Bush Needs to Hear, Not Shun, World Critics

This article was published in the Chicago Sun‐​Times, March 31, 2004.
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One year after the initiation of war in Iraq, the war against terror is becoming the subject of intense debate, both here and abroad. The Bush administration’s initial euphoria — epitomized by the president’s triumphal appearance on an aircraft carrier to announce the end of major combat operations on May 1, 2003 — now appears misplaced. Continued resistance in both Iraq and Afghanistan is raising the specter of a quagmire similar to the Vietnam War, and the recent election in Spain underlines the erosion of international support.

The administration and its supporters now face a fundamental test. “Any sign of weakness or retreat simply validates terrorist violence, and invites more violence for all nations,” President Bush told an international gathering at the White House on March 19. “The only certain way to protect our people is by early, united, and decisive action.”

With those words, Bush defined the gulf of misunderstanding in the war on terror. What is certain for him is precisely what others dispute, and that disagreement must be addressed forthrightly. Whereas Bush views the Iraq war as indispensable to the war on terror, others see it as a distraction or even counterproductive.

The difference can be summed up in the controversy over the weapons of mass destruction — the principal reason given for invading Iraq. For many Americans, even if the administration was wrong, it acted in good faith to protect the American people. After 9/11, most Americans are willing to err on the side of being too early to intervene if the alternative is being too late to prevent another attack.

Among America’s allies, however, the failure to find WMD is not so readily dismissed. The administration’s unwillingness to concede error, and its ready substitution of other rationales for the war, make people wonder how their troops are viewed. “The government seems to forget the soldiers who died or who were disabled,” complains Andy McNab, a veteran of Britain’s elite Special Air Service. “Politicians said they were willing to pay the blood price for their decisions, perhaps because they didn’t have to pay with their own kids’ blood.”

In addition, foreign observers do not share Bush’s optimistic view of progress in the war. The administration might see Iraq as a fledgling democracy, but others fear a country on the verge of violent disintegration. “There is a danger of an ethnic war in Iraq,” Jordan’s King Abdullah warned during a recent visit to Turkey. “Iraq’s neighbors cannot tolerate such a conflict.”

Abdullah’s apprehension highlights the challenge confronting the Bush administration. Bush has hailed the transformation of Iraq as a centerpiece of his administration’s strategy in the Middle East. He has compared the situation in postwar Iraq to the successful transformation of Japan into a flourishing democracy after the Second World War.

If Abdullah is right, however, Iraq could spread instability throughout the area. The king’s visit to Turkey indicates that these countries see a need for cooperation in anticipation of this impending danger.

And they are not alone in their misgivings. Indeed, the Bush administration’s sunny portrayal of the war on terror is leading others to wonder whether it has become, in a word, delusional. “Every time there is a report of a violent attack in Iraq, you hear one‐​liners that suggest that the situation is improving,” a leading Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, editorialized on the one‐​year anniversary of the start of the war. “Following Wednesday’s [March 17] bombing, the White House spokesman said: ‘Democracy is taking root in Iraq.’ It is this approach of evading reality that has made Iraq the disaster it is today.”

And it is that approach that has also led other people to question American leadership. People do not appreciate being misled, as even the president of Poland made clear following the election in Spain. They do not want to be misled about the causes of war, and they do not want to be misled about the way the war is going.

The Bush administration has correctly identified the promotion of democracy as a core focus of U.S. foreign policy. Democratic government is based on the idea that disagreement is legitimate, which is why we have the concept of the loyal opposition. But the administration sees any opposition to its policies as disloyal, or worse. Its position has been: We lead, you follow.

The Spanish election is a signal that such a policy will no longer work. If the Bush administration does not recognize that, we can only expect the gulf between the United States and its allies to widen, and the war on terror to suffer as a result.