The War About War

The War Over Iraq: Saddam's Tyranny and America's Mission

By Lawrence F. Kaplan and William Kristol, Encounter Books, 153 pages, $25.95

The confrontation with Iraq is a war in service of an idea. The idea is what has come to be known as preemption -- President Bush's frequently expressed belief that after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States must strike proactively against regimes that develop weapons of mass destruction, harbor terrorists or both. That was the centerpiece of Bush's closing argument to the American public in his final pre-war speech two nights before the invasion began. Even at that late moment, Bush did not try to portray Iraq as an imminent threat to American national security. Nor did he point to a specific provocation from Saddam Hussein -- such as the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 -- that demanded an immediate response. In justifying war, Bush instead leaned most heavily on the risk that Iraq might someday provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. That danger, he insisted, compelled the United States to move preemptively. "Before the day of horror can come, before it is too late to act," Bush said, "this danger will be removed." Not since the heyday of the domino theory in Vietnam has an idea provided so much of the motivation for a war.

To an unusual degree, it's possible to trace the intellectual pedigree of the idea that has carried a quarter-million American and British troops into Iraq. Bush, after promising a more "humble" foreign policy in 2000, didn't become a convert to preemption until the attacks on New York and Washington convinced him that the mission of his presidency is to fight global terrorism. But the roots of this Bush doctrine trace back to the thinking through the 1990s of neoconservative foreign-policy analysts such as Paul Wolfowitz (now the deputy secretary of defense), Richard Perle (former chairman of the advisory Defense Policy Board) and Republican strategist William Kristol, the editor of the neocon magazine The Weekly Standard. Long before terrorists struck New York and Washington -- and, for that matter, long before Bush took office -- the Kristol-organized Project for a New American Century had issued a manifesto signed by, among others, Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld (now secretary of defense) and I. Lewis Libby (now Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff) insisting that the United States must "challenge regimes hostile to our values and interests" and build "an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity and our principles." For many of the neoconservatives, deposing Saddam Hussein has long been the essential first step on that road.

The neocons aren't the only faction shaping the Bush administration's foreign-policy thinking; the Department of State remains an outpost of more traditional (and cautious) Republican internationalist views. But with the general support of Rumsfeld and Cheney, the neocons increasingly appear to be the dominant group. Though Bush balances these contending viewpoints -- he favored the State Department over the neocons, for instance, simply by agreeing to engage the United Nations on Iraq last year -- he seems personally most drawn to the neoconservative perspective. And that makes the neocons' thinking an important guide not only to how the administration got to Iraq but where it might go from there.

Conveniently enough, a pair of leading neoconservative foreign-policy thinkers, Kristol and New Republic senior writer Lawrence F. Kaplan, have provided just such a road map in their new book, The War Over Iraq. It's not an epic work. The book is thin, and though smoothly written, feels a bit hurried; it's less a scholar's text than a lawyer's brief. Events have already overtaken its specific arguments for invading Iraq. But the book remains fascinating for the broader window it opens into the worldview developing among the neocon thinkers inside and outside the administration.

It turns out the neocons are thinking big. Very big.

To Kristol and Kaplan, the lesson of September 11 is unequivocal: The United States must act decisively against potential dangers, with allies if possible but alone when necessary. They see Iraq as the template for a new global order built on the unapologetic assertion of American power. "The maintenance of a decent and hospitable international order requires continued American leadership in resisting, and where possible undermining, aggressive dictators and hostile ideologies," they write. Actually, even that sweeping declaration understates their aims. Kristol and Kaplan envision a world organized not around "American leadership" but "American preeminence" and "American dominance" enforced by a bigger military deployed aggressively against emerging threats. The threat posed by terrorists and outlaw regimes, they insist, is now so great that the world faces a fundamental choice. One option offers a "humane future" built around an "American foreign policy that is unapologetic, idealistic, assertive and well funded." The other is "a chaotic, Hobbesian world where there is no authority to thwart aggression, ensure peace and security or enforce international norms." Monte, I will definitely take door No. 1.

