Monday, June 04, 2007

Bush's somewhat incredible feat

The feat is uniting almost the entire Washington foreign policy establishment in the opinion that the US invasion of Iraq has been an utter disaster both for Iraq and the United States of America.

Via 3 Quarks Daily, "Bush's Amazing Achievement" at the New York Review of Books takes a look at this accomplishment in the context of reviewing Nemesis: The Last Days of American Empire by Chalmers Johnson, Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower by Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Statecraft and How to Restore America's Standing in the World by Dennis Ross.

The reviewer, Jonathan Freedland, breaks the review into four sections. In the first he covers Second Chance and Statecraft and How to Restore America's Standing in the World and in the second (and third) Nemesis, with the final section summarizing the proposed solutions of each book. In section 1, Freedland points out that the heart of both books is the Bush admininstration's invasion/occupation of Iraq which both authors consider to be:

a spectacular failure. It took a country that had been free of jihadist militants and turned it into their most fecund breeding ground; it took a country that posed no threat to the United States and made it into a place where thousands of Americans, not to mention many tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis, have been killed. And it diverted resources from the task that should have been uppermost after September 11, namely the hunting down of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, allowing them to slip out of reach.

What's more, Bush's "war on terror" did bin Laden's work for him. Brzezinksi is not alone in suggesting that it was a mistake to treat September 11 as an act of war, rather than as an outrageous crime; in so doing, the administration endowed al-Qaeda with the status it craved. What followed was a series of missteps that seemed bent on vindicating the jihadists' claim of a war of the West against Islam. Whether it was the invasion of Iraq or the early talk of a "crusade" or the abuses at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration fed violent Islamism all it needed to recruit young men the world over. What began as a fringe sect has become, thanks in no small measure to the Bush administration, a global movement able to draw on deep wells of support.
Both authors also have harsh words for America's role in Israeli-Palestinian relations, as well as allowing Iran and North Korea to become more dangerous while we were in Iraq (while concomitantly turning the invasion of Iraq into a lesson that if you don't want to be invaded by the United States, possess nuclear weapons), and go on to criticize virtually every aspect of the Bush adminstration's foreign policy; a policy which has significantly damaged America's standing in the world. Freedland quotes a particularly biting passage from Brzezinski

Because of Bush's self-righteously unilateral conduct of US foreign policy after 9/11, the evocative symbol of America in the eyes of much of the world ceased to be the Statue of Liberty and instead became the Guantánamo prison camp.
In section 2 Freedland covers Nemesis, which he says makes the other books look like "mere slaps on the wrist." The difference between Johnson and the authors is that their criticism is primarily of the execution of Bush's foreign policy, but they do not question the fundamental premise that the United States should be a dominant global force, where as Johnson argues that the United States has become an empire and must de-militarize itself if the republic and democracy are to survive. I will here disclose my bias (which to a regular reader should already be apparent from recent posts) and state that I am partisan for Johnson's argument.

Johnson argues that America has established a global empire of military bases and Freedland spends the rest of section 2 explaining that Johnson has put together a strong case that such is the case while also drawing striking parallels between our empire and that of the Roman and British empires.

In section 3, Freedland contrasts Johnson with traditional critics of American foreign policy (such as Noam Chomsky) who tend to be somewhat one-note critics of US history, where as Johnson reveres our constitutional traditions and balances of power. Freedland notes

[Johnson's] fear is that America's steady descent into imperialism renders those arrangements unsustainable, just as the rise of the Roman Empire ensured the slow death of the Roman Republic.

This is the core of his argument, that by extending its reach in the world America is not only endangering itself physically, by increasing the risk of blowback, but bankrupting itself, financially, constitutionally, and morally.
Johnson goes on to demonstrate the financial burden our militarism is placing on the republic, as well as how our overgrown military has concentrated powers in the Executive in a manner that makes it difficult for constitutional checks to function properly. Freedland writes that:

his most powerful evidence is drawn from the Bush years since 2001. Johnson may argue that these are trends that have been in evidence for decades, but it is the current administration which has illuminated them. By declaring the nation at war and himself a wartime president, Bush has grabbed powers to himself that America's founders never intended him to have. As the infamous "torture memo" made clear, Bush's legal team has constructed something it calls the "unitary executive theory of the presidency" to place the Oval Office outside the law, arguing that there can be no infringement on his "ultimate authority" as commander in chief in the conduct of war. Because practically any measures taken, at home or abroad, since September 11, 2001, can be construed as the conduct of war, this doctrine is nothing less than a claim of absolute power. Whether it be treaties signed and ratified by the US, like the Geneva Conventions, or the laws of the land passed in Congress, nothing can touch him. He is Caesar.
This is precisely what led me to comment upon the recent NSD which declares the president head of the federal goverment in case of a vaguely defined "catastrophic emergency" that we are living in some kind of bizarro proto-1984 America. Johnson argues (as did founders like Alexander Hamilton) that in the case of perpetual war it is inevitable that our liberties will begin to erode.

Section 4 of the review deals with what the respective authors suggest should be done. Brzezinski and Ross have what I confess are reasonable ideas about potential diplomatic solutions and foreign policy improvements that are worth working towards, but as I said earlier, my bias is with Johnson who argues that something far more radical is going to have to occur for significant change to be effected; namely, some sort of grassroots democratic movement "to abolish the CIA, break the hold of the military-industrial complex, and establish public financing of elections" will have to occur, stating that we are left with a choice: keep our empire or lose our republic.

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