Bush's grand European tour

Courting the allies he spurned last year, the president will mangle the lessons of history to turn Iraq into postwar Europe, but no one will be fooled.

Sidney Blumenthal
June 4, 2004 2:07AM (UTC)

Shock and awe was more than the first phase of the invasion of Iraq. It was the premise of Bush's foreign policy. Fear of unrivaled power would prompt the dominoes to fall -- the dominoes in this case being the traditional Western allies. Unilateralism (depicted as the coalition of the willing) would yield submission. The spectacle of Iraqi democracy, a beacon to the Arab world, would refute argument and opposition. On this gamble, the entire edifice of Bush's policy rested. From the "cakewalk" onward would follow the collapse of Iranian influence, the rescue of Saudi Arabia from radical Islamist threat, Palestinian quiescence and an instant solution to the Middle East crisis, and the rapid spread of democracy across the former Ottoman Empire. Blessed by the grateful Iraqi street, the U.S. would then withdraw its military forces, leaving in charge the leader of "free Iraq," former exile Ahmad Chalabi, while the French are reduced to anxious waiters only seeking to please Bush with his order.

Now the FBI investigates neoconservatives in the Pentagon to discover who may have given secret U.S. intelligence to Chalabi that he allegedly passed on to the Iranians. The Iraqi Governing Council, a U.S. creation, has transmogrified itself into the interim government, having shed Chalabi, hoping that its new identity will lend it a mask of legitimacy. Al-Qaida has found fresh fields for its deadly work; the Saudis cannot protect Western businessmen from terrorist attacks; the Middle East peace process is in ruins; the U.S. casualty rate reached and then exceeded 800 dead soldiers on Memorial Day. The French case that there was not a threat of weapons of mass destruction, and that invading Iraq would lead to fragmentation of the country and trigger more terrorism, has been vindicated. Bush's emissaries cannot decide whether Iraq can be a democracy or at best a warlord state like Afghanistan. They plead before the United Nations, once spurned, for symbolic justification. Meanwhile, Bush launches a month of European travel, less diplomacy than tableaux vivants of international cooperation that upon his departure from the stage will instantly dissolve into grim realpolitik. As polls show him at his low ebb, he hopes that the American public will accept the illusion as reality and reject the reality as illusion.


At the United Nations, the U.S. has proposed a resolution whose only substantive element is obviously empty. No nation that is not already there will contribute troops to comprise a multinational force in Iraq. The rest is window dressing. Having disdained the U.N. at the start, having failed to deploy the U.S. military to protect the U.N. mission, which was blown up last Aug. 20, with 17 killed, the Bush administration now desperately clings to the U.N. as a fig leaf of internationalism. Bush even claimed that the U.N. representative in Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, was the "quarterback" for choosing the new Iraqi prime minister and president, and that Bush played "zero" role.

In truth, according to U.N. sources, Brahimi was outmaneuvered and shunted aside by the Iraqis on the Governing Council seeking to perpetuate their power. Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer announced the new prime minister before Brahimi had been informed, an extension of the doctrine of preemption. Then Brahimi was sidelined again on the selection of the president. Presented with this fait accompli, the U.N. sources say, he had to resign himself or destroy any remnant of legality. "Once it was done, it was done," said a U.N. source. The U.N. plans for no central part in the new Iraq, but a small mission performing humanitarian work that will be ringed by Gurkhas.

At home and abroad, Bush is investing his rhetoric about the "clash of ideologies" and "global war" with ahistorical analogies. On his European visits, Bush will compare Iraq to rebuilding Germany and Japan after World War II. He will raise the specter of the West against communism in the Cold War. He will contrast Nazi atrocities to Islamist terrorism. He has even said that he will instruct Europeans that Iraq is like the United States before its Constitutional Convention: "I will remind them that the Articles of Confederation was a rather bumpy period for American democracy." Among the missing in today's Iraq, however, are analogous figures to Washington, Franklin and Madison.


Bush's principal analogy conflates al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein into a common threat of "weapons of mass destruction" and a "totalitarian political ideology" that is "not an expression of religion," as he explained in his speech before the Army War College on May 24. This is a world war of "two visions" that first "clashed in Afghanistan" and "have now met in Iraq." It was in this speech that he proposed tearing down and replacing Abu Ghraib prison, despite having neglected to provide for it in his budget. The grand gesture was widely reported, the grubby absence of funding little noticed. By means of a few words, Abu Ghraib was transformed at least for a moment into a gleaming Potemkin Village.

Prophetically, on the eve of Bush's appearance at the Army War College, its Strategic Studies Institute released a report, "Vietnam and Iraq: Differences, Similarities and Insights," observing the similarities as failures of strategy, maintaining public support and nation building. It also noted: "Prospects for creating a stable, prosperous, and democratic Iraq are problematic, and observers and decision makers should not be misled by false analogies to American state-building success in Germany and Japan after World War II."

"They haven't known what they've been doing since the statue of Saddam came down," a military strategist at the Army War College told me. "Bush's speech was a vision speech with no connection to facts on the ground. That seems to be the limit of his understanding and ability. Even Vietnam doesn't look so bad in retrospect." But Bush will not make reference to "Vietnam and Iraq" in Europe.


Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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