History is likely to judge George W. Bush’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks as follows: He squandered a unique opportunity for global cooperation on international security in favor of a unilateralist and imperialist foreign policy that aggravated terrorism, undermined American world leadership and increased global instability. That’s already the dominant viewpoint in most of the world, and the American people are steadily moving toward the same conclusion, if not quickly enough.
The invasion of Iraq was the first great foray of the new Bush imperialism. But from the beginning of his administration, the president rejected the multilateral framework of international relations that had been growing stronger in recent decades. Shortly after taking office Bush repudiated such key treaties as the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty and the International Criminal Court. At the time of the terrorist attacks, the United States also had failed to sign two international treaties designed to curb terrorism.
Whatever the shortcomings of such international treaties, they all contribute to global and national security and their rejection makes Americans less secure. The administration argues that it is preserving American sovereignty, but as a new study from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy argues, the administration willingly surrenders sovereignty in trade agreements “that extend its control over the world’s resources” but is “less interested in those that promote the rights of people and protect the planet.”
The war in Iraq took unilateralism a giant step forward with a war that, as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan recently noted, was illegal and is losing more legitimacy every passing day. The collapse of the Iraqi army showed how little of a threat Saddam posed to his neighbors, let alone the United States. In early October, chief U.S. arms inspector Charles Duelfer reported that Iraq destroyed virtually all its chemical and biological weapons in 1991. And in an exhaustive October 3 report, the New York Times revealed how the administration ignored and overrode the preponderant intelligence analyses that cast doubt on its false claims that Saddam had a nuclear weapons program.
Saddam had no connection to the World Trade Center attacks, as the 9/11 Commission concluded. And both the CIA and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even recently admitted there is no proof of any connection between Saddam and al Qaeda.
It is now clear that Bush used 9/11 as an excuse to carry out an invasion of Iraq that many of his top administration officials had long advocated. But the question remains: Why did the Bush administration want to go to war in Iraq? And if this is the start of a new imperialism, what shape will it take?
Political journalist John B. Judis provides an invaluable historical perspective on these questions in his new book The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Judis argues that since its founding there has been in the United States a culture of “civil millennialism,” a notion that Americans are a chosen people with a moral mission to change the world and create an “empire for liberty.” Until the late 19th Century, that mission was channeled into the conquest of the “savage” Indians or expulsion of Mexicans as the nation expanded its reach. While the precise mission and means changed over time, this sense of righteous American exceptionalism was as important politically as more self-interested economic ambitions. When the United States — confronted with the European scramble for colonies in the late 19th Century — declared war against Spain, there was a heated debate over whether our conquest of the Philippines, for example, was a betrayal or an embodiment of American ideals.
As Secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration, Theodore Roosevelt — a hero to neoconservatives and to Bush — lobbied for war with Spain. But, Judis notes, after a long and bloody war against nationalist guerrillas in the Philippines and nationalist resistance to other imperial forays, Roosevelt lost faith in imperialism and turned toward the idea of an international League of Peace. After his own imperial foray into Mexico, which prompted antagonistic forces in Mexico to unite against the gringos, President Woodrow Wilson even more adamantly decided that it was impossible — and undesirable — to impose governments on other nations.
Wilson’s ideals for the League of Nations, despite the fatal dilution of support for national self-determination and America’s retreat into isolationism in the ’20s and ’30s, defined the multilateral approach to global problem-solving that became the basis of the United Nations. In the name of fighting communism, however, the United States often opposed anti-imperialist movements and manipulated multilateral institutions in the service of its foreign policy. But after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Judis argues, the United States had an opportunity to pursue a more ambitious multilateral approach. George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton both did so, but at the same time neoconservatives were agitating for a new American imperialism.
Iraq was the target because neoconservatives wanted to remake the governments of the Middle East, to secure long-term U.S. access to oil, to open the economies to American investment and to protect Israel through installation of governments friendly to the United States. Besides falsifying the reasons for invasion and casting the war in the millennial terms of good against evil, the neoconservatives completely misunderstood the political realities of the Middle East and reverted to the discredited idea that military might alone can prevail in international relations. As Judis argues, rebel Islamist groups are in many ways products of anti-colonial sentiment, and consequently, the United States, through its invasion of Iraq, is provoking the same nationalist rebellion that earlier colonial powers did. In addition, the neoconservatives misjudged the effectiveness of their ideologically driven economic policies.
John Kerry and others have faulted Bush for not having a plan for post-invasion Iraq, but as reporter Naomi Klein argued in the September issue of Harper’s magazine, the United States did have a plan — a radical economic shock therapy of privatization and unregulated opening of Iraq to the international market. It was the International Monetary Fund strategy on steroids, and it devastated the Iraqi economy, brought in no foreign investment, and did as much as anything to generate the widespread and growing insurgency.
Kerry offers the alternative of multilateralism, but that is only part of what is necessary. Invading Iraq with more allies was not the answer. The substance of multilateral strategy must change as well. Multilateral imposition of the economic plan the United States has tried to impose on Iraq would be no more desirable. The IMF as it now exists is an example of multilateralism that is often more destructive than helpful. The International Criminal Court, on the other hand, is a more positive kind of multilateral initiative.
Although Americans continue to believe that theirs is the country chosen to bring freedom and democracy to the world, a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found that the overwhelming majority of Americans endorse a multilateral approach to international issues, reject the notion of pre-emptive war, do not believe the United States should act as global policeman and support treaties like the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. On all these issues three-fourths or more of Americans oppose the Bush administration positions.
In many other countries, both rich and poor, people have a deep mistrust of the new multilateral global economic order that gives power to corporations and financial markets at the expense of workers and citizens. If John Kerry — should he win — wants to provide a lasting alternative to Bush’s new imperialism, he will have to do more than emphasize multilateralism. He will have to insure that the old colonialism is not simply replaced with a new imperialism enforced multilaterally. And if he wants to learn rather than repeat a history lesson from Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he will get out of Iraq as quickly as possible.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.