No Grand Strategy and No Ultimate Aim

Stephen Holmes on US policy in Iraq

  • Incoherent Empire by Michael Mann
    Verso, 278 pp, £15.00, October 2003, ISBN 1 85984 582 7

The defining reality of today’s international order is no longer 11 September but America’s increasingly bloody occupation of a turbulent Iraq. So why did the Bush administration shift its attention from tracking down Osama bin Laden and a limited number of al-Qaida fugitives to reordering the Iraqi political system in line with American interests and values? This diversion of resources from a clandestine war against a proven enemy to the uphill stabilisation of a wretchedly abused and fractured society seems extraordinarily illogical, even self-defeating. Commentators seeking to make sense of it are now filling the bookstores with volumes devoted to the American ‘empire’. But how appropriate is this evocative term?

Michael Mann has been working for two decades as ‘a historical sociologist on the nature of power in human societies’. In this dense and lively volume, composed ‘at breakneck speed’, he analyses and evaluates the main strands of US global influence, with separate chapters devoted to America’s military, political, economic and ideological power. To these he adds others on Afghanistan, international terrorism, North Korea and Iraq. This is a wide-ranging work, in other words, and it repays close study, even by readers who will not find its perspective altogether congenial or convincing.

It was America’s reckless foreign policy after 11 September, Mann explains, that compelled him to descend from his ivory tower. ‘For the sake of the world’, he has decided to make the leap from scholar to activist, in an effort to unseat George W. Bush. He does this in his own bookish way, situating Bush’s foreign policy in a broad historical context and exposing its pathologies without resorting to ‘high moral rhetoric’. Instead of denouncing American power as evil, he charges it with incoherence, exposing US foreign policy as self-defeating rather than merely malevolent or deranged.

Its irrationality, Mann seems to believe, stems from a fatal self-misunderstanding. He has in mind the boast of Charles Krauthammer and other neo-con ideologues that the US today is the most powerful polity in history. With bases in 132 countries, America has ‘the first military force deployable over the entire world’. Moreover, since 1991, it has had no competitors. This ‘lack of rivals’, Mann concedes, ‘is truly unique in history’. His aim, however, is to puncture the fantasies of omnipotence that, in his opinion, are fuelling the Bush administration’s rash and destabilising behaviour. By drawing attention to the limits of American power he hopes to moderate the scope of American ambition. He also tries to halt the drift towards megalomania by distinguishing among the various dimensions of that power. Although its military power is daunting, America’s political, economic and ideological powers are much more modest.

Such discriminations are important because military power is not especially useful for achieving many of the US’s most important goals. This is true even in the realm of national security. The principal security threats identified by the White House are WMD proliferation and elusive, non-state terrorist cells dispersed in cities in Western Europe, South-East Asia and throughout the world. But the Department of Defense is no better equipped to handle these problems than to take the lead in disrupting terrorist financing, curbing US fossil fuel consumption or reforming the madrassas of Pakistan. Such problems cannot be smashed by unilateral military deployments: they must be managed co-operatively, painstakingly and inconclusively by diplomats and other civilians. ‘Anti-proliferation policy and parts of the war against terrorism’, as Mann says, are ‘most effective when combining American leadership with multilateral agencies’.

The hawks driving US foreign policy do not seem to have absorbed this. Preferring military force to diplomacy and law, they pump up threats that can be definitively solved by unilateral military action and play down threats that must be managed over extended periods of time, with inevitable setbacks and little hope of finality, by patient multilateral diplomacy.

The folly of overmilitarising America’s national security strategy shows up clearly in the administration’s dealings with North Korea, ‘a threatened, failing regime driving towards nuclear weapons’. Soon after taking office, Bush informed the world that Kim Jong-il was a ‘pygmy’ whom he ‘loathed’. The administration went on to combine its call for disarmament with a demand for regime change. To ask for both simultaneously was breathtakingly provocative. It was as if the Americans were ordering Kim Jong-il to put down his gun so they could kill him more easily. How did they expect him to react?

