America's world

To tackle terrorism, the planet's superpower is making Iraq the proving ground for US assertiveness - and how much help it gets from abroad.

In the land of Doonesbury, George W. Bush has changed hats.

Once a voice from under a Stetson, the American president in the Garry Trudeau comic strip now speaks from under a Roman soldier's feathered metal helmet.

The wardrobe change reflects the new interest in an American empire as the United States wrestles with securing and rebuilding Iraq - its largest military endeavor since Vietnam, and (before that) Germany and Japan.

But the cowboy-to-centurion satirical shorthand also symbolizes the changes - large and small - that are part of a profound shift in American foreign policy in the two years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The evidence is everywhere: From a new national security doctrine of preemptive strikes to college campuses where Arabic classes are overflowing and British professors schooled in the art of empire maintenance are hot commodities.

"We can now see that Sept. 11 brought about a sea change in American foreign policy," says Lee Hamilton, a keen observer of America's global relations during 34 years in Congress and now as director of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "Antiterrorism and the necessity of preventing dangerous weapons from getting into the wrong hands are a paramount part of our foreign policy now, and will be for a long time under any kind of president. The attacks were so horrific," he adds, "that any administration would have had to move this to the top of the agenda."

But the US strategy - now and in the coming years - will pivot on how well it manages the tasks in Iraq, say analysts. As President Bush declared Sunday night, "Iraq is now the central front" - the proving ground for the administration's current approach to dealing with terrorism.

A history of intervention

George Bush came to office calling for a "humble" America eschewing the role of global cop. But he was transformed into a leader with a clear international purpose by the deadly and shocking attacks. Similarly, a nation that had entertained the chimera of the "end of history" after its coldwar victory awoke to its unavoidable leadership role as the world's only superpower.

Of course, America has long been about "making the world safe for democracy" - including intervening militarily when it deemed it necessary.

The effort began in the Americas in 1823 with the Monroe Doctrine (European interference in former colonies in the hemisphere would be considered "unfriendly" acts against the US). It continued, nearly a century later, as the US took on the Spanish Empire - sending 120,000 troops to the Philippines to extend its influence into Asia - and on into World War II.

As Harvard University historian Michael Ignatieff notes, hardly a year has passed since American independence that the US has not had its troops on foreign soil.

After World War II, however, the challenges to American security were framed in terms of the ideologies that would challenge democratic prosperity - thus the cold war. President Franklin Roosevelt saw the threat of world war that might come from the fight against communism in such global terms that he promoted the creation of an international body, the UN Security Council.

During the first Bush presidency, the concept of the international community had advanced to the point that the first Gulf War, fought largely by America, was mostly paid for by others - the threatened Arab oil states and the Japanese. And under Bill Clinton, the US tackled civil war in Bosnia, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and starvation in Somalia with help from abroad. The Clinton years were also marked by a new emphasis on supporting "market democracies" in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

But the first attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor ushered in a return to an America that is more martial, more assertive, more willing to go it alone to pursue its interests and make life for Americans secure.

The paradox of Sept. 11 is that it "made Americans aware of the vulnerability even of the only superpower, but it also exposed them to the interconnectedness of the world," says James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corp. in Washington.

That paradox - and the tension between cooperation and assertiveness - is evident in the tug of war that continues to play out within the Bush administration. The ideological jockeying occurs at many levels, but is perhaps best illustrated by the battling between the civilian leadership at Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon and the State Department of Colin Powell.

Two competing visions

"When it comes to the grand idea of America's role in the world you have these two competing concepts in the Bush administration: The true conservative view that is focused on interests but not on trying to do too much, and the neoconservative ambition to use American power to make others more like us," says Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center, a Washington foreign- policy think tank. "Even without Sept. 11, we would have had this struggle over how to use American power."

The shock of Sept. 11 allowed the more hawkish forces to emerge as dominant, at least initially. "In the short to medium term, [Sept. 11] gave the more unilateralist part of the spectrum more weight," says Mr. Dobbins.

A US shift to a more frankly pro-Israel stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a clear acceptance of the Israeli position that it is battling terrorists (and not freedom fighters) is one example of Sept. 11's practical impact. The redeployment of US forces from Europe to smaller bases in places like Djibouti and Central Asia is another.

But looking ahead, and even to other actions the Bush administration has taken aside from warfare, he says "that dominance won't necessarily be a permanent feature."

