Two Views of the World

There are two contrasting visions of the world in its present state, and both are half-truths. One is reflected in the powerful trend of U.S. foreign policy toward dominance in a lawless, anarchic world. We must defend ourselves against even distant possible future threats; we don’t always have time for other countries to get on board. Acting this way creates a self-fulfilling prophecy; the world becomes more lawless and anarchic. The alternative vision promotes cooperation, human rights, justice, and sustainable prosperity in an increasingly lawful and orderly world. This is a much slower and more difficult path. But the world’s most powerful nation acting on this theory as often as possible promotes the further development of such a world. Because of its hugely disproportionate military and economic might, more than any other nation the U.S. has the power to influence which of these two kinds of worlds we will live in for the foreseeable future.

A Vision for America

If there is a worthy vision for the United States and for human civilization at this stage in history, it is larger than avoiding various possible disasters, though that is a first step. It’s about exercising the courage and imagination to build a tremendously difficult future, about taking off our nationalistic blinders, letting go of our tribalistic selfishness and doing the hard-headed work of creating transnational laws and institutions to bring an entire planet into increasing rather than diminishing harmony and cooperation. It’s about the world’s most powerful nation supporting the establishment of global institutions such as the International Criminal Court and renouncing violence as a tool of foreign policy except in defense against attack or imminent threat of attack. It’s about creating and reinforcing democratic global structures that make human rights and justice realities for all humanity, mirroring progress that has already taken place within the boundaries of the great democracies. And it’s about leading global efforts to treat this fragile planet on which we depend for our lives, not as a disposable resource to be pillaged and despoiled for the enrichment of the few, but as a treasure to be preserved for our children and our grandchildren.

On American Military Power

To a patriotic American, there can be no more important goal than keeping this country on the side of moral and legal integrity, including using violence only for genuine self-defense (i.e., response to attack or imminent threat of attack) or for mutually agreed upon collective security in defense of ourselves and other nations. A person who shares the central American value of human life cannot also be on the side of building a global empire by causing and threatening death and destruction to others for American global advantage. With the evolution of an American empire of coercion and military force, we may be gaining control of the whole world but losing our own soul as a nation. We are certainly losing the admiration and trust the rest of the world accorded the U.S. when it acted on the values for which it was founded.

On Military versus Civilian Control of Government

There is a painful irony in the relationship between the military and the civilians discussed in this chapter. The U.S. Constitution placed civilians in charge of the military to prevent it from gaining the upper hand in terms of power, with all of the adverse consequences that a dominant military can bring in its train. The first irony is that despite the constitutional precaution of making the military subordinate to civilians, the Pentagon is now so powerful it can “wag the dog" of the President and Congress. The double irony is that it was not the generals who led us into Iraq, but the civilian neoconservatives who oversee the military. They were more hawkish than the generals, and they dragged the country into war against the wishes of the State Department and a substantial plurality of the American public.

On Global Warming

The polar icecaps … are melting at dramatic speeds. In the south, huge chunks of Antarctica are falling into the ocean, floating away and melting. Especially disturbing was the collapse of one gargantuan ice shelf a thousand feet thick and roughly the size of Rhode Island. As regards the northern polar region, on December 9, 2002 the UN Wire reported, “Satellite images indicate Greenland’s ice cap melted across a record 265,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Texas. Oceanographers have observed changes in salinity and temperature below the ice, suggesting potential changes in the ocean’s circulation and possibly dramatic effects on the ocean’s largest currents. Such melting in the past has led to century-long droughts and sea level increases of a magnitude that could doom today’s low-lying cities." Farewell, New York and New Orleans.


There is virtually no doubt that carbon dioxide is being produced faster by human and automotive activity, industrial manufacturing, etc., than natural mechanisms can absorb it. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing with astonishing speed. Scientific studies of Antarctic ice cores at Cape Roberts give us a snapshot of earth’s climatic past. These studies “tell of major climatic events dating back to the very birth of the ice sheet…. They have already confirmed computerized models of climate patterns dating back 33 million years. But the cores also confirm that carbon dioxide levels, always closely linked to climate change, are now increasing a thousand times faster than anything previously recorded. Team Leader Peter Barrett is convinced our climate is set to heat beyond anything experienced since long before humans evolved."1 In other words, since at least the past 160,000 years.

