is understandable that intelligent people should be preoccupied with the crises
reported in the daily press, but they are best comprehended in their historical
context. That context, and the crucial causes and motives guiding American foreign
policy since 1950, are crucial to understanding the often bewildering and multidimensional
events since the year 2000. George W. Bush and his cronies have done incalculable
damage and committed terrible follies, but it is a fundamental error to assume
that he is somehow original and the genesis of our present crisis.
It is much riskier to focus on particulars as if they have no precedents or
are not part of an older, longer historical pattern. Indeed, a major fault of
many assessments of US actions abroad is precisely such a disregard for the
circumstances that led to them and their historical framework.
The world has changed with increasing speed over the last half-century, and
there have been more wars and upheavals over the past decade than any time since
1945. Given the weaponry now available and the growing political and diplomatic
instability that has accompanied the demise of communism, this is the most dangerous
period in mankind's entire history. It is also the period of greatest changes
in the balance of world forces, with the decentralization of not only powerful
weapons but the reemergence of nationalist, ethnic, and religious factors. The
breakup of the USSR and communism was only partially the cause.
How global military, political, economic and other variables interact is very
often unpredictable, to which one must add the domestic politics and public
moods within crucial nations of which the US is most important. World affairs
are not only complex but also full of surprises not only for us but also
for those in Washington and elsewhere who aspire to control the destiny of humanity.
Contradictions and errors have been the principal characteristic of all ambitious
nations, leading to wars that are not only far bloodier and longer than anticipated
but also produce such unwanted political and social consequences as revolution
or its opposite, reaction. The emergence of communism and fascism, and the sequence
of wars over the past century, was merely confirmation of the fact that once
fighting begins, human values and institutions all the forces that create
social stability go awry.
George W. Bush inherited conventional wisdom regarding the world mission and
universal interests that guide American policies on the world scene. The same
ambitions have often been shared by leaders of other powers who believe that
wars serve as effective, controllable instruments of national goals. What Bush
did do, however, was intensify the most dangerous traits always inherent in
American institutions and beliefs since 1945. He scarcely expected to get bogged
down in the affairs of the Middle East, making Iran the strategically most important
power in the entire region. Still less did he imagine that America's war
would rip apart the existing fragile political arrangements and boundaries so
that the specter of civil wars and bloodshed along sectarian and ethnic lines
in the entire Middle East that may last for years to come. President John F.
Kennedy and his successors earlier had also expected that their involvement
in Vietnam would be limited and short.
But once the shooting begins and America's "credibility"
is at stake priorities are decided for it where there is combat. Moreover,
what is crucial is that its pretensions and ambitions have often led to very
different parts of the globe and the US often loses control over the military
and political results of its many interventions. The world has always been very
large and very complex, and it is becoming more so; the US may eventually adjust
to that reality. But it has refused to do so in the past as well as the present.
Both Presidents George H. W. Bush the current president's father
and Bill Clinton radically altered the justifications for the United States'
global foreign policy after communism disappeared. The second Bush claims there
is "a decisive ideological struggle" against Islamic fundamentalism
and "terrorism," and it is the main rationale for wars the US is now
fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and may perhaps also fight elsewhere. But his
predecessors concocted variations of these themes based on fear and anxiety
in large part to justify massive military spending after the demise of the USSR,
and the US's "preemptive" interventions have been a rationale for
American interventions for many decades.
Yet while an alleged Islamic threat took communism's place throughout the 1990s,
it did so in an often-contrived fashion that made exceptions for America's important
alliances with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other orthodox Muslim states. But
Islam has existed for centuries, it has changed very little if at all, and the
US often utilized fundamentalist religion in Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere
after 1950 as an antidote to fight godless communism. What was crucial was that
the US needed a threat and alleged danger to legitimize to its own population
its global role and readiness to intervene everywhere. This justification causes
it to spend almost as much on its military machine as the entire rest of the
We must never forget that the origins of most of the world's problems
go back many centuries and involve religion, boundaries, demography, nationalism the
list of causes of war and human misery is very long. The United States has scarcely
been the cause of most of them. But even granted that international politics
has been violent and quite irrational far, far longer, after the Second World
War the American role was decisive in most places on the globe. Had Washington
behaved differently after 1945 then many of today's international crises
would be very different also. In short, the "American problem" after
the Second World War became synonymous with the world's problem; virtually
everything important involving change is now contingent on it.
The US since 1945 has poured fuel on the fire of atavism and irrationality,
and it has blocked efforts to solve the domestic problems of countless nations
in ways that were often quite sensible and equitable. It is worth contemplating
what might have happened had it minded its own affairs and avoided making matters good,
bad, or neither far worse, but especially preventing needed social and
economic reforms. I have devoted one book to its interventions in the Third
World alone, another on the Vietnam War, and dealt with yet many other cases
elsewhere. There are also innumerable excellent detailed works that go much
The Middle East is currently the leading crisis facing the US and the world.
President Woodrow Wilson predicted in 1919 that if the peace made after the
war were not just "
there will follow not mere conflict but cataclysm."
The territorial settlements imposed on the Middle East after 1918 were entirely
capricious, unjust, and arranged by the great powers with scant regard for local
conditions or desires. An astonishing ignorance prevailed among most of the
crucial decision-makers, not just the Americans. The reemergence of Islamic
ideologies, the rise of secular nationalism in the region, Zionism and the seemingly
intractable Arab-Jewish conflict, and much else is a result, to a crucial extent,
of the role of outside foreign intervention.
The Second World War was further vindication of Wilson's fears, and today
we are experiencing the irrationality of the settlements that followed the First
World War in the Middle East. The vast region's nations and borders were
created arbitrarily; in no area was the potential for chaos the contested
boundaries, the creation of a Jewish homeland, and much else greater than this
inherently volatile region. For there are no "natural" nations and
boundaries in the Middle East and by attacking Iraq the US has reopened a potential
for chaos and disorder in the entire vast region which surpasses, by far, both
in size and economic importance the potential for instability which existed
in Indochina, Brazil, or anyplace else where it mucked around. For while there
were plenty of illusions in many other areas, in fact the turmoil the US is
now creating in the Middle East is unprecedented. It could have been far different
had the US not tried to control the fate of this region at all.
Communism is all but dead but the world's sufferings have, if anything, increased
with the disappearance of what was the justification for the Cold War. The resources
that the US and mankind might have devoted to making peace and meeting rational
human needs and desires have instead gone to preparing for and making war. Today
we confront the indefinite prospect of war and human suffering on a vast scale
but this has also been the case for at least the past half-century.
This is a new preface for the German edition of The
Age of War.