Yes, Thomas Friedman admitted in early March of 2003, the costs of George W. Bush’s increasingly unilateral Iraq adventure are beginning to mount. Friedman, along with ex-National Security Council man Kenneth Pollack, has been a reassuring voice of reason coaxing fellow Establishment liberals into what another New York Times columnist dubbed the “I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-A-Hawk Club.” Unlike the Bush administration hawks, who arrived much earlier at much less conflicted self-knowledge, members of Friedman’s club will state publicly that going to war is risky. The domestic economy, yet to recover from the blows of Bush’s tax cut and the September 11 attacks, may suffer further in the short term as oil prices rise and in the long term as US taxpayers shoulder the burden of a military occupation in Iraq. It is not only embarrassing, but worrisome, that “the French street” and sundry foreign populaces seem far more concerned with constraining US power than with certifying Iraq free of weapons of mass destruction. Bush’s pullout from popular accords on global warming, nuclear disarmament and the International Criminal Court have left the world distinctly ill-prepared to acquiesce in the White House’s drive to unseat Saddam Hussein by force. Yet despite his misgivings, Friedman concluded on March 2, “something in Mr. Bush’s audacious shake of the dice appeals to me.”

War on Iraq, it turns out, holds out the hope of liberating not only Iraqis, but possibly the entirety of the oppressed Arab and Muslim peoples, from stubbornly authoritarian rule. Friedman, like many others, was applauding the “boldness” of the vision Bush set forth in a speech given at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute on February 25. Echoing parts of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “moral case” for regime change, Bush averred that “a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.” No listener could think that Iraqis would light their beacon of freedom without a helping American hand. Reprising the sweeping language of his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush told an appreciative audience that “we meet here during a crucial period in the history of our nation and of the civilized world. Part of that history was written by others; the rest will be written by us.” In openly espousing the belief that the US must make the world safe for democracy, gushed Lawrence Kaplan in The New Republic, not only did Bush reveal himself to be “thoroughly Wilsonian,” he in fact flashed signs of being a “closet liberal.” Kaplan’s brand of Wilsonian, however, scoffs at the “what-about-Turkmenistan” argument. Surely, a visionary on a historic crusade to democratize the world can stand to bankroll a few cults of personality along the way.

In his speech, Bush chided those who would stiffen global opposition to war with hints that the Middle East does not want to be democratized. “From Morocco to Bahrain and beyond,” he reminded the assembled power brokers, “nations are taking genuine steps toward political reform.” If the AEI speech offered the clearest evidence to date of the imperial worldview animating the Bush administration’s agitation for war, it also begged the question of whether the administration even understands why words such as these strike so many Moroccans and Bahrainis as laughable in their hypocrisy.

As the chart on page 35 demonstrates, since September 11, 2001, the US has rewarded Middle Eastern states for repressing political dissent and, in some cases, retreating from steps toward more open and representative political systems. These states have deemed increased repression necessary because the popular will, if democratically expressed, would not allow US troops and warplanes the use of Middle Eastern bases and airspace for an attack on Iraq. What “democratization” existed in the Arab world in the 1990s is either being rolled back, as in Jordan, or has merely underscored the authoritarian nature of regimes when newly strengthened opposition elements prove utterly unable to alter pro-US policies. For years, Turkey’s cooperation with US-British bombing in the northern no-fly zone has come directly against the vocally expressed wishes of the majority of Turkish citizens. At press time, the Turkish government was seeking ways of overturning the parliament’s narrow defeat of a measure permitting US troops to “pass through” Turkish bases on their way into battle — in the teeth of massive public opposition to war. The Pentagon’s ships sat patiently offshore, fully expecting a reversal of this particular democratic verdict.

Also instructive is the administration’s exquisite minuet aiming to marginalize the Iraqi opposition groups who, until recently, were its favorite self-proclaimed Middle Eastern democrats. The White House dispatched its ambassador to “Free Iraqis,” Zalmay Khalilzad, to the opposition groups’ London conference in December 2002 with an explicit mandate to forestall any progress toward the formation of a provisional government. Ahmad Chalabi and Kanan Makiya, respectively the self-appointed leader and the self-anointed intellectual of the opposition, and long-time darlings of neo-conservatives in Washington, abruptly accused the US of “quashing the hopes of democratic Iraqis” when the thoroughly predictable plan for a US military occupation of post-Saddam Iraq became public knowledge. The Kurdish parties, the only opposition groups with established claims to a social base inside Iraq, were infuriated when the US sought to buy bases in Turkey with the promise that Turkish soldiers could establish a “security zone” in northern Iraq immediately after the invasion. Seeking a placid Iraqi face for the US occupation, Khalilzad journeyed to the United Arab Emirates to meet Adnan Pachachi, foreign minister in the Iraqi government deposed in 1968, only to find that Pachachi backed active UN involvement in resolving the Iraq crisis and, worse, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well. Pachachi declined to join the six-member “nucleus” of a provisional government finally formed, over Khalilzad’s objections, when the opposition convened in early March. Chalabi and company can stake no claim to representing Iraqis inside the country, to be sure. But their neo-conservative friends in the Bush administration, who for so long had trumpeted Chalabi’s democratic virtues, abandoned their erstwhile ally when it became clear that US occupation was the price for getting the war they want. “Thorough Wilsonians,” too, brook democratization only on their own terms.

