Commentary

Bush’s Middle East Plans Imperil U.S. Security and Economy

President Bush’s Feb. 26 speech for the American Enterprise Institute shows once again his unwavering commitment to a regime change in Iraq. The president’s broader message — that the war on Iraq is a first step in a long march toward promoting democracy throughout the Middle East — suggests a new phase in American involvement abroad. This new direction will threaten American security, harm economic prosperity, and impinge on individual liberties.

Although the president repeated that the “safety of the American people depends on ending this direct and growing threat” posed by Saddam Hussein, a war on Iraq makes us all less secure. Witness the recent “Orange Alert” issued by the Department of Homeland Security. If you corner a snake, it may bite. In the same vein, the Bush administration’s war warnings, and the presence of nearly 200,000 U.S. troops in nations surrounding Iraq, might precipitate pre-emptive terrorist strikes.

Notwithstanding the presumed Iraqi threat, the president spoke eloquently of the plight of the Iraqi people, and of the need for taking action on humanitarian and philosophical grounds. “America’s interests in security, and America’s belief in liberty,” he said, “both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq.” Bush appealed to his audience, and to all Americans, to assume responsibility for liberating Iraq, even though he admitted such a task would not be easy. Indeed, the president and his supporters have underestimated how difficult it will be to create a free and prosperous Iraq out of the ashes left behind by Saddam Hussein.

Promoters of nation-building in Iraq, including many who scorned similar efforts by a Democratic administration a few years ago, point to nation-building successes in Germany and Japan following World War II. Along these same lines, Bush declared that “[r]ebuilding Iraq will require a sustained commitment” and that the United States would “remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more.” But there are still more than 70,000 U.S. troops in Germany and 50,000 in Japan, and this lingering troop presence has given rise to a virulent anti-Americanism. If these “success” stories reflect the model for post-war Iraq, we should expect U.S. troops to remain in this troubled region for many years.

On a broader level, liberals and conservatives alike who support a war in Iraq are exhibiting a level of hubris rarely witnessed in human history. Bush is correct, of course, in arguing that, “It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world — or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim — is somehow untouched by the” desire for freedom and democracy. But the practical application of that desire cannot be exported by the American military, complete with a “Made in America” stamp.

It is perhaps understandable that most Americans see few limits to this nation’s ability to spread democracy. But there are limits, and there are costs. An expansive and far-flung U.S. empire — even an empire dedicated to the noble mission of promoting democracy — must be policed by an American military already strained to the breaking point. The Bush administration requested $380 billion for the military in the FY 2004 budget, and this request does not include any money for the war in Iraq. Some of the administration’s internal estimates predicted that the war could cost as much as $200 billion. Critics fear that it could go higher.

The true costs, however, are more difficult to measure. There was an outpouring of international support following the horrific attacks of 9/11. Much of that goodwill has dissipated as world opinion has turned against a Bush administration deemed bent on war at all costs.

Those who wish us ill can and will mischaracterize our good intentions. The American people must recognize that a benign mission of liberation may become an obligation of occupation, even if the war on Iraq is completed quickly and with a minimal loss of life.

If a lengthy occupation occurs, as seems likely, we should expect that those who already hate us would use the excuse of an American troop presence in the Middle East as a vehicle to promote their mission of violence against Americans around the globe.

Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.