Yet those, obviously, aren't the only choices available. Like many polemicists of left and right, Kristol and Kaplan don't entirely play fair in setting out the choices or describing their opposition. In presenting their vision of an unfettered, unilateral American colossus, they caustically dismiss the idea that the United States might be able to increase its security and advance its foreign-policy aims in ways that are less alienating to the other 6 billion or so people on the planet. They see only a blame-America-first mindset in the demands from many Democrats, and even some Republicans, for Bush to display more commitment to international institutions and more concern for the views of other nations. That "impulse owes entirely [emphasis added] to the lingering suspicion that American self-interest and the interests of humanity are inherently incompatible," they write.

But that's silly. In fact, American self-interest, not a bleeding-heart concern about the interests of humanity, is the principal reason why even most Democrats who backed the war in Iraq -- such as Sens. (and presidential candidates) John Kerry (Mass.), John Edwards (N.C.) and Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) -- and moderate Republicans such as Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) have urged Bush to work more closely with other nations. While no one in this internationalist camp categorically rules out the unilateral use of force, all argue that strengthening alliances will enhance our security by tempering hostility toward American power and fostering the cooperation we need to combat terrorism and proliferation. As Kerry put it in a speech earlier this year, "Leading the world's most advanced democracies isn't mushy multilateralism -- it amplifies America's voice and extends our reach." British Prime Minister Tony Blair often says the same thing, though somewhat more delicately.

Kristol and Kaplan believe that's wishful thinking: "Those who suggest that ... international resentments could somehow be eliminated by a more restrained foreign policy are deluding themselves," they write. Instead, they maintain that if the United States leads strongly enough, others, however reluctantly, will follow. All signs suggest that Bush agrees. Yet the early evidence on that experiment isn't encouraging. The White House believes, with some justification, that the UN Security Council only agreed to resume inspections inside Iraq because it knew that if it refused, Bush might invade anyway. But one reason Bush couldn't win a second UN resolution authorizing the invasion was that he made clear he was interested in what other countries thought only to the extent that they agreed with what he wanted to do anyway. Bush's determination has carried the troops to Iraq, but at a high cost: the greatest rupture in the Atlantic alliance since at least the Suez crisis in 1956; the inability to win support even from such hemispheric neighbors as Canada, Mexico and Chile; and growing public hostility toward America across Europe, as measured not only in protests but in polls.

It's not clear any of that concerns Kristol and Kaplan much. While the authors make the obligatory bows to the importance of alliances, they give the impression they don't believe Europe, any individual country, the United Nations or any entity that doesn't take orders directly from Donald Rumsfeld has much to offer to international security. Only an "American-led world order," they insist, can hold back the forces of chaos and disorder.

To read such declarations from Kristol and Kagan is to realize how great a gulf separates the two camps supporting the war with Iraq. The neoconservatives see the overthrow of Saddam Hussein mainly as a way to demonstrate American strength and resolve and thus send a shot across the bow of other rogue states such as Iran and North Korea; that seems largely Bush's intent as well. The internationalists backing the war -- the leading pro-war U.S. Democrats, a handful of Republican moderates such as Hagel and, above all, Blair -- had been hoping for something very different. They wanted the war to demonstrate that the world could unite to cooperatively confront the new dangers of the 21st century; that's why securing UN authorization for the attack was a much higher priority for them than it was for Bush (much less the neocons).

These two camps share a common desire to disarm Iraq. But that convergence obscures as much as it reveals: The two sides hold very different views of how the world should be organized to meet the threats of the new century. On both sides of the Atlantic, the internationalists believe the United States can best achieve its aims, and diminish the resentment of its power, by cultivating allies and strengthening international institutions. The neoconservatives believe something very close to the opposite: Their focus is on shedding commitments that constrain unilateral American action. Blair and the American internationalists want to reform and reinvigorate the United Nations; the neocons want to marginalize it (if not raze it entirely). Blair is urging international initiatives to fight global warming and poverty and to genuinely pressure the Israelis and Palestinians toward peace. The neocons are dubious of all those ideas.

Bush leans strongly toward the neocons on all of these questions; the leading Democratic presidential contenders for 2004 all side with the internationalists. The shared purpose in Iraq has thus far overshadowed these conflicts. But once the shooting stops in Baghdad, they are sure to resurface -- subtly in the contrasts between Bush and Blair and loudly in the foreign-policy arguments between Bush and his Democratic opponents in 2004. The war over the meaning of the war in Iraq is likely to last much longer than the fighting in Iraq itself.

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