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17/01/2005 | The War Against World War IV

Norman Podhoretz

A Second-Term Retreat?

Will George W. Bush spend the next few years backing down from the ambitious strategy he outlined in the Bush Doctrine for fighting and winning World War IV?

To be sure, Bush himself still calls it the "war on terrorism," and has shied away from giving the name World War IV to the great conflict into which we were plunged by 9/11. (World War III, in this accounting, was the cold war.)


Yet he has never hesitated to compare the fight against radical Islamism, and the forces nurturing and arming it, with those earlier struggles against Nazism and Communism. Nor has he flinched from suggesting that achieving victory as the Bush Doctrine defines it may take as long as it took to win World War III (which lasted more than four decades—from the promulgation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989).

Even more than the Truman Doctrine in its time, the Bush Doctrine was subjected to a ferocious assault by domestic opponents from the moment it was enunciated. Then, when Bush actually started acting on it, the ferocity grew even more intense, finally reaching record levels of vituperation during the presidential campaign. But in defiance of everything that was being thrown at him, and in spite of setbacks in Iraq that posed a serious threat to his reelection, Bush never yielded an inch. Instead of scurrying for protective cover from the assault, he stood out in the open and countered by reaffirming his belief in the soundness of the doctrine as well as his firm intention to stick with it in the years ahead.

Thus, over and over again he said that he would stay the course in Iraq; that he would go on working for the spread of liberty throughout the greater Middle East (and democratic reform as a condition for the establishment of a Palestinian state); that he would continue reserving the right to take preemptive military action against what in his best judgment were gathering dangers to the security of this country; and that he would if necessary do so unilaterally.

Why then, given that he was reelected on this pledge, should a question now be raised about whether he will keep it? And why—more strangely still—should the answer most often be that he is indeed about to renege?

Because, comes the response, whether he likes it or not, and whether he intends to or not, he will simply have no other choice. Either his resolve will be sapped by the knowledge that he lacks the necessary political support to push any further ahead with the Bush Doctrine; or he will be prevented by a certain "law" of democratic politics governing Presidents who win a second term; or he will (as Irving Kristol famously said of liberals who turned into neoconservatives) be mugged by reality.

War and Moral Values

The notion that the Bush Doctrine lacks solid political backing derives from the widely publicized National Election Pool (NEP) exit poll. According to this poll, more voters (22 percent of the sample) were motivated primarily by a concern with moral values than by anything else, and it was among these voters that Bush did best against his Democratic opponent John F. Kerry; and while he also won overwhelmingly among the smaller group (19 percent) who were mainly worried about terrorism, he lost by a correspondingly large margin with the still smaller proportion (15 percent) who chose Iraq as their paramount concern.

Not surprisingly, the President’s liberal opponents have interpreted this poll to mean that the election did not constitute a ratification of the Bush Doctrine. This is why they have been only too happy to second the claim pressed by spokesmen for various groups on the religious Right that Bush won because of the "faith factor" and the mobilization of the faithful around "family issues, including marriage [and] life."

As it happens, a few commentators associated with the religious Right are themselves opposed to the Bush Doctrine, which gives them, too, an incentive for minimizing its role in the President’s victory. But even those religious conservatives who support the Bush Doctrine have inadvertently played into the hands of his antagonists, both domestic and foreign. That is, by claiming the lion’s share of credit for November 2, they have made it a little easier for the antiwar forces to deny that the election held on that day was a referendum on the Bush Doctrine, and that it has the wind of a solid majority of the American people behind it.

Yet for all its intensity, this entire debate over the relative importance of moral values and the Bush Doctrine may stem from a complete misreading of the polls. For it is not in the least self-evident that the vague category of moral values was taken by the people who participated in the NEP survey merely as embracing abortion and gay marriage alone. On the contrary: in all probability they understood it more broadly to mean the traditionalist culture in general.

Recently the novelist (and former Secretary of the Navy) James Webb has been arguing, convincingly, that this traditionalist culture is rooted in and still fed by the Scots-Irish ethnic group that comprises a very large proportion of the population of the "red" states. It is a group, he writes, whose members are "family-oriented"; they "measure leaders by their personal strength and values"; they "have a 2,000-year-old military tradition"; and they "are deeply patriotic, having consistently supported every war America has fought, and [are] intensely opposed to gun control."

Looked at in this light, what the NEP poll reveals is that the "moral values" voters were in effect endorsing the very qualities needed in a wartime leader. Bush would therefore be justified in concluding (as I strongly suspect he has done) that these voters should be added to, and not posed against, the big percentage that supported him on the issue of terrorism. He would be equally justified in inferring that antiwar zealots must have been heavily represented among the 15 percent for whom Iraq was the burning issue, and that this (along with the relentlessly negative media coverage of the battle there) explained why he lost out by a great margin to John Kerry with that group of voters.1

In 2000, Bush surprised everyone by proceeding to act boldly even after losing the popular vote to Al Gore. Why then would he become less forceful in pursuing his own policy after besting John Kerry in 2004 by three-and-a-half million votes, and after receiving such vivid evidence that the American people consider him the right man for the job of commander-in-chief in fighting the war on terrorism—which is to say, World War IV?

Post-Election Signals

Which, climbing up the ladder of plausibility, brings us to the second reason that has been advanced for speculating that, willy-nilly, the President will back away from the Bush Doctrine in his new term. In a piece entitled "Governing Against Type," Edward N. Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies assures us that

reelected Presidents tend to disappoint their most enthusiastic followers by changing direction: they go Right if they started on the Left (or vice versa); become active when they were passive; turn dovish if they were hawkish; and in all cases converge toward the center of gravity of American politics, as well as toward the mainstream foreign-policy traditions.

In backing up this thesis, Luttwak notes that Ronald Reagan became less rather than more hawkish in his second term, while Bill Clinton, after neglecting foreign policy in his first term, immersed himself in it with a vengeance once he was reelected.

