The Road from Baghdad

The Bush team has big plans for the 21st century. Can the rest of the world stop them?

David Moberg

Contrary to the smug pronouncements from the Bush administration, it is foolhardy to predict how the war in Iraq will end, let alone when. Considering how unpopular Saddam Hussein is among both Iraqis and their neighbors, it is stunning how quickly the American invasion increased support in and outside of the country for Saddam—or at least resentment of Americans.

Iraqis may still rebel against a faltering regime, but the blustering predictions from Bush’s top officials that the war would be a speedy “cakewalk,” punctuated by cheering crowds, against a government that was “a house of cards” proved wrong. They were soon followed by recriminations about flaws in the invasion strategy, including the number of troops permitted by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, over the advice of some generals. It is equally possible that the war will drag on for many months with bloody urban warfare in the streets of Baghdad while irregular forces harass the long U.S. supply lines from Kuwait.

No matter how the war eventually ends, the long-term consequences are likely to be damaging. First, there are the immediate victims of this war, and those of future wars that its strategists already anticipate. But the fallout looks bad for both the world as a whole and the majority of people in the United States. A quick end to the war, with Saddam largely forced out by a popular uprising, would be the least damaging outcome, but even that might embolden the United States to act more unilaterally and aggressively in the future. Even a short war will leave the world with new fault lines and wreck global institutions, like the United Nations, leaving only remote prospects for a progressive alternative to dominance by a rogue superpower. The triumph of democracy in the Middle East, despite White House rhetoric, is neither the real objective nor a probable result.

But truth was not simply the first casualty of war: Lies and misinformation were the very foundations of the public buildup to war. They ranged from forged documents to a media campaign that convinced more than half of Americans, without a shred of evidence, that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks. The rosy scenarios of victory, besides encouraging the self-delusion of the administration’s war ideologues, were essential parts of the disinformation campaign to persuade an American public that was, all things considered, fairly skeptical. The invented rationales were flimsy and shifting at best because the truth would not have sold well anywhere, even in the United States.

The truth is that hawkish neoconservatives, with roots in the Reagan administration, had pushed for overthrowing Saddam long before September 11, 2001. This faction included Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, Defense Policy Board member Richard Perle (who resigned as chairman of the board after conflicts of interest were exposed), and the frankly imperialist Project for a New American Century.

With the demise of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical rival, the neocons wanted to use the United States’ stature as the sole superpower to wield military might without constraint. Promoting American global corporations and limited government, they wanted to remake the planet in what they see as national self-interest and to prevent any countervailing power from emerging in the world. Their free-market fundamentalism conveniently meshes with a religious fundamentalism that pervades the Bush administration and taps into deep-seated American beliefs in this country’s divine mission—creating, in the phrase of author Tariq Ali, a “clash of fundamentalisms” with both retrograde Islamicists and a relatively secular tyrant like Saddam.

Iraq was a convenient first target, but many in this faction have made it clear that they have a long list of other targets of opportunity, from Iran to North Korea and beyond (the Chinese are feeling particularly threatened). Besides the terrorist excuse, Iraq is important for its oil. A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, using previously unpublished government papers, documents how Rumsfeld and other Reagan aides worked closely with Saddam from 1983 to 1987—after public revelation of his use of poison gas in his war with Iran—in an ultimately failed bid to help Bechtel Corporation construct a new pipeline for Iraqi oil.

Some strategists also hold to a misguided notion that attacking Iraq might help Israel, rather than simply fan existing hatreds. But the main political objective seems to be the exercise and consolidation of American global power. The irony—or tragedy, given the number of probable casualties—is that this flagrant use of U.S. military power is likely to actually hasten the decline of American global political power.

The Bush administration strategy, as played out in Iraq, represents a break with the past, but less dramatically than many Bush critics acknowledge. In a strong critique of Bush’s unilateralism, Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria wrote, “The real question is how America should wield its power. For the past half century, it has done so through alliances and global institutions and in a consensual manner.” There have been occasional examples of global cooperation by the United States that also represented enlightened self-interest, such as the Marshall Plan after World War II. But more typically, the United States has for decades sought to make global institutions and alliances subservient to its strategic aims, often bullying and bribing allies of questionable character as much as winning real consensus.

America also has a long and sordid history of backing corrupt and undemocratic regimes, including Saddam himself, making it suspect now as a putative defender of democracy. Often it has acted unilaterally—even pre-emptively—against alleged threats, such as in Grenada (where afterwards even the United States acknowledged there was no threat) or Panama. But the need to compete ideologically with communism as well as to compete with the Soviet Union for political allegiances of many countries often constrained the United States and forced some consensuality.

The demise of the Soviet bloc gave the United States a new freedom of action. Both the Bush I and Clinton administrations in different ways continued to balance multilateralism and international consensus with American unilateralism. But the current Bush administration has made a flagrant point of abandoning global agreements, multilateralism and international organizations, while asserting its right to pre-emptively make war on its own, effectively repudiating the fundamental principles of the United Nations charter. The shift in national strategy is underlined by a new undiplomatic, swaggering style exhibited by officials from Rumsfeld to Bush himself.

