The Long View 2004-01-13: GWB and Kaiser Bill

I suppose there is nothing other to say here than in a different set of circumstances, we wouldn't have blown up Iraq.

GWB and Kaiser Bill

I always had a soft spot in my heart for former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. After all those years of Robert Rubin, who thought the chief function of the Treasury Department was to puff up the financial markets, there was a lot to be said for O'Neill's practice of tracking the state of the economy by taking a daily look at the prices of raw materials. That long tour of Africa that O'Neill took with Bono was also heart warming, though even then it was clear that a Treasury Secretary who could spend that much time away from his office probably wasn't long for the cabinet.

Now, however, he has participated in the composition of a strange polemical book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill, which was actually written by Ron Suskind. Its critique of Bush's management style is a gold mine for Bush critics, of course, but then there was also what O'Neill has been saying about Bush's Iraq policy:

60 Minutes

Statements like that have elicited responses from the Democratic candidates like this one from John Kerry:

"It would mean they were dead-set on going to war alone since almost the day they took office and deliberately lied to the American people, Congress and the world."

That's not what O'Neill said. What he did say was that the Bush Administration came into office with a policy of regime change; war was just one option. The Clinton Administration had exactly the same policy. Since the policy had been repeatedly endorsed by Congress, it would have been difficult to abandon, even if the new Administration had been so inclined. Nonetheless, it is true that, once 911 made the invasion of Iraq politically possible, the Administration seized the occasion to pursue an option it could not otherwise have implemented.

The reasons for the war were overdetermined. The country is the key to a region where governments either cannot control the distribution of WMDs, or are eager to manufacture and import them. Iraq itself was in the latter category; we know from post-invasion inspections that it was in gross violation of the disarmament accord that had ended the 1990-1991Gulf War. The war was justified legally and ethically. It was also perhaps the only way of addressing the real root cause of 911: the political pathology of the Middle East.

Despite all that, one cannot deny that the war was a war of choice, one made possible by American hegemony in conventional military power. There is now a substantial fraction of the foreign policy establishment, including the fraction most influential in the White House and the Pentagon, that no longer looks on this hegemony as a post-Cold War anomaly, but as the natural state of the world. When you see the words "American" and "empire" together in a title these days, you cannot assume that the author means to be critical.

This smacks more than a little of what Hohenzollern Germany used to say before 1918 about Germany's place in Europe and the world. One can draw parallels between the origins of the First World War and that of the Iraq War. In the January 12 issue of The Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes quotes David Fromkin's new book, Europe's Last Summer : Who Started the Great War in 1914?:

Vienna did not merely want to get its way with Serbia. It wanted to provoke a war with Serbia. Berlin did not want to get its way with Russia. It wanted to provoke a war with Russia. In each case, it was war itself the the government wanted -- or, put more precisely, it wanted to crush its adversary to an extent that only a successful war makes possible.

Exactly the same might be said about the Bush Administration's policy toward Iraq. Can the two situations really be distinguished, or did the US simply overthrow the Kaiser in order to take his place four generations later?

To answer that question, let's go to the horse's mouth, Fritz Fischer himself:

"World Policy, World Power, and German War Aims"
From The Origins of the First World War
Edited by H. W. Koch

The Hohenzollern Reich started the First World War in order to create hegemony. To do that, it was willing to wage a general war against all of its equals. The Iraq War, and the Terror War of which it is a campaign, are in sharp contrast. It presupposes American hegemony; the status of other powers really is not at issue. Also, America's status as a hegemon is what makes America the chief target of the Jihad. The Iraq War was not launched to upset the international order, despite the hurt feelings of the UN. Quite opposite: if the Terror War is successful, the effect will be to conserve much of the late 20th-century international system. Certainly more would be saved than under the alternative, the era of mass-effect terrorism that would have been the result of inaction.

There is no way to avoid the fact that West's "Era of Contending States" became a contest for hegemony, despite the protestations of the contestants that they were doing no such thing. There was more than one possible outcome. If Niall Ferguson had his way, the Imperial German government would have settled the issue in 1914; then the rest of the 20th century would have been about working through the implications. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Germany, but the terms on which its governments were willing to seek hegemony would have poisoned the outcome. Our own world has its faults, God knows, but one suspects that we live in one of the better possible histories.

* * *

Once again, I would like to thank all those readers who have been buying my books. Fan mail is appreciated. If any of you have the opportunity, please post some reviews with They don't have to be true, so you can be creatively laudatory.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site