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Thoughts on going to war
Bush’s naive — and scary — idealism

Call it the Bush Corollary to the Wherry Doctrine. In 1940, Senator Kenneth Wherry, a Republican from Nebraska, cast an eye toward China and declared, "With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City." Sixty-two years later, George W. Bush seeks to bring peace, justice, and democracy to another troubled part of the world — the Middle East — through the alchemy of military force and benevolent imperialism. The president proposes to lift Baghdad up and up, ever up, until it is just like ... Dallas.

Bush can be a cynical operator when it comes to little things, like (not) counting votes and pushing through tax cuts for his wealthy campaign contributors. But on the stuff that really matters — war, peace, and the future of humanity — he is an idealist through and through. And that should scare the hell out of us.

Everyone has a spin on why Bush is so eager to go to war against Iraq. Most of these theories, at least from some elements of the antiwar left, are cynical indeed, ranging from the president’s alleged lust for Iraqi oil to his desire to change the subject from the shaky economy just before the fall elections. And I don’t doubt that oil has something to do with why Bush is more interested in Iraq than, say, North Korea, or that he prefers to talk about weapons of mass destruction rather than corporate greed and corruption.

But what’s at the root of Bush’s war fever is that he believes he can make the world a better place by toppling Saddam Hussein. The president has reportedly been enraptured by a vision put forth by his most hawkish advisers — principally Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, aided and abetted by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — that we can transform Iraq into an Arab-Muslim version of a liberal democracy, much as we reconstructed Germany and Japan after World War II. Show the way in Iraq, so this theory goes, and corrupt dictatorships such as those in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt will fall in line (or fall). Radical, America-hating Islamists will be transformed into moderate, America-loving Muslims, the Palestinians and the Israelis will finally agree to live in harmony, and we will all reap the benefits of a new era of wonderfulness.

It’s a theory of which Kenneth Wherry would have approved. But it’s not worthy of consideration as an operating principle for a mature and realistic superpower. More than anything, the Bush Corollary fails utterly to recognize the limits of American power. It’s tiresome and not always relevant to dredge up the lessons of Vietnam, but there were lessons from that misguided and tragic episode. The first and most important: we cannot remake in our own image cultures that are very different from ours.

Yes, Iraq will fall if we invade. The gravest danger American troops may face is getting trampled by surrendering Iraqi soldiers. But after that, Iraq is ours, for a generation, if not longer. As a recent Atlantic Monthly cover story put it, Iraq will become, in effect, "the 51st state." Is that what we want? Can we really transform Iraq into another Japan or Germany? Or are we going to make the entire country — as opposed to just Saddam and his henchmen — despise us, and seek revenge for our arrogance and hubris?

Despite the war fever that has infected the White House, if not the rest of the country, I’m not entirely pessimistic. Secretary of State Colin Powell and British prime minister Tony Blair reportedly urged Bush to cease his threats of unilateral war and "regime change" and, instead, to work with the United Nations and our allies. Their entreaties had the intended effect, at least for the moment. The UN Security Council voted unanimously to enforce tough new inspections in Iraq aimed at depriving Saddam of his chemical- and biological-weapons capabilities, and of whatever nascent nuclear-bomb program he may have. If Saddam impedes the UN’s weapons inspectors, the US and Britain will invade — but presumably with the backing of the UN, which makes all the difference.

Moreover, the weapons inspections could well mean no war at all. Saddam is evil, and he sometimes acts irrationally. But he doesn’t want to die. No doubt he’ll play some cat-and-mouse games with the inspectors, but there’s reason to hope he’ll be just forthcoming enough to avoid an invasion.

Of course, the UN has to live up to its responsibilities, too. After a certain point, the UN’s desire for peace morphs into appeasement. But the greater danger is that Bush — to use the cliché of the moment — won’t take "yes" for an answer. He’s playing the internationalist card for the time being, but every day there are new stories about his administration’s preparations for war. The air war already may have begun, and the White House was charging that Iraq had committed a "material breach" of the Security Council resolution before chief weapons inspector Hans Blix could even begin his work. It would be a tragedy if Bush views the weapons inspections as nothing more than a speed bump on the road to Baghdad.

The Wherry Doctrine and its Bush Corollary speak to the typically American, usually wrong belief that all problems can be solved. Unfortunately, in international politics problems often can’t be solved; they can only be managed. The British have a long tradition of pursuing a less high-minded but more sensible strategy. It’s called muddling through.

Thanks to Powell and Blair, we have a chance to muddle through — to keep Saddam tied up and contained indefinitely, to wait for him to die or be overthrown, at which point new opportunities will present themselves. Obviously, the greatest obstacle to that strategy is Saddam, who may have already decided to go out in a blaze of glory. But the next-greatest threat is the naive idealist in the Oval Office, utterly convinced of how much better the world would be if only we could invade Iraq — and teach all those Arabs to be more like Americans.

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Issue Date: November 28 - December 5, 2002
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