COMMENT: The saviour of democracy is run by a unilateral bully

By Martin Wolf

Financial Times

May 12, 2004

I am a huge admirer of the US. Freedom and democracy survived the 20th century only because of American actions and values. Without the US, Hitler or Stalin would have emerged as undisputed winners of the second world war. Thereafter, the US turned defeated enemies into allies and undertook the long - and ultimately successful - task of containing and defeating the Soviet empire.

I am also neither hostile to Republican administrations nor opposed to the use of force. On the contrary, I was heartened by Ronald Reagan's efforts to liberalise the US economy and oppose the Soviet Union. I preferred Richard Nixon to George McGovern, in 1972, and George H.W. Bush to Michael Dukakis, in 1988. I supported the first Gulf war, though I opposed the one in Vietnam.

This personal history is of no intrinsic importance. But if I find the Bush administration's foreign policy disturbing, so must the vast majority of humanity. If I feel Tony Blair has allied the UK too closely, then sym pathy for this alliance must be perilously low.

So what is wrong with this administration? Put simply, it fails to understand the basis of US power, mis-specifies US objectives and is incompetent in executing its intentions. As a result, the position of the US - and so of the west - is worse, in significant respects, than it was the day after September 11 2001. Then, a huge proportion of humanity viewed the US as the victim of an outrage. Today, after the revelations of the treatment of prisoners in Iraq, it is seen as a perpetrator of them. Then it had the support of all its allies, now it can rely on the public's sympathy in very few.

Let us start with the administration's faith in the application of US military power. This is a double error. The first lies in its exaggerated belief in force. The US was able to defeat the armies of Saddam Hussein, but a civilised occupying army cannot coerce the obedience of a population. The second error lies in its belief in the irrelevance o f allies. A country containing 4 per cent of the world's population cannot impose its will upon the world. It needs permanent allies, not reluctant stooges, willing acceptance of its leadership, not sullen acquiescence. The contempt shown by leading members of the administration for those who disagree with it is now matched by the hostility of those whipped by their scorn.

Without military power, victory would not have been achieved in the second world war. Nor would the Soviet tanks have been kept at bay for more than 40 years. But the cold war was won not because the US had a bigger army than the Soviet Union, but because it offered a more attractive model. The more the US plays the unilateral bully, the more its attraction fades.

Turn then to definition of US objectives. Terrorism is a technique of the powerless adapted to the age of mass communications. A war against terrorism is as empty a slogan as one against crime, drugs or disease. But proclaiming a war against terrorism justifies the indefinite suspension of the rule of law, allows every thug on the planet to ally his repressive policies to those of the US, spawns new enemies and foments a war psychosis in the US itself.

As David Scheffer pointed out in the Financial Times last Thursday, the behaviour of the guards at Abu Ghraib is the natural, almost the inevitable, consequence of the position in which the administration has - in its pursuit of its war on terrorism - put detainees. These are neither prisoners of war nor criminal suspects. Instead, they are in a legal limbo for as long as the US decides that this so-called "war" continues. Interrogators have absolute power and, as Lord Acton pointed out, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Nobody, not excluding Americans, is immune to the temptations such power creates.

Now let us turn to the question of competence. In the short history of the war on terrorism, only one institution has shown its effectiveness - the US armed forces in "shock and awe" mode. Almost everything else has been a humiliating shambles. Afghanistan is, once again, in the arms of the war lords whose behaviour led to the Taliban invasion. The outcome in Iraq now looks far worse than that.

The decision to wage a war of choice, not of necessity, was a great risk. It could be justified only by discovering the weaponry Mr Hussein was alleged to hold or by leaving the country, if not a Jeffersonian democracy, at least in a reasonably stable condition. Having been so resoundingly wrong on the first point, the US must now succeed on the second. Always difficult, the chances of such an outcome now seem vanishingly small. What will Iraq be a few years from now - a military dictatorship, a theocracy, a divided country, an anarchy, or a permanent US occupation? Any of these, except the last, seems more plausible than stable democracy.

It is impossible to exaggerate the dangers attendant upon a US failure in Iraq: jihadis would conclude that they had now defeated a second superpower; friendly regimes would be shaken; and US prestige would be destroyed. Iraq is not another Vietnam. It is far more dangerous than that. While this venture was never going to be as militarily perilous as that war, this time dominoes could well fall. An incontinent US withdrawal could be a deciding moment in the relationship between the US and the Arab, if not the entire Muslim, world.

The US has, rightly or wrongly, staked its prestige not just on getting rid of Saddam Hussein, but on leaving behind a thriving country. If, instead, it leaves behind despotism or chaos, it will be a grievous defeat, with huge long-run consequences. Responsibility for such a failure must rest with the White House. It cannot be blamed on any subordinate department, not even the defence department. This is the president's policy and responsibility. The buck stops there.

Crafting a foreign policy for a new era is hard. The last time this had to be done was in the time o f Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman more than half a century ago. The institutions they established and the values they upheld were the foundation of the successful US foreign policy of the postwar era. Now, a task even more complex has fallen on this president. He is not up to the job. This is not a moral judgment, but a practical one. The world is too complex and dangerous for the pious simplicities and arrogant unilateralism of George W. Bush.