State of the Union at War

Some might argue that I should be grateful at having my prejudices confirmed. But there’s plenty of evidence on the historical record. I could have lived a long time – a lifetime, perhaps? – without a contemporary, up-to-the-minute demonstration of the old Bournean adage that war is the health of the state.

My preferences aside, however, we have the example before us, presented boldly, without apology and without a hint of irony by President Bush, so we might as well explore it a bit. As Richard Stevenson noted in a Monday New York Times story, “The budget that President Bush will send to Congress a week from Monday strays far from the agenda of small government and fiscal conservatism that the administration advocated on taking office a year ago.”

Specifically, the budget will call for a spending increase for the national government of 9 percent, “more than any big-government Democrat would dare to put on the table,” as Stevenson put it. That will include a $48 billion increases in defense spending – only $10 billion of which is skated for the direct costs of the vaunted war on terrorism. The other $38 billion amounts to an annual increase of about 11.6 percent over this year’s Pentagon budget.


The most striking aspect of the speech was the open-ended, almost limitless ambition and scope of the promises and commitments. Not only is the U.S. military and government to be given the widest possible latitude in carrying out the war on evil whose battlefields could be anywhere and everywhere, but the government is to be trusted completely in this matter. And the people are to be grateful to be treated in such a cavalier fashion.

I don’t think it is possible to exaggerate – and perhaps we should be grateful to Mr. Bush for his relative honesty. I didn’t write the line, “What we have found in Afghanistan confirms that – far from ending there – our war against terror is only beginning.” Mr. Bush’s speechwriters wrote it, he approved it, and he delivered it with passion and something resembling conviction.

He went on to promise virtually limitless future commitments, lamenting that “some governments may be timid in the face of terror. And make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will.”

Does that mean the United States is promulgating the doctrine that this country declares it has the right to send troops and bombs to any country in the world, anytime, on mere scraps of evidence that something is going on there that displeases us or has some tenuous connection to an organized international terrorist ring? The words imply it and the administration’s actions reinforce the impression.


Time was when the United States was usually at some pains to declare that its overseas military operations were either defensive in nature or came at the behest of some country that was the victim of aggression and had called for our help. Often enough this was more pretense than reality, as in the Tonkin Gulf incident that was spun to create a self-defense rationale for the Vietnam war. But at least our leaders had the decency to bow to the norms of decency and make believe. Even the Persian Gulf war waged by Bush 41 had to wait for an actual invasion of Kuwait and was reinforced by propaganda about the heartbreaking terrors Saddam’s minions were imposing on the innocent Kuwaitis.

No more. We don’t need even the pretense of self-defense or helping an innocent victim any more. Displeasing our policy elites on almost any level is now enough. President Clinton shattered the old self-defense paradigm some years ago with the bombing of Bosnia, then Kosovo, mounting what amounted to invasions of a country that – while certainly reprehensible enough – had not ventured outside its own internationally recognized and sanctioned borders.

Mr. Bush has taken up the torch of imperial maintenance with enthusiasm. The two examples he mentioned of countries where US forces are already involved or will be soon – the Philippines and Somalia – have only the most tenuous connection to international terrorism.

According to virtually everything I have read and most of the area experts I’ve talked to, for example, the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines is a thoroughly nasty lot, raising funds mainly through kidnapping and extortion. But while there was some contact with Al Qaida in the middle 1990s, there’s almost no evidence of close contact between Abu Sayyaf and Al Qaida currently, let alone that Al Qaida is somehow masterminding or pulling the strings on Abu Sayyaf, which has degenerated into something closer to a criminal gang clinging to a political pretext.

Likewise in Somalia, there seem to be some essentially criminal terrorist cells in various rural regions. But there’s no widespread terror campaign and just a little contact with other terrorist groups overseas.

While Abu Sayyaf has kidnapped some individual US citizens in the Philippines, neither that group nor terrorist cells in Somalia have attacked any US installations or declared that they are devoted to wiping the Great Satan from the face of the earth. They are essentially local insurgencies. The contacts they have had with groups overseas reflect more the capabilities of modern communications than the presence of a tight, interlocking international terrorist conspiracy that threatens to attack American interests in a concerted fashion anytime soon.


