Vol. 26 No. 9 · 6 May 2004

No Grand Strategy and No Ultimate Aim

Stephen Holmes on US policy in Iraq

6638 words
Incoherent Empire 
by Michael Mann.
Verso, 278 pp., £15, October 2003, 1 85984 582 7
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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.

This chain of reasoning should not be dismissed simply because it is feverish. But there are ample reasons to doubt its sincerity. For one thing, if Bush’s officials were genuinely worried that Saddam might give a WMD to a terrorist group, they should have been just as obsessively focused on other potential sources of proliferation. But they weren’t. As Mann helpfully reminds us, they initially opposed Nunn-Lugar, a programme demonstrably making America safer by dismantling poorly guarded Soviet weapons and protecting nuclear storage facilities inside Russia. Bush ended up by curtailing its funding. He is willing to spend at least $180 billion to prevent proliferation from Iraq, which turns out to have no WMDs, but until a few weeks ago could barely bring himself to spend $1 billion on a programme aimed at reducing the threat from a country that everyone agrees is overflowing with them.

An even more alarming sign of the cavalier attitude towards proliferation is the proposal to develop ‘new low-yield and variable-yield theatre nuclear warheads’, including a small deep-penetrating device designed to destroy underground bunkers. There has never been a new weapons system that has not eventually fallen into the hands of the enemy. The ‘new militarists’ who advocate a research initiative into the miniaturisation of nuclear devices, even when the US faces no serious military rivals, presumably know this. It is therefore difficult to believe that, in the run-up to the invasion, they were losing sleep over proliferation as they would have us believe.

But if worries about a ‘hand off’ were not decisive, why did Bush embrace a lopsided militarising of America’s response to 11 September? Mann may have identified the most important reason. Dazzled by the US’s unquestioned military supremacy, the civilian hawks seem to have lost all realistic appreciation of what the military can and cannot do. The man with a hammer misinterprets every problem as a nail. (This cognitive bias is called the Fallacy of the Instrument.) Likewise, the country with unrivalled military power sees its environment in a distorted way. Highly attuned to threats posed by hostile states, the Bush administration seems to perceive non-state threats only obscurely. This predisposition, it should be said, is reinforced by the administration’s ideological atmosphere: Republicans have an easier time discerning and acknowledging threats posed by rogue states than threats posed, say, by unregulated markets or rogue religious sects with only minimal input from troublemaker states. Such preconceptions have presumably reinforced the institutional interest of the DOD in transforming Iraq, puzzlingly and riskily, into the primary focus of the so-called war on terror.

The civilian leadership in the Pentagon, we can also assume, seized on the invasion of Iraq as an opportunity to streamline America’s military structure and doctrine. Indeed, Donald Rumsfeld seems to have been so single-mindedly focused on his reform agenda, meant to improve the war-fighting capacity of US troops, that he apparently shrugged off the question of what to do after victory. Scandalously, US soldiers were given no instructions about how to behave when the Iraqi military collapsed. Despite all the prewar talk about ‘huge’ weapons stockpiles, only perfunctory preparations were made for a postwar proliferation disaster. And no constabulary force was on hand to deal with predictable looting and mayhem. The US, in Mann’s words, ‘went into this invasion with no credible plan for political reconstruction’.

Reflecting on this debacle, Mann paraphrases those who scoff at Europe as an economic giant but a military midget: ‘In interventions inside nation-states, the US is a political pygmy. After inflicting military devastation on a country, it cannot easily bring political order – as we see in both Afghanistan and Iraq.’ In what he calls an ‘age of nationalism’, he might have added, a foreign protectorate is more likely to be accepted when administered by a genuine coalition of states, operating perhaps under UN authorisation, than if it appears to be imposed by a single conquering power. In other words, the Bush administration’s knee-jerk hostility to multilateralism has contributed to its failure to assert control over political processes in postwar Iraq. No one seems to have planned, in the run-up to war, for the UN to assume a political role after hostilities ceased. And no one seems to have anticipated that unilateralism, however much battlefield flexibility it allows, would also make it difficult for the US to blame others for unavoidable setbacks and for it quickly to extricate its troops after routing Saddam’s regime.

