Smart Bombs, Dumb War
By Harold Meyerson
Thursday, March 27, 2003; Page A21
In the history of the planet, ours is the only government to show its concern for human life through the precision of its bombs. That says a lot about our technological prowess. It also says a lot about the insensitivity of our statecraft.
Even the Iraqi government, which is hardly shy about claiming or fabricating propaganda victories these days, isn't contending that our air attacks on Baghdad have killed more than a relative handful of civilians. Plainly, our bombs are displaying a strategic solicitude that seems beyond the capacities and inclinations of the men who run our nation.
The careful avoidance of civilian targets -- or military targets in civilian neighborhoods -- is, of course, a matter of military necessity. The Bush administration clearly understands that making a mortal enemy of the Iraqi people would be a disaster, particularly as it now seems likely that we will have to fight our way through Baghdad.
The administration's sensitivity to the need to win (or at least neutralize) Iraqi and world public opinion, however, extends no further than that. But for the bombs, everything else about this war could not be better calibrated to gravely damage America's standing, prestige and good name with the peoples of the world.
Indeed, there's not a single nation, except Israel, whose people join the Americans in support of this war. In Eastern Europe, arguably the most pro-American region on the planet, the percentage of people opposing the war ranges from the mid-60s (in the Czech Republic) to the high 70s (in Poland).
Nor is this opposition likely to abate, as the administration hopes, in the aftermath of an American victory. What sticks in the world's craw is the existence and nature of this war -- not its outcome. What the administration either hasn't gauged or remains blithely indifferent to is the effect that the doctrine of preemption has had on even our closest allies. Apparently, arrogating to the president of the United States the right to wage war against any nation he deems an eventual threat to the United States makes a majority of our fellow humans feel less rather than more secure.
But then, the whole notion of collective security -- the vast architecture of alliances and international law that the United States helped establish over the past 60 years precisely to diminish the prospects of preemptive war -- has seemed to this administration just so much historical baggage. The White House has treated the global warming accords, the International Criminal Court, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the U.N. Charter with the same respect that the German Foreign Ministry accorded its pledge of nonaggression to Belgium in 1914. The Germans seemed truly bewildered that the British would enter the war just because the German army had violated Belgium's neutrality -- over, as the German minister memorably put it, "a scrap of paper."
That keen Prussian sensitivity seems alive and well in the West Wing today. The administration sought to win nations to our cause by the color of our money -- not the content of our arguments. When the money didn't suffice, threats followed. Dick Cheney delivered a series of pre-war ultimatums to the Turkish government that predictably boomeranged. Apparently, treating the elected leaders of nations like so many underperforming Halliburton sales reps was not a great way to build the coalition of the willing.
Whence this arrogance? The toxic mix of unilateralist policy and belligerent attitude that defines this administration has several sources. The neoconservatives who have been promoting war with Iraq ever since Poppy Bush let Saddam Hussein get away in 1991 have long acted with a kind of historical certitude, exhibiting an almost Leninist ruthlessness toward any institution that would impede America's hegemony. (In fact, neoconservatives can trace their roots to Trotskyist anti-Stalinism, and they seem to have retained the Trotskyists' imperviousness to all those annoying facts that suggest history may have gotten off course.) That Bush's is the first CEO-dominated administration in U.S. history has also played a role in botching the content and conduct of our foreign relations. Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (and Treasury Secretary John Snow and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, among others) were not merely CEOs, but CEOs at the moment of the cult of the CEO. The men who ran corporations in the boom-time '90s were lionized for the rising value of their companies' stock at a time when all stocks were rising. They could do no wrong; few rewards were denied them. Theirs was an altogether cosseted world from which the word "no" -- at least, directed at them -- was all but banished. Not the best training, perhaps, for dealing with sovereign nations. This was not the world that bred George Marshall, George Kennan -- or, for that matter, Colin Powell.
Combine the neos and CEOs with a president who seems ego-invested in his own provincialism and -- voilЮ! -- the United States has alienated a planet that has long looked to us as a force for decency in human affairs. In George Bush's America, however, it's the bombs that show the human face of our nation, while our statecraft, to steal a line from W.B. Yeats, reveals a gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect.