The War in Context

   alternative perspectives on the "war on terrorism" and the middle east conflict

The axis of contradictions
Does America value its enemies more than its allies?

Editorial, The War in Context, June 10, 2002

With moral clarity it's much easier to name one's enemies than it is to locate and cultivate one's allies. Thus the "axis of evil" was identified and US foreign policy was reduced to arguments about the ranking order of Washington's rogue state hit list. But as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spun out of control and dragged Washington into the fray, for many conservatives America's diplomatic involvement provoked fears that George Bush was in danger of veering off the warpath.

Thus it was that by evoking memories of the Iron Lady, the Weekly Standard's William Kristol and Robert Kagan recently challenged the Bush administration with the question, "Going wobbly?" No doubt Kristol and his friends inside and outside the White House hope that they share Margaret Thatcher's persuasive power when it comes to making Bush the Younger follow his father's example and make good on his war threats against Iraq. Early indications are that the president is back on track having now stated his commitment to a first-strike policy - music to the ears of Kristol et al. All they want to hear now is that the bombs will start dropping without unnecessary delay. Ideally, the GOP and military planners will be able to craft a vote-winning Fall campaign and create another opportunity for helping the American people understand that a Republican vote is a vote for America.

Meanwhile, we receive frequent lessons on why Iran deserves inclusion in the axis of evil - whether via presidential admonitions to President Putin on the dangers of aiding Iran's nuclear power program or through editorial warnings about the ruthlessness of Iran's hard-line clerics. In response to all this disapprobation, President Khatami now says it's time to end all efforts at rapprochement between Iran and the United States; Iran refuses to be cajoled through insults. Although most Iranians resist returning America's insults by reviving the name of the Great Satin, they do think that America is, as one demonstrator put it, "very naughty."

By linking Iran with Iraq, Bush's policymakers have succeeded in exposing a glaring contradiction in their own thinking; a contradiction about which most of Europe is painfully aware, but which Washington blithely overlooks.

On the one hand the topple-Sadam hawks are positively sanguine when it comes to predicting the outcome of a "regime change" in Iraq. Their confidence, however, appears to be more deeply rooted in faith rather than in foresight. James "give-war-a-chance" Woolsey and Richard "Prince-of-Darkness" Perle, two of the most dedicated advocates of military action, dismiss charges that Sadam's opponents are thin on the ground and poorly organized. Interestingly, they express greater confidence in the strength of the exiled dissidents that make up the Iraqi National Congress, than in reports to the contrary coming from the CIA and the State Department. Admittedly, the Pentagon and the State Department have tough choices to make as the former invests its hopes in the INC's Ahmad Chalabi even though it still appears that he has a predilection for fraud. The State Department, however, has little time for Chalabi, but they need to be circumspect when it comes to courting their candidate for replacing Sadam. General Nizar Khazraji has a strong resume having made a previous coup attempt. Unfortunately he may also be a war criminal, since units under his command killed thousands of Kurds and destroyed dozens of Kurdish villages. While the Pentagon and the State Department argue about who will replace Sadam, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flush with extra resources for fighting the war on terrorism still don't feel they have enough resources for taking on Iraq. Kristol and his friends smile wryly and say that the generals are just dragging their feet; that's what generals do.

At the same time, when viewing Iran, where moderates hold government office (including the presidency), the US hawks insist on waving sticks and hurling insults rather than engaging in the arduous and delicate craft of diplomacy. Even though some Middle East experts such as Reul Marc Gerecht (an ardent supporter of the war on terrorism) claim that most Iranians are in love with America precisely because of American opposition to the Islamic revolution, instead of fostering this sympathy, the Bush administration has unified Iranian moderates and hard-liners in the face of a common enemy. Nevertheless, the hawks, with their irrepressible optimism and undying faith in American goodness, imagine that a military strike against Iran would result in the average Iranian blaming not America but its own clerics. Apparently, the US not only has smart bombs but also goodwill bombs.

Lurking beneath the bellicose posturing that has become the hallmark of US foreign policy is a fundamental question about the American conception of alliance. William Kristol along with Paul Wolfowitz and the other co-founders of The New American Century have a messianic vision of America's role in the world. They have a great deal to say about American leadership but express nothing more than platitudes on the subject of non-violent international relations. Those among America's allies for whom America is just a glorified gun shop, have little need for nuanced diplomacy. But for the rest of America's friends, just being told "we're friends" is to do nothing more than toss crumbs off a diplomatic table at which America so far sits alone. Now that America occupies its imperious position, we need to ask: Is the sole superpower actually capable of forming and sustaining alliances or is the very conception of an alliance an anachronism - nothing more than an occasionally useful PR tool?

Alliances depend on the perception of mutual interest, on give and take, and on the willingness to compromise. To ally is to share power and by so doing, acquire power. For Americans convinced of this nation's unassailable global authority, does not the notion of sharing power suddenly look instead like giving power away? From this perspective, power shared is power lost.

So, even though George Bush will continue to wheel out his emasculated Secretary of State whenever it's necessary to muffle the chatter of the foreign press and a few wayward politicians, let's not pretend that America really has any need or interest in sustaining international alliances and friendships. The world is simply divided into those states willing to cooperate with the United States, and those states foolish enough to be defiant. Whoever can be relied upon not to complain when they are ignored, can console themselves with thought that they are cherished by Washington as a "staunch ally."

©2002 Paul Woodward