Iraq is not Bush’s only foreign policy calamity. In the war on terrorism itself, according to Mann, things have also gone astray. It is just as ‘disastrous’, he argues, because it is being conducted in a fundamentally indiscriminate way. Here again, Washington has failed to keep focused on the real threat, extending its war to a whole series of terrorist groups who had nothing to do with 11 September. Indeed, Bush’s war on generic terrorism reflects a fatal conflation of two very different types of threat: national-liberation terrorists, such as the Chechens, the Kashmiris or the PLO, and international terrorists, such as al-Qaida. While the former are numerous and very difficult to overcome, the latter are few and somewhat easier to defeat. On 11 September, the US was attacked by international terrorists. But instead of focusing on those responsible, the government declared war indiscriminately on all terrorists, lumping together those who attacked the US and those who did not. The State Department’s official list of terrorist organisations draws no such distinction, and this has seriously warped America’s foreign-policy priorities.

National terrorists are ‘guerrillas’ who dwell ‘protected among their own people’, difficult to wipe out precisely because they rely on local support. Most revolutionary turbulence in the world is caused by such rebels, who ‘are usually too deep-rooted to eradicate merely by repression’. These ‘national struggles are almost endless’ because attempts to repress them often backfire: a counter-insurgency must be fine-tuned, applying enough force to repress the rebels but not so much that it alienates the local population.

Thwarted in their struggle against oppressive rule at home, a small subset of these nationalist insurgents end up as ‘isolated extremist splinter groups, living in alien lands’. Unable to operate in their own countries, uprooted freedom fighters decide, desperately but not irrationally, to redirect their rage against ‘states abroad whom they identify as allies of their local enemy’. Using Western cities as launch pads, however, ‘they cannot as easily operate as guerrillas.’ Instead, they are forced to ‘fight exposed amid alien communities’.

Mann’s underlying point here seems to be that organisations such as al-Qaida, because they are unable to draw on the unquenchable fires of nationalism, are inherently weak or unlikely to perpetuate themselves for long. Their power has been exaggerated only because a handful of them managed successfully to attack the United States. In reality, we ‘could easily win the war against existing international terrorists, who are very exposed to attack’. The search for the 11 September conspirators is a worldwide police manhunt; it does not resemble those ‘guerrilla wars, deeply rooted among local populations’. The US will continue to capture or kill al-Qaida operatives, who are living on the lam, in pinpoint law-enforcement operations, and can do this without slaughtering village-loads of innocent bystanders. This is a notable advantage, because the indiscriminate killing and crippling of bystanders is how counter-insurgencies propel new recruits into terrorist conspiracies. Unfortunately, Bush has all but squandered this advantage. Instead of keeping aloof from unwinnable guerrilla wars, he has rushed to join them, as when he sent 3000 American soldiers to help crush Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic secessionist movement in the southern Philippines.

Mann is well aware that the Bush administration could not conduct such a foolhardy foreign policy without significant public support. The American public’s well-documented ignorance of world affairs has contributed to its willingness to support Bush’s rechannelling of the public desire for vengeance from al-Qaida to Iraq, on the one hand, and to national-liberation terrorists, such as Hamas, on the other. Since the US public was poorly informed about political turmoil in, say, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it had the impression that, on 11 September, the US was hit from nowhere. As a result, Americans were widely supportive of purportedly retaliatory attacks anywhere the government desired.

As Mann makes clear, however, uncritical public support for Bush’s folly is not exactly spontaneous; it is to some extent a product of bowdlerised media coverage. Most distressingly, the American public saw a very different Iraq war from publics elsewhere: ‘The disconnect between the American and foreign media during the Iraq invasion became quite extreme.’ There were political distortions in news coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, of course. But whoever is at fault, the erosion of shared experience bodes ill for ‘international amity’. Because US citizens are ‘insulated within their self-censorship’, they, as well as their leaders, are becoming increasingly autistic.

As a dual citizen of the US and the UK, Mann is acutely conscious of the new American solipsism. He places some of the blame for it on Tony Blair, who is depicted as a ‘camp follower’ with a ‘walk-on part’ in Bush’s war on Iraq. Blair placed British soldiers in the service of a foreign power, ‘objectively’ aligning the UK with Ariel Sharon and making it into an appealing target for radical Islamic terrorism. He did this in part because of his ‘Christian Soldier desire to bring good to the world by force’. But Mann charitably adds that Blair, in the end, was so fixated on moderating Bush that he simply ‘got trapped inside the military tent’. This was ‘a world-historical mistake’, however, because only a common European front against the invasion of Iraq could have stopped Bush.

