August 15, 2008 | 9:09 pm
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
Wait a minute: I thought the greatest threat to the American way of life was Saddam Hussein? OK, he’s dead.
Then the greatest threat must be leaving Iraq. But now President Bush seems ready to adopt Barack Obama’s withdrawal timetable. Hold it, it’s Iran. We have to be ready to fight them right now.
And isn’t “global militant Islam” the greatest threat ever? Aren’t there new Hitlers everywhere?
Hold on…it’s actually Russia. It’s a new cold war. The Russian attack on Georgia, following Georgia’s incursion into its disputed provinces means that now Russia is our mortal enemy again. Now Putin is Hitler. But how can there be so many Hitlers?
I lived through the Cold War. There was a lot happening, and there were nuclear air raid drills. But we had one major adversary and a few minor ones at a time. What’s this constant collection of new and improved enemies and battlefronts all about? And my parents lived through the nightmare that was Hitler. Every conflict in the world is not like Hitler taking Czechoslovakia.
I think the explanation for all this lies in the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, and what it did to the Republican party. The Cold War took Republicans from the margins during the New Deal to dominance of national politics. Democrats were “soft on communism,” said Republicans from Nixon to Reagan. But with the Cold War won, Republicans were adrift and divided into two camps that emerged clearly at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991.
America was on top of the world, with the Soviets in collapse. How should we act in a unipolar world? The first President Bush saw our role as global networker in “a new world order,” with the occasional responsibility to punish bad behavior. His Rolodex kept him in constant touch with world leaders, and he built a massive coalition to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Bush believed that victory in the Gulf War in 1991 would ensure electoral victory in 1992, but the fading economy foiled that plan. Democrats were largely on the sidelines of the debate among Republicans, and if anything were sympathetic to Bush’s view of America’s role.
The endgame in Kuwait opened up a rift among Republicans as a group of self-styled intellectuals and government officials began to see a different role for America: undisputed world dominance and adversary of any nation-state that would threaten America’s role. Some served under Bush, like Don Rumsfeld, and urged him to chase Saddam back to Baghdad and change the regime. Others created the Project for a New American Century, a think tank devoted to spreading American power and ideas.
When Bush, Jr. took office in 2001, these neo-conservatives (neo-cons) saw their chance. They found their way to Bush’s inner circle through vice president Dick Cheney. Bush, Sr. had blundered by thinking that Cheney would be a force for moderation in his son’s administration. Instead Cheney turned out to be among the wildest of the neo-cons, determined to reverse Bush, Sr’s philosophy. September 11, 2001 gave them an opening. The 2004 election proved to them that their plan to mobilize for war could bring about an electoral victory that had eluded the elder Bush.
The September 11 attacks immediately turned into the long-awaited and in their view uncompleted war against Iraq, even if evidence had to be faked and hysteria stoked. Colin Powell, whose heart was with the senior Bush, ended up getting used by Bush junior to make a bogus case about weapons of mass destruction and has undoubtedly never forgiven him. Meanwhile, the half-baked but appealing idea of a worldwide Islamic conspiracy against America’s values gave some coherence to a philosophy of global belligerence that shocked the people who had served Bush pere. The neo-cons were creating nothing less than a warfare state, embroiled in constant conflict and alienated from our own allies. After all, if we are going to run the world exactly as we please, whom can we really trust? This of course is the problem of all bullies.
But the Iraq war turned out to be a disaster, and has nearly destroyed the Republican party’s electoral prospects. So Iran took its place as the next enemy. No sooner had Iran gotten our attention, though, than we ended up facing off with Russia. What accounts for all this lunacy is that the particular enemies don’t matter to the neo-cons; what matters is the global dominance. Anybody could be the enemy tomorrow. What makes this most disturbing is that in the real world we actually do have some serious adversaries. They are not just rotating cartoon characters.
The Republican division continues. Near the end of his catastrophic presidency, Bush has suddenly become more like his father, favoring diplomacy with North Korea and moving to get out of Iraq. Defense Secretary Gates is in the same camp, warning against war with Iran. Powell is rumored to be thinking of endorsing Obama. So what can the neo-cons do? They always have the vice president, who is agitating for war with just about everybody. Turns out, though, that they have a secret weapon: John McCain.
As they lose favor in the late Bush presidency, the neo-cons have been drifting over to McCain, who seems to be running on a foreign policy that is more belligerent than that of the current Bush. Now they call Bush “accomodationist.” In fact, from the neo-con perspective, Bush and Obama are looking more and more like each other in foreign policy, and both are looking uncomfortably like Bush, Sr. Oddly, this common position is most likely quite popular in the nation, despite Bush’s 1992 electoral loss which was really about the economy.
The neo-cons have formed a tight circle around McCain, who seems to like their certainty about all those bad guys out there that we have to fight. Meanwhile, McCain’s chief adviser has also served as a paid lobbyist to Georgia, the independent former Soviet Republic that has been tweaking the Russian bear, perhaps with the encouragement of Cheney and McCain. McCain has built a personal friendship with the Georgian leader. Meanwhile, the other parts of the Bush team had been trying to rein in Georgia from doing precisely what it did.
When Russia invaded Georgia, the first impulse of the Bush administration was moderation. But the Republican base demanded action, and McCain is now conducting his own diplomatic mission to Georgia. The mainstream media, looking for a way back into the good graces of the neo-cons, is playing the story just like the early Iraq war. With pressure from McCain and the Republican base, the Bush administration is now becoming much more militant in confronting Russia.
If you want to keep a cool head throughout this stuff, you could do worse than to boil the whole thing down to the debate between Bush, Sr. and the neo-cons. If the USA is the world’s strongest power, should we use that power to wage war against just about everybody, or should be try to lead the world? Who exactly is going to fight these wars against an endless stream of adversaries? Should we believe what we are told by the same people who told us about the Iraq war?
If we decide to lead rather than rule, where shall we draw the line, e.g., with Russia? We obviously don’t want to see the Soviet Union reconstituted, so how shall we proceed? Is there a version of effective strength that is subtler and more effective than belligerence and bullying?
I hope before we get all whipped up into war hysteria once again that we debate the basic issue within the Republican party that got us here in the first place.
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