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.)

But if we cannot carry the torch of freedom into Tehran or Damascus or Pyonyang ourselves, native "freedom fighters" can. This could be called the contra option. The President alluded to it in his speech: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." The contras, we recall, were the Nicaraguan rebels hired by the Reagan Administration to topple the leftist Sandinista government that came to power in a revolution against a U.S.-backed tyrant in 1979. In fighting the Sandinistas the contras committed acts of terrorism, and the World Court judged the U.S. guilty of terrorism as well for secretly mining Nicaragua's harbors in aid of the contras. After Congress cut off U.S. aid to them, the Reagan Administration illegally continued it, as the Iran-contra hearings revealed. In a bitter irony of history, we undermined democracy in America in the name of promoting democracy in Nicaragua.

Some of the same people who ran the contra war for Reagan now apparently want to sponsor contra resistance movements against other regimes, like those in Pyonyang and Tehran, that fit Bush's description of "tyrannies." That is one of the disturbing revelations Seymour M. Hersh details in his most recent New Yorker article, "The Coming Wars." But the contra option is not the only reprise of Reagan's strategy in Latin America that the Administration is considering. In the course of his research, Hersh heard from a source about the resurrection of what might be called the Salvador option.

"Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?" [a] former high-level intelligence official asked me, referring to the military-led gangs that committed atrocities in the early nineteen-eighties. "We found them and we financed them," he said. "The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want."

The job of these locals, according to Hersh's sources, will be to infiltrate terrorist organizations, form "pseudo gangs" to entrap would-be terrorists, assassinate suspected terrorists in countries harboring them, and generally blow things and people up. "And we aren't going to tell Congress about it," the former official told Hersh. In the intelligence reorganization bill that recently won near-unanimous approval in the Senate, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld secured an exemption from congressional oversight for activities construable as "preparing the battlefield." Running death squads apparently falls under that category. Rumsfeld, one Pentagon adviser told Hersh, now has "a global free-fire zone." If the Bush Administration sponsors terrorism to fight terrorism, that would betray a different kind of insolvency: moral bankruptcy.