Iraq, to which Mr. Bush devoted a full paragraph of denunciation rather then merely a tossed-off line or two, presents a similar situation. The extra attention to Iraq seems to signal (we have to try to parse the statements of our leaders like the Kremlinologists of old trying to infer power relationships from the positions on reviewing stands during May Day parades) that Iraq will be a target sooner rather than later. Whether that will involve military action or merely intensified diplomatic and commercial pressure is something Mr. Bush did not vouchsafe to us mere citizens.

What seems clear is that the inconvenient fact that Iraq does not seem to have had any direct or even indirect involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks that have been the primary justification for military action elsewhere is of little or no concern to the war party.

In addition, there’s no particular evidence that North Korea or Iran, the other two countries mentioned by name, pose a clear and present danger to the United States at this time. To be sure, Iran is said to have furnished the boatload of weapons for the Palestinians that the Israelis intercepted, but by and large the news from Iran is that it has been trying – haltingly and perhaps with mixed sincerity – to improve relations with the United States.

But being a threat, danger or declared enemy doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for being targeted by the American war machine.


Mr. Bush didn’t discuss directly the troubling situation in the Middle East, where tit-for-tat violence has become an almost daily occurrence. But the groups he mentioned by name in discussing the “terrorist underworld” he wants to put out of business included mostly those who have targeted Israel: Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad.

This suggests that the hints Mr. Bush and others have been dropping – that Yasser Arafat has had his day as the leader of the Palestinian Authority and a “reliable partner for peace” – mean that the US government has swung around from any pretense of being an arbiter in the Middle East to being what most Arabs have thought the US has been all along – an unvarnished and unapologetic supporter of whatever Israel wants.

There’s a case to be made for this (within the context of the overall ideology of an imperial America that sides with its friends and allies) and a lot of Americans believe the US should support Israel almost unconditionally. But a lot of Americans believe otherwise as well. And with the elimination of the Soviet Communist threat, the conflict in the Middle East more and more resembles scores of conflicts elsewhere – a local battle whose outcome will not affect United States core national interests (even its major imperial interests) one way or another.

The United States would be better advised to stop trying to micro-manage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and stop subsidizing both sides rather than openly backing one side or the other.


What came across most clearly in Mr. Bush’s speech was a sense that the United States is capable of making and maintaining almost limitless commitments around the world and succeeding brilliantly at all of them. In some cases this faith in the ability to fleece taxpayers endlessly was quite explicit – “My budget includes the largest increase in defense spending in two decades, because while the price of freedom and security is high, it is never too high: whatever it costs to defend our country, we will pay.”

Presumably that doesn’t include cutting back on overseas commitments to reduce vulnerabilities and the number of people who resent us. The cost of that policy would surely be too high for our foreign policy mandarins to bear, however much it might benefit the American people.

The sense of limitless commitments carried over into the discussion of America’s role in the world, endorsing a notion that America can do anything and will go anywhere to enforce our government’s idea of freedom.

We are already more deeply involved in a civil war in the Philippines. Mr. Bush discussed North Korea, Iran, Somalia, Bosnia, Pakistan, India, all places where money or troops might be sent. He didn’t discuss the ongoing involvement in the civil war in Colombia, justified by the unwinnable War on Drugs. The evidence is that rather than giving that conflict a lower priority now that the war on terrorism has been proclaimed, the administration wants to intensify that one too.

There was no acknowledgment of any limitation to US taxpayer resources, no suggestion that making new commitments might involve reducing or eliminating prior commitments of troops where a reasonable person might argue they are no longer needed (Western Europe, South Korea) or haven’t succeeded (Bosnia, Kosovo).


Mr. Bush made passing reference to enduring values like limited government, free markets, private property and the rule of law. But his every proposal (the Cato Institute counted 39 new proposals, compared to 38 last year and 105 in Clinton’s last State of the Union) called for increasing the power of the state, for an open-ended commitment to root out evil wherever it appears, not just from those who attack us or pose a threat.

Mr. Bush even wants the government actively involved in changing the culture, something any citizen who values freedom in the slightest should fear. (Government unquestionably and inevitably influences the culture, but a culture worth celebrating arises from the people rather than being imposed by rulers.)