On The Rights of the Child Treaty

The Rights of the Child Treaty is sometimes derided by its critics as ineffectual because it coexists in some countries that have ratified it with appalling abuses of children that go unchecked by the country’s ratification of the treaty. In this respect it is similar to other treaties that are far-seeing in their intent and set a high standard as a goal, but are of course not self-implementing or instantly effective. Laws that posit basic principles and require extensive changes to actual practice in a society often take decades, if not centuries, to implement. The slow process of lawsuits, precedent-setting court decisions, legislative reforms and law implementation is not an overnight affair. Yet these actions are much more likely to be taken if a broad legal framework such as this treaty is present. They are much less likely to be taken if the legal framework is not present to move events in a positive direction. A country does not establish new implementing laws and regulations for a treaty it has not ratified. Defining certain principles and establishing certain behaviors as illegal are the first steps on a long journey. Without them the journey doesn’t happen.

On Liberal and Conservative Foreign Policy

To the question…aren’t these treaties mostly liberal, and therefore objectionable to conservatives, another partial answer is “yes." Many of these treaties are “liberal" if support for basic moral and legal principles such as human rights and justice are “liberal" causes. These treaties are “liberal" in the broad historical sense of the term “liberal democracy" that is the essence of American democracy. By this standard, Thomas Jefferson, a farmer who believed in limited government, was a “liberal." By this standard, the Bill of Rights of the American Constitution is a “liberal" document. However, I doubt that conservatives such as Helms and his ilk would want to be associated with the rejection of these American icons. In fact, the meanings of the terms “liberal" and “conservative" here are almost reversed. It is certainly considered “conservative" to cling to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as foundational elements in American democracy. This is “conservative" in the noblest sense of conservation of all that is positive in the American system of government.

To illustrate what is meant by the term “liberal democracy," by contrast with what it is not, a democracy that lacks the protections of justice and human rights could by a legitimate vote put into power a majority that would oppress and torment and even systematically kill members of a minority. Without the “liberal" protections of human rights built into the constitution of a nation (or into a treaty it has ratified), there is no protection of minorities in a democracy.

There is a tremendous self-contradiction in American conservative ideology here. In the U.S. it is conservative (and obviously, to liberals and conservatives alike, a good thing) to cling to the traditions, laws, and institutions that assure human rights and justice at home. But it is also conservative to object strenuously to similar or essentially identical traditions, laws, and institutions at the international level. What is good for the domestic goose is bad for the international gander. The only explanation for this 180 degree reversal of basic principle at the boundaries of the good old USA is tribalism or jingoism. It cannot be defended logically.

On the International Criminal Court (ICC)

The ICC has jurisdiction only where domestic courts cannot or will not prosecute the offenders. Hence the ICC treaty is designed to plug a mile-wide hole in the world’s system for establishing justice. It replaces with a permanent court the corrupt or nonexistent courts of failed states, the inefficient, after-the-fact courts such as the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after WWII, and the ad hoc courts to try the war criminals of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Most of the world’s democracies celebrated, signed, and ratified the treaty. The world’s genocidal and warmongering dictators like Saddam Hussein did not.

The vote by other nations to establish the ICC was a triumph of a core American value—the insistence on impartial justice for which the U.S. has stood since the establishment of its Constitution….

Yet the United States voted against the treaty. It did so alongside such human rights luminaries as China, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Qatar. On that momentous day, values embraced by Americans triumphed globally but were trampled upon by American political leaders.

On the United Nations

Amid the swirl of numbers about what was being spent and saved, Senator Jesse Helms, then the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, triumphantly claimed the reduction in U.S. dues would save $170 million a year that the United Nations would have cost taxpayers. He did not mention that in this diplomatic triumph, the U.S. incurred the intense anger and scorn of 188 other member nations of the UN for over a decade and had finally achieved a savings of one one-hundredth of one percent (0.01% or one ten-thousandth) of the U.S. federal budget. This sum amounts to about seventy cents per American citizen per year. At that point I wondered, should we celebrate this great achievement by breaking open a seventy-cent can of soda? It would cost more to break out champagne than we saved by causing intense irritation for over a decade to all the other countries in the world. By any reasonable estimate, the cost-benefit ratio of this “victory" was thousands to one against the U.S.

Loss of Respect for the U.S.

A number of American leaders, including well-known journalists, attended a prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2003. At this time the U.S. was in the late stages of war preparations against Saddam Hussein. The inspectors had found no weapons of mass destruction and had encountered no opposition to their work from Saddam, but Bush was beating the war drums ever-louder. According to attendees at the forum, one of the speakers commented that America was alienating everyone. One solid minute of applause followed this statement. Clearly it was not an isolated sentiment. American journalists such as Richard Cohen and political leaders such as Senator Joseph Biden who attended the forum reported the same intense anti-American feeling implied by the long round of applause. They reported that the official theme of the forum was restoring trust. But the real theme, as Cohen put it in an op-ed piece, was “bashing America." Hardly equivalent to restoring trust. Clearly trust in the U.S. had been seriously damaged, the positive feelings about the U.S. that prevailed after September 11 destroyed. Cohen, backed by other Americans attending the forum, commented on the intensity of anti-American feeling: “In all my years of coming here I have never seen anything like it."2

