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Extravagant Language in Lieu of Sober War Aims
8 February 2002
Paris - It took time to realize that the shock of Sept. 11 last year wasn't just a bad movie. It happened in the real world and we had to digest it. But now President George W. Bush's rhetoric and approach are putting us back with the language of make-believe and the terrors of special effects. We Americans face an &qupt;axis of evil&qupt; worse even than the Cold War threat of planetary annihilation. We must plunge into &qupt;permanent mobilization,&qupt; with a huge increase in military spending this year and also every year into the visible future. &qupt;Ticking time bombs&qupt; are &qupt;spread throughout the world&qupt; to destroy us, but the &qupt;state of our union has never been stronger.&qupt;
The extravagance of language is of the sports arena or children's arcade games. Is it just to stir up the excitement and the pleasure of being in the cheering section where you don't bother with questions about what is to be done, or are we really meant to take all this seriously?
Our allies are befuddled, not only by the Bush administration but by the tremendous enthusiasm with which so much of the American public is receiving its grim pronouncements. No Churchillian &qupt;blood, sweat and tears,&qupt; just miracle machines untouched by human hands. No prospect of a strategy, a way to seek conclusion, with clear war aims so as to give guidance from the start as the Atlantic Charter did within months of Pearl Harbor.
A public, explicit promise was made to the provisional Afghan government as it was being formed that this time America would not turn away when the major fight was over - as it did after the Soviets finally withdrew their invading forces, leaving the Afghans to fight each other. The ensuing civil war was so devastating, so hopeless, so intolerable that the Taliban regime was welcomed. It brought order, the first, absolute essential in a failed state, without which nothing useful is possible.
But now Washington is making tut-tut noises as fighting erupts again around the country. There are peacekeepers in the capital (not enough) but nothing to support central authority in the rest of the tattered state. And they are meant to stay only a few months, which is simply incredible. True, the Americans ousted the bad regime almost single-handed in terms of intervention force. But Washington doesn't seem to be much interested in the even more important constructive job which must follow. Mr. Bush wants to leave construction to others and let America rush off to new, apparently inexhaustible battlefronts. Cynics at NATO (that NATO is sprouting cynics nowadays is a very bad sign) say responsibility is sorted out by three Fs. The U.S. fights, nongovernmental organizations feed, and the Europeans fund. American pride at the tremendous sophistication of its war gear weighs heavily on NATO as it tries to adjust to a whole new concept of its role, the internal relations of its members and their future near doubling.
The grit of reality has always offset the official myth that all members are equal, but they found ways to accommodate. It is getting harder than ever now that nobody has to defend his own territory and nobody except the United States has sufficient force to mount a large-scale distant campaign. The United States is urging the others ever more insistently to face this gap by spending more on defense. It now spends more than all the others combined. This makes for difficult political problems. Not everybody feels the same threat any longer, although all have responded without question to Mr. Bush's call to oppose terrorism.
It also makes for a very strange new kind of arms race, driven not by the need to keep up with or get ahead of the enemy but by a newly felt need not to be too far behind the major ally. Otherwise the others risk being ignored by the United States, which can do so many things (whether necessary or not doesn't matter) that they can't. Traditional ways of thinking about defense, balance of power or explanation of motive don't fit. But what is being suggested in place of analysis and strategic planning sounds more like some ad agency campaign to introduce a new film than a real effort to help the people whose support is sought to understand where they are being led.
Perhaps the most frightening part of the post-Sept. 11 world is how willingly Americans have swallowed what they are being told. There should be questions, doubts must be expressed, challenges must be offered and rejected, if these essentially new problems are to be examined soberly.
With the best will in the world, we can all fool ourselves. History makes clear what terrible mistakes that can bring. Wait a moment. Let's stop and think.