I also fear Mr. Bush’s enthusiasm for mandatory volunteerism, expressed without the slightest hint that such an oxymoron is oxymoronic or even carries a whiff of irony. After Republicans took the Congress in 1994 they made a feeble effort to abolish Mr. Clinton’s version of the Hitler Youth, the vaunted AmeriCorps. Now Bush wants to increase it and add a Homeland Security corps as well. I sense Universal Military Training or a mandatory two-year bullets-or-bedpans service on the horizon, pretty much the opposite of the freedom Mr. Bush is so fond of invoking.

It’s probably worth noting that Mr. Bush’s reference to private property and free markets was made in the context of other countries, saying that countries who cherish these values will have our support (which in practice will undermine them, but never mind). Imposing new programs, new requirements, new commitments, new exactions on Americans seems to Mr. Bush – and he is probably quite sincere in this – the very essence of devotion to free minds and free markets.


Particularly telling in Mr. Bush’s discussion of foreign affairs were the places and issues he didn’t mention. This is hardly surprising. I have acknowledged that Mr. Bush has moved much more deftly than friend or foe expected him to, but there’s no getting around the fact that he is a novice in foreign affairs. It’s especially characteristic of a novice with power – especially one with a couple of superficial successes under his belt – to assume the success is easy and complexities can be overridden with enough determination, persistence and power.

But where was Osama bin Laden in this speech? Would mentioning him – calling attention to US failure to “bring him to justice or to bring justice to him” – have undercut the impression of unvarnished, unqualified success in Afghanistan that Mr. Bush wished to convey? Gosh, wasn’t he the real target and the Taliban only the necessary precursor to the real campaign? Would mentioning him have reminded the American people that success in the war on terror is hardly easy, costless or guaranteed?

More important was the virtual absence of any of the “great powers” in Mr. Bush’s world. He is on a crusade, he has largely overridden objections and seen potential opponents roll over, so perhaps he doesn’t think states with real geopolitical heft (as compared to pip-squeak backwaters that harbor terrorists) are worthy of much attention.

But it’s worth noting for the rest of us that the European Union has been extremely active in criticizing US criticism of Arafat. The Europeans may well be hypocritical, hypercritical and inclined to bash the United States whenever possible. But they still have real economic and potential military power. A realistic US foreign policy (I’m not even talking about an ideal one) would have to take those interests and concerns into account.


Mr. Bush also seems to be under the impression that schmoozing and bonding with Vladimir Putin has been enough to make Russia a loyal ally and good buddy that no longer requires much sustained attention. But a number of US actions since the honeymoon in Crawford have made the relationship considerably more dicey than it promised to be quite recently.

The most substantial is the likelihood that the United States is establishing a long-term-verging-on-permanent US military presence in central Asia. Putin hasn’t squawked too much in public about this, but the prospect is bound to make the Russian military establishment, Putin’s main domestic power base, increasingly uneasy. The timing of the announcement that the US will abandon the old ABM treaty didn’t sweeten the relationship.

Finally, if or when we move forward with NATO expansion, despite Putin’s efforts to create a rationale for living with it, numerous elements in Russia will hate the idea. If it’s combined with a significant US presence in central Asia, expect Russian paranoia to resurface in virulent ways.

Whether all these complications mean that the Bushies have blown the opportunity to create a constructive – or at least mutually non-threatening – relationship with Russia is still open to question. But they clearly haven’t been paying attention.


An intelligent US foreign policy should pay most attention to countries that have the capacity to pose real threats to us. The 9/11 terrorists showed that great damage can be done to an open society at little cost. But enduring threats come from nation-states with large populations and military capacities.

There will always be plenty of countries that want money, weapons and perhaps military assistance from the “sole superpower.” Mr. Bush has given them a way to spin their domestic troubles into an international terrorist threat and garner increased attention from the United States. This runs the risk of ignoring real threats and dealing with marginal threats on the periphery. The danger that in “finding himself” as a president and launching a “crusade,” Mr. Bush is missing, ignoring or even exacerbating numerous real threats to American freedom is, unfortunately, very real.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).