ATTACK ANXIETYCOMMENT  by Hendrik Hertzberg, March 14, 2003

Writing on the op-ed page of the Times the other day, Christopher Buckley reminisced about a previous era when Europeans turned out by the million to demonstrate in the streets against what they took to be American bellicosity. Twenty years ago, Buckley, who is now a well-known satirical novelist, was an aide to the then Vice-President of the United States, George H. W. Bush. What Europeans were protesting in 1983 was the pending deployment on their territory of Pershing 2 missiles, which their governments had earlier demanded in order to offset similar Soviet missiles that were already in place. At a Q. & A. session in London’s Guildhall, with demonstrators shouting outside, a clergyman got up to say indignantly that he didn’t want to see his children incinerated in an American-initiated nuclear war. According to Buckley, Bush managed to defuse the moment. “Look, I have kids, too,” the Vice-President said plaintively. “Don’t you think I want to see them grow up?”

Although Buckley doesn’t mention it (he is making a different point, about the value of diplomatic tact), and although his boss probably didn’t mean to be taken literally, the five Bush kids, at that moment, were not exactly toddlers. They ranged in age from twenty-three to thirty-six. But the eldest, if no longer a child, had not fully made the transition to adulthood. He had fumbled a congressional campaign that seemed to voters little more than a rich boy’s indulgence; he had blown the first of his subsidized forays into the oil business; he was partying hard. He was still three years away from giving up drink, taking up religion, and beginning his fitful ascent. Now the thirty-six-year-old is a fifty-six-year-old, and he is, ex officio, all grown up. He is the President of the United States, and a great deal hangs on the maturity and wisdom of his judgment. That, to some, is not a comforting thought.

George W. Bush is not perplexed about what must be done about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He believes that there must be war, and soon, and he has lost no sleep over it. “If anyone can be at peace,” he said the other day, “I am at peace about this.” The President is one of those lucky people who know exactly what they think about Iraq—know it to a moral certainty, as the saying goes. Such people flourish on both sides. On one side is a set of mostly neoconservative policy intellectuals and civilian Pentagon officials, some of whom have been maneuvering for a decade toward the war that is nearly upon us. Their most reliable supporters, besides the President, are the sort of evangelical-Christian conservatives who contemplate Armageddon with something like rapture. On the other side, equally convinced of their moral rectitude, are traditional pacifists and the sort of angry leftists for whom any exercise of American military power, because it is American, is wrong. They (along with activists from the mainstream Christian denominations, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) provided the organizing energy and most of the platform rhetoric—though not the massive numbers—for the street demonstrations of February 15th.

Not everyone is so sure. Both among those who, on balance, support the coming war and among those who, on balance, oppose it are a great many who hold their views in fear and trembling, haunted by the suspicion that the other side might be right after all. In the American “homeland,” the anxiety that this crisis is provoking is physical (a dread that, for obvious reasons, is perhaps stronger in New York and Washington than elsewhere), but it is also intellectual. The divisions are profound, and the most agonizing are not between people but within them. The phenomenon is visible in the tabular abstractions of opinion surveys. According to one fairly typical recent poll, conducted for the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, only a bare majority of the public favors the United Nations’ authorizing an invasion as opposed to a “strengthened inspection process.” But much larger—and therefore substantially overlapping—majorities, usually in the seventy-per-cent range, say that they are convinced by the mutually exclusive arguments of both sides. They agree that the United States should not invade Iraq without the approval of the United Nations, and also that the U.N.’s disapproval must not be allowed to stand in the way; that Iraqi intransigence is such that the United States now has no choice but to invade, and also that strengthened inspections are preferable to invasion; that an invasion should begin soon, because Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction will otherwise only become stronger, and also that an invasion should not begin at all, because it would provoke Saddam to use those weapons. When people have no idea of the consequences of a given course of action or inaction, they don’t know which way to turn—or they turn both ways.

