• U.S.

The Trouble with Saving the World

17 minute read
Michael Elliott

The American President stood for those things that had come to define his nation. Its armed forces were the best equipped and most disciplined in the world; their fighting spirit had just been the decisive factor in ending a war. The American economy was the largest and most technologically advanced on the planet, brimming with broad-shouldered vitality. Perhaps above all, the President thought big; he had grand, expansive ideas of how the world might be ordered to increase human security and happiness, and he cast these thoughts not in terms of some narrow set of American interests but as universal truths applicable to all nations and all problems. In international affairs, he lived by a clear identification of what was good and what was evil, and he believed in inclining American policy so that it supported the former; he was a great believer in moral clarity.

All of which, to many of those who had to deal with him, made him a royal pain. The British Prime Minister thought the President behaved like a heathen come to rescue the missionaries. The French Prime Minister, exasperated by the President’s airs, said that talking to him was like talking to Jesus Christ. Europeans found the President ignorant; he was, said the leading public intellectual of the time, not just “ill-informed” but “slow and unadaptable.” The central problem, this observer believed, was that the President’s “thought and his temperament were essentially theological not intellectual, with all the strength and the weakness of that manner of thought, feeling and expression.”

It was not George W. Bush he was describing but Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson set off for the peace conference in Paris at the end of World War I, he was, said John Maynard Keynes (the source of the waspish comments above) endowed with a “prestige and a moral influence throughout the world unequaled in history.” Conventional wisdom holds that he wasted these assets. As Margaret MacMillan documents in her new history, Paris 1919, Wilson’s commitments to self-determination, democracy and nation building (although the phrase was not then in vogue) were frequently frustrated at the peace conference by Europeans interested mainly in land grabs. After he returned from Paris, writes Michael Mandelbaum in his recent book, The Ideas That Conquered the World, Wilson’s negotiations with those Senators who thought that membership in the League of Nations would endanger American independence were “a masterpiece of political incompetence.” Among the more hard-nosed realist practitioners of American statecraft–the sort of folk who have found a natural home in the Bush Administration–it has long been fashionable to deride Wilson as a fuzzy dreamer. In a January 2000 article in Foreign Affairs, Condoleezza Rice, who would become Bush’s National Security Adviser, sniffed, with obvious disapproval, that there were “strong echoes” of “Wilsonian thought” in the Clinton Administration.

Yet here’s the odd thing. Nearly 80 years after his death, it is Wilson’s belief in peace, democracy and prosperity through trade and free markets that has come to define the aspirations of humankind. Communism and fascism, once rivals to liberal democracy, now seem no more than horrifying museum pieces. Even more surprisingly, a sort of muscular Wilsonianism has found a welcoming home in the White House. Bush, like Wilson, wants to remake the world.

In a series of speeches since Sept. 11, 2001, the President has shaped a “Bush doctrine” that commits the U.S. to do everything it can–including unilateral, pre-emptive military action–to eradicate international terrorism, reform the nations that support it and neutralize rogue states that seek to possess weapons of mass destruction. Much commentary on the Bush doctrine has stressed its toughness–the way, for example, that the Administration claims the right to take military action on its own, without U.N. sanction. All of this is said to be of a piece with the Administration’s supposed arrogance in international affairs, with its claims that the Kyoto accord on global warming or the treaty on the International Criminal Court should not apply to the sole superpower.

Yet in the grand sweep of history, Bush’s ambition is Wilsonian, motivated by high ideals. He has called for an independent, democratic Palestine, the first American President ever to do so; he has said he wants Iraq to be a model democracy for the Middle East. In his speech to the graduating class at West Point last June, Bush made his case explicitly. “Our nation’s cause,” he said, “has always been larger than our nation’s defense. We fight for a just peace–a peace that favors human liberty. We will defend the peace against threats from terrorists and tyrants. We will preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers. And we will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.” Wilson could not have put it better.

Now: journalists are wisely trained to take such phrases with a healthy dose of skepticism. Silver-penned speechwriters can put any sentiments they like into their master’s voice. Plenty of people, in the U.S. and outside it, think Bush’s fine words about liberty and openness are lies; the war against terrorism and the contest with Iraq, they think, are all about oil, or protecting Israel, or completing his Dad’s unfinished business. Suggestions that the Administration is genuinely committed, say, to building democracy in the Middle East, are treated as a bit of a joke. And it is an open secret that this Administration is split. Even if Bush believes that nation building and extending a “just peace” is a priority, it is not clear that all his colleagues do. Here’s one measure: the Pentagon seems so little concerned about supporting the new Afghan government that it handed off its contract to provide security to President Hamid Karzai–who was nearly assassinated in September–to DynCorp Inc., a private firm in Virginia. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once spoke of the land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on which Bush wants to see a Palestinian state as the “so called” occupied territories. Vice President Dick Cheney has always given the impression he believes that the world, far from being ready for Jeffersonian democracy, is a dark and threatening place, as if he carried a misanthropic scar from his Wyoming past like a character in a Sam Shepard play.

