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The Only Superbad Power

The New York Times, USA
Jan. 25, 2004
Serge Schemann
www.nytimes.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Wednesday January 28, 2004

It is difficult to believe that George W. Bush has been in the White House for only three years. It seems ages now that we have been living in a new world, in which his administration is closely identified with new passions, new fears, new enemies. Sept. 11, of course, is the dominant reason; it has effectively divided our life into a ”before” and an ”after,” pushing the 20th century with its hot and cold wars, its thickets of nuclear missiles and its arguments into a foggy past. George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton managed the immediate consequences of the collapse of Communism, but they did so when the presumption was still that the main threat to the world had been lifted, when there seemed no pressing need to define a new, post-Communist order.

Superpower Syndrome

AMERICA UNBOUND
The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy.
By Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay.
246 pp. Washington: Brookings Institution Press. $22.95.

THE SORROWS OF EMPIRE
Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic.
By Chalmers Johnson.
389 pp. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $25.

THE BUBBLE OF AMERICAN SUPREMACY

Correcting the Misuse of American Power.
By George Soros.
207 pp. New York: PublicAffairs. $22.

BUSH IN BABYLON
The Recolonisation of Iraq.
By Tariq Ali.
Illustrated. 214 pp. New York: Verso. $20.

SUPERPOWER SYNDROMEAmerica’s Apocalyptic Confrontation With the World.
By Robert Jay Lifton.
211 pp. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books. Paper, $12.95.

CRISIS ON THE KOREAN PENINSULA
How to Deal With a Nuclear North Korea.
By Michael O’Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki.
230 pp. New York: A Brookings Institution Book/ McGraw-Hill. $19.95.

AFTER THE EMPIRE
The Breakdown of the American Order.
By Emmanuel Todd. Translated by C. Jon Delogu. Foreword by Michael Lind.
233 pp. New York: Columbia University Press. $29.95.
Source: The New York Times

For better or for worse, it was left to George W. Bush to propose that new order, and it hasn’t worked out the way many had expected — a world in which arsenals would be sharply reduced and democracies would cooperate in resolving conflicts, ensuring human rights and protecting the environment. Instead, Bush and his team disdainfully chucked out containment and deterrence and declared that America had the right to ensure its security any way it deemed proper, including pre-emptive war. The triumphant America of the 21st century would use multilateral institutions only when it suited American aims. Not only that; guaranteeing its safety required that America impose its democratic values, starting in the Middle East.

Someday Bush may be proven right, and a harmonious chain of friendly democracies may stretch from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. For the time being, the new American order has generated a tsunami of anti-Americanism, with the United States perceived in some quarters as a greater threat to world peace than Al Qaeda. Deep fissures have developed between the United States and its allies; American policies have threatened to undermine Europe’s drive toward unity; Muslims around the globe have turned against the United States; many leaders in Asia now look to China for their economic and political security; and Americans themselves have become polarized in their attitude toward the rest of the world. The ”war on terrorism” has gotten mired in an anarchic Iraq; Guantanamo has come to represent a willful violation of civil rights; and tyrants have seized on the concept of pre-emptive war to justify their own suppression of opponents, now labeled terrorists.

Not unexpectedly, the rise of so contentious a new order, and the man who so unexpectedly launched it, have hatched a considerable library of condemnation, all the more as his re-election campaign gets under way. Of the books reviewed here, two — “America Unbound” and ”Crisis on the Korean Peninsula” — can be classified as reasonably evenhanded, though the first is broadly critical of the Bush approach and the second implicitly so. The others leave no doubt of what they think, ranging from George Soros’s declared hope that his book will contribute to sweeping Bush out of office to Robert Jay Lifton’s image of a ”malignant synergy” between the United States and Al Qaeda ”when, in their mutual zealotry, Islamist and American leaders seem to act in concert.” From across the Atlantic, Emmanuel Todd contributes the wistful notion that the United States, the true empire and axis of evil in his view, is already near collapse. These are only a portion of a swelling anti-Bush literature, for now only partly offset by equally ardent pro-Bush books.