Last week, while the Administration was strenuously hinting that war might be only days away, the full, catastrophic dimensions of its diplomatic endgame ballooned into view. On Saturday, the Turkish parliament unexpectedly rebelled, voting down a government proposal to let the United States use Turkish bases as the staging ground for a northern front in Iraq. All through the week, American officials, from the President on down, tried futilely to get commitments from enough of the six wavering nonpermanent members of the Security Council to guarantee the nine out of fifteen votes necessary, assuming no vetoes, to pass a new resolution sponsored by the United States, Britain, and Spain. By midweek, none had said yes, and Chile had said no. Canada, our friendly neighbor to the north, was said to be seething because a compromise that it had quietly, tentatively floated—it would have set a new but not distant deadline for full Iraqi compliance (the end of March, say), authorizing “all necessary means” if specific goals were not met—was deemed by the Administration to be unworthy of even cursory exploration. Then, on Wednesday, the foreign ministers of France, Russia, and Germany stood together in Paris and pronounced the new resolution all but dead. Washington had not expected this, either. Patrick Tyler, on the front page of the Times, called it a “thunderbolt” that “may go down as the loudest ‘No!’ shouted across the Atlantic in a half-century or more.”“In these circumstances,” the Franco-Russian-German statement said (without quite explaining what “these circumstances” were), “we will not let a proposed resolution pass that would authorize the use of force. Russia and France, as permanent members of the Security Council, will assume all their responsibilities on this point.” The word “veto” was not mentioned; but then, when President Bush speaks of America assuming its responsibilities with respect to Iraq, the word “war” is not usually mentioned, either.

After September 11, 2001, enormous crowds in Berlin and London and Paris, and even in Tehran, bore candlelit witness to their solidarity with wounded America. nato, for the first time ever, invoked the provision of its charter declaring an attack against one to be an attack against all. With the blessing of the U.N. Security Council, the soldiers of a dozen countries fought alongside ours in Afghanistan. (Germans and French, among others, are still there.) Just a year and a half later, in almost every sizable city of Europe, North America, and the rest of the democratic world, the United States government became the target of what was apparently the largest coördinated one-day popular protest in the history of the world. In the Security Council, America’s adversaries suddenly include, for the time being, at least, its putative friends, old and new alike. And wherever pollsters ply their trade they find—incredibly—that the publics of the democratic world regard the United States as a greater menace to peace and safety than Iraq.

How did it come to this? Some of the strain, as Robert Kagan argues, is structural, the natural result of asymmetries—of military strength, of historical experience—between America and Europe. And some is the consequence of European obtuseness, shortsightedness, hypocrisy, and wishful thinking. Russia and France (and, to a lesser extent, Germany) are not without blame in this crackup. Each in its own way is playing for advantage, worrying over its portion of influence in the world, calculating its economic stakes in Iraq and the Middle East generally. But it is the policies, attitudes, and ideological blindnesses of the Bush Administration that have turned a chronic but manageable alliance problem into an acute crisis.

“The scale of the failure of U.S. diplomacy to give Bush workable alternatives to the situation in which he finds himself—going to war over the concerted opposition of allies and world public opinion—is staggering,” Jim Hoagland, the normally hawkish foreign-policy columnist of the Washington Post, wrote last week. The roots of that failure have been growing for two years. The Administration trashed the Kyoto environmental treaty, the A.B.M. treaty, and the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, and did so contemptuously and arrogantly, without offering compromises or remedies for their flaws; it demanded the ouster of Yasir Arafat while offering no resistance to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank; it defined the war on terrorism exclusively in the theological language of good versus evil, viewing any attempt to analyze terrorism politically as morally inadmissible; it undermined the power of the convincing reasons for confronting Saddam (such as his consistent failure to disclose and dispose of his weapons of mass destruction) by mixing them with unconvincing ones (such as his alleged coöperation with Al Qaeda); it created the impression that the U.N. effort to disarm Iraq has been a charade masking a predetermined plan to oust Saddam by force no matter what. Even among those who believe that an invasion of Iraq, sooner or later, cannot be avoided, some are asking, Where is the Administration’s wisdom, its sense of diplomatic touch, its Great Power modesty?

“I can only just go by my instincts,” President Bush told Bob Woodward in an interview for “Bush at War.” Woodward adds, “It’s pretty clear that Bush’s role as politician, President and commander in chief is driven by a secular faith in his instincts—his natural and spontaneous conclusions and judgments. His instincts are almost his second religion.” And if the commandment of his first religion is peace, that of his second, it seems clearer than ever, is war.