The Bubble of American Supremacy

The Korean Herald

As American and British troops prepare to invade Iraq, public opinion in these countries does not support war without U.N. authorization. The rest of the world is overwhelmingly opposed to war.

Yet Saddam Hussein is regarded as a tyrant who needs to be disarmed, and the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441 which demanded that Saddam destroy his weapons of mass destruction. What caused this disconnect?

Iraq is the first instance when the Bush doctrine is being applied and it is provoking an allergic reaction. The Bush doctrine is built on two pillars: (1) The United States will do everything in its power to maintain its unquestioned military supremacy; and (2) the United States arrogates the right to preemptive action.

These pillars support two classes of sovereignty: American sovereignty, which takes precedence over international treaties and obligations, and the sovereignty of all other states. This is reminiscent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. To be sure, the Bush doctrine is not stated starkly; it is buried in Orwellian doublespeak. The doublespeak is needed because the doctrine contradicts American values.

The Bush administration believes that international relations are relations of power; legality and legitimacy are mere decorations. This belief is not false, but it exaggerates one aspect of reality to the exclusion of others. The aspect it stresses is military power. But no empire could ever be held together by military power alone.

Yet that belief guides the Bush administration. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel shares the same belief and look where that has led. The idea that might is right cannot be reconciled with the idea of an open society. Hence the need for Orwellian doublespeak.

But nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth. Those who make such claims are bound to be wrong at times, and so can enforce their claims only by coercion and repression. Bush makes no allowance for the possibility that he may be wrong, and he tolerates no dissent. If you are not with us, you are with the terrorists, he proclaims.

Of course, the presence of extremist views in the executive branch does not make America a totalitarian state. The principles of open society are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the institutions of American democracy are protected by the Constitution. There are checks and balances, and the President must obtain the support of the people. Nevertheless, the Bush doctrine could do untold harm before it is abandoned – as eventually it will be.

I see parallels between the Bush administration’s pursuit of American supremacy and a boom-bust process or bubble in the stock market. Bubbles do not arise out of thin air. They have a solid basis in reality, but misconception distorts reality. Here, the dominant position of the United States is the reality, the pursuit of American supremacy the misconception.

For a while, reality reinforces the misconception, but eventually the gap between reality and its false interpretation becomes unsustainable. During the self-reinforcing phase, the misconception may be tested, and when a test is successful the misconception is reinforced. This widens the gap, leading to an eventual reversal. The later it comes, the more devastating the consequences.

There seems to be an inexorable quality about this, but a boom-bust process can be aborted at any stage. Most stock market booms are aborted long before the extremes reached by the recent bull market. The sooner this happens, the better. That is how I view the Bush administration’s pursuit of American supremacy.

The Bush administration came into office with an ideology based on market fundamentalism and military supremacy. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, it could not make much headway in implementing its ideology because it lacked a clear mandate and defined enemy. Terrorism provided the ideal enemy because it is invisible and never disappears. By declaring war on terrorism, President Bush gained the domestic mandate he lacked.

But his policies have already caused severe unintended consequences. The EU and NATO are divided. The United States is perceived as a giant bully throwing its weight around. Afghanistan has been liberated, but law and order has not been established beyond Kabul. Indeed, President Karzai must be protected by American bodyguards. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict festers.

Beyond Iraq an even more dangerous threat looms in North Korea – a crisis precipitated by President Bush in his eagerness to break with what he deemed to be Clinton’s appeasement. Bush repudiated the “sunshine policy” introduced by President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea and included North Korea in the axis of evil.

Rapid victory in Iraq with little loss of life could bring about a dramatic change in the overall situation. Oil prices could fall, stock markets could celebrate, consumers could resume spending, and business could step up capital expenditures. America would end its dependency on Saudi oil, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could become more tractable, and negotiations could start with North Korea without loss of face. That is what Bush counts on.

But military victory in Iraq is the easy part. It is what comes after that gives pause. In a boom-bust process, passing an early test tends to reinforce the misconception which gave rise to it. That is to be feared here.

It is not too late to prevent the boom-bust process from getting out of hand. The U.N. could accede to chief weapons inspector Hans Blix’s request for several months to complete his inspections. America’s military presence in the region could be reduced, but it could be beefed up again if Iraq balks. Invasion could take place at summer’s end. This would be a victory for the U.N. and for the United States whose prodding made the Security Council act resolutely. That is what the French propose, but that is not what is going to happen. President Bush has practically declared war.

It is to be hoped that Iraq’s conquest will be swift and relatively painless. Removing Saddam is a good thing; yet the way President Bush is going about it must be opposed. In the long run, an open society cannot survive unless the people who live in it believe in it.

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