The inanity of this approach, according to Mann, typifies the amateurishness of Bush’s foreign policy. Extending a few ‘carrots’, he says, would mean giving ‘would-be proliferators an alternative way out’. But instead of hammering out a serious strategy for dealing with North Korea, the administration spent its first two years operating with ‘no policy’ at all. It indulged in pointless name-calling only to demonstrate, apparently, that it was deadly serious about ‘going it alone’.

In institutional terms, the debate between unilateralists and multilateralists is a struggle between the Department of Defense and the Department of State for influence over foreign policy. So why has DOD tended to prevail? How can we explain the administration’s partiality to military options? And why do the hawks take such delight in blanket derision of international law? This is a mystery because the UN has never presented much of an obstacle to US ambitions. We might even say, with only slight exaggeration, that the US retains a veto over international law. Multilateral institutions and international law as they currently exist were in effect created by the US to serve US national interests. The UN secretary-general, as Mann tartly remarks, is virtually a US appointee.

But if international law is either toothless or a tool of US power, why do the hawks thunder at the galling restraints it allegedly places on US power? Why, in the run-up to the Iraq war, did they show so little interest in a UN mandate which might have made it easier to secure allied soldiers, logistics and cash? A collateral benefit of multilateralism, according to Mann, is that it allows allied countries to ‘hide behind UN ideological authority’, turning a deaf ear to their own publics in order to acquiesce in American wishes. So why would Bush’s officials disparage such an asset in their hour of need?

One answer is that the international legal regime, as it existed when Bush came to power, interfered with two pet projects of his hawkish foreign policy team. The impregnable space-based weapons platform that the ‘new imperialists’ dreamed of creating under the cover of missile defence was inconsistent with the ABM treaty then in force. (Bush opportunistically abrogated this treaty in the aftermath of 11 September.) And customary international law had created a strong presumption against future nuclear weapons testing. This expectation still exists informally, but if it were ever codified – that is, if a comprehensive test-ban treaty were to be ratified by the US Senate – the new imperialists would have to renounce their dream of developing a whole new generation of small first-strike nuclear weapons.

Another reason for the administration’s instinctive unilateralism is that multilateral instruments are not always as useful as their proponents contend. On this subject Mann is commendably even-handed. The world’s gravest problems, including treacherously unpredictable states, he explains, cannot be competently managed through an organisation as ‘divided and ineffective’ as the UN. The UN ‘often stalls amid wrangles between the permanent members’. As a result, ‘leaving everything to the UN might be a recipe for the deployment of high moral sentiments, endless political squabbles, and little action.’ In fact, multilateral institutions and international law work best under ‘American leadership’. When the US refuses to supply the power of enforcement, international law has no teeth. Mann favours ‘combined US/UN activity’ and laments that it is becoming rare.

But why has the Pentagon’s understandable preference for unilateral military power over diplomacy become White House policy? The civilian leaders at the DOD presumably concluded soon after 11 September that they could ride the public fear of terrorism to ever greater influence (and ever larger budgets) if they could clearly demonstrate that the massive strike-power developed to fight the USSR was perfectly suited for combating terrorism, too. Some evidence for this contention was provided by the war in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida’s training camps were shut down by a combination of military force and CIA payoffs. But the proposition cannot be generalised, since the DOD has scant competence in counter-proliferation or international police manhunts. Or so you would think.

After the fall of the Taliban, the DOD managed to maintain its dominant role because the White House inflated the threat posed by rogue states, claiming that they are central rather than merely marginal players in the international terrorism aimed at the US. This dubious proposition rests on an imagined doomsday scenario, in which a rogue state might ‘hand off’ a WMD to an elusive terrorist group which, in the grip of an apocalyptic ideology, could devastate an American city. To pre-empt this eventuality, so the narrative runs, the US has the right to use military force to ‘change’ any regime that might conceivably contemplate such a lethal transfer.

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