Unlike other commentators, Luttwak does not attribute such turnabouts to "a desire on the part of the President to be more widely loved, or to court the approval of future historians." In his view, the driving force is instead "entropy," or the "natural tendency of democracies to revert to the moderate mean rather than go off the rails." Therefore, even if Bush tries to "go off the rails" (that is, if he insists on sticking with the Bush Doctrine), a kind of natural law of American politics will prevent him from doing so.

What we see here is yet another of those famous "misunderestimations" of George W. Bush. In common with almost every pundit and every inhabitant of every foreign ministry on the face of the earth, Luttwak fails to recognize the exceptionally strong leader America has found in this President, or to take the measure of his boldness, his determination, and his stamina. The poll-driven Bill Clinton may have reverted to "the moderate mean," but Bush, although an immensely skillful politician, is not nearly so poll-driven. And while the Bush Doctrine was certainly inspired and influenced by Ronald Reagan, Bush will just as certainly travel a different road from the one Reagan took in his second term.

During the campaign, at the very moment when things seemed to be going so badly in Iraq that even some previously enthusiastic supporters of the war were jumping ship, and when the abuse being hurled at him was reaching hurricane force, Bush was heard to say, "I’m just gettin’ started." That he meant every word of it became clear almost the minute he was reelected.

For openers, having dismayed his more hawkish supporters (myself included) by pulling back from Falluja in April, he now ordered a full-fledged assault on that terrorist stronghold. He also gave the go-ahead to similar operations against other pockets of the insurgency struggling to drive us out of Iraq and to prevent any further progress in the process of democratization.

At the same time, Bush moved with comparable forcefulness against the insurgency within his own administration. First he sent Porter Goss to the CIA with a mandate to clean out the officials there who (apart from providing faulty intelligence) had been hell-bent on sabotaging the Bush Doctrine. And then he turned his attention to the State Department. Under Colin Powell, it, too, had been actively undermining the President’s policy to the point where it came to be described by those in a position to know as the "most insubordinate" State Department in American history.

Lawrence Kaplan of the New Republic provides a number of blatant examples, of which the most outrageous concerns the very essence of the Bush Doctrine. When, he writes, the President "proposed an ambitious and concrete plan to promote democracy in the Middle East," the State Department bureaucracy,

responding to the objections of Arab leaders, watered down the eventual proposals beyond recognition. . . . And when, on the eve of the war in Iraq, Washington distributed talking points in defense of its position to U.S. embassies abroad, several ambassadors in the Middle East cabled back to Foggy Bottom protesting that they would not make the case for war.2

In replacing Powell with Condoleezza Rice, Bush was putting Foggy Bottom on notice that such activities would no longer be tolerated. As his National Security Adviser throughout the first term, Rice was a fierce loyalist, and she can now be counted upon to push the State Department bureaucracy into supporting the policies of the President it is supposed to serve instead of setting its face against them.

Or can she? Some "experts" think not. In fact, Kaplan reports that several of her former colleagues were spreading the word that Rice, "far from purging the State Department’s ranks," will try to mollify them. Other observers, mindful that Rice cut her teeth in government under Brent Scowcroft—a leading member of the "realist" school (about which more in a moment) and one of the most relentless critics of the Bush Doctrine—have raised doubts about how firmly committed she may be to Bush’s "own bent toward idealistic and assertive American missions." Concurring, Edward Luttwak points to "early signals that Ms. Rice will devote serious attention to the Europeans who did not support the Iraq war," and he takes this as additional evidence of an impending drift away from the Bush Doctrine.

These signals, however, such as they are, surely amount to nothing more than diplomatic politesse, no more portending a second-term retreat than the President did when, late last November, he declared that "A new term in office is an important opportunity to reach out to our friends," or announced that the first "great goal" of his second term was to build "effective multinational and multilateral institutions" and to support "effective multilateral action." That Bush was here practicing a little diplomatic politesse of his own was acknowledged by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post. The President, Milbank reported, "made clear that such cooperation must occur on his terms, and he did not retreat from the first-term policies that angered some allies." What is more, Bush’s bow to "multinational and multilateral institutions" carried a sting in the tail:

With Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin sharing the stage, Bush . . . implicitly rebuked Canada and the United Nations for not supporting the invasion of Iraq. "The objective of the UN and other institutions must be collective security, not endless debate," he said. "For the sake of peace, when those bodies promise serious consequences, serious consequences must follow."

Mr. Blair Goes to Washington

An even more telling indication that there will be no retreat from the Bush Doctrine in the second term—and also that Rice is no longer, if she ever truly was, under the influence of Brent Scowcroft—involves policy toward Israel.

During the campaign, it was widely rumored that if Bush were reelected, he would change course on Israel. The thinking here was that he owed a debt to the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had risked his own political career by supporting him on Iraq, and that the currency in which Blair needed this debt to be paid was greater pressure on Israel and more indulgence toward the Palestinians on the part of the United States. Then came the death of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in November. In the eyes of Blair and just about everyone else in the world, this event opened up an exciting new opportunity to restart the stalled "peace process." So off Blair went to Washington on a post-election trip whose purpose, as he himself announced in advance, was to get Bush to do just that.

On several earlier occasions when Bush, after seeming to tilt toward Israel, had then turned on the Jewish state for taking this or that action, it was assumed that he was trying to accommodate Blair (repaying the debt by installments, so to speak). But whether or not this was the case on such occasions, the situation changed dramatically after June 24, 2002. Having realized that, under the terms of his own doctrine, there could be no meaningful peace process so long as the Palestinians were living under the tyrannical, kleptocratic, and murderous regime led by Arafat, Bush now made American support of a Palestinian state contingent upon the emergence of new leaders who would devote themselves to building "entirely new political and economic institutions based on democracy, market economics, and action against terrorism." In the meantime, Israel was justified in defending itself by military and other means, including through the security fence beginning to be built by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Under this new dispensation, Bush or one of his spokesmen might from time to time still chide the Israelis for going too far. But there would be an end to the zigzagging from green light to red that had characterized his position before he found his footing on this issue.

