Politics & Prose January 2005

Vision Impossible

The unbridgeable chasm between Bush's hopes for the world and America's power to realize them

In his Inaugural Address President Bush spoke of September 11, 2001, as a "day of fire" that woke the nation from "the repose" of its post-Cold War hiatus from history. He said that by liberating Afghanistan and Iraq, "We have lit a fire in the minds of men." He called freedom an "untamed fire" that "will one day reach the darkest corners of our world," and cast the U.S. as the arsonist of "tyranny" in the twenty-first century. Yet the speech seemed to leave the audience of Republican faithful cold. Perhaps they were too cold in the near-freezing temperatures outside the Capitol, or expected a different speech, or were sobered by the chialism of the speech they heard. In any case, they gave the President only perfunctory applause. The day's master of ceremonies, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, as if sensing the void of enthusiasm, quickly resumed the podium after the President's speech and moved the ceremony along.

According to the Nelson Report, an insider newsletter, the President wants to hear only good news about Iraq, but those listening to Mr. Bush at the Capitol—and those Americans watching the Inaugural at home—cannot have escaped the bad news about Iraq nor the doubts it has raised about the limits of U.S. power. We think of power as military strength, as force. Yet, as Hans Morgenthau pointed out in Politics Among Nations, the classic postwar text on international relations, power is primarily "a psychological relation" that gives those exercising it control over others "through the influence which the former exert over the latter's minds." National power is measured by the capacity to persuade one's friends, overawe one's enemies, and have one's goals accepted as legitimate by international opinion. Iraq has revealed a failure of U.S. power in all these dimensions. We could not get our European allies to join us; far from overawing the Iraqi insurgents and the jihadi car bombers we have emboldened them; and we have alienated world opinion from our cause. According to a recent poll, 58 percent of non-American humanity believes Bush's reelection is a threat to peace. "The world sees Americans' own sense of the universal power of their fine national ideals," writes Rami Khouri, the executive editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star, "as both presumptuous bombast and unacceptably predatory aggression."

In pledging to those living under tyranny that "the United States will not ignore your oppression," Bush ignores the drain of American power for which he is responsible and which renders his pledge meaningless. The liberation of captive peoples will not "primarily" take a military form, the President says—and good thing, since our military cannot provide even basic security to the Iraqis. We have liberated them from tyranny to anarchy, which often leads back to tyranny. To borrow a concept Walter Lippmann applied to the disparity between the professed objectives of U.S. policy in the Cold War—which at one time included a promise to liberate "the captive peoples" behind the Iron Curtain—and U.S. power, the foreign policy Bush proposes is "insolvent." It is tantamount to writing a huge check with no money in the bank to cover it. (A fair description of the Bush economic policy.)

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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