In the two years since the attacks, the US has fought two wars - alone an extraordinary turn of history. "If on Sept. 10, 2001, you had said that in two years we will have invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, people would have said you're crazy," says Max Boot, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

But the US under Bush has also become more committed to the "softer" side of interventionist policies, he says. "If you think back to George Bush as a candidate, you realize how big a reversal the Bush administration has undergone on nation-building," says Mr. Boot. "They may not be committing as many resources to nation-building as I'd like, but they are embracing it much more than the Clinton administration ever did."

On Sunday, Bush told the nation that he would be seeking $87 billion, mostly to pay for military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq. More broadly, this administration has also moved toward doubling American foreign aid, focused attention on an Africa - a continent that Bush as presidential candidate said was not a vital US interest.

The US has also renewed a lost interest in improving America's image abroad. This administration is funding American pop-music radio programs in Arab countries, and has profiled Muslim life in America in television ad campaigns in Islamic countries.

At home, the "why us?" question posed by the attacks has dissipated in the last two years, but there remains a growing interest in understanding Muslim countries and the US role in the world. "If there was a diminished interest in international affairs with the end of the cold war, 9/11 resulted in a clear reversal of that," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration who now teaches at George Washington University (GW) in Washington. "Students know they have to live in this world, and they want a better understanding of where it's going."

Learning to say 'salaam aleikum'

Enrollment in Arabic studies, for example, has nearly tripled at Cornell University since fall 2001, reflecting a national trend. The University of Texas at Austin and Princeton University have imported British scholars to share their knowledge about operating an empire. GW is offering a new course in reinventing the United Nations. And this Friday evening, GW is hosting a discussion with 25 other colleges entitled "Hope, not Hate." With the assistance of some Sept. 11 families, a reporter from Al Jazeera, and others, the program will explore how to reduce anti-Americanism abroad, and anti-Islamism in the US.

The current international bout of anti-Americanism, says Mr. Hamilton, is just one of the "unintended consequences" of the Bush administration's assertive stance. Another example, he posits, is the 2002 State of the Union grouping of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea in an "axis of evil."

"The president's problem after 9/11 was how do you unify the American people against the threat, how do you channel the anger and anxiety?" says Hamilton. Bush "did quite a good job of that, and the 'axis of evil' phrasing was in that vein. But in the diplomatic current it has caused us a lot of problems."

Indeed the signature phrase may have "even raised the threat of proliferation," he adds, "as it may have convinced North Korea [that they] 'really have to have the nuclear deterrent, it's the only thing that will hold [the US] back from an attack.'"

Dobbins of RAND says something similar happened with the 2002 National Security Strategy. Preempting potential threats to world peace had often been practiced by previous US presidents (as in Panama, Haiti, Kosovo), but this was the first time it was elevated to a doctrine. "It made countries more leery about joining in on Iraq," he says, "because they feared [the doctrine] meant this was something we envisaged doing repeatedly. In retrospect," he adds, "the administration probably recognized [the preemptive doctrine] was unhelpful."

Such unintended consequences may be pushing US foreign policy back toward working within the international community. "We're beginning to see that the unilateral tendency has run its course," says Alex Roberto Hybel, an expert in America's international relations at Connecticut College.

In a breathtakingly short period, the US went from a focus on missile defense and an agitated relationship with China in early 2001 to an ambitious antiterrorist agenda that the world had trouble digesting.

"After 9/11, we decided we were going to run the world in a much more aggressive way whether others liked it and helped out or not; we were going to get rid of Al Qaeda, get rid of the axis of evil, and pursue change in the Middle East in a more aggressive way," says Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

The result was "we ended up perceived as a bigger threat to world peace than Al Qaeda," he says. "We learned that as powerful as you might be, you just can't do it on your own."

In North Korea, for example, the Bush administration pursued a "confrontational policy no one else wanted to follow," Mr. Walt says. Now if some progress is being made, he says it is because the US took steps to work with other countries in Asia.

The war on terrorism is also proving the long-term importance of international cooperation. While the Bush administration's signature actions in this war have been two military interventions, other less visible counterterrorism work in intelligence, training, and financial monitoring is proving to be at least as effective in stopping attacks.

Still, Iraq is the central arena exemplifying how American foreign policy has changed - and is testing its direction in the future.

