The president is botching the Iraq crisis with his clumsy, naive unilateralism.
It is becoming increasingly and distressingly clear that, however justified the coming war with Iraq may be, the Bush administration is in no shape—diplomatically, politically, or intellectually—to wage it or at least to settle its aftermath. It is hard to remember when, if ever, the United States has so badly handled a foreign-policy crisis or been so distrusted by so many friends and foes as a result. I am among those who thought, and still do think, that Colin Powell's U.N. briefing last month made a good case that Iraq remains in "material breach" of its obligations under international law; that it constitutes a menace to its neighbors; that it is hiding, and probably continuing to develop, weapons of mass destruction; and that U.N. inspectors aren't going to find much on their own. I also think the French and Russian objections to those points were shallow and dishonest. But the nub of the matter is that France and Russia have veto power in the Security Council.
In some crises, this might not constitute a serious obstacle to the United States taking action on its own. When Russia threatened to veto a resolution proposing to defend Kosovo from Serbian aggression in 1999, President Clinton took the matter to NATO instead. Had one of the Security Council's "big five" vetoed a resolution calling for action to push Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991, George Bush I would have been well within his rights to assemble a "coalition of the willing"—not just morally, but also under the U.N. Charter, which demands strict punishment for nations that cross another's borders. But the war that Bush II is pushing is a different sort of war, a war in which we launch an invasion, not in response to aggression and not even "pre-emptively" (to strike the first blow before the other country does) but "preventively" (to keep the other country from doing something that might let it pose an imminent threat someday). There may be a case for preventive war, but if the aim of the war is protecting the international order, then that case should be acceptable to the agency that represents the international order. Specifically, if the war is supposed to enforce a U.N. resolution, then the case for war should be acceptable to the United Nations. (Bush implicitly accepted this premise last fall when he took his argument to the United Nations in the first place.)
So far, the administration has failed to make that case. This failure is not simply a matter of French or Russian obstinacy; the United States has not yet convinced even the three-fifths majority in the Security Council (nine out of 15 members) that would be necessary if there were no veto. Nor can Bush fall back on NATO for legitimacy. France and Germany oppose war, and in any case the battlefield lies outside NATO's European jurisdiction. The involvement of Turkey, a NATO member, could be mustered as a rationale, but the Turkish parliament voted against giving the United States basing rights in the war, even though doing so meant forgoing a lavish grant and loan. (A revote next week might reverse this outcome.)
What's particularly disturbing about these failures is not so much their legal implications as their political and diplomatic ones. If the administration lacks the acumen or persuasive power to deal with such familiar institutions as the U.N. Security Council or the established governments of France, Germany, Turkey, Russia, China—even Canada—then how is it going to handle Iraq's feuding opposition groups, Kurdish separatists, and myriad ethno-religious factions, to say nothing of the turbulence throughout the region?
Bush's inner circle gives scant cause for confidence in this realm. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz seems to be a smart guy with an ambitious, appealing vision of a democratic phoenix arising from Saddam's ashes. But he is all too reminiscent of Alden Pyle, the callow idealist-diplomat in Graham Greene's The Quiet American,who stumbled into a quagmire from the best intentions. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has no Middle Eastern experience, other than serving as emissary on a 1983 friendship trip to Saddam Hussein. Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney are held suspect by many Iraqis for having abandoned the anti-Saddam uprising at the end of Operation Desert Storm.
The ongoing scuffle with the Turks provides further grounds for worry. Tim Noah and Christopher Hitchens have detailed the moral calamity of Bush's bargaining on this score, which could trade American base rights for Turkishcarte blanche to bash the Kurds. The relevant point here is that the whole deal calls into question the administration's stated reasons for going to war. Bases in Turkey would give American troops a logistical advantage, but letting Turkish troops suppress the Kurds would mock and nullify the goal of promoting democracy in the region.
As for the president's own depths, two recent news articles reinforce long-standing doubts. In Monday's New York Times, David Sanger quotes "an administration insider" as saying, "Of course, in our internal discussions, we raise the Yugoslavia analogy"—i.e., the possibility that Iraq could fall apart, in bitter feuds or civil wars, after Saddam's ouster. "But," the source continues, "this isn't the moment for the president to be talking about that risk." Two questions here: First, if this isn't the moment, then when is? Second, does the president take part in these "internal discussions"? Is he fully apprised of this risk? In last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, George Packer reports that when Bush met in January with top Iraqi exile-dissidents, they had a hard time explaining the differences between the Sunnis and the Shiites. The president seemed surprised that the two groups existed, much less that they had conflicts.
These telling tidbits came on top of a revelation last Friday by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. In a remark that must have sent diplomatic eyeballs rolling, Fleischer said it didn't matter that Saddam was finally dismantling his Al-Samoud missiles, which are prohibited by U.N. resolutions because their range exceeds 150 kilometers. To avoid war, Fleischer said, Saddam must not only disarm totally but step down from power. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has cast his lot with Bush at some political risk, felt compelled to dissociate himself from this statement, for it reinforced the widespread suspicion that Bush considers the inspections a ruse, that war is inevitable, and that there's nothing anyone, least of all Saddam Hussein, can do to forestall it.
Maybe at the last minute Bush will change course, or at least take a brief pause, and recognize the need to bring others aboard. For now, though, the man who campaigned on a foreign policy of earning respect through strength and humility is widely seen, feared, even loathed as a bully who doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks of him or his country. And this impression is weakening America, not strengthening it. His hard-sell tactics are backfiring. The Philippines, of all places, last week recanted on an earlier agreement to let 1,200 American soldiers fight Islamic terrorists on its soil. The leaders of Canada and Mexico, whose good will was once taken for granted, are mystified to the point of anger that Bush refuses even to glance at a compromise U.N. resolution that would give Saddam Hussein till the end of March to fulfill all his obligations to disarm and would set specific goals and deadlines along the way.
Finally, our main allies in northern Asia—Japan, South Korea, and China—are apoplectic over Bush's stiff-necked refusal to deal with the growing nuclear crisis with North Korea. During Powell's recent trip to the region, all three urged him to hold direct talks with North Korea, arguing that is the only way a deal could be negotiated. From the beginning of this crisis, three months ago, Pyongyang has practically begged for such talks. The resumption of its nuclear program is clearly a bargaining chip for the resumption of food and energy assistance. At the same time, the regime has no incentive to halt its nuclear program. Last week, North Korea fired up its reactors. Nukes could start tumbling off the production line in a matter of months or weeks. Having almost no other source of revenue, Pyongyang can be expected to sell them to the highest bidder. Yet Bush, who has expressed a deep (and understandable) hatred of North Korea's eternal leader, Kim Jong-il, is immovably opposed to such talks. A mere sit-down with his delegates would "reward bad behavior" and amount to "appeasement." Even Bush's own high-level aides are worried about his intransigence, which is approaching reckless endangerment.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photographs of: President Bush by Larry Downing/Reuters; President Bush on the Slate home page by Jeff Mitchell/Reuters.