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How To Rule But Not Lead

As nearly as I can recall, the last war-related protest in which I participated — in fact, helped organize — was a protest in favor of American intervention in Bosnia. The year was 1993, just a decade ago. Europe then as now was passive, unwilling to put an end to the carnage. And so were we. Indeed, among the most vociferous opponents of American intervention was then-military chief of staff Colin Powell.

It is important, vitally important lest our nation collapse into two camps, the new imperialists against the new and old isolationists, that we be clear about why intervention was appropriate then and is inappropriate now.

There are, I expect, those who will propose that the only significant difference is that back then, we were talking about Europe, about Western civilization, about, in a word, “us,” and this time, with Iraq, we are talking about “them.” While I accept that proximity breeds concern and that there are, inescapably, levels of intimacy, I do not accept that Iraq is on another planet. I wish we had intervened in Cambodia and Rwanda, and believe we should have; Iraq is no more distant than they.

And there are those who will say that last time, the carnage was ongoing, intervention therefore urgent in order to save lives, whereas this time, for all the president’s chatter, there is no evidence of comparable urgency. Iraq may be a very nasty place, its people oppressed and so forth, but nothing compels immediate intervention. The only relatively recent changes in a long-standing and quite dismal status quo were the September 11 terrorist attacks, and there is no discernable link between Iraq and that calamity.

Still, there seems no dispute regarding the cruelty of the Iraqi regime and its capacity for serious mischief. Is it really wrong to seek to liberate the Iraqi people — even if that is only a belated motive, added on to justify a decision reached for very different reasons? And surely it isn’t wrong to seek to prevent the kind of serious mischief toward which Baghdad, even if not yet quite capable, appears to be disposed?

Would that it were all so simple, so straightforward. It is not. As Robin Cook, Britain’s former foreign secretary, said in his speech to the House of Commons the other day, the collateral damage of this war against Iraq was terribly substantial even before the first shot was fired. He focused especially on the damage that American diplomacy — if it can be called that — has done to the European Union and to the United Nations, as also to the staunch coalition against terrorism that was developed in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

My own disquiet these days derives from the fact that that damage has been so manifest, and so obvious in its unfolding, that it does not seem collateral at all. That is, it does not seem the accidental byproduct of a strategy that is meant to accomplish other things. Instead, I fear deeply, it seems entirely intended.

Damage to the U.N.? William Kristol is by any measure one of America’s leading advocates of intervention in Iraq. In 1997, he founded the “Project for the New American Century,” which pressed for a unilateralist America as the world’s policeman. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle were all associated with him in that effort. Kristol is the editor of the immensely influential Weekly Standard, which featured in its March 17 issue two articles boldly trashing the U.N., celebratorily announced on the issue cover under the headline, “Present at the Destruction: The United Nations Implodes.”

Damage to the European Union? A recent book by Charles Kupchan, who teaches international relations at Georgetown University, is titled “The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-first Century.” Somewhat breathlessly, Kupchan hails the emergence of the E.U. as a healthy counterweight to the “American imperium.” Kupchan’s timing seems way off the mark, but to the degree to which his argument is thought plausible, it is plainly regarded as a threat by The Weekly Standard crowd. They do not want a counterweight; they want, they say, an America that is “respected and feared,” an America that stands astride the world and sees to it that its will is done.

In these respects, the war in Iraq, for all the embedded journalists and the television coverage, is a stealth war: Its underlying purpose extends beyond eliminating threatening weapons of mass destruction, beyond liberating the Iraqi people, perhaps beyond anything that President Bush himself has yet fully understood. Its intended purpose is to wreck the international system as we have known it.

That system, created in the aftermath of World War II, was messy in the extreme. It depended on laborious negotiations and significant compromises. But just as our imperfect anti-trust laws and arrangements inhibit capitalist rapaciousness and preserve some market freedom, so does our complex network of international agreements and understandings inhibit imperialism and preserve some political autonomy. That is the system that is now being dismantled — or, if you will, wrecked. Iraq, then, must already be seen as a signal victory for the wreckers, for those who, beginning with their rejection of the Kyoto Protocols, have led in this ugly and exceedingly dangerous grab for monopolistic power.

All that — even before the casualty count is in and before the “Day After” — by an imperial America that knows how to rule but not how to lead.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).


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