Bush’s speech itself made this point clear in its claim that regime-changing war on Iraq will lead to Middle East peace. If electorates in the Arab and Muslim worlds could vote to enforce one set of UN resolutions, they would endorse that body’s repeated calls upon Israel to withdraw from occupied Palestinian territory, remove illegal settlements and recognize the right of return for Palestinian refugees. As Asef Bayat writes in this issue, Israel’s escalation of military force in the West Bank and Gaza during 2002 sparked the largest and most widespread demonstrations in the Arab world since the 1950s. But Bush did not acknowledge this popular demand in his paean to freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Rather, he moved closer than ever before to the Israeli right’s position that peace in Israel-Palestine, and democratization of Palestinians, must take place on Israel’s terms. While the US had long since adopted Israel’s view that a total “cessation of violence” must precede a return to negotiations, previous Bush pronouncements had included mention that Israeli settlements are also an “obstacle to peace.” On February 25, Bush repeated that “settlement activity” must end–but only after the Palestinian leadership has undergone the requisite “reform.” Given that the US has consistently defined Palestinian reform according to what Israel finds acceptable, the new right-wing government in Tel Aviv will doubtless interpret the speech as a green light to continue building settlements. The encroachment of Israel’s “security fence” onto the West Bank, the encirclement of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the dissection of the Occupied Territories with bypass roads and settlement blocs and the bland US reaction while intensified occupation policies strangle the Palestinian economy all make a mockery of Bush’s “personal commitment” to a viable Palestinian state. Wilsonians need not apply for a job with Elliott Abrams, new supervisor of Middle East policy at the National Security Council and experienced advocate for the Israeli right.

AEI, home of Richard Perle, the most visible of the neo-conservative flacks for the Israeli right’s canard that “the road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad,” was a natural venue for Bush’s pious homily. The convergence of US and Likud Party strategic visions and the high-flown, Biblically inspired rhetoric of the State of the Union and AEI speeches are clear markers of the influence of two ideologically driven constituencies–the neo-conservatives and the Christian right — upon current foreign policy, especially after September 11. But the Bush team’s desire to “decouple” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from US interests in the Persian Gulf predates the ascendancy of the neo-conservatives, and also resonates deeply with unreconstructed Cold Warriors like Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and more traditional realists like National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Where the disparate elements of the Bush administration and its political base come together is their belief in the essential goodness and necessity of maintaining US status as the sole superpower far into the future. US hegemony, not loyalty to the Likud, is the core ideology motivating the drive to war.

Though Friedman and many others are fooled into thinking that Bush’s “gamble” aims to achieve democratization of the Middle East, most of the world, as well as much of the skeptical American public, regards the AEI speech as one more addition to the rotation of hollow arguments deployed to justify an unjustified war. If Iraq’s putative weapons of mass destruction posed a “mortal threat” to the US in August 2002, then what responsible executive would leave the White House war room for a full two weeks to stump for Republicans in advance of the November elections? If the US must remove Saddam Hussein’s regime to promote counter-proliferation, then why are US forces not preparing to invade North Korea, which now has nuclear weapons, or Pakistan, which apparently supplied Pyongyang with the key components? If the Iraqi regime places international peace and security in “grave and gathering danger,” then why has the Bush administration waited for eight months for the Security Council and regional allies to sign on to war? The longer the US waits to launch its assault, the more the ideological origins of the war drive are exposed, and the faster global dissent builds. Worldwide outpourings of anti-war feeling on February 15 removed the last twigs and branches camouflaging the chasm that separates the Bush administration from nearly everyone else.

But for the true believers among the neo-conservatives, and perhaps the evangelical Bush himself, herein precisely lies the rub. Going to war against everyone’s advice will signal US determination to create a new world order where challenges to the will of the sole superpower are not only subversive, but too daunting to conceive. “Full-spectrum dominance,” to use the phrase preferred by the prophets of untrammeled US power, extends beyond the realm of overseas deployments into the tactics of international diplomacy. When White House handlers thrust Bush before the cameras on the evening of March 6, very transparently to preempt UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix’s report on Iraqi cooperation with inspections, he pursued two of the marketing strategies that have emerged since the administration put itself on the UN track. For domestic consumption, Bush’s demeanor evoked the weary adult who has labored in vain to chaperone recalcitrant adolescents toward realizing what is for their own good. Boxing the ears of the Security Council once again, Bush vowed to march off to war with or without their say-so. But then Bush embellished the scripted performance: rather than withdraw its war resolution if “the whip count” came in too low, the US intended to bring it to a vote, so that history would record the names of those who had defied Washington. The administration views its isolation as a badge of honor. To France, Germany, Turkey and other democracies which, in one way or another, tried to stop Bush’s war on Iraq, the message is clear: resistance is futile, and, of course, it comes at a price. In the twenty-first century, apparently, Wilsonians do not need 14 sentences to make their point.

How to cite this article:

The Editors "From the Editors (Spring 2003)," Middle East Report 226 (Spring 2003).

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