But Bush himself deserves to be taken seriously. It would have been perfectly defensible, after Sept. 11, 2001, for him to justify American policy by means of a narrow definition of the need to protect the nation from an external threat. But in speech after speech, the President has cast his goals in much broader terms. A European diplomat who has often seen Bush speak to other world leaders says, “He has a sense of mission that good should triumph over evil. He really believes in bringing democracy to the Middle East; he thinks he can make a real historical difference there.”

The Bush Administration did not come into office intent on changing the world. “There is nothing wrong with doing something that benefits all humanity,” wrote Rice in her Foreign Affairs article, with the air of a martinet schoolmarm lecturing her students, “but that is, in a sense, a second-order effect.” Bush himself, when a candidate for the presidency, seemed leery about pushing American values on other countries. His Administration, he said in a 2000 presidential debate, would not “go around the world saying, ‘We do it this way, so should you.'” But Sept. 11 changed everything. The attacks on that day underscored how some nations had resisted the seductive call of peace, democracy and freedom–and that we had paid for the resistance. The Administration, says Mandelbaum, “has decided that the cause of Sept. 11 lies in the failure of our ideals to take root in the Arab world.”

That failure is stunning. The Arab lands lie at the heart of an arc of crisis from Marrakech to Bangladesh. Autocracies, often dynastic, remain the principal form of government; economies are stagnant; violence is a common way of resolving political debate. Last summer the U.N. Development Programme commissioned a panel of regional experts to write an Arab Human Development Report. It was perhaps the most important volume published in 2002. “The wave of democracy that transformed governance in most of Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s and Eastern Europe and much of Central Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” the report stated, “has barely reached the Arab states. More than half of Arab women are still illiterate. Only 0.6% of the population uses the Internet. The quality of public institutions is low. One out of every five people lives on less than $2 per day. Poor or unavailable health care or opportunities for a quality education, a degraded habitat: all are widely prevalent in Arab countries.”

What the report did not say–though it should have–was that others were now being hurt, killed, as a consequence of the Arab world’s self-inflicted wounds. It would, after all, have been possible to write a similarly gloomy tome on Central Africa. The Arab world’s failure is noteworthy not because of its scale, but because on Sept. 11 it spilled out of its natural confines and into metropolitan America. With no legitimate channels for political discourse, Arabs have suffered from what Queen Rania of Jordan calls a “hope gap.” For some, that gap has been filled by a passionate commitment to a superfundamentalist strain of Islam, one that visits no sanction against indiscriminate violence in its name. To hope to combat the threat from such violence, it is not enough to toughen up the defense of the American homeland. What is needed, rather, is a Wilsonian project to assist the development of peace, democracy and prosperity in the Middle East. And that is what Bush has promised.

It’s the gap between promise and implementation that’s tricky. Certainly, if polls are an accurate guide, the Administration has not succeeded in convincing those it seeks to help of its good intentions. A recent poll for the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that public opinion about the U.S. in the Middle East and other Islamic countries was “overwhelmingly negative.” In Jordan, 75% of respondents had a poor image of the U.S.; in both Pakistan and Egypt, 69%–and in each country more than 50% of those polled said they had a very unfavorable view of America.

There’s no mystery why attitudes toward the U.S. are so negative. In the past, the U.S. has supported corrupt, repressive regimes like that in Egypt (and, in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) because it suited its purpose to do so. The American Administration’s commitment to democracy in the region seems to have been a long time coming, and so far has had little heft behind it. In December, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave an important speech, in which he said the U.S. must give “sustained and energetic attention to economic, political and educational reform” in the Middle East. Powell then announced a new U.S.–Middle East Partnership Initiative to span the “hope gap” with “energy, ideas and funding.” There will be rather more of the first two than the last, since the program currently has only $29 million to spend. (To be fair, the Administration can reply that it intends to increase the funds for worldwide development assistance over the next three years by $5 billion, and that it has sent some $600 million to help the new Afghan government, which is more than any other nation has done.)

And then there’s Israel. Plenty of Arab commentators make frankly ridiculous attempts to blame their region’s woes on the Jewish state. Even the otherwise sensible authors of the Arab Human Development Report claim that “Israel’s illegal occupation of Arab lands is one of the most pervasive obstacles to security and progress in the region,” as if the failure of any sizable Arab nation to build a successful, diversified economy could be laid at the door of the Knesset. Nonetheless, the Bush Administration has not done all that it could to show that its approach to the Israel-Palestine question is evenhanded. A good example is the tale of the “Road Map to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict,” which the State Department prepared in October. The road map is a rather sensible, thoughtful document that sets out the concessions that both Israelis and Palestinians need to make if a Palestinian state is to be established by 2005. Publishing the road map might help the U.S. convince Arab opinion that it was genuine in its desire to see a democratic Palestine. But at the urging of the Israeli government, the paper has been kept under wraps. An Administration that is so timid in its policies should not be surprised if the price is a loss of respect.

In one sense, of course, the Bush Administration is anything but timid. From outside the U.S., the principal method that Washington has chosen to move toward its worldwide goals is very clear. It isn’t diplomacy, and it isn’t money for Middle East partnerships or seminars in legislative procedures. It comes in a uniform, and it delivers high-technology munitions.

