Bush's Imprudent Foreign Policy

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Edmund
Burke’s Reflections
on the Revolution in France
is considered by many to mark
the birth of conservatism. Burke had little in common with the conservatives
who dominate the Republican Party today. To Burke, prudence was
the most important quality in a political leader. To be prudent
is to be careful, cautious, and wise. A prudent leader examines
all sides of an issue before taking action. He is pragmatic rather
than ideological, and skeptical of abstract utopian visions.

George
W. Bush may be a conservative, but he is anything but prudent, particularly
in foreign policy. The invasion of Iraq was imprudent on many levels:

Initiating
a full-scale war in Iraq when we were already engaged in a major
conflict in Afghanistan with the actual perpetrators of the 9/11
attacks, and the Taliban regime that harbored them.

Dismissing
all doubts concerning the extent of Iraq’s arsenal of weapons of
mass destruction, as well as its links to Al-Qaeda. Significant
doubts were raised within the intelligence community on both these
points before the war. The administration responded by pressuring
intelligence agencies to produce evidence confirming the existence
of weapons of mass destruction and an Al-Qaeda link, and the Office
of Special Plans was set up within the Defense Department expressly
to find supporting evidence on these points where the conventional
channels had failed.

Dismissing
out of hand potential negative consequences of an invasion of Iraq,
including political chaos within the country, escalating anti-American
sentiment within the Arab world, and a sharp increase in willing
recruits for Al-Qaeda, all of which have since come to pass.

Launching
the Iraq war with an inadequate plan and with inadequate troop levels
for a post-war occupation, and ignoring the general who questioned
the administration’s optimistic scenarios.

Alienating
most of our major European allies by mocking them and moving ahead
with the war unilaterally after our case against Saddam failed to
persuade them.

Assuming
we could easily and at minimal cost establish democracy within Iraq,
a country with no previous history or experience with democracy.
And remember, Bush’s goal was not just to bring democracy to Iraq;
it was (and still is, for many in the administration) to bring democracy
– by force if necessary – to the entire Middle East.

And,
finally, making preemptive war the centerpiece of his national security
strategy. Preemptive war makes the United States an aggressive power,
contrary to our traditions. It forfeits much of our moral authority
throughout the world. It also threatens other nations, encouraging
them to seek armaments sufficient to deter us from attacking them.
Thus our doctrine of preemptive war encourages the very nuclear
proliferation we say we are trying to avoid. There is strong evidence
that North Korea resumed their nuclear weapons program for precisely
this reason. Iran may now be doing the same thing.

Writing
in 1791, Burke marveled that people who would never try to take
apart a clock and put it back together somehow feel competent to
tear down and remake whole political systems of vastly greater complexity.
"Men little think how immorally they act in rashly meddling
with what they do not understand. Their delusive good intention
is no sort of excuse for their presumption. They who truly mean
well must be fearful of acting ill."

The
consequences of President Bush’s presumption in Iraq are now apparent.
The postwar occupation has claimed seven times more lives than the
original conflict. Whole areas of Iraq are under the effective control
of the insurgents. Our armed forces are overstretched and we have
a "backdoor" draft, in which army reservists are forced
to serve extended terms and soldiers are pressured to reenlist by
threats of immediate assignment to Iraq if they refuse. A recent
CIA report sees civil war in Iraq as a real possibility, and even
Republican members of Congress have begun to use words like "incompetent"
and "pathetic" to describe the administration.

Perhaps
the best argument for a second Bush term is that he has sown a whirlwind
in Iraq, and he ought to be the one to reap it. But the prudent
course for the nation would be to do everything we can to avoid
the reckoning that awaits us in a second Bush term.

October
28, 2004

Michael
Hayes [send him mail]
is professor of political science at Colgate University. He is the
author of three books, including (most recently) The
Limits of Policy Change: Incrementalism, Worldview, and the Rule
of Law.

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