The 9/11 attacks momentarily created a sense of sympathy for the United States that offset rising worldwide unease about Bush’s cowboy foreign policy, but the war in Iraq has intensified new splits. First is the division between the United States and most governments in the world. The “coalition” fighting in Iraq consists of U.S., British and a small number of Australian troops, but even the entire list of governments offering verbal support—including those too ashamed or fearful of their own constituents to do so publicly—is relatively small and unenthusiastic, or even listed without the country’s awareness, as in the case of Colombia and Slovenia. Nor is it a particularly inspiring list. According to a Foreign Policy in Focus report, 17 of the 45 are described by Freedom House as “not free” or “partially free,” nearly half had significant corruption, and 9 had “extremely poor” human rights records, according to the State Department.

The high-profile splits within Europe endanger continental political integration, which may please Bush officials. But the broader antagonism between the United States and most governments of the world will hurt any ability of the United States to win international cooperation on fighting terrorism. Ultimately, this schism will encourage other countries to seek new alliances to offset or restrain American power, potentially increasing tensions if the Bush strategy of being the world’s unipolar power continues. While the Bush administration may be pleased to undermine the United Nations, it may be less happy with damage to NATO.

The governmental schism will also undercut U.S. efforts on trade and global economic agreements, as well as its use of the International Monetary Fund and other global financial institutions to promote the “Washington consensus.” That could be a blessing in disguise. But the United States may also suffer economically if countries prefer other currencies to the dollar, such as the euro, shun U.S. corporations or products, or adopt more nationalist stances in trade disputes. Unilateral aggressiveness also increases instability, which depresses investment and growth but can also create other disturbances, like oil price hikes. By militarily and unilaterally asserting its dominance, the United States may undermine the globalization policies that have benefited the biggest multinational corporations. However, the victims of contemporary globalization are likely to suffer as well in a more fractious, unstable world economy.


Another split is broader and deeper—the schism between the United States and the world’s people. With the sole exception of Israel, even in countries whose governments support the U.S. war effort, there is strong—usually overwhelming—majority opposition. The backlash goes beyond a single policy. Within the past half-year, in most countries the feeling of general admiration for the United Sates has plummeted, often to no more than tiny minorities. With such popular antagonism to the United States, politicians in those countries will have much more to gain by appealing to anti-American sentiments and by standing up to Washington, rather than risking hostility from their own people.

Throughout much of the world, good feelings about the United States have long translated into political influence and economic advantage. The United States is losing much of that thanks to Bush’s war. It’s quite an achievement to squander the goodwill from 9/11 and, for all practical purposes, to lose a popularity contest with a thug like Saddam Hussein in less than two years. Those, however, are Bush’s primary foreign policy accomplishments. He is now unintentionally working to convince people around the world that Osama bin Laden’s view of the United States is correct, just as he is helping recruit new anti-American terrorists.

Indeed, the Bush strategy increases the odds that any destabilization of the corrupt and undemocratic governments of the Middle East will lead to Islamic fundamentalist regimes rather than liberal democratic republics. For many decades, the United States allied with conservative leaders to suppress progressive and secular movements in the Middle East, leaving right-wing religious fundamentalist populism as one of the few channels of protest. Now some analysts are using the common failures of undeveloped countries that possess oil wealth to develop political democracies as an excuse for turning over the oil wealth to private, foreign corporations.

Ultimately, the unilateral exercise of American power is likely to undermine American leadership. “Real power is influence and example, backed up by understated reminders of military force,” argues New York University professor Tony Judt in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books. “When a great power has to buy its allies, bribe its friends, and blackmail its critics, something is amiss.” Judt criticizes the work of Robert Kagan, an apologist for American unilateralism and the war in Iraq, for misunderstanding European desires for international cooperation as wimpy pacifism. He also chides Kagan for ignoring the role of the United Sates—presented by Kagan as the only world power ready and able to fight for freedom—in creating international institutions from which it has benefited. With the end of the Cold War, the United States had an opportunity to use its wealth and power to create stronger international institutions that could have encouraged democracy and peaceful resolution of conflicts. But the Bush crowd wants neither of those: It simply wants American power.

On the eve of the war, a Gallup poll showed Americans opposing by 50 to 47 percent a war on Iraq without going to the U.N. Security Council for a second resolution. Although support for the war rose sharply with the invasion, it is likely to decline as time passes and casualties mount. But the divisions in the United States are also likely to have economic dimensions. Bush avoided putting a price tag on the war until after the invasion, then asked for $75 billion for this fiscal year, assuming a six-week war and allowing very little for any cost of occupation or reconstruction of the country. If the fighting persists, the cost will go up. Combined with even the Senate’s scaled-down tax cut, the cost of the war—not to mention future unilateral adventures—will further squeeze budgets for programs that help the majority of Americans.

Furthermore, if the war goes badly, we are likely to see an intensification of militarist propaganda and repression against dissent from both the administration and the right-wing media, where cable channel “news” wars are already narrowing the range of voices most Americans hear about the war. But will the Democrats, as an alternative to the Bush imperial strategy, be willing to argue for American leadership in developing new multilateral, cooperative international strategies as a better path to national security and a more just and stable world?

If the United States does not shift gears and assume such a role under a new Democratic administration, it is unclear whether Europe could or would take the lead, especially if it means challenging U.S. policy. The alternative might be a more fragmented, multipolar world, including an Islamic community increasingly resentful of the United States but providing a reactionary option that is worse than what the United States advocates. The global justice movement against corporate globalization has less to offer on international security than on international trade, and it can claim few, if any, governments in power that share its vision.

Public opinion worldwide may be massively against the war in Iraq and against the emerging U.S. international strategy, but it does not yet constitute a coherent force for a new approach to promoting both justice and peace globally by containing rogue leaders—from Saddam Hussein to George W. Bush.

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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.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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