However we may feel about the new order, Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay — two veterans of the Clinton National Security Council now at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations respectively — pronounce what Bush has done as nothing less than a ”revolution.” ”America Unbound” is the most ambitious and important study in this batch, not least because the authors painstakingly develop the provocative thesis that the president is not the Dubya of cartoonists, a dim puppet of a cabal of old-guard hawks and neocons, but the master puppeteer himself. ”George W. Bush led his own revolution,” they declare.

That is quite an accolade for a prodigal patrician who metamorphosed into a born-again Christian and Texan and slipped into the White House as the standard-bearer of Reaganites and neo-cons. Though in the beginning he exhibited a disdain for international institutions and treaties and took some tentative swipes at Russia, China and the axis of evil, there was little to suggest that the early Bush harbored an ambition to reshape the world, or for that matter had much real interest in foreign affairs.

It was 9/11, Daalder and Lindsay write, that provided the catalyst for Bush to blend what could be called the assertive nationalism of Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice; the neoconservative vision of Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle; and his own view, formed long before 9/11, that success requires a clear resolve and the will to use power, into a vision and a mission. That the mission could be perceived as a pernicious new form of imperialism was totally alien to Bush. America, he declared in Crawford in August 2002, was ”the greatest force for good in history.” Conversely, those who assailed it were now openly proclaimed as ”evil.”

Bush’s views, Daalder and Lindsay say, came to rest on two fundamental pillars. ”The first was that in a dangerous world the best — if not the only — way to ensure America’s security was to shed the constraints imposed by friends, allies and international institutions.” The second was that America ”should aggressively go abroad searching for monsters to destroy.” Never mind whether Saddam Hussein — or Yasir Arafat, Iran, Syria or North Korea — had anything to do with the fall of the twin towers: they were the global evil America was ordained to destroy.

It is inevitable that a foreign policy couched in biblical symbols, eschewing subtleties and advanced by Texans, oil-men, neocons and industrialists would be insufferable to liberals, doves, internationalists and New Englanders (conversely, remember what Bill Clinton did to conservatives). One suspects that even the senior George Bush occasionally looks out from his crag at Kennebunkport on the policies of his firstborn with some misgiving. Still, it is difficult to explain the level of loathing that the junior Bush and his government have achieved among otherwise rational liberals. The assaults in these books range widely in theme and quality, and Bush’s defenders are likely, with some justification, to dismiss the more strident writers as congenitally allergic to any manifestation of American power. But the urgency with which they sound the alarm requires attention. History is too clear on what unconstrained power can lead to.

Among the books here, ”America Unbound” deserves the closest attention, as I have noted above. The research is admirable, the arguments are well marshaled, and the absence of stridency adds considerable authority to the portrayal of Bush as a president whose ”worldview simply made no allowance for others’ doubting the purity of American motives.” Of the others, in the order of my preference, ”The Sorrows of Empire,” by Chalmers Johnson, an Asia scholar and onetime consultant for the Central Intelligence Agency who has become a fervent critic of Washington’s military policies, is an exhaustive — sometimes exhausting — study of the spread of American military and economic control over the world. Johnson produces voluminous research on the many United States military and intelligence outposts unknown to most Americans, and weaves a frightening picture of a military-industrial complex grown into exactly the powerful, secretive force that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against — made more dangerous by an aggressive executive branch, creating a state of perpetual war and economic bankruptcy. His assessment is chilling: ”It is not at all obvious which is a greater threat to the safety and integrity of the citizens of the United States: the possibility of a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction or an out-of-control military intent on displacing elected officials who stand in their way.”

”The Bubble of American Supremacy,” by George Soros, the billionaire investor with a foreign aid program of his own, is a different exercise, more an extended essay than an academic study. He proclaims at the outset that his purpose is to do whatever he can to prevent Bush’s re-election. In a deliberate, didactic style, he indicts the administration for hijacking 9/11 for its own ”radical foreign policy agenda,” and then concealing its true goals behind a facade of freedom and democracy. ”When President Bush says, as he does frequently, that ‘freedom’ will prevail, in fact he means that America will prevail,” Soros writes, adding: ”I am rather sensitive to Orwellian doublespeak because I grew up with it in Hungary, first under Nazi and later Communist rule.”

