WASHINGTON--It is a deceptively simple question: How did the U.S. arrive at the brink of a second war with Iraq? President Bush went a long way toward answering that question in his State of the Union address, and will no doubt make an even stronger case for military action in the days and weeks to come.
What the president will not do, however, is draw direct comparisons with past administrations' (including his father's) failed attempts to rid the world of Saddam Hussein. It's a question worth asking: Why did the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration fail to achieve what our current president is so firmly committed to--a new regime in Baghdad?
At one level, the explanation is fairly straightforward. The past decade confounded the widespread expectation that America's victory in the Gulf War would lead to the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. When this failed to happen, the first Bush and the Clinton administrations were presented with a series of challenges to which they were obligated to respond as best they could. But neither administration was simply reacting to events not of its own making. Each dealt with Iraq according to its own fairly coherent world view. Indeed, Iraq was the arena in which those world views were most visible over the past decade, and most visibly put to the test. The fact that the current administration stands poised to solve the problem of Saddam Hussein once and for all tells us something about its world view as well.
The first Bush administration brought to Iraq a set of beliefs that prompted it to act aggressively in defense of America's vital interest in Kuwait, but also left it wary of toppling Saddam Hussein and indifferent to the fate of his victims. The men who decided on the aims of the Gulf War were self-declared "realists," who believed that foreign policy should be grounded in vital interests--oil wells, strategic chokepoints, and, most of all, regional stability. Their preference for order over liberty extended even to the Soviet Union, where national security advisor Brent Scowcroft found it "painful to watch Yeltsin rip the Soviet Union brick by brick away from Gorbachev." In China, the Bush team reacted to the massacre in Tiananmen Square by excusing the communist regime in Beijing. And in the former Yugoslavia, the president justified American inaction by likening the bloodshed to a "hiccup."
It was in Iraq, however, that the Bush team's foreign policy philosophy manifested itself most clearly. Once Kuwait was liberated, the Bush team redirected its energies toward ensuring Iraqi "stability"--even if it had to be enforced by Saddam Hussein. He proceeded to slaughter thousands of Iraqi civilians who Mr. Bush had exhorted to revolt, but to whom the U.S. now turned a blind eye. Twelve years later, we are still living with the consequences of such "realism."
Bill Clinton's Iraq policy reflected very different assumptions about America's role in the world. By the time he entered office, the reflexive suspicion of American power that had plagued the Democratic Party after Vietnam had receded along with the threat of communism. But the "come home America" sensibility that it had encouraged still lingered. As Peter Tarnoff, President Clinton's undersecretary of state for policy, explained in 1993, "we simply don't have the leverage, we don't have the influence, we don't have the inclination to use military forces." When Mr. Clinton's focus did wander abroad, the result was a world view that reduced a complex and dangerous world environment to a simple narrative of material progress and moral improvement. Thus he famously gave state sponsors of terrorism a linguistic cleansing, changing their official title from "rogue states" to "states of concern."
This quixotic foreign policy produced its clearest failure in Iraq. According to the administration's scorecard, it was not the integrity of containment or even the value of keeping Saddam disarmed that mattered. Far more important was the imperative of avoiding war. "We are talking about using military force, but we are not talking about war," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said during one of numerous episodes of brinkmanship with Saddam. Advertising its fears as if they were virtues, the administration repeatedly petitioned U.N chief Kofi Annan to extricate it from these encounters. At one point, the Clinton team even devised a strategy whereby the Air Force would fill 2,000-pound bombs with concrete instead of explosives and drop them on Iraq. By the time Mr. Clinton left office, Saddam Hussein was out of the box whose confines had mostly been imaginary to begin with.
Realists and liberals approach the world from different directions, but when it comes to Iraq, both ended up in the same place: generating excuses for inaction. President Bush, by contrast, does not speak of merely containing or disarming Iraq. He intends to liberate Iraq by force, and create democracy in a land that for decades has known only dictatorship. Moreover, he insists that these principles apply to American foreign policy more broadly. A century of fighting dictators has finally alerted U.S. policy makers to the fact that the character of regimes determines their conduct abroad--their willingness to resort to aggression, their determination to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and their relationships with terrorist groups.
Hence, the Bush strategy enshrines "regime change"--the insistence that when it comes to dealing with tyrannical regimes like Iraq, Iran, and, yes, North Korea, the U.S. should seek transformation, not coexistence, as a primary aim of U.S. foreign policy. As such, it commits the U.S. to the task of maintaining and enforcing a decent world order. Just as it was with the Bush team's predecessors, Iraq will be the first major test of this administration's strategy.
It will not be the last.