My account does not do full justice to Mann’s searching analysis and cascading insights; but let me now turn to some of his book’s minor shortcomings. First, Mann does not distinguish clearly enough between the passing sins of the Bush administration and deeply entrenched patterns of US behaviour that will change little if a Democrat is elected later this year. He also oscillates confusingly between the claim that the US lacks important powers and the allegation that the present government, for ideological reasons, refuses to use these powers. After explaining at great length that the US is doomed to fail in its imperial ambitions because it has neither the resources nor the favourable conditions enjoyed by the British when they established and maintained their empire, he flips around and argues with equal confidence that the US is not seeking a territorial empire on the British model. And so forth.

His analysis is also marred to some extent by the mechanical nature of his thinking about the ‘global blowback’ likely to follow from Bush’s inept counter-terrorism strategy. At various points he endorses the ancient notion that the hubris of the great inevitably precipitates their downfall. In a few passages, strangely enough, this prognosis sounds like wishful thinking. The US’s ‘overconfident, hyperactive militarism’, he predicts, ‘will soon destroy’ America’s global power. Elsewhere he refers to the Bush administration’s ‘ruthless arrogance leading to overconfidence, eventually leading to hubris and disaster’. That he feels somewhat uneasy with this mythical-poetical style of thinking comes out in his odd disclaimer, expressed as a dissent from Osama bin Laden: ‘I doubt that God will strike down the Americans.’ But he does not seem to doubt that the minor deity called ‘blowback’ will do something of the sort.

Or rather, he confidently asserts it in some passages, and in others flatly denies it. But even where he insists that destruction is a real possibility, he cannot quite decide about the mechanism by which the US will be punished for its sins. The general idea is that it will suffer for swimming against ‘the tide of history’, as if history had one prevailing tide and Mann knew what it was. Sometimes he says that a resurgent nationalism will throw off America’s imperial yoke the way it put an end to the British Empire. The problem with this prediction is that America’s pacification efforts in Iraq, for example, are being thwarted less by nationalism than by ethnic and sectarian divisions – that is, by the weakness of nationalism.

Another of Mann’s candidates for the role of empire-slayer is the international Islamic brigade which he predicts will be created, or re-created, by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He confirms the existence of this form of blowback, humorously enough, by introspection. If he had been confined in Guantanamo, he reveals, ‘I would now be tempted to become a terrorist mastermind!’ He even associates himself, if only weakly, with those who asserted that the US had it coming on 11 September. The US has treated poor countries so badly that ‘it should expect some of them to hit back, a few of them armed with the weapons of the weak in the name of the poor and the oppressed of the world. To a degree, the US would have deserved it.’

But having derided the power of international terrorists, he cannot make a very strong case that they will bring the US to its knees. In another passage, he dismisses the idea that either national insurgencies or international conspiracies could seriously weaken the US. Instead, he explains, the only true limit on American power is the threat of capital flight. If Japan and OPEC abandon the dollar, the American economy will collapse, spelling an end to the US’s capacity to project its military power around the globe. This might happen, he adds, if reckless militarism makes the world’s investors see the US as a potentially insolvent debtor. There is obviously something to this analysis, but its relation to the other mechanisms discussed and dismissed is never made clear. Nor is it reconciled with the assurance elsewhere in the book that American power will obviously survive more or less intact, even though Americans will suffer grievously in the years to come.

Looming in the background here is Mann’s struggle to navigate the tricky transition from academic sociology to partisan polemic. His entire project makes sense only if he can directly trace what he sees as disastrous political choices back to conceptual blunders and factual inaccuracies about the world. By correcting these errors, he hopes to deliver a fatal blow to the execrable policies built on them.

This conceit may be noble, but it is not reasonable. Mann argues, for instance, that the failure of the Bush administration to distinguish between international terrorists who attack the US and national-liberation terrorists is a conceptual mistake. But there are too many winners and losers involved for this to be an analytical mix-up that an alert academic can identify and correct. In actuality, the obfuscation is political, not conceptual. By declaring war against generic terror, rather than against those terrorists who pose a direct threat to the United States, the Bush administration is committing itself to the Israeli side in the Middle East conflict; but Mann persists in treating this fateful political choice as if it were the fruit of a conceptual slip.

