Friday, July 21

The Price of Fantasy


Today we call them neoconservatives, but when the first George Bush was president, those who believed that America could remake the world to its liking with a series of splendid little wars — people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — were known within the administration as “the crazies.” Grown-ups in both parties rejected their vision as a dangerous fantasy.

But in 2000 the Supreme Court delivered the White House to a man who, although he may be 60, doesn’t act like a grown-up. The second President Bush obviously confuses swagger with strength, and prefers tough talkers like the crazies to people who actually think things through. He got the chance to implement the crazies’ vision after 9/11, which created a climate in which few people in Congress or the news media dared to ask hard questions. And the result is the bloody mess we’re now in.

This isn’t a case of 20-20 hindsight. It was clear from the beginning that the United States didn’t have remotely enough troops to carry out the crazies’ agenda — and Mr. Bush never asked for a bigger army.

As I wrote back in January 2003, this meant that the “Bush doctrine” of preventive war was, in practice, a plan to “talk trash and carry a small stick.” It was obvious even then that the administration was preparing to invade Iraq not because it posed a real threat, but because it looked like a soft target.

The message to North Korea, which really did have an active nuclear program, was clear: “The Bush administration,” I wrote, putting myself in Kim Jong Il’s shoes, “says you’re evil. It won’t offer you aid, even if you cancel your nuclear program, because that would be rewarding evil. It won’t even promise not to attack you, because it believes it has a mission to destroy evil regimes, whether or not they actually pose any threat to the U.S. But for all its belligerence, the Bush administration seems willing to confront only regimes that are militarily weak.” So “the best self-preservation strategy ... is to be dangerous.”

With a few modifications, the same logic applies to Iran. And it’s easier than ever for Iran to be dangerous, now that U.S. forces are bogged down in Iraq.

Would the current crisis on the Israel-Lebanon border have happened even if the Bush administration had actually concentrated on fighting terrorism, rather than using 9/11 as an excuse to pursue the crazies’ agenda? Nobody knows. But it’s clear that the United States would have more options, more ability to influence the situation, if Mr. Bush hadn’t squandered both the nation’s credibility and its military might on his war of choice.

So what happens next?

Few if any of the crazies have the moral courage to admit that they were wrong. Vice President Cheney continues to insist that his two most famous pronouncements about Iraq — his declaration before the invasion that we would be “greeted as liberators” and his assertion a year ago that the insurgency was in its “last throes” — were “basically accurate.”

But if the premise of the Bush doctrine was right, why are things going so badly?

The crazies respond by retreating even further into their fantasies of omnipotence. The only problem, they assert, is a lack of will.

Thus William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, has called for a military strike — an airstrike, since we don’t have any spare ground troops — against Iran.

“Yes, there would be repercussions,” he wrote in his magazine, “and they would be healthy ones.” What would these healthy repercussions be? On Fox News he argued that “the right use of targeted military force” could cause the Iranian people “to reconsider whether they really want to have this regime in power.” Oh, boy.

Mr. Kristol is, of course, a pundit rather than a policymaker. But there’s every reason to suspect that what Mr. Kristol says in public is what Mr. Cheney says in private.

And what about The Decider himself?

For years the self-proclaimed “war president” basked in the adulation of the crazies. Now they’re accusing him of being a wimp. “We have been too weak,” writes Mr. Kristol, “and have allowed ourselves to be perceived as weak.”

Does Mr. Bush have the maturity to stand up to this kind of pressure? I report, you decide.

Just a further note: the phrase "splendid little war" comes from a note the British ambassador sent to his friend, Teddy Roosevelt, about the Spanish-American war. I wrote about the parallel between the looming Iraq war and the Spanish-American war in my column "White Man's Burden", published in September 2002, and pointed out that "the experience of the Spanish-American War should remind us that quick conventional military victory is not necessarily the end of the story. Thanks to American technological superiority, Adm. George Dewey destroyed a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay without losing a single man. But a clean, high-tech war against Spain somehow turned into an extremely dirty war against the Filipino resistance, one in which hundreds of thousands of civilians died."

Alas, everything that has happened was sickeningly predictable.