The ubiquity of American military power is extraordinary. At the end of 2001, the U.S. had 255,000 active-duty troops overseas based in 148 nations. Since then, some 60,000 troops have been prepositioned for a possible invasion of Iraq, and the U.S. has developed major new bases in Qatar, Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The worldwide military machine does not come cheap. The war in Afghanistan has so far cost an estimated $15 billion, and respectable guesses at the cost of a campaign in Iraq range from $100 billion to $200 billion. But the military’s precise role in support of the President’s wider Wilsonian objectives remains unclear. So far, the Administration seems wedded to the distinctive theory of nation building adopted by the George H.W. Bush and Clinton Administrations in Somalia (disastrously) and in Bosnia and Kosovo (rather more successfully): use American military power, preferably from the air, to effect “regime change” in the nation you want to rebuild. Then pass the buck to someone else, and hope for the best.

That seems to be current U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Though there are about 9,000 U.S. troops still in theater, they are hunkered down in a defensive crouch. Such genuine peacekeeping as is being done–and given the tendencies of its warlords, peace in Afghanistan is never easily kept–is in the hands of the non-American soldiers in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), whose leadership is about to pass from Turkey to a joint German-Dutch command. Until very recently, the Pentagon seemed anything but keen to see ISAF’s mission extended beyond Kabul, to which it is limited. Yet if a new Afghan nation is to be built, its writ will need to run in more places than the capital city.

Outside the U.S., factors like these are a source of griping about American policy. Many criticisms of the Bush Administration, especially from Western Europe, are not worth the price of the newspapers in which they appear. Modern Europe is a self-absorbed place, suspicious (for historical and very understandable reasons) of the use of force as a way of settling political disputes and resentful–as a senior British official puts it–of the “power, reach, economic and cultural success of the U.S.” Europeans, says Francois Bujon de l’Estang, a former French ambassador to the U.S., “are having to get used to the idea that they’re no longer the center of the world.” But one common European criticism of the Bush Administration has weight. That is the claim that the U.S has not thought through how to implement its Wilsonian agenda–how to weave political, diplomatic and military power into a sustained effort to achieve lasting change in the arc of crisis. Europeans look at an American military force spread all over the globe in support of an uncertain political goal, and they know exactly what it is they see. They see an empire–and they fear the worst.

For if there is one axiomatic truth of modern European thought, it is that empires end in tears. Indochina, Algeria, Kenya, India–all convinced Europeans of two things. First, military might was incapable of forcing foreign lands into habits that suited the imperial power. Second, imperialism soured domestic life. It fueled racism and privileged those with commercial interests in the colonies. It meant accepting a steady drip of deaths in little colonial wars and required large, expensive standing armies.

America’s past imperial ventures, to be sure, have generally been less venal and exploitative than those of the Europeans. And the Bush Administration has disavowed any intention of becoming an imperial power of the traditional kind. Even Richard Perle, the Pentagon adviser who for years has argued for regime change in Iraq, recently denounced imperialist ambitions in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro. “It is quite simply impossible,” said Perle, “to prove that the United States has behaved in an imperialist manner.” Yet as Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations argues, “Nobody wants to acquire an empire, but we are acquiring one. The general idea that we have to undertake nation building in Iraq is now established.” So it is in Afghanistan and Palestine; put those three nations together, and the beginning of an American imperium in the arc of crisis is plainly visible.

Leaders like Bush, and Wilson before him, believe to their bones that American ideas are universal ones. Ordinary Americans find it impossible to think that their nation is selfish, or thoughtless, or arrogant. In the Pew survey, 75% of Americans said that the U.S. takes the interests of other countries into account when it makes international policy. (Only 44% of Britons think that, and compared with everyone else, Brits love Americans.) But these are dangerous illusions; when it comes to the imposition of the values of one nation on another, it matters not a whit how pure of heart are the motives of those doing the imposing. Imperialism takes its very existence from the perceptions of those who believe they chafe under the heel of the imperial power.

That is a lesson the U.S. has just learned in, of all unlikely places, South Korea. In June, two teenage girls were accidentally killed by an American Army vehicle while walking to a birthday party. Since the accident, there have been almost constant demonstrations against what is perceived as the arrogance of the U.S. military, still stationed in Korea nearly 50 years after the end of the Korean War. If Bush is not very, very careful, he is going to stumble into a world in which such demonstrations–or worse–against ubiquitous American military power are common.

That outcome is not inevitable. For the past 15 months the Bush Administration has concentrated on winning a war against international terrorism and the states that support it. That war is not yet won. But if there is one thing that history tells us, it is that victors need to start planning how to win a peace long before the shooting stops. There is still time for the Bush Administration to close the gap between its Wilsonian rhetoric on democracy and liberty and the reality of a policy that, so far, seems dependent on nothing but imperial garrisons. Ill health and the collapse of domestic political support meant that Wilson never got the chance to see if his world-changing ideas could be put into practice. Bush now needs to set out precisely how he intends to reach for the same blue sky. In 2003, he will have no more important task. –With reporting by Mark Thompson/Washington

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