Tariq Ali, a Pakistani-born novelist and writer who is an editor of New Left Review in London, combines an often compelling insider’s perspective with a somewhat dated diatribe on the ”triune evil” of ”U.S. imperialism, Zionism and Arab reaction.” He depicts the American occupation of Iraq as the latest misguided exercise of a colonizing formula that ”has already wrecked much of Latin America and the whole of Africa”: ”capitalist democracy = privatization + ‘civil society.’ ” ”Bush in Babylon” is a curious little volume, drawing extensively on poetry and personal recollections, with some valuable insights into the sensitivities that explain why the occupying coalition in Iraq is not being treated as a savior. Surmising, for example, why American generals did nothing to protect the cultural treasures of Baghdad, Ali writes: ”Having stirred their soldiers to fight and destroy the ‘ragheads,’ portrayed in briefings as uncivilized barbarians responsible for 9/11, perhaps they were now fearful of admitting that the ‘ragheads’ were a people with a culture.”

Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist and writer, perceives an ideologically driven administration locked in an apocalyptic death-dance with Islamic radicals. A student of apocalyptic behavior whose previous books deal with Hiroshima, Nazi doctors and the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan, Lifton alternates between informed passages on extreme behavior and an often unconvincing application of these theories to the Bush administration. At times, ”Superpower Syndrome” descends into psychohistory-speak, as in this riff on ”nuclearism,” the embrace of the bomb ”as a source not only of transcendent power but of life-sustaining security and peace, and in some cases as close to a deity.”

As for the bomb, ”Crisis on the Korean Peninsula” is essentially an academic policy study on a troubling (some say terrifying) question that the Bush White House has been taking a hard line on — North Korea and its nuclear weapons — stretched to the 200-odd pages required for a book. The approach proposed by Michael O’Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki, of the Brookings Institution and George Washington University respectively, is a package in which North Korea would surrender its nuclear weapons program in exchange for large amounts of economic aid. Though it is developed in considerable detail and sometimes intriguing, it remains far from clear why North Korea would buy into the deal.

I have saved a discussion of Emmanuel Todd’s ”After the Empire” for last, not because I deem it least but because it is the view of an outsider, and a highly troubling view at that. I have been living in France for the past six months, and I often wonder whether Americans are aware of the depth of the dread and revulsion in which Bush’s United States is held by many foreigners. In Todd’s study, translated by C. Jon Delogu, a relentless condemnation of everything American arises from an acute sense of betrayal.

A French historian and anthropologist trained at Cambridge University in England and descended from Jews who were refugees in America, Todd says he used to see the United States as a model, as his ”subconscious safety net.” Now, he declares, it is solely a ”predator,” living way beyond its means, racking up video-game victories over defenseless nations and undermining human rights. Nobody escapes Todd’s jilted fury — not the American woman, ”a castrating, threatening figure,” and not American Jews, who have ”fallen into the disturbing, not to say neurotic, cult of the Holocaust.” Todd’s solace is also his main thesis, that American power is fast waning because of the country’s profligate spending: ”Let the present America expend what remains of its energy, if that is what it wants to do, on ‘war on terrorism’ — a substitute battle for the perpetuation of a hegemony that it has already lost.” This is easy to dismiss as the rant of Old Europe (surprise: Todd’s book was a best seller in France). But that would miss the point: his sense of betrayal is widely shared around the world, even in places the White House likes to portray as friends. Alas, I have heard too many people of good will express profound disappointment with the United States to reject Todd as an extreme or isolated voice.

Though I have lived abroad for many years and regard myself as hardened to anti-Americanism, I confess I was taken aback to have my country depicted, page after page, book after book, as a dangerous empire in its last throes, as a failure of democracy, as militaristic, violent, hegemonic, evil, callous, arrogant, imperial and cruel. Daalder and Lindsay may be constrained by an American sense of respect for the White House, but they too proclaim Bush’s foreign policy fundamentally wrong. It is not only Bush’s ”imperious style,” they write; ”The deeper problem was that the fundamental premise of the Bush revolution — that America’s security rested on an America unbound — was mistaken.” The more moving judgment comes from Soros, a Jew from Hungary who lived through both German and Soviet occupation: ”This is not the America I chose as my home.”

Serge Schmemann is the editorial page editor of The International Herald Tribune.

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