in Mr. Bush's speech was a sense that the
United States is capable of making and maintaining almost limitless
commitments around the world and succeeding brilliantly at all of
them. In some cases this faith in the ability to fleece taxpayers
endlessly was quite explicit "My budget includes the largest
increase in defense spending in two decades, because while the price
of freedom and security is high, it is never too high: whatever
it costs to defend our country, we will pay."
Presumably that doesn't include cutting back on overseas commitments
to reduce vulnerabilities and the number of people who resent us.
The cost of that policy would surely be too high for our foreign
policy mandarins to bear, however much it might benefit the American
The sense of limitless commitments carried over into the discussion
of America's role in the world, endorsing a notion that America
can do anything and will go anywhere to enforce our government's
idea of freedom.
We are already more deeply involved in a civil war in the Philippines.
Mr. Bush discussed North Korea, Iran, Somalia, Bosnia, Pakistan,
India, all places where money or troops might be sent. He didn't
discuss the ongoing involvement in the civil war in Colombia, justified
by the unwinnable War on Drugs. The evidence is that rather than
giving that conflict a lower priority now that the war on terrorism
has been proclaimed, the administration wants to intensify that
There was no acknowledgment of any limitation to US taxpayer resources,
no suggestion that making new commitments might involve reducing
or eliminating prior commitments of troops where a reasonable person
might argue they are no longer needed (Western Europe, South Korea)
or haven't succeeded (Bosnia, Kosovo).
Bush made passing reference to enduring values like limited government,
free markets, private property and the rule of law. But his every
proposal (the Cato Institute counted 39 new proposals, compared
to 38 last year and 105 in Clinton's last State of the Union) called
for increasing the power of the state, for an open-ended commitment
to root out evil wherever it appears, not just from those who attack
us or pose a threat.
Mr. Bush even wants the government actively involved in changing
the culture, something any citizen who values freedom in the slightest
should fear. (Government unquestionably and inevitably influences
the culture, but a culture worth celebrating arises from the people
rather than being imposed by rulers.)
I also fear Mr. Bush's enthusiasm for mandatory volunteerism, expressed
without the slightest hint that such an oxymoron is oxymoronic or
even carries a whiff of irony. After Republicans took the Congress
in 1994 they made a feeble effort to abolish Mr. Clinton's version
of the Hitler Youth, the vaunted AmeriCorps. Now Bush wants to increase
it and add a Homeland Security corps as well. I sense Universal
Military Training or a mandatory two-year bullets-or-bedpans service
on the horizon, pretty much the opposite of the freedom Mr. Bush
is so fond of invoking.
It's probably worth noting that Mr. Bush's reference to private
property and free markets was made in the context of other countries,
saying that countries who cherish these values will have our support
(which in practice will undermine them, but never mind). Imposing
new programs, new requirements, new commitments, new exactions on
Americans seems to Mr. Bush and he is probably quite sincere
in this the very essence of devotion to free minds and free markets.
OR MISPLACED PRIORITIES
telling in Mr. Bush's discussion of foreign affairs were the places
and issues he didn't mention. This is hardly surprising. I have
acknowledged that Mr. Bush has moved much more deftly than friend
or foe expected him to, but there's no getting around the fact that
he is a novice in foreign affairs. It's especially characteristic
of a novice with power especially one with a couple of superficial
successes under his belt to assume the success is easy and complexities
can be overridden with enough determination, persistence and power.
But where was Osama bin Laden in this speech? Would mentioning him
calling attention to US failure to "bring him to justice
or to bring justice to him" have undercut the impression
of unvarnished, unqualified success in Afghanistan that Mr. Bush
wished to convey? Gosh, wasn't he the real target and the Taliban
only the necessary precursor to the real campaign? Would mentioning
him have reminded the American people that success in the war on
terror is hardly easy, costless or guaranteed?
More important was the virtual absence of any of the "great powers"
in Mr. Bush's world. He is on a crusade, he has largely overridden
objections and seen potential opponents roll over, so perhaps he
doesn't think states with real geopolitical heft (as compared to
pip-squeak backwaters that harbor terrorists) are worthy of much
But it's worth noting for the rest of us that the European Union
has been extremely active in criticizing US criticism of Arafat.
The Europeans may well be hypocritical, hypercritical and inclined
to bash the United States whenever possible. But they still have
real economic and potential military power. A realistic US foreign
policy (I'm not even talking about an ideal one) would have to take
those interests and concerns into account.
RUSSIA WITH ...?
Bush also seems to be under the impression that schmoozing and bonding
with Vladimir Putin has been enough to make Russia a loyal ally
and good buddy that no longer requires much sustained attention.
But a number of US actions since the honeymoon in Crawford have
made the relationship considerably more dicey than it promised to
be quite recently.
The most substantial is the likelihood that the United States is
establishing a long-term-verging-on-permanent US military presence
in central Asia. Putin hasn't squawked too much in public about
this, but the prospect is bound to make the Russian military establishment,
Putin's main domestic power base, increasingly uneasy. The timing
of the announcement that the US will abandon the old ABM treaty
didn't sweeten the relationship.
Finally, if or when we move forward with NATO expansion, despite
Putin's efforts to create a rationale for living with it, numerous
elements in Russia will hate the idea. If it's combined with a significant
US presence in central Asia, expect Russian paranoia to resurface
in virulent ways.
Whether all these complications mean that the Bushies have blown
the opportunity to create a constructive or at least mutually
non-threatening relationship with Russia is still open to question.
But they clearly haven't been paying attention.
THE BIG PICTURE
intelligent US foreign policy should pay most attention to countries
that have the capacity to pose real threats to us. The 9/11 terrorists
showed that great damage can be done to an open society at little
cost. But enduring threats come from nation-states with large populations
and military capacities.
There will always be plenty of countries that want money, weapons
and perhaps military assistance from the "sole superpower." Mr.
Bush has given them a way to spin their domestic troubles into an
international terrorist threat and garner increased attention from
the United States. This runs the risk of ignoring real threats and
dealing with marginal threats on the periphery. The danger that
in "finding himself" as a president and launching a "crusade," Mr.
Bush is missing, ignoring or even exacerbating numerous real threats
to American freedom is, unfortunately, very real.
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