In an effort to get Bush to reverse course again, Blair came in November bearing two proposals designed to resume the old pressures on Israel while relaxing the demands the President was making on the Palestinians. One of these proposals was that Bush dispatch a special envoy to the area, and the other was that he convene an international conference. Contrary to Blair’s evident expectations, however, Bush rejected both proposals. He did so politely and gently, but reject them he did. The upshot was that, far from being "paid back" in the currency of pressure on Israel, Blair returned home empty-handed except for Bush’s fervent praise of him for participating in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Much as I hate to agree with anything the President of France says, Jacques Chirac was right for once when he sneered that Bush had given Blair nothing for his pains.

Then, sending out a very different signal from the one Edward Luttwak imagined he was hearing, Condoleezza Rice followed suit. In a meeting with Jewish leaders held about a week after Blair’s departure, she enthusiastically underlined the President’s rejection of the two Blair proposals. Immediately after this, the President once again picked up and ran with the ball: in his speech in Canada, he reiterated in the most unequivocal terms that he was, if anything, more firmly committed than ever to the conditions he had attached on June 24, 2002 to American support for the establishment of a Palestinian state:

Achieving peace in the Holy Land is not just a matter of pressuring one side or the other on the shape of a border or the site of a settlement. This approach has been tried before without success. As we negotiate the details of peace, we must look to the heart of the matter, which is the need for a Palestinian democracy.

So much for "entropy"; and so much, too, for the idea that once Rice is installed in her new office, she will dependably revert to the tutelage of Brent Scowcroft or morph into another Colin Powell.

Mr. Rumsfeld Stays in Washington

Finally, we come to the most plausible of all the reasons that have been given for predicting (or rather hoping) that Bush will spend his second term backing away from his own doctrine. This one can be summed up in a single word: Iraq.

The idea here is that Iraq represents the first great test to which the Bush Doctrine has been put, and that the count is now in on its miserable failure. The retrograde "red-state voters" may have been hoodwinked by the lies emanating from the White House and the Pentagon and amplified by Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News Channel, but everyone who knows anything knows that Bush’s entire foreign policy now lies buried under the rubble of Baghdad and the smaller cities of the Sunni triangle.

Apart from all its other faults, this analysis is vitiated by the implicit assumption that, in his heart of hearts, Bush himself has come to agree with its take on Iraq in particular and the Bush Doctrine in general, and that he will now bow to reality and act accordingly. Yet if Bush believes that Iraq has been a disaster, why would he have decided to keep Donald Rumsfeld as his Secretary of Defense?

As the architect of the battle for Iraq, Rumsfeld has been blamed for almost everything that opponents of the invasion (and even some of its vocal supporters) tell us has gone wrong there. He has been accused of underestimating the number of boots that would be needed on the ground; of doing nothing to prevent the looting and the general breakdown of law and order that followed upon the capture of Baghdad; of failing to anticipate, and therefore to deal effectively with, the insurgency that developed; of creating a climate that fostered the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other such crimes. In short, "having ignored the State Department’s postwar planning" (as the Washington Post delicately put the conventional wisdom in its story on Rumsfeld’s reappointment), he led this country into a great debacle that has discredited the very policy whose viability it was intended to prove.

But if Bush accepted this version of how and why the battle for Iraq has gone and is going, it is unthinkable that he would have come down on the side of the adviser supposedly responsible for all the "mistakes" and "crimes" instead of embracing Powell, the putatively wise counselor whose spurned advice could have averted the whole disaster.


All things considered, then, I feel safe in predicting that Bush will not reverse course in his second term, and that he will continue striving to implement the doctrine bearing his name throughout the greater Middle East—that, in short, he will go on "sticking to his guns, literally and figuratively," as Time put it in naming him "Person of the Year." But I feel equally safe in predicting that the forces opposing him, both in the region and at home, will persist in their struggle to nip this immense enterprise in the bud.

In Iraq, the insurgents—a coalition of diehard Saddamists, domestic Islamofascists, and foreign jihadists—have a simple objective. They are trying to drive us out before the seeds of democratization that we are helping to sow have taken firm root and begun to flower. Only thus can the native insurgents hope to recapture the power they lost when we toppled Saddam; and only thus can the Iranians, the Syrians, and the Saudis, who have been dispatching and/or financing the foreign jihadists, escape becoming the next regimes to go the way of Saddam’s under the logic of the Bush Doctrine.

The despots tyrannizing these countries all know perfectly well that an American failure in Iraq would rule out the use of military force against them. They know that it would rob other, non-military measures of any real effectiveness. And they know that it would put a halt to the wave of reformist talk that has been sweeping through the region since the promulgation of the Bush Doctrine and that poses an unprecedented threat to their own hold on political power, just as it does to the religious and cultural power of the radical Islamists.

But the most important thing the insurgents and their backers in the neighboring despotisms know is that the battle for Iraq will not be won or lost in Iraq; it will be won or lost in the United States of America. On this they agree entirely with General John Abizaid, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, who recently told reporters touring Iraq: "It is all about staying the course. No military effort that anyone can make against us is going to be able to throw us out of this region." Is it any wonder, then, that the insurgents were praying for the victory of John F. Kerry—which they all assumed would mean an American withdrawal—or that the reelection of Bush—which they were not fooled by any exit polls into interpreting as anything other than a ratification of the Bush Doctrine—came as such a great blow to them?

But too much is at stake in Iraq for them to give up now, especially as they are confident that they still have an excellent shot at getting the American public to conclude that the game is not worth the candle. General Abizaid again: "We have nothing to fear from this enemy except its ability to create panic . . . and gain a media victory." To achieve this species of victory—and perhaps inspired by the strategy that worked so well for the North Vietnamese3—they are counting on the forces opposing the Bush Doctrine at home. These forces comprise just as motley a coalition as the one fighting in Iraq, and they are, after their own fashion, just as desperate. For they too understand how much they for their own part stand to lose if the Bush Doctrine is ever generally judged to have passed the great test to which it has been put in Iraq.

Isolationism, Right and Left

Consider—to begin once more on the lowest rung of the ladder—the isolationists of the paleoconservative Right. Their line is that a conspiracy of "neoconservative" (i.e., Jewish) officials holed up in the White House and the Pentagon is dragging this country, against its own interests, into one conflict after another with the sole purpose of "making the Middle East safe for Israel."

