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Monday, November 01, 2004

What's at Stake
The Revolutionary vs. the Statesman


The decision between Bush and Kerry will shape the world Americans live in during the next four years. Even though Bush has been called the "CEO President," that isn't how he has behaved. Bush has overthrown two governments and announced the imminent demise of several others. Bush is a revolutionary in Asia, a Robespierre. At least one of Bush's revolutions is now mired in its Terror phase. What a real CEO thinks about Bush is obvious from the Paul O'Neill / Ron Suskind memoir of life on the Bush cabinet. Kerry in contrast is a statesman committed to navigating the status quo without producing unnecessary turbulence.

Since the United States is essentially a vast island, three thousand miles across and two thousand miles deep, its inhabitants often begin to think that they are unconnected to the wider world. My friend John Walbridge suggested to me that most Americans may not believe the rest of the world exists, as opposed to being something that one occassionally sees on television.

September 11 was a reminder that even the defenses of an island can be breached. It was also a signal that the old foreign policy prerogatives of the United States government, to intervene as it liked to impose its will on other regions, was no longer cost-free. In a world of increasingly powerful technology, each individual is potentially much more powerful, and this was a development that diabolical engineers in al-Qaeda saw clearly and figured out how to use.

Al-Qaeda has ambitions beyond just blowing a few things up, no matter how horribly. It is now a cadre organization, that is, it consists of a few thousand committed fanatics. But it wants to be a political party. That is the significance of Bin Laden's most recent videotape. He is posing as a champion of "freedom" in the Muslim world (mainly freedom from US hegemony, but he maintains also freedom from authoritarian and corrupt regimes in the region backed by the US). Bin Laden is making a play not just to be a cult leader but to succeed to the position of Gamal Abdul Nasser as an anti-imperialist icon in the region. Ultimately al-Qaeda would like to get control of entire states, and merge them into an Islamic superstate, a new caliphate. It is a crackpot idea that will fail, but many crackpot ideas that fail (e.g. the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia) do a great deal of damage along the way.

George W. Bush has never been able to see clearly the nature of this threat, which experts call asymmetrical. This word is a fancy way of saying that small groups can now accomplish things that only states used to be able to. Bush is trapped in Cold War thinking, where all major threats derive from other states, from other countries. His first thought after September 11 was that Iraq was behind it.

Bush invaded Iraq and occupied it rather than finishing off al-Qaeda and putting Afghanistan on a proper footing. He has most of the fighting units of the US military bogged down in a quagmire. His adventure in Iraq, which had nothing to do with September 11, has the potential for destabilizing the oil-rich Persian Gulf for some time to come, producing high petroleum prices, high gasoline prices, and risking a major economic downturn for the US and the world.

A second Bush administration will continue to pursue iron fist policies in Iraq, which have obviously backfired. If Bush overstays his welcome in Iraq, he risks creating a new kind of pan-Islamic nationalism. It is not impossible for the Shiite leadership to join hands with the Sunni clerics if both decide it is crucial to expel the Americans. I would put the odds of an anti-American mass revolution in Iraq during a second Bush term at 50/50. The aftermath will be further instability in the oil rich Persian Gulf (see above).

If Bush is reelected, it is clear that he will continue to attack his hit list, which is pre-announced. He will strike at Iran. His infantry and armor are tied down in Iraq. But he could mount a naval blockade of Iran, and he could strike it from the air. He could also intrigue with impatient junior officers in Tehran in hopes of making a coup. It would probably fail. But Bush will be tempted to try.

Iran already has lively internal politics that are somewhat unpredictable, and the people dislike their regime. The best interests of the US lie in letting that internal process take its course. Bush will not keep his hands off. Iran is in his axis of evil, and he has decided that the US will not countenance states that adopt an active posture of enmity toward Washington. He will play up Iran's nuclear program, which is nowhere near being able to produce a bomb. He will play up Iran's support for Hizbullah, which the US views as an international terrorist organization but which in recent years has mainly functioned as a Lebanese national liberation movement. But his real motivation is to unlock Iran's economy for US investment and to remove a foreign policy thorn from the US side.

The potential for Bush's meddling in Iran to go wrong is great, as can be seen in his Iraq policy, which has turned the latter country into the security equivalent of a vast forest fire. Were both Iraq and Iran to end up destabilized, petroleum prices would go sky high. There is also a danger of this instability spilling over to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where the petroleum is, and which is about half Shiite.

Powerful figures in the Bush administration also very much want to overthrow the other Baath regime, in Syria. The mostly likely successor to that regime is a radicalized Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the major Syrian opposition group (it is not allowed to operate as a party). It would be an ally of Hamas and hospitable to al-Qaeda. Syria is a Sunni-majority country chafing under rule by a clique of Allawites, a Shiite sect, who control the secular Syrian Baath. If Bush artificially causes the Baath to collapse in Damascus, he could create a Muslim fundamentalist axis stretching from Lebanon through Syria to Sunni Iraq.

Bush is not winning the war on terror because he does not understand it. He has used the rise of al-Qaeda as a pretext for settling Washington's scores with old enemies like Saddam. This projection of main American force so far has paid no dividends whatsoever, in increased US security or stability in the world. It has not even made money for US companies, with the possible exception of Halliburton (and even it claims it has been hurt by bad Iraq publicity).

The most frightening thing of all is that the Project for a New American Century group, which has made an internal coup in the Bush administration, ultimately has its sights on China. They want to surround, besiege and break up Communist China, as they imagine the US did to the Soviet Union. In many ways, the Bush administration uses North Korea as a proxy for China, saying things about Pyongyang they really would like to say about Beijing. In fact, China is currently increasingly tied to the US-led world economic order and has every impetus to cooperate with the US on most issues. The Chinese take in $80 billion a year more from the US than we make from them. Picking a fight with Beijing, which is a very attractive option for the American Right, would be disastrous.

The Bush administration is full of revolutionaries. They are shaking up the world by military force. They are playing a role familiar in modern history, pioneered by Napoleon Bonaparte, of using overwhelming military superiority to establish new forms of hegemony by appealing to desires for change among neighboring publics. Bonaparte promised the Italians liberty on the French model, but in fact reduced the Italians to a series of French puppet regimes and then he looted the country. So far Bush's Iraq looks increasingly like Bonaparte's Italy in these regards.

At a time of increased radicalization in the global South, at a time when mass terrorism has been made possible by new technologies, the last thing the US should be risking is destabilizing Asia by provoking a series of revolutions.

Kerry is not a revolutionary, unlike Bush. He recognizes that al-Qaeda is a real threat and needs to be the main focus of US security thinking. Kerry will capture or kill Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri because he will put the resources into that endeavor that Bush instead wasted in Iraq.

Kerry is worried about Iran's nuclear ambitions, but is highly unlikely to resort to military force or connive at a coup in Tehran. He will use diplomatic methods and more subtle military pressure.

Kerry will rebuild the alliance with Europe, which is crucial for fighting al-Qaeda. He will attempt to improve the US image in the Muslim world, which Bush has completely shattered. His approach to China will be measured.

So the choices are clear. Those who want a revolutionary who will risk further wars and instability, should vote for Bush. Those who want someone who will use diplomacy to manage the status quo and roll back asymmetrical threats should vote for Kerry.