Americans need to recognize their place in the world

At the turn of the year, it's good to take stock of issues of vital concern. My big question for the new year: How, during the year ahead, do we hope to see the 4 percent of the world's population who are US citizens interacting with the other 96 percent?

Last March, President Bush took it on himself to start a war for total regime change against Iraq. He made that decision alone - and received military help from only two other nations, Britain and Spain. Previously, Bush had pressed the United Nations hard to launch intrusive inspections of Iraq's weapons programs - and the UN had done just that. But when Bush went to war, he sidelined the UN completely, defying the wishes of nearly all the world's governments - including many of Washington's longtime allies - and of the 5.8 billion people who are their citizens.

I know firsthand. I was in Africa during much of the war. Since then, I have been in Europe and in China. Among the hundreds of non-Americans I talked with, I found fewer than 20 who expressed any support for Bush's war. (Some of those were British citizens who by midyear judged that their earlier support for the war had been misplaced.)

Bush claimed he needed to launch the war because of the imminence of the threat to the US and the rest of the world posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the links between Baghdad and Al Qaeda.

But the US and its allies have now been in control of Iraq for more than eight months. They have had wide access to all parts of the country, and to officials of the previous regime. Yet they have still found no evidence to substantiate the earlier allegations about the security threats that Saddam Hussein's regime posed.

What happened?

It seems that through a quite irregular process of cherry-picking raw intelligence, some ideological advocates of the war succeeded in convincing themselves and the president that the claims about Hussein's WMDs and his links with Al Qaeda were valid. That cherry-picking politicized the information the president received in a way that is quite unacceptable in any democracy. (In Britain, a similar process of politicizing the intelligence also occurred. But there - unlike here - an independent commission has since started looking into the affair.)

Rewriting history is also unacceptable in a democracy. Administration officials have tried to claim recently that the war wasn't really about the WMDs, but about "bringing democracy to Iraq." But before March 19, as Bush sought to build domestic and international support for the war, he focused tightly on the issues of the WMDs and alleged links between Hussein and Al Qaeda.

Many other aspects of Bush's rush into war against Hussein were deeply troubling. It diverted crucial national security resources away from the still-central campaign to incapacitate Al Qaeda. It inflicted serious wounds on the UN - a body that has helped to keep the global peace for the past 60 years. And though the war succeeded in toppling Hussein, it also inflicted considerable harm on Iraqis - a fact that makes the restoration of a civil peace still look distant.

Our president draws on a love of democracy that is deeply felt by most Americans when he talks of his desire to bring democracy to oppressed people elsewhere. Yet his conduct in international affairs last year was missing essential democratic elements: respectful interaction with peoples and leaders of other nations and evidence of honesty and accountability at home. Above all, democracy cannot be "exported" to other nations through violence, war, and force.

What's needed in the year ahead is a serious attempt by all who aspire to US leadership to evaluate what went wrong in the lead up to, and conduct of, the war. How did US leaders get the facts about Iraq's weapons programs so very wrong? Why was the planning for the aftermath of the war so very flawed? Why was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld allowed to do so much to alienate key US allies overseas, and to undermine the guiding principles of the UN? Why has no one been held accountable?

At the same time, Americans need to think long and hard about the quality of their nation's ties to the rest of the world. Global democratization is progressing, and the more democratic the world and its governance become, the more US citizens will have to rely on its nation's relationship with others for their own security and well-being.

Americans are, after all, only a tiny minority of the world's people. It's time the US government recognized that, stopped trying to throw its weight around, and grew up.

Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.

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