Will the US follow a foreign policy exemplified more by Iraq - idealistic interventionism that establishes a model for a better Middle East - or by Afghanistan?

The latter is a more traditional model of provoked intervention, with US-international occupation as necessary, but with relatively quick turnover of governance to the locals, no matter how imperfect the results.

The answer may lie in the US economy and America's ability to pay for intervention - the limits of which are now being tested in Iraq. "The Bush administration is not going to modify its actions because of what foreigners say or balk at," says Ms. Laipson. "But if the president modifies his beliefs or the way he carries them out, it's because he can't afford to do all of this."

Going back to the UN to get a mandate for more international troops in Iraq is one indication of a shift in course.

A sense of progress in the war on terrorism, as the guiding foreign-policy undertaking of the times, will also influence the direction of America's relations with the world.

"Unlike the cold war, the war on terrorism is probably not a winnable war, in the sense of ever being able to declare victory in it," says Dobbins. "But if attacks continue to be not against us at home but in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Iraq, and so on, then the need to build multinational coalitions and demonstrate to the American people that others are ...working with us will grow."

But the direction of American foreign policy will be determined in Iraq, where about 150,000 US troops are stationed at a cost of $4 billion per month.

Says Boot, "9/11 means we're going to be much more proactive, but the contours of that will be determined by Iraq. If Iraq a year from now is more secure and a better place for the changes, we'll be more willing to attempt this kind of undertaking. If not, we'll shy away from such undertakings in the future."

Iraq as proving ground

Hamilton agrees. "If two to three years from now Iraq is flourishing, we'll have confidence in asserting, 'We know how to do it.' But if it's still all chaos and violence," he adds, "we'll be back to the attitude Bush had when he was a candidate - nation-building is not for us."

Ultimately the arbiter of that perceived success or failure will be the American people. A Washington Post poll shows 7 of 10 Americans continue to connect Saddam Hussein to Sept. 11, a conviction that underpins the American experiment in Iraq. But over time - perhaps during the coming presidential election - the human losses and costs will be weighed against the progress and achievement on the ground.

"I know a town in southern Indiana," says Hamilton, speaking of his home state, "a place of strong support for the war, very patriotic, adamant about national security and the lessons of 9/11. And then that small town suffers a couple of deaths [in Iraq]," he adds, "and the money thing becomes a part of a questioning."

Currently, that town, one of thousands like it across America, "will still support the war if they think we are making progress," Hamilton says.

But when the debate about the costs and benefits begins, he adds, "It isn't long before you get to the fundamental question of what is America's role in the world today, and how best to carry that role out."

Anti-Americanism: a bestseller

A sampling of books about American politics or policies drawn from last week's nonfiction bestseller lists (by country and rank) around the world.


1. "Stupid White Men ... and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!" by Michael Moore.

A scathing satire, written before Sept. 11, on the state of America and its social policies.

2. "Querschuesse" (Downsize This!: Random Threats from an Unarmed American) by Michael Moore.

Moore's collection of furious satirical essays on corporate America, politics, and society.

4. "Gelebte Geschichte" (Living History) by Hillary Clinton. Senator Clinton's memoir focusing on her eight years as first lady.

5. "Die CIA und der 11. September" (The CIA and September 11) by Andreas von Buelow. A critical look at the CIA's role in Sept. 11 by a former German minister of technology.


10."Sacrés Francais! Un Américain Nous Regarde" (Blasted French! An American Looks at Us) by Ted Stanger. Newsweek's former Paris bureau chief examines frayed US-French relations and the Iraq war.


5. "Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East" by John Keay. A critique of the role Western powers have played in Middle East history and the stage they set for the current conflict.

7. "The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror" by Bernard Lewis. A search for the cause of anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world.

9. "The Future of Freedom: Liberal Democracy at Home and Abroad" by Fareed Zakaria. The editor of Newsweek International posits that freedom is not universally attainable through democracy.

10. "Global Disorder: America and the Threat of World Conflict" by Robert Harvey. An analysis of the dangers facing global security, with proposals for reform.


4. "Historia Viva" (Living History) by Hillary Clinton.


5. "Uma Nação de Idiotas" (Stupid White Men) by Michael Moore.

7. "Vivendo a Historia" (Living History) by Hillary Clinton.

Source: Associated Press

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to America's world
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today