There is certainly no shortage of targets in the world. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is going strong. Osama bin Laden continues to pop up on audiotape to remind us that the war in Afghanistan is not yet over. Iran has announced its intention to reprocess uranium from its power plants. So why did the White House decide to march toward Baghdad to confront Saddam Hussein? Because we could.
Despite our being the world’s lone “hyperpower,” as the French put it, Iraq is possibly the only place that we can attack. And the imperative in Washington seemed to be that we had to attack somewhere. Anywhere. Iraq.
Of course, there are plenty of easily stated reasons for attacking Iraq, laid out repeatedly by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and many others. But underlying those reasons is a more basic impulse, one that doesn’t get articulated.
One lesson of the Sept. 11 attacks had nothing to do with militant Islam or even with terrorism. It was that the U.S. has lost its ability to control world events.
Think back to the beginning of the era of globalization during the latter part of the 20th century. Goods and services began flowing across borders without governmental interference. The international market made the decisions, and governments fell in line or simply fell. And progress resulted, exemplified by the downfall of the Soviets, laid low not by NATO’s expensive weaponry but by their inability to market cheeseburgers.
To someone like me who reported from there in the mid-'80s, the Soviet bloc seemed destined to last 1,000 years. If the Soviet system could collapse, what could stop globalization from bringing prosperity and democracy to the rest of the world’s nations?
But globalization was also a weakness. A nation that couldn’t control its borders because of the free flow of commerce -- as most nations now couldn’t -- also experienced a general weakening of its authority. There were positive elements to this, like the weakening of a regime’s ability to repress its people, as in Communist China. But globalization also brought a weakening of a nation’s ability to protect its people.
I recently went on a reporting trip to Ukraine, which looks a lot better than it did when I was there 10 years ago. But it is still a country where many people are worse off for having experienced global market forces, despite the arrival of a Gucci store and a forward-looking middle class.
True, the world being created by globalization is America’s world. Our business practices, our culture and our language are spreading everywhere, increasing our prosperity, at the same time that our defense expenditures dwarfed those of the next half a dozen most militarized nations. But that hasn’t meant that we can control events.
For a long time, we didn’t pay much attention to what Clinton administration Secretary of State Warren Christopher called “transnational forces,” international crime, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, trafficking in narcotics and people, and terrorism. These were all effects of globalization too, its “unintended consequences.”
But what did prosperous America care if there was a downside in Kazakhstan or Colombia or Algeria or Afghanistan? There wasn’t much national will to exert ourselves against these problems -- nor was there any clear way to address them.
Until the 1990s, the threat of coercive force was the glue that held the world system together -- a system that grew out of the most massive application of force in history, World War II. But something happened after the end of the Cold War: Fear of our power seemed to be disappearing as it seemed less and less likely that we were willing to exercise it.
In the ‘90s, I covered the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo and the United Nations takeover of Cambodia, conflicts where the U.S. was present. But these were interventions carefully designed to minimize the risk of heavy U.S. casualties. In many other conflict zones that I visited, riskier ones like Georgia’s Abkhazia, Afghanistan, Algeria, Colombia, Kashmir and Sri Lanka, we stayed out. These areas were beyond U.S. control or concern.
America’s absence was not lost on the world. Anyone reporting out of Afghanistan or the Middle East in the 1990s heard the local analysis: The U.S. was weak because it was afraid to fight, afraid of casualties.
Then came the attacks of Sept. 11. Suddenly, the world didn’t seem like a place where all international issues could be settled by Citicorp or GE or Enron. Even if globalization eventually leads to a truly democratized -- and therefore freer and more peaceful -- world, somebody has to enforce the rules and protect the innocent in the meantime. Force still seemed to have a role in the world.
The question was, how do you reimpose force in a world that has been slipping beyond control?
After the Sept. 11 attacks, our defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan was impressive, but relatively easy. Going into the tribal areas of Pakistan to look for Al Qaeda’s remnants is messy -- hence Osama bin Laden lives, it seems, and can issue audiotapes instructing the Iraqis how to defeat our technology.
Last June, in a speech at West Point, the president expressed his frustration with America’s globalization-driven loss of control. But instead of saying, “We have less control,” he issued in the following months a series of broad pronouncements about how deterrence -- our ability to keep other nations in check through fear of our force -- was no longer workable. But deterrence appears to be still quite robust if you consider the long list of areas where we are deterred from intervening.
North Korea, apart from its one or two possible nuclear weapons -- soon to be half a dozen -- and hundreds of ballistic missiles, has thousands of artillery tubes, which if they were only fired once each would turn Seoul into an instant Sarajevo. The same day last month that North Korea announced that its long-range missiles could reach parts of the continental U.S., Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress that he might consider withdrawing some U.S. troops from South Korea.
Meanwhile, the same week that Iran announced it would reprocess the fuel from the nuclear reactors it was building, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage chose to look on the bright side and praised Iran’s emerging democracy and the brave willingness of its people to fight the theocracy’s hold on the courts and police.
That left Iraq. Given that Hussein is from a minority sect, a leader loathed by a majority of the disparate groups under his rule, the White House had hopes that a quick application of force would produce television images of newly liberated Iraqis jubilantly hunting down members of the Baath Party to lynch. A triumph in Iraq earned in a genuine war would establish clear, worldwide respect for U.S. power and the threat that it might be used further. That is, we would be able to return to the doctrine of deterrence.
But it may not be so easy. The U.S. and other Western nations spent the 10 years between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Sept. 11 attacks voluntarily relinquishing control to the forces of globalization. If we are now no longer sanguine over leaving the fate of the world in the hands of Global Crossing, we might find it could take years of striking back to regain control.