Today's date:
Spring 2003


Iraq and US Global Leadership

Zbigniew Brzezinski was the US national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter.

Washington—Just over a year ago, America was basking in international solidarity generated by the 9/11 crime and in worldwide admiration for its spectacularly effective military termination of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

A year later, there is perhaps just one country in the entire world whose public opinion unambiguously supports the prospective United States war against Iraq. The cross-Atlantic vitriol is unprecedented in its ugliness, with NATO’s unity in real jeopardy. At the same time, Americans—despite officially claimed progress in the campaign against terrorism—are taking urgent self-protective measures against potential acts of terror.

Hardly a strategic success! What went wrong, and what can still be done about it? Why is the obvious fact that Iraq is not complying with UN resolutions producing so much controversy?

There are a number reasons why there is such disarray even among close allies, why there is such worldwide public opposition to the war (even in the “new Europe,” not to mention Great Britain), and why there is so much uncertainty at home.

The first reason goes back to the way the Iraq issue surfaced in the course of the inconclusive campaign against terrorism. The emphasis placed since the summer of 2002 on “regime change” and the early indications that the US was eager to go to war on its own have generated the suspicion that the subsequent US decision to seek UN approval for coercive disarmament of Iraq was essentially a charade, premised on the expectation that Saddam Hussein would prove unambiguously recalcitrant. US credibility has not been helped by the penchant for citing suspicions as proof of Iraqi transgressions.

In addition, the manner in which the US defined its “war on terrorism” has struck many abroad as excessively theological (“evil-doers who hate freedom”) and unrelated to any political context. The evident reluctance to see a connection between Middle Eastern terrorists and the political problems of the Middle East fueled suspicions that the US was exploiting the campaign against terrorism largely for political and regional ends. Moreover, the increasingly shrill but unsubstantiated efforts to connect Iraq with Al Qaeda have also given rise to the question whether that alleged (or emerging) linkage is the reason for US policy or increasingly the result of it.

Matters have not been helped by the evident but unstated endorsement by President Bush of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s notions of how to deal with both the Palestinians and the region as a whole. The European press has commented more widely than the American on the striking similarity between current US policies in the Middle East and the recommendations prepared in 1996 by several American admirers of the Likud for then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That these admirers are now occupying positions of influence in the Bush administration is seen as the reason why the US is so eager to wage war against Iraq, so willing to accept the scuttling of the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and so abrupt in rejecting European calls for joint American-European initiatives to promote peace between Israel and Palestine.

The manner in which the US has reacted to European reservations regarding Iraq has created the impression that some US leaders confuse NATO with the Warsaw Pact. Even worse, the glee with which intra-European divisions regarding support for the US position has been greeted in Washington has nurtured the European penchant for conspiracy theories. Not only is the US suspected of welcoming European disunity, but some Europeans are beginning to believe that the US, largely under the influence of those policy-makers who are most eager for war, is actually planning a grand strategic realignment. The Atlantic alliance would be replaced by a coalition of non-European states, such as Russia, India and Israel, each with special hostility toward various parts of the Islamic world.

Last but not least, there is justifiable concern that the preoccupation with Iraq—which does not pose an imminent threat to global security—obscures the need to deal with the more serious and genuinely imminent threat posed by North Korea. Disunity in the United Nations and rifts in the alliance over the ongoing UN inspections in Iraq do not create reassuring precedents for coping with North Korea’s open defiance. An America that decides to act essentially on its own regarding Iraq could in the meantime also find itself quite alone in having to cope with the costs and burdens of the war’s aftermath, not to mention widespread and rising hostility abroad.

None of the above is an argument for letting Iraq off the hook. Indeed, force may have to be used to enforce the goal of disarmament. But how that force is applied and when it is applied should be part of a larger strategy, sensitive to the risk that the termination of Saddam’s regime may be purchased at too high a cost to America’s global leadership.