The words come from the pen of this group’s leading spokesman, Patrick J. Buchanan, who expatiates in characteristically pungent terms:

Cui bono? For whose benefit these endless wars in a region that holds nothing vital to America save oil, which the Arabs must sell us to survive" Who would benefit from a war of civilizations between the West and Islam" Answer: one nation, one leader, one party. Israel, Sharon, Likud.

Buchanan also claims, on the basis of one of Osama bin Laden’s fatwas, that a major cause of 9/11 was "the United States’ uncritical support of the Ariel Sharon regime in Israel."

This screed has elicited a trenchant comment from James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal’s website OpinionJournal:

Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel in 2001, three years after the fatwa that, according to Buchanan, condemned his "regime." . . . Labor’s Ehud Barak won election in 1999, and that didn’t stop al Qaeda from attacking the USS Cole in October 2000, even as President Clinton was struggling to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

In addition,

Al Qaeda’s first attacks on American targets were in Yemen in 1992 and at the World Trade Center in 1993—at a time when Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin was Israel’s prime minister. Rabin later reached an accommodation with Arafat. . . . Bin Laden does not appear to have been appeased.

Buchanan’s writings, emitting as they do an unmistakable whiff of anti-Semitism, have already marginalized the paleoconservative isolationists. If the Bush Doctrine passes its test in Iraq, there will be fewer and fewer ears to hear what will more and more sound like the crackpot talk it always was.

So, too, with the isolationists of the hard Left. These—exactly like their forebears in the late 1930’s who fought against America’s entry into World War II—have made common cause with the paleoconservatives at the other end of the political spectrum. True, the isolationism of the Left stems from the conviction that America is bad for the rest of the world, whereas the isolationism of the Right is based on the belief that the rest of the world is bad for America. Nevertheless, the two streams have converged, flowing smoothly into the same channel of fierce opposition to everything Bush has done in response to 9/11.

In the years before 9/11, Noam Chomsky, Buchanan’s counterpart on the Left, was very largely forgotten. After achieving great prominence in the 1960’s, he had come to seem too extreme—or perhaps too naked in his hatred of America—to serve the purposes of the New York Review of Books, through whose pages he had first made his political mark. But after 9/11 he found a newly receptive audience for his contention that this country had brought the terrorist attacks down upon its own head, and for his denunciations of our response to those attacks as nothing more than the latest stage in the malignant imperialism of which he had long since been accusing the United States.

Like Buchanan, Chomsky will go on railing against the Bush Doctrine for as long as his lungs hold out. So will Michael Moore and all the other hard leftists holed up in Hollywood, the universities, and in the intellectual community at large. Fixated as they are on the idea that America is the greatest force for evil in the world, they will always apologize for or side with—sometimes openly, sometimes only tacitly—any totalitarian despot, no matter how murderous, provided only that he is ranged against the United States. To these people, as they themselves cannot but recognize, an American success in Iraq will mean the loss of their mass audience and a return to the narrow sectarian ghetto from which they were able to break out after 9/11.


With no mass audience to lose, no such worry bothers the exponents of another line of attack on the Bush Doctrine that has emanated from a neighborhood on the Right where utter ruthlessness is considered the only way to wage war, and where the idea of exporting democracy is thought to conflict with conservative political wisdom. On the Right though it obviously is, this neighborhood of superhawks is as distant from the precincts of paleoconservatism as it is from the redoubts of the anti-American Left.

The most prolific member of the group is Angelo M. Codevilla who, in a series of essays in the Claremont Review of Books, has accused the Bush administration of "eschewing victory" by shying away from "energetic policies that might actually produce" it, and who makes no bones about his belief that we are losing the war as a result. In the same vein, and in the same magazine, Mark Helprin writes that we have failed

adequately to prepare for war, to declare war, rigorously to define the enemy, to decide upon disciplines and intelligent war aims, to subjugate the economy to the common defense, or even to endorse the most elemental responsibilities of government.

In then piling a commensurate heap of scorn on the idea of transforming "the entire Islamic world into a group of peaceful democratic states" (Helprin), these two eloquent and fiery polemicists are joined by the more temperate Charles R. Kesler, the editor of the Claremont Review. If democratization is to succeed in the regimes of the Islamic world, a necessary precondition is to beat these regimes into "complete submission" and then occupy them "for decades—not just for months or years, but for decades" (Kesler). Even then, our troops may have to "stay and die . . . indefinitely on behalf of a mission . . . concerning the accomplishment of which there is little knowledge and less agreement" (Codevilla).

Of all the attacks on the Bush Doctrine, this set of arguments is the only one that resonates with me, at least on the issue of how to wage war. I have no objection in principle to the ruthlessness the superhawks advocate, and I agree that it would likely be very effective. The trouble is that the more closely I look at their position, the more clearly does it emerge as fatally infected by the disease of utopianism—the very disease that usually fills critics of this stripe with revulsion and fear.

When these critics prescribe all-out war—total mobilization at home, total ruthlessness on the battlefield—they posit a world that does not exist, at least not in America or in any other democratic country. To the extent that they bother taking account of the America that actually does exist, it is only its imperfections and deficiencies they notice; and these, along with the constraints imposed by the character of the nation on its elected leaders, they wave off with derisive language, as when Codevilla refers sarcastically to "the lowest common denominator among domestic American political forces."

Yet while Codevilla, writing in his study, is free to advise ruthless suppression of these limiting conditions, no one sitting in the Oval Office can possibly do so. And even so, the wonder is not, contrary to Mark Helprin, how "irresolute" and "inept" Bush has been but how far he has managed to go and how much he has already accomplished while working within those constraints and around those imperfections.

As for democratization, Kesler is of course right: it is a hard thing to do, and it cannot be done overnight. But recognizing this truth is a very far cry from suggesting that it cannot be done at all unless the most stringent conditions are met. The conservative skepticism Kesler preaches on texts from Montesquieu and John Adams is all very well in the abstract; in practice, decades need not be required to get a process under way—to clear the ground and sow the seeds and help to water them as they flower and grow.