Iraq War Aggravates Terrorism

The predictions that an attack on Iraq would play into the hands of terrorists were not long waiting for fulfillment. Even before the war against Iraq, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden used the prospect of the war to launch a propaganda diatribe against the U.S. and possibly to signal a terrorist attack. He released a speech on tape that was broadcast on the Arabic language al Jazeera satellite network. In it he called on Iraqis to carry out suicide attacks on Americans. Intelligence officials warned that the tape was authentic and that similar communications have preceded terrorist attacks in the past….

In his efforts to make the case for international military action against Iraq, Colin Powell argued that bin Laden’s statement placed him in partnership with Iraq. But, on the contrary, in the statement bin Laden scorned Iraq’s leadership as an infidel government. Rather than allying himself with the Iraqi government, he argued that the Iraqi people should oppose American aggression to counter a latter-day western crusade against Muslim peoples. Bin Laden’s point was terrorist recruitment propaganda for a popular audience inside as well as outside Iraq, not a declaration of alliance with an “infidel" like Saddam Hussein, an arrangement that would be anathema to a Muslim fanatic.

Democracy in the Middle East

It was late in the pre-war game when Bush gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, his tribalistic home base, giving a rosy picture of the splendid world of freedom and democracy that would open up to Iraqis and the Middle East generally as a result of the war. It is hard to believe that this idealistic afterthought was a major motive for attacking Iraq, but if so, it was incredibly naïve. First, the likelihood of Iraq becoming a democracy was low on the face of it, given its history and cultural divides; second, there was no reason to think that this success, if it happened, would change the rest of the Middle East. Turkey is a democracy, and we haven’t seen other Middle Eastern countries rushing to emulate it. The undemocratic majority of Middle Eastern countries have their own internal problems, not least of which is the possibility that a popular vote might bring radicals into power who would further destabilize the Middle East and possibly choke off Western access to oil. We should be careful what we wish for; we might get it.

On Military Prowess and Support for the Troops

Once the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq was made and the military capabilities were positioned, the swift success of the American military takeover of the country was impressive, to say the least. The pinpoint bombing of selected targets to maximize “shock and awe" and minimize civilian casualties was also impressive. The conduct of these operations certainly seemed, to a lay person, like a brilliant piece of military strategy. Nothing can alter the fact that the American military performed superbly in this huge operation. The achievement it represents, taken on its own terms, should not be diminished or belittled in any way. The American soldiers and their leaders who conducted this operation deserve high praise for a job well done. Whether we agree with the rationale for the war or not, it is imperative that all American citizens honor the heroism, the risks, the hard work, and the sacrifices of our troops and the hardships of their families. The troops did not create the war, but they fought honorably in it.

Still, there is a major problem, one of wider military strategy, one created at the political level, not at the level of our professional military. The U.S. Army War College published a study in December 2003 that raises serious strategic questions, not so much about this one swift and successful campaign, but about the entire Iraq war and its place in the larger war on terrorism. Military strategy is about more than moving troops around and making sure they are adequately supplied and are able to achieve their military objectives, no matter how large those objectives may be. It is about selecting broad war objectives that are clear, achievable, that actually enhance national security, and can be accomplished by means that do not exhaust national resources. These are practical tests that have little to do with questions about the morality or legality of the war. On these practical tests of military strategy the Iraq war flunks, and so does the war on terrorism as a whole.

The Iraq War from Every Angle

Remarkably, the bottom line judgement on attacking Iraq looks the same—a bad idea—from every perspective. Church leaders and experts on ethics condemn it on moral grounds. Legal scholars point out that it was a clear violation of international law. Politically it has been a disaster that has angered and frightened our allies, intensified the hatred of our enemies, and has gravely damaged international institutions whose job it is to keep the peace in the world. Fiscally, the war constitutes a high, damaging, and ongoing cost to the nation at a moment when the deficit is ballooning and baby boomers are soon going to retire, putting a huge strain on social security and medicare. And finally, as the War College study shows, launching the war was an instance of bad military strategy, a detour from the war on terrorism that motivated increased terrorism and siphoned off funding that was more urgently needed for homeland security.

1. Allen Braddock, "Antarctica: The End of the Earth, Episode 1: Katabatic" Videotape published by Thirteen WNET/Educational Broadcasting, 1999.
2. Richard Cohen, "Bush, the Bad Guy" Washington Post, January 28, 2003.

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