A Vesuvius of violence has erupted from the dead center of American life, the executive branch of the government. No counterbalancing power, whether in the United States, the United Nations or elsewhere, has so far been able to contain it. Right now, it is raining destruction chiefly on one country, Iraq, half a world away from the United States. But others–Iran, Syria, North Korea–have already been named as candidates for attack. The war was launched in the name of a policy that asserts, in unusually explicit and clear language, an American claim of military dominance over all other nations on earth, which, in the words of George W. Bush, should bow to America’s unchallengeable military might, give up any “destabilizing” attempt to catch up and restrict any further “rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” (The prospective world order that military rivalry to the United States would “destabilize” is, clearly, American global hegemony.) The pillars of this new policy of supremacy are too familiar by now to require much elaboration: American unilateralism, the replacement of the cold war policy of containment with “pre-emption” and assertion of a right, at the pleasure of the United States, to overthrow other governments.
The war, indeed, is revolutionary in at least three distinct arenas. It is aimed, of course, at the destruction of the government in Iraq. It is aimed, further, at producing a political revolution in the entire Middle East. Finally, it announces the destruction of the existing world order (such as it is) in favor of one dominated by the United States. Just how radical this latter revolution is is suggested by some recent comments by one of the architects of the new policy, Richard Perle, until recently chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. In a recent article in The Guardian, he wrote of the United Nations: “The chatterbox on the Hudson [sic] will continue to bleat.” (How the UN can chatter and bleat at the same time is not explained.) But Perle’s target is larger: “What will die is the fantasy of the UN as the foundation of a new world order. As we sift the debris, it will be important to preserve, the better to understand, the intellectual wreckage of the liberal conceit of safety through international law administered by international institutions.”
In addition, a fourth revolution threatens–of the American constitutional order. In a culmination of the long decline of Congress’s war power, the Congressional resolution authorizing this long-considered “war of choice” almost formally abdicated that choice and gave it to the executive. All that was missing was a surrender ceremony in which the defeated legislative branch handed over the war sword, placed in its hands more than two centuries ago by the country’s founders, to the President.
Around the world, citizens and governments alike have read and absorbed these announcements of America’s global ambitions. With near-unanimity, they have reacted with alarm and dismay. Meanwhile, the war itself has aroused widespread revulsion. In the United States, however, where public opinion polls show that seven in ten people have rallied in support of the war, the picture is different. One of the peculiarities of the scene is the refusal of many of those supporters to acknowledge the larger policy in which it is embedded (if I may use that term). In early February, for example, the Washington Post, which has consistently favored the war, stated that it must not “be seen as an exercise in Mr. Bush’s new doctrine of pre-emption, though ideologues on both sides would portray it as such.” The formulation “ideologues on both sides” was arresting. One of those ideologues, after all, was evidently the President himself, who in the plainest terms has subscribed to the pre-emption policy and then named three nations–Iraq, Iran and North Korea–that, as members of an “axis of evil,” are targets. On the other “side” are citizens and commentators–I am one–who believe that the war is indeed the first application of the policy of pre-emption, not because we are ideologues but because the President and his Cabinet have repeatedly said that it is. The core of the policy is the Administration’s resolve to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction by military force. Pre-emption is necessary, the President has explained, because containment will not work. Perhaps the most important of the debates that are necessary, therefore, is whether this policy is workable or wise. That it is neither is strongly suggested by North Korea’s acquisition–or decision to acquire–nuclear weapons and Iran’s evident determination to do the same.
The attempt to save the war from its initiators and implementors has survived the war’s beginning. Some of the war’s supporters are upset to discover that the Administration’s explanations of its policies have been taken seriously by a horrified world. They seem to be seeking some other way of looking at the war that would be acceptable to the indignant international community. In England, for example, Guardian columnist Hugo Young has counseled Prime Minister Tony Blair to save himself from “taint” by distancing himself from certain particulars of Bush’s war policy. “What Iraqis see,” he writes, “and the world along with them, is a hegemon going about its business of domination, and barely any longer interested in why it is hated for doing so.” He advises that Blair defy Bush and support UN administration of a postwar Iraq. Here in the United States, David Remnick of The New Yorker has taken a similar position. There are, he admits, “conservative ideologues” in the Administration who “came to power with a grand, unilateralist project and a palpable distaste for international institutions and alliances”–but he calls them only a faction, as if the President himself had not, in statement after statement, embraced their agenda. He wants the war to be “rescued from the impulse to make it part of a grander imperial project.” Who will do it? Remnick, too, emerges as a Blairite. Secretary of State Colin Powell is also mentioned. But the war is not Blair’s, nor is it Powell’s. It is Rumsfeld’s war and Cheney’s war and, above all, it is Bush’s war. The world believes this, and it is right. There is no decent limited, multilateral war struggling to free itself from the brutal, unilateral, hegemonic war. The war is what its authors say it is. It cannot be interpreted into something else.