Unlike all other opponents of the Bush Doctrine, the superhawks are not driven by the fear that they will be discredited if the Bush Doctrine should succeed, if only because none of them imagines that a strategy based on so many false premises, and so much timidity and weakness, ever can or ever will succeed. Therefore they can be depended upon to go on excoriating those policies no matter what.

Liberal Internationalists

Moving now away from the margins and closer to the center, we come to one of the neighborhoods inhabited by the foreign-policy establishment.

Here—housed in bodies like the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, and the Carnegie Endowment, and surrounded by the populous community of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s)—live the liberal internationalists, with their virtually religious commitment to negotiations as the best, or indeed the only, way to resolve conflicts; their relentless faith in the UN (which they stubbornly persist in seeing as the great instrument of collective security even though its record is marked by "an unwillingness to get serious about preventing deadly violence"4); and their corresponding squeamishness about military force. Among their most sophisticated spokesmen are Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard, Charles A. Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations, and G. John Ikenberry of Georgetown.

Under Jimmy Carter (whose Secretary of State, Cyrus R. Vance, was a devout member of this school) and to a lesser extent under Bill Clinton, the liberal internationalists were at the very heart of American foreign policy. But while George W. Bush has thrown a rhetorical bone or two in their direction, and has even done them the kindness of making a few ceremonial bows to the UN, he has for all practical purposes written off the liberal-internationalist school. Nor has he been coy about this. As he declared in a speech at West Point on June 1, 2002:

We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systematically break them.

The liberal internationalists were not slow to pick up on what statements like this held in store for them. While Kupchan thought that a number of other forces had already weakened their position before, it was, he said flatly, "the election of George W. Bush [that] sounded the death-knell for liberal internationalism" (defined by him as "a moderate, centrist internationalism that manages the international system through compromise, consensus, and international institutions"). Ikenberry, on the other hand, blamed Bush alone:

[A] set of hard-line, fundamentalist ideas have taken Washington by storm and provided the intellectual rationale for a radical post-11 September reorientation of American foreign policy. . . . [This] is not leadership but a geostrategic wrecking ball that will destroy America’s own half-century-old international architecture.

What Ikenberry does not say is that, thanks to the workings of this "wrecking ball," the liberal internationalists have been reduced to a domestic echo chamber for the French and the Germans. All they seem able to do is count the ways in which the "unilateral" invasion of Iraq has done "damage to the country’s international position—its prestige, credibility, security partnerships, and the goodwill of other countries" (Ikenberry). Since they refuse even to consider whether 9/11 demanded a "reorientation"—whether, that is, it demonstrated that "the tools and doctrines of the [old] system had outlived their utility" and had to be replaced with a "new set of rules for managing the emerging threats to international security"5—they can hope for nothing better than a reversion to the status quo ante.

This dream, thinks Stanley Hoffmann, could yet be realized by a scuttling of the Bush Doctrine through a withdrawal from Iraq that

would bring about a reconciliation with friends and allies shocked by Washington’s recent unilateralism and repudiation of international obligations, and thus do much to restore . . . American credibility and "soft power" in the world.

As against Hoffmann, neither Ikenberry nor Kupchan envisages so rosy a future for their common creed, even in the exceedingly unlikely event that the Bush Doctrine is abandoned. If, however, the doctrine should be vindicated by Iraq, they all fear—and rightly so—that it will be almost impossible, in Kupchan’s words, to "bring the U.S. back to a liberal brand of internationalism." Or, I would add, to bring its exponents back to the center of the foreign-policy establishment.


But of all the groups making up the coalition against the Bush Doctrine, the one with the most to lose is the realists.6

The realist perspective is shaped by two related precepts. The first is that in international affairs the great desideratum is stability, which can be achieved only through a proper balance of power. Following from this is a very old principle, going all the way back to the arrangements of the 16th century that allowed for more or less peaceful coexistence among perennially warring Catholic and Protestant principalities. In its original form this principle was expressed in the Latin motto "cuius regio eius religio" (the religion of the ruler is the religion of the region). Translated into secular terms, it holds that the internal character of a sovereign state is strictly its own affair, and only the actions it takes beyond its own borders are the business of any other state.

In contrast to the liberal internationalists, the realists are not in the least squeamish about the use of force. But under the dictates of their basic principles, force is justified only in repelling another state’s aggressive effort to upset a previously stable balance of power, while to make war in order to institute "regime change" is almost always both wrong and foolish. A good example of these dictates at work was the first Gulf war, when George W. Bush’s father, with Brent Scowcroft as his National Security Adviser, used force to undo Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait but stopped short of removing him from power in Iraq.

Until 9/11, the realists undoubtedly represented the single most influential school of thought in the world of foreign policy, with all others considered naïve or dangerous or both (though a patronizing pass might occasionally be given to liberal internationalists). It would not be going too far to say that for everyone of any great importance in that world, whether as a theorist or a practitioner, the realist perspective was axiomatic. And being, as it were, the default position, it was almost automatically adopted by George W. Bush, too, in his pre-9/11 incarnation. But on 9/11, Bush’s more or less reflexive realism took so great a hit that it collapsed in flames just as surely as did the Twin Towers.

Bush made no secret of his repudiation of realism, and he did not pussyfoot around it:

For decades, free nations tolerated oppression in the Middle East for the sake of stability. In practice, this approach brought little stability and much oppression, so I have changed this policy.

That took care of the first guiding precept of the realist perspective. And Bush was equally forthright—almost brutal—in giving the back of his hand to the realist prohibition against using force to transform the internal character of other states:

Some who call themselves realists question whether the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be any concern of ours. But the realists in this case have lost contact with a fundamental reality: America has always been less secure when freedom is in retreat; America is always more secure when freedom is on the march.

Farewell, then, to cuius regio eius religio as well.