This is not to belittle his substantive commentary on US-Israel relations. Mann calls the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ‘the running sore of US foreign policy’. When he writes that the ‘US failure to control Israel is irrational,’ he means that he cannot explain it. Why should a global power takes sides in a local land dispute and blood feud? American partiality in the Middle East conflict manifestly contravenes Rumsfeld’s precept that the mission must determine the coalition rather than the other way round. In this case, quite obviously, the alliance determines the mission. But why? America’s unbending loyalty to Israel buys it such virulent hostility around the globe that it cannot be explained on narrow national-security grounds alone. Nor can it be explained by the tribal loyalties of America’s relatively insignificant (and in any case divided) ‘Jewish lobby’.

Mann’s frank admission that he cannot explain Israeli-American relations should encourage readers to ponder some of the less-than-rational forces that may underlie US devotion to, even obsession with, Israel. What we can say with some confidence is that this unusual alliance rests on deep feelings of affinity. No doubt the central role of ‘Israel’ in the Protestant-evangelical interpretation of the Bible has not been lost on an administration that can be re-elected only by satisfying the Christian Right. Having grown up with the myth of the American West, some hawks may also feel drawn to a frontier society of armed settlers, scratching the desert to make it bloom and gallantly thrusting forward against the hopeless resistance of an ‘inferior’ people. Or perhaps they sympathise with a government that prefers hard military solutions to soft civilian alternatives and is constantly at odds with the UN. Or perhaps those who are nostalgic for Cold War certainties identify psychologically with a democratic country caught in a struggle for survival against an implacable foe. Such unverifiable speculations do not resolve the mystery of the bond, but they underscore Mann’s assertion that it is both a pivotal factor in contemporary affairs and one that is painfully difficult to comprehend. They also contravene his assumption that the US would quickly cut Israel loose if Americans only got a grip on the concept of ‘state terror’, or if they were to learn that the Palestinian resistance had stopped targeting US citizens in the 1980s.

A related objection can be raised against Mann’s claim that the international terrorists who attacked the US are ‘easy’ to separate from national-liberation terrorists. For one thing, bin Laden’s organisation has deep roots inside Saudi Arabia and is currently involved in sporadic terrorism there. Most of the 11 September terrorists lived in Saudi Arabia until a few months before the attack, and came out, with clean records, for a one-time strike. They were not, therefore, fighting in exposed forward positions as Mann claims. Moreover, even those international terrorists who do operate in foreign countries, cut off from their home communities, are not as easily detectable as he implies, since they swim in the international waters of drug-smuggling, globalised communication and transportation, and international Islamic networks.

In the final paragraphs of the book, Mann gives the US the following advice. To sustain its global influence and even guard itself from disaster, America must start withdrawing its troops from places ‘where they have no business’. It must also stop supporting Israel, stop ‘seeking extra-territorial control over oil supplies’, and, of course, stop invading foreign countries. ‘No significant danger would occur if the US stopped doing all these things,’ he says. ‘Quite the contrary.’ How this advice comports with Mann’s earlier pleas for the US to remain engaged in the world as a ‘leader’ and a ‘conciliator’ is unclear. But the real problem is that every one of his ‘proposals’ is politically unrealistic. At some level, Mann writes as a utopian rather than as an activist – less to improve America politically than to rebuke it morally. His description of the US as ‘a disturbed, misshapen monster’ is wonderful for a seminar, but as propaganda to defeat Bush is sure to have the opposite effect.

Mann excoriates Bush, among other ways, by disclosing the comprehensive and nefarious plan that, in his opinion, undergirds the administration’s foreign policy. ‘Do not think,’ he says, ‘that US policy towards Kyoto, land-mines, Star Wars, Iraq, Iran or the southern Philippines are ad hoc or unconnected. They are all part of the grand strategy for a global American empire, first envisioned as theory, then after 11 September becoming reality.’ The ‘theory’ he has in mind was developed in the early 1990s by Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and others at the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), calling for the US to increase military spending and to target rogue states (Iraq, Iran and North Korea) pre-emptively, as well as to develop missile defence and a new generation of theatre nuclear weapons.

Mann is onto something here, but he also risks giving the government too much credit. Indeed, we might say, turning his own phrase against him, that Bush’s use of American power ‘to make the world a better place’ is not coherent enough to be the embodiment of any strategy, grand or petty. No impartial examination of US activities abroad, from foreign aid through bilateral trade agreements to military invasion, could conclude that the administration has a clear and consistent set of priorities or that it knows how to rank, according to degrees of urgency or importance, the tangle of problems and threats facing the country.

