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When the Bush administration came into office, it announced that it would pull back from the multi-lateralism of the Clinton administration and pursue what it considered American national interests more single-mindedly. The attacks of Sept. 11 forced it to swerve from that path. During the succeeding weeks there was a concerted effort to build a global and multilateral coalition against terrorism. This effort, while very successful, lasted for less than four months. The end of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan also brought the end of the multilateral phase in U.S. foreign policy.

In the State of the Union address last January, President Bush put forward his “axis of evil” formulation. In the months following, the targeting of Iraq became increasingly prominent. Against the objections of nearly the whole world, as well as much of the U.S. military, the hawks in the Bush administration have pursued their agenda of war against Iraq. The U.S. has nearly halted its pursuit of Al-Qaeda and permitted North Korea to build nuclear weapons openly because these matters are now assigned lower priority than tormenting Iraq. Unilateralism is back.

It is actually quite difficult to explain the Bush campaign against Iraq in terms of American national interest normally conceived. The most frequently stated reason—preventing Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction—is simply a canard. Even the head of the CIA considers the threat from Iraq to be a distant one. There is also the claim that the U.S. wishes to introduce democracy to the Arab world through Iraq.

In reality, the U.S. would no more permit a democracy to arise in Iraq than it would in Jordan. The ethnic mix in both countries threatens broader American goals in the region. Even oil lust is a problematic explanation. The U.S. completely controlled Kuwait and had a large force in Saudi Arabia at the end of the Gulf War. That would have been a good time for the U.S., led by many of the same persons as at present, to seize the oil. It did not. The U.S. already has a great deal of control over the world oil system; it does not need to control petroleum deposits directly.

The challenges assigned lower priority, such as the pursuit of al-Qaeda and restricting North Korean nuclear development, actually pose a far greater threat to American interests and public safety than does Iraq. Once al-Qaeda slipped out of Afghanistan into Pakistan, it acquired a relatively safe haven.

In a strange twist of logic, the Bush administration defined Pakistan as a crucial ally in the war against terrorism, and thereby relieved it of the obligation to participate beyond a minimal level in that war. Since the fall of the Taliban, only two of the many senior al-Qaeda functionaries in Pakistan have been captured. No doubt, the loss of the Afghan base has delayed al-Qaeda strikes, but given the luxury of time, it will be back. North Korea recently sacrificed more than a tenth of its people to death in famine in order to avoid economic reforms such as those in China or Vietnam. North Korea’s is clearly a leadership that values itself far more than it values its people. North Korean leaders are deterred from starting a nuclear war, but weakly.

The most plausible explanation of the Bush administration’s Iraq obsession is a bizarre one. The Sept. 11 attacks gave Bush unprecedented popularity. That relieved him of the need to pursue American national interests. The American popular reaction to the great terrorist attacks marginalized the Congress and gave the President a blank check. Seven or eight persons in key positions in the administration got the chance to put their obsessions into action.

The resistance of other states to the U.S. attack plan has been strong and persistent. This episode is the strongest resistance to a high priority U.S. initiative the world has seen since the end of the Cold War. Russia and France have articulated the norm which is at stake in the current round of diplomacy. They have said that no state should have the right to attack another except in self-defense or with the explicit permission of the security council. They want to deny America the right to initiate regime change unilaterally. What is at stake then goes far beyond Iraq. The question is the nature of sovereignty in the world today. While the sovereignty of lesser powers is not considered absolute, the Franco-Russian norm would provide the security council as the court of last appeal for them.

The theory of the balance of power says that when one power is on the verge of achieving world domination, other powers form a coalition against it. The surprising feature of the period after 1989 is that no such thing happened. There was a tacit agreement between the America and the rest of the world. The U.S. agreed to restrain itself, and others consented not to challenge the U.S. This bargain ushered in an era of stable politics among major and rising powers, of intensified economic globalization, and of American leadership.

The attacks of Sept. 11 undid the American commitment to that bargain by liberating the Bush administration from the obligation to pursue American national interests. One hopes America will ultimately refrain from destabilizing the broad framework of post-Cold War international order to indulge the obsessions of a few persons.

Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University.

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