What Bush was declaring here was a revolutionary change in the rules of the international game. If we are to grasp the full significance of this change, we have to start by recognizing that the invasion of Afghanistan was only a partial application of the new doctrine. Because the terrorists who had attacked us were based in Afghanistan, and were protected and supported by the Taliban regime ruling that country, going after it did not constitute a preemptive strike. It represented, rather, a conventional retaliation against an unconventional aggression: they hit us and we hit back.

Being nothing new, the invasion itself was not opposed in principle by the realists (even though some of them considered it crazy to think that we could win where so many other armies—most recently the Russians—had come a cropper). But the operation in Afghanistan did begin to conflict in principle with the realist perspective when it went beyond toppling the Taliban regime to sponsoring a replacement government pledged to democratization.

Still, the main criticism leveled by the realists at this point took a prudential form: our political objective, they said, was even more foolhardy than our military effort. This suggests that they were slower than the liberal internationalists in fully grasping what Bush was throwing at them. Probably unable to imagine that he could possibly be serious when he talked about reshaping the political character of the entire region, they seem to have consoled themselves with the notion that Afghanistan was just a one-shot overreaction to 9/11.

If so, they were soon to be stripped of this cold comfort by the invasion of Iraq. And even then, it still took another while before the realists felt the full force of the gale being whipped up by George W. Bush. What caused the additional delay was the almost exclusive focus of the debate over Iraq on weapons of mass destruction.

WMD vs. Draining the Swamps

When Bush charged Saddam Hussein with refusing to give up his weapons of mass destruction, he was relying in good faith on what the CIA—and every other intelligence agency in the world—assured him was the case. He was also acting in good faith when he warned that Saddam might put such weapons into the hands of terrorists, and when he then invoked this danger in an advance justification of the new policy of preemption ("If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long").

But there would be a heavy price to pay for placing so much stress on the issue of WMD. Not only did the failure to find them severely injure the case for invading Iraq; perhaps even more injurious was that the emphasis on WMD obscured the long-range strategic rationale for the invasion. For while the immediate objective was indeed to disarm Saddam Hussein, the larger one was to press on with "draining the swamps"—whether created by religious despots, as in Afghanistan, or by secular tyrants, as in Iraq—that were in Bush’s view the breeding-grounds of terrorism in the greater Middle East. Nor could those swamps be drained only by strong-arming the regimes under which they had been festering. It was also necessary in this view to replace these regimes with elected governments that would work to fulfill the hopes of "the peoples of the Islamic nations [who] who want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation."

All this pretty much disappeared from the debate over Iraq in the months before the invasion. Nevertheless, it gradually sank in among the realists that they had been wrong in dismissing Afghanistan as a one-shot affair, and that disarming Saddam was not the be-all or the end-all of the invasion of Iraq. Hard though it was for them, they finally had to face up to the incredible fact that Bush had not just been making rhetorical noises when he said that his ultimate strategic aim was to push all the states in the greater Middle East—every last one of them—toward democracy.

Worse yet, there was no dissuading him by argument, not even when close advisers of his father like Brent Scowcroft and James Baker were telling him that it was a mistake to invade Iraq. Brainwashed (as the realists along with many others had concluded) by the neoconservative ideologues who had wormed their way into his mind, he refused to recognize that by far the most important obstacle to solving all our problems in the Middle East was not Saddam Hussein but Ariel Sharon. And he remained calmly impervious to the objection that pursuing his new doctrine of democratization would destabilize the region (maddeningly, he even responded that this was exactly what he wanted to do) and would also increase rather than lessen the danger of terrorism.

An interesting wrinkle in the story of the realist offensive against the Bush Doctrine is that it did not enlist the services of Henry Kissinger, the universally acknowledged leader of that school. Most of his disciples—including such prominent former assistants of his in the Nixon and Ford administrations as Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger (later to become Secretary of State himself under the first George Bush)—lined up against the invasion of Iraq. But Kissinger himself, after hesitating a bit, came out in favor of using force against Saddam; and once the battle had begun, he was adamant about the need to stay the course and win. In sharp contrast to his less flexible students, Kissinger understood that what was at stake in the greater Middle East was American credibility, and that the loss of this credibility would constitute the worst imaginable threat to the very stability that realists were supposed to pursue.

Given his special take on Iraq—and even though he remained deeply skeptical about the short- or even medium-term prospects for democracy there and in the region at large—Kissinger did not and would not add his voice to the campaign against the Bush Doctrine mounted by other realists in the innumerable articles and books that came pouring out of them.7 These polemics, like those of the liberal internationalists, were on the whole more restrained in tone than the ravings of the isolationists—more patronizing than hysterical—but in substance and underneath the surface they were no less apocalyptic.

Rooting for Defeat

This comes through with great clarity in a long and highly sympathetic survey of books attacking the Bush Doctrine that were produced before the election by a mixed bag of realists and liberal internationalists who mostly reside in the academy.8 Entitled "A Dissenter’s Guide to Foreign Policy" and published in World Policy Journal, the survey was written by David C. Hendrickson, a professor of political science at Colorado College and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.

Hendrickson begins by implicitly placing the things America has done under George W. Bush on a par with the "iniquities" of the Soviet Union under Stalin, from "the horrors of collectivization, the show trials, the devouring of the children of the Revolution in purges and assassinations" and up through "the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939." For just as all this caused many Communists elsewhere to lose their faith in the benevolence of the Soviet Union, so, to the realists and the liberal internationalists surveyed by Hendrickson,

the sheer enormity of what the Bush administration was attempting provoked a fundamental reevaluation of the belief that the United States was essentially, and despite imperfections, a tremendous force for good in the world. For them, as indeed for this reviewer, that proposition is now in grave doubt.

To which all one can say is that if, because of the "unholy propensities" of the Bush Doctrine, the end of America as a force for good is about to descend upon us, it will arrive in the form of an attack by terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction, and that such an attack is far more likely to occur if these "unholy propensities" are prevented from working themselves out than if they are allowed to take their course. But what is certainly true is that if these same "unholy propensities" succeed, the realists (like the liberal internationalists) will be confronted with the impending end of their world. In the unkindest cut of all, their ideas will come to be dismissed as, precisely, unrealistic, and their standing will suffer a possibly fatal blow.