The administration’s embarrassing failure to explain convincingly why US troops are now occupying Iraq suggests that this operation, in particular, was so ill-considered as to verge on the impulsive. Bush’s attitude towards WMDs was so easygoing on other fronts that his assertion that he invaded Iraq to stop proliferation is simply not credible. The White House’s second public justification for the war is even flimsier. Bush said that ‘you can’t distinguish between al-Qaida and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror.’ But this blurring of the images of Osama and Saddam is self-incriminating. Knowing that ordinary Americans would support an invasion of Iraq only if they perceived it as revenge for 11 September, Bush used innuendo to make it seem that way.

The only question is whether he was dissimulating for a higher cause. The administration must have had very strong reasons for invading Iraq, we might imagine, otherwise it would not have put at risk its credibility at home and in the world. So what might its real rationale be? What was the long-term strategy behind the war?

To answer this question, Mann looks to insiders associated with PNAC – especially Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, but also Cheney and Rumsfeld. These long-time acquaintances had been discussing an invasion of Iraq for many years before 11 September. After it, they served up their preconceived policy of preventive war (alongside their preconceived policy of missile defence) as if it were a solution to the wholly new problem of international terrorism targeting US territory. This fateful step is often described as cynical opportunism. But it could just as easily have represented a failure of imagination. The Bush team may have responded to the shock of the new by clinging to what was most familiar. They had paid no attention to al-Qaida before 11 September and may have been simply unable to bring it into focus after it.

What they did focus on was America’s mission in the world after the collapse of the USSR. Some of them conceived US hegemony as an expanded and improved version of British imperial domination. But here their motivations become obscure, inconsistent and wholly unworthy of the name of ‘grand strategy’. Bush may fantasise that the Almighty has assigned him the personal task of bringing ‘freedom’ to mankind. Wolfowitz and Feith presumably have more secular dreams. Their proposal to use American power to compel the rest of the world to accept the US understanding of human rights and democracy certainly sounds like megalomania. But it also provides a publicly acceptable motive for deploying US military forces abroad. It is very difficult, as a consequence, to be certain who took it seriously as a motive and who merely invoked it, cynically, as a pretext.

Those who dream of democratising the world may be righteous in their own minds, but the Iraq debacle has exposed the essential childishness of their messianic vision. Administration officials continue to read from cue cards, reaffirming America’s commitment to a genuinely democratic government in a sovereign Iraq. Success in this venture, Wolfowitz and his colleagues still contend, will provide the ultimate vindication of ‘muscular Wilsonianism’. With American hand-holding, a model Iraqi democracy will emerge. It will respect due process and minority rights. It will efficiently manage the oil economy without corruption. It will create happy citizens grateful to the US. And it will also produce a government eager to comply with US regional policies, including support for Israel. Finally, a democratic Iraq will trigger a tidal wave of reform throughout the region, turning virulent anti-Americanism into heartfelt appreciation for American friendship.

It is hard to know how to respond to such guileless optimism, especially when professed by men who usually vaunt their lack of illusions. Have they never heard of worst-case scenarios? And what sort of foreign policy assumes that democracy has no historical, cultural, economic and psychological preconditions? Among the factors obstructing the emergence of democracy in Iraq is the fragmentation of the population. As Mann says, ‘this is not an easy country to hold together.’ It is not obvious that the US can gain Kurdish and Shiite acquiescence to the minimal condition for Iraqi nation-building: namely, reintegrating the alienated Sunnis into the country’s police and military hierarchy. And no one knows how the Iraqi ‘entity’, to which sovereignty will be transferred on 30 June, can be both representative enough to be legitimate and coherent enough to govern. That any foreign occupier could create ‘social and political cohesion’ in a country honeycombed with ethnic, sectarian and tribal divisions is dubious. That the US in particular has the skill, wisdom and perseverance to create the ‘demos’ presupposed by any functioning democracy, given the intrinsic difficulty of ethnic and confessional reconciliation in a country with Iraq’s history, surpasses belief.

There is little evidence, in any case, that promoting democracy in Muslim countries is a consistent principle of US foreign policy. Bush’s passion for electoral accountability does not extend to Pakistan or Jordan, where majorities might beg to differ with US regional interests. The global manhunt for sleeper agents affiliated with al-Qaida also reveals the limits of liberal messianism as a guide to Bush’s policy, because it requires the US to sustain amiable relations with security apparatuses around the world, including those in undemocratic Muslim states. It is hard to believe that the administration is so sincere in its dedication to spreading democracy by force of arms that it prefers countries with elected governments to countries that readily comply with US requests. Self-government is fine. But whatever a few messianic liberals say, Washington’s preference remains for a world in which no state can comfortably say no to Washington.

