Some 60 years ago Arnold Toynbee concluded, in his monumental "Study of History," that the ultimate cause of imperial collapse was "suicidal statecraft." Sadly for George W. Bush's place in history and — much more important — ominously for America's future, that adroit phrase increasingly seems applicable to the policies pursued by the United States since the cataclysm of 9/11.
Though there have been some hints that the Bush administration may be beginning to reassess the goals, so far defined largely by slogans, of its unsuccessful military intervention in Iraq, President Bush's speech Thursday was a throwback to the demagogic formulations he employed during the 2004 presidential campaign to justify a war that he himself started.
That war, advocated by a narrow circle of decision-makers for motives still not fully exposed, propagated publicly by rhetoric reliant on false assertions, has turned out to be much more costly in blood and money than anticipated. It has precipitated worldwide criticism. In the Middle East it has stamped the United States as the imperialistic successor to Britain and as a partner of Israel in the military repression of the Arabs. Fair or not, that perception has become widespread throughout the world of Islam.
Now, however, more than a reformulation of U.S. goals in Iraq is needed. The persistent reluctance of the administration to confront the political background of the terrorist menace has reinforced sympathy among Muslims for the terrorists. It is a self-delusion for Americans to be told that the terrorists are motivated mainly by an abstract "hatred of freedom" and that their acts are a reflection of a profound cultural hostility. If that were so, Stockholm or Rio de Janeiro would be as much at risk as New York City. Yet, in addition to New Yorkers, the principal victims of serious terrorist attacks have been Australians in Bali, Spaniards in Madrid, Israelis in Tel Aviv, Egyptians in the Sinai and Britons in London.
There is an obvious political thread connecting these events: The targets are America's allies and client states in its deepening military intervention in the Middle East. Terrorists are not born but shaped by events, experiences, impressions, hatreds, ethnic myths, historical memories, religious fanaticism and deliberate brainwashing. They are also shaped by images of what they see on television, and especially by feelings of outrage at what they perceive to be the brutal denigration of their religious kin's dignity by heavily armed foreigners. An intense political hatred for America, Britain and Israel is drawing recruits for terrorism not only from the Middle East but as far away as Ethiopia, Morocco, Pakistan, Indonesia and even the Caribbean.
America's ability to cope with nuclear nonproliferation has also suffered. The contrast between the attack on the militarily weak Iraq and America's forbearance of a nuclear-armed North Korea has strengthened the conviction of the Iranians that their security can only be enhanced by nuclear weapons. Moreover, the recent U.S. decision to assist India's nuclear program, driven largely by the desire for India's support for the war in Iraq and as a hedge against China, has made the U.S. look like a selective promoter of nuclear weapons proliferation. This double standard will complicate the quest for a constructive resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem.
Compounding such political dilemmas is the degradation of America's moral standing in the world. The country that has for decades stood tall in opposition to political repression, torture and other violations of human rights has been exposed as sanctioning practices that hardly qualify as respect for human dignity. Even more reprehensible is the fact that the shameful abuse and/or torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib was exposed not by an outraged administration but by the U.S. media. In response, the administration confined itself to punishing a few low-level perpetrators; none of the top civilian and military decision-makers in the Department of Defense and on the National Security Council who sanctioned "stress interrogations" (a.k.a. torture) were publicly disgraced, prosecuted or forced to resign. The administration's opposition to the International Criminal Court now seems quite self-serving.
Finally, complicating this sorry foreign policy record are war-related economic trends. The budgets for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security are now larger than the total budget of any nation, and they are likely to continue escalating as budget and trade deficits transform America into the world's No. 1 debtor nation. At the same time, the direct and indirect costs of the war in Iraq are mounting, even beyond the pessimistic prognoses of its early opponents, making a mockery of the administration's initial predictions. Every dollar so committed is a dollar not spent on investment, on scientific innovation or on education, all fundamentally relevant to America's long-term economic primacy in a highly competitive world.
It should be a source of special concern for thoughtful Americans that even nations known for their traditional affection for America have become openly critical of U.S. policy. As a result, large swathes of the world — including nations in East Asia, Europe and Latin America — have been quietly exploring ways of shaping regional associations tied less to the notions of transpacific, or transatlantic, or hemispheric cooperation with the United States. Geopolitical alienation from America could become a lasting and menacing reality.
That trend would especially benefit America's historic ill-wishers and future rivals. Sitting on the sidelines and sneering at America's ineptitude are Russia and China — Russia, because it is delighted to see Muslim hostility diverted from itself toward America, despite its own crimes in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and is eager to entice America into an anti-Islamic alliance; China, because it patiently follows the advice of its ancient strategic guru, Sun Tzu, who taught that the best way to win is to let your rival defeat himself.
In a very real sense, during the last four years the Bush team has dangerously undercut America's seemingly secure perch on top of the global totem pole by transforming a manageable, though serious, challenge largely of regional origin into an international debacle. Because America is extraordinarily powerful and rich, it can afford, for a while longer, a policy articulated with rhetorical excess and pursued with historical blindness. But in the process, America is likely to become isolated in a hostile world, increasingly vulnerable to terrorist acts and less and less able to exercise constructive global influence. Flailing away with a stick at a hornets' nest while loudly proclaiming "I will stay the course" is an exercise in catastrophic leadership.
But it need not be so. A real course correction is still possible, and it could start soon with a modest and common-sense initiative by the president to engage the Democratic congressional leadership in a serious effort to shape a bipartisan foreign policy for an increasingly divided and troubled nation. In a bipartisan setting, it would be easier not only to scale down the definition of success in Iraq but actually to get out — perhaps even as early as next year. And the sooner the U.S. leaves, the sooner the Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis will either reach a political arrangement on their own or some combination of them will forcibly prevail.
With a foreign policy based on bipartisanship and with Iraq behind us, it would also be easier to shape a wider Middle East policy that constructively focuses on Iran and on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process while restoring the legitimacy of America's global role.