Before November 2, some realists had feared that Bush’s reelection would, in Hendrickson’s words, "confirm and ratify the revolutionary changes he has introduced to U.S. strategy." Having calmed down a bit since then, they are now hoping to avert the apocalypse through another possible outcome that some of them envisaged before November 2: namely, that "once revolutionary zeal collides with hard reality, . . . the Bush policies . . . will end in tears."

One can only admire Hendrickson’s candor in admitting what is usually hotly denied: that even many leading realists, along with many liberal internationalists, are rooting for an American defeat. Direct action not being their style, they will not participate in the "mass demonstrations and civil disobedience" advocated by Tom Hayden, who advises following the playbook of the "peace" movement of the 60’s (of which he was one of the chief organizers) as the way to get us out of Iraq. But neither will they sit back passively and wait for "hard reality" to ensure that the Bush Doctrine "ends in tears."

Instead of taking to the streets, the realists and the liberal internationalists will go back to their word processors and redouble their ongoing efforts to turn public opinion against the Bush Doctrine. Mainly they will try to do so by demonstrating over and over again that the doctrine is already failing its first great encounter with "hard reality" in Iraq.

"All the News That Fits Their Spin"9

Along the way, they will get more than a little help from their de-facto allies on both political flanks and from acolytes in the media like Chris Hedges of the New York Times (writing on this occasion in the New York Review of Books a few weeks after Bush’s reelection):

We are losing the war in Iraq. There has been a steady increase in the assaults carried out by the insurgents against coalition forces. . . . We are an isolated and reviled nation. We are tyrants to others weaker than ourselves. We have lost sight of our democratic ideals.

Like Hedges, the various groups within the anti-Bush coalition will continue to pronounce topsy-turvy judgments of this kind (the most startling being Hedges’s claim that a policy whose heart and soul is the spread of democracy signifies that "we have lost sight of our democratic ideals"). Like Hedges, too, they will make the most of every piece of bad news, every kidnapping, beheading, and bombing, coming out of Iraq. And if by some unhappy chance the news is not bad enough or sufficiently plentiful in its own right, they will exaggerate its dimensions or misrepresent its significance.

This is exactly the game they have been playing since we first went into Iraq. For instance, when looting broke out in Baghdad shortly after the city had fallen to American troops in April 2003, opponents of the war blamed the Pentagon. But as hardly anyone bothered to notice, this may well have been the first time in the history of warfare that looting was carried out not by the invading army but by the local populace—acting, moreover, against the wishes of the invading army itself.10

An even more egregious case of how bad news has been exaggerated and distorted was the scandal of Abu Ghraib, where a half-dozen or so American guards had inflicted humiliations—mostly of a sexual nature—on a few Iraqi prisoners. And yet Senator Edward M. Kennedy equated Abu Ghraib with Saddam’s jails, where untold numbers were physically tortured and murdered; former Vice President Al Gore compared it to Stalin’s Gulag, where literally millions died of starvation and disease; and the financier George Soros said that it was as bad as the attacks of 9/11.

A more recent example of exaggeration and distortion turned up in a piece in the Washington Post by Brian Gifford, a research fellow at the University of California. According to Gifford,

the focus on how "light" casualties have been so far . . . serves to rationalize the continued conduct of the war and prevents us as a nation from confronting the realities of conditions in Iraq.

This claim—that American casualties in Iraq have not been proportionately light by historical standards—was ridiculous on its face (compare the 6,600 men who died on D-Day alone in World War II with the approximately 1,000 killed in combat over the entire span of the battle of Iraq), and it was soon shown to rest on faulty statistics and mathematical miscalculations.11

Then, at the crest of the latest wave of distortion and defeatism, came two classified and rather gloomy documents that were leaked by the CIA to the New York Times. Never mind that the agency had all along been leaking similarly morbid assessments of the situation in Iraq and even authorizing direct attacks on the Bush Doctrine from within.12 Never mind that the agency’s new director, Porter Goss, had just distributed a memorandum in which he had to instruct CIA employees not to "identify with, support, or champion opposition to the administration and its policies." Never mind that these latest reports amounted to nothing more than the personal opinions of officials with whom other officials on the scene strongly disagreed. Never mind that the CIA has been wrong about almost everything connected with Iraq, from the question of whether Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction to the role of Ahmad Chalabi.13

In spite of all this, the two new reports were still reverently touted as "an unvarnished assessment" on "matters of politics, economics, and security" that was self-evidently more credible than the optimistic "public picture being offered by the Bush administration."

As the anti-Bush coalition goes on exaggerating the bad news through such distortions and overstatements,14 it will simultaneously go on ignoring the good news coming out of Iraq. Nothing will be heard from these quarters about the progress being made in getting a free political system going, in reconstructing the economy, and in establishing law and order throughout most of the country, even as the more aggressive measures being taken against the insurgency are having an effect within the Sunni triangle.15 Since such news does not jibe with the antiwar coalition’s take on Iraq, it does not qualify as "hard reality."

As I write these words, about a month before elections are scheduled to be held in Iraq, the insurgency is stepping up its murderous campaign to frighten people away from the polls and to force a postponement. My guess is that these terrorist attacks (which took the lives of more than 60 Iraqi civilians on a single day in December) will not succeed, and that even if they do, the postponement will not be indefinite and elections will take place sooner rather than later.16

Suppose, then (as I do), that in a year or so, a duly elected coalition government is in place in Baghdad; that it is guided by a constitution guaranteeing political freedom and minority rights; that the economy is improving; that Iraqi soldiers and policemen have taken over most of the responsibility for dealing with a severely weakened insurgency; that the number of American troops has been reduced to the size of a backup force; and that fewer and fewer Americans are being killed or wounded. What then? Will the realists and their liberal allies bow to this reality? Will they be mugged by reality?