Rather than searching for a grand strategy behind the invasion of Iraq, it is more fruitful to view it as the consequence of a set of ad hoc compromises among various decision-makers who were driven by unrelated and sometimes contradictory aims. The ‘mission’ to bring democracy to mankind was only one aim among many, and not the dominant one by a long shot. Without trying to establish any particular hierarchy, we can safely say that the following jumble of motives, seizing different actors at different times, contributed to the decision. At a particular historical moment, they all pointed to war. The administration invaded Iraq to frighten any group or state that might feel emboldened to replicate 11 September; to offer solace to American voters traumatised by 11 September by letting them see US military supremacy in action; to show that the US was still responding aggressively to 11 September even after ‘running out of targets’ in Afghanistan; to finish a job that George H.W. Bush had left undone; to avenge Saddam’s 1993 attempt to assassinate the first President Bush; to field-test Rumsfeld’s proposals for military reform; to reduce US dependency on the Saudis by securing some leverage over Iraqi oil supplies; to allow the US to evacuate its troops from Saudi Arabia, thereby removing a focal point of anti-American rage; to destroy an important regional threat to Israel; to make sure that Saddam would not acquire the capacity for nuclear blackmail after France, Germany and other countries dismantled the UN embargo; to express America’s self-love by offering to replicate American political institutions abroad; to counter ‘moral relativism’ by revealing that the world really is divided between good and evil.

That different individuals and groups, embracing such a cacophony of aims, could come to agree on the invasion of Iraq seems plausible enough. That they would not easily concur about what to do after victory also makes sense. Any attempt to achieve consensus about an endgame would have risked breaking up the ad hoc coalition for war. Hard-headed realists permitted democratic sloganeering to replace serious planning because they had no grand strategy and no ultimate aim.

This dismaying picture should be supplemented by one additional observation. During the Cold War, Soviet power not only threatened but chastened the US. Today, no such well-organised enemy is even on the horizon. A few challenges to US power exist, but they are all what Mann calls ‘half-baked’. None compares even remotely with the former USSR. This means that US policy-makers now face radically reduced incentives to think carefully about how they deploy their country’s global power. Bellicose gamblers have always agitated US foreign policy circles. But during the Cold War stand-off they were held in check by more sober heads. The disappearance of a peer competitor, with global capacities for reaction and retaliation, eliminated compelling reasons for scrupulous forethought. If America were still disciplined by such a country, the administration would not have become militarily entangled in Iraq without planning what to do next.

One of the essential conclusions of Incoherent Empire is that ‘the new militarism will also increase terrorism.’ It certainly did this in Iraq. As a consequence of Bush’s most irresponsible exploit thus far, whole new cadres of snipers and bombers (including suicide bombers) are now murdering Americans (as well as Europeans and other foreigners, not to mention Iraqis) on a regular basis. America’s new-minted enemies have even seized a bit of moral high ground, insofar as they are dealing death to US soldiers, and not civilians as on 11 September. No Iraqis were doing anything like this before the collapse of Saddam’s regime. Thus, by inflating the threat from rogue states and magically making them into the principal targets of America’s counter-terrorism efforts, Bush has managed to aggravate the very problem he ostensibly set out to solve. To call such a policy incoherent seems almost euphemistic. But the bitterest twist of Bush’s foreign policy is a different one. After ridiculing Bill Clinton for confusing foreign policy with social work, Bush has ended up conducting foreign policy as social work of the most hazardous and unpromising kind. This may not be blowback, in Mann’s sense, but it definitely has the feel of a bad self-inflicted wound.

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Vol. 26 No. 10 · 20 May 2004

Stephen Holmes, in his review of Michael Mann’s Incoherent Empire, quotes Mann as saying that America has ‘the first military force deployable over the entire world’ and that ‘this lack of rivals is truly unique in history’ (LRB, 6 May). What about the Roman Empire? The legions were deployable over the whole of the then known world, and their deployment was justified, to the limited extent that the Romans felt it necessary to do so, in a rhetoric not unlike that of the present American administration. LRB readers might be interested to know that the British Academy will be holding an open discussion meeting on 29 October on ‘Imperialism, Ancient and Modern’. The principal speaker will be Edward Luttwak, with Professor Sir Michael Howard in the chair.

W.G. Runciman
Trinity College, Cambridge

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