I think not. I think they will do unto a success in Iraq what they did when Hamid Karzai was sworn in as the president of Afghanistan this past December. In a powerful report on how the press chose to cover that story, Peter H. Wehner of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives reminds us of what the realists always said about Afghanistan: that it "was too backward; too fractious; too medieval and religiously fanatical; and too ungovernable to ever move toward democracy." Yet only three years after the war to liberate Afghanistan from the horrific Taliban regime, "a free election was held and a civilized, modern, pro-American president was sworn in." Wehner then describes how the press treated what he calls "this momentous event":

The New York Times carried the story on page A8. The Washington Post carried the story on page A13. USA Today had the briefest mention possible on page A5. The Los Angeles Times carried the story on page A3.

But merely burying the story was not good enough for the news pages of the Wall Street Journal (whose point of view is much closer to that of the New York Times and the Washington Post than to the conservative position of the Journal’s own editorial page). The paper’s coverage, carried in the "What’s News" column, consisted entirely of a one-sentence mention that "Karzai was sworn in as Afghanistan’s president," immediately followed by this: "Taliban rebels attacked a military base near the Pakistani borders, killing four soldiers. U.S. troops killed two assailants." And the Los Angeles Times went the Journal one better by taking the occasion to dwell on how much opium is still being produced in Afghanistan.

The syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer summed it up pithily:

What has happened in Afghanistan is nothing short of a miracle. . . . [A]nd what do liberals have to say about this singular achievement by the Bush administration? That Afghanistan is growing poppies. Good grief. This is news? "Afghanistan grows poppies" is the sun rising in the east. "Afghanistan inaugurates democratically elected president" is the sun rising in the west. Afghanistan has always grown poppies. What is President Bush supposed to do? Send 100,000 GI’s to eradicate the crop and incite a popular rebellion?

Concluding that "Afghanistan is the first graduate of the Bush Doctrine of spreading democracy in rather hostile places," Krauthammer laments that instead of being greeted with so much as a moment of celebration, it has been either denigrated or sent down the memory hole.

Not, however, by Hamid Karzai himself, who had the following largely unreported words to say on "graduation day":

Whatever we have achieved in Afghanistan—the peace, the election, the reconstruction, the life that the Afghans are living today in peace, the children going to school, the businesses, the fact that Afghanistan is again a respected member of the international community—is from the help that the United States of America gave us. Without that help Afghanistan would be in the hands of terrorists—destroyed, poverty-stricken, and without its children going to school or getting an education. We are very, very grateful, to put it in the simple words that we know, to the people of the United States of America for bringing us this day.

Long before "graduation day," of course, enemies of the Bush Doctrine who were banking on it to crash and burn had already begun shifting most of their chips from Afghanistan to Iraq, which was looking like a much more promising bet. Now, with so much riding on a failure in Iraq, no effort will be spared to make sure that even a victory there ends up being defined as a defeat.

Impossible? Take a look at the story of the Tet offensive mounted by the Communists in Vietnam in 1968.

The Lesson of Tet

At the time, American officials asserted—and the evidence was there to back them up—that the offensive had ended in military defeat for the North Vietnamese and their Vietcong surrogates. But the almost universal impression created by press and television coverage was of a defeat instead for the Americans and the South Vietnamese. On every point the situation was misrepresented by misleading stories and pictures and even by outright falsehood.

Thus the media continued to harp on the successes of Hanoi even after the North’s assault on South Vietnamese cities had been blunted; they spoke of rural areas having fallen under Communist control that were in fact being held by American and South Vietnamese forces; they said that the South Vietnamese troops in the provinces were refusing to fight when in fact they were refusing to cave in; and so forth and so on. To top it all off, when the American commander, General William Westmoreland, or President Lyndon Johnson, or any of their spokesmen tried to counter these false impressions, they were ridiculed for "singing the same old song" of progress and optimism that had already exposed them as a pack of liars.17

The same triumph of spin over reality is what the enemies of the Bush Doctrine will desperately try to achieve if (or when) Iraq proves to be a success. Of course, things are a little different now. In 1968, when Walter Cronkite, speaking in his characteristically solemn tones from the anchor chair of the CBS Evening News, endorsed the view that Tet had been a defeat for us, Johnson realized that there was nothing further he could do to counter this blatant falsehood, and that he himself was for all practical purposes finished. But with the rise of alternatives to the mainstream media like talk radio, Fox News, and the blogosphere, when in 2004 Cronkite’s successor, Dan Rather, tried to palm off a falsehood about George W. Bush, it was he and not Bush who was for all practical purposes finished.

Even this does not necessarily mean that a success in Iraq will be invulnerable to a Tet-like treatment by the anti-Bush Doctrine forces. There will inevitably be more than enough Iraqi counterparts of the "poppies" and "Taliban rebels" of Afghanistan for them to harp upon. Still, under the circumstances of today, they will have a harder time than their forebears of 1968 did with Tet. It may even come to pass that, like Dan Rather as against Walter Cronkite, they and not Bush will end up being discredited.

If so, will they then throw in the towel? Not on your life. To admit that they were wrong about the Bush Doctrine would be tantamount to declaring intellectual and political bankruptcy—to acknowledge that all their ideas about the international order, and about the role the United States should properly play in world affairs, had become as worthless as Confederate currency.

Which brings us full circle to the predictions of a second-term retreat by the administration. If there is in fact to be no retreat on Iraq, realists and others will have to fall back on different ground. It is already on that ground—where stands the threat represented by North Korea and Iran, the other two members of the Axis of Evil—that the realists in particular are preparing to open a new front in their war against World War IV.

Enter Iran and North Korea

We get an inkling of how this polemical redeployment is being executed from a piece by David E. Sanger of the New York Times early last December under the headline "Hawk Sightings Could be Premature." It would, writes Sanger, be

risky to race to the certainty . . . that a second Bush administration, unrestrained by the caution of Colin Powell, will lead the United States into an unending series of confrontations with the world, starting with bellicose approaches to controlling the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. . . . It has been quite a while since the words "Axis of Evil" sprang from the President’s lips. And during the election campaign, it was clear from the President’s words and actions that the

Commentary Magazine (Estados Unidos)


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Center for the Study of the Presidency
Freedom House