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21/11/03 America's new game plan for domination rests on success in Iraq

Bush's doctrine of forcing into existence a world of compliant democracies could be shortlived, writes Owen Harries.

With the attack of September 11, 2001, America's alleged "holiday from history" came to an abrupt end. In an instant the terrorists had given the country the clear purpose, the central organising principle, that it had previously lacked and that some had been strenuously demanding.

One effect of September 11 was that it shifted the balance in favour of those in Washington's foreign policy establishment who saw things in sweeping terms – away from prudence and moderation towards conceptual boldness and an ambitious, assertive use of US power. Within a year the "war on terrorism" had metastasised into something much grander and more radical; something that would give full expression to one of the strongest strands in the history of the American people: the profound belief, that is, that they and their country are destined to reshape the world.

In the aftermath of September 11 those who thought in these terms came into their own. The result became evident with the publication a year later of a 31-page statement by the President titled The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. In my judgement, this document is without a doubt the most important statement about US foreign policy, not just since the attacks, and not just since the end of the Cold War, but since the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947. For in it is spelt out how the US intends to use its hegemonic power.

What can we say about this strategic doctrine? The first thing is its breathtaking scope, its huge ambition to do no less than to effect a transformation of the political universe – according to some of its language, to stamp out evil and war between states, to create a benign world. Students of international politics who belong to the realist school – as I do – tend to see such goals as utopian, beyond even the reach of a country with the enormous power of the US.

Second, in emphasising and insisting upon the dominant role of the US and the assertive use of US power, the doctrine makes questionable assumptions about what the other states will accept and live with. They are asked to take its good intentions and respect for their interests on trust. States have never been prepared to do this in the past with other would-be hegemonies.

Will the US be the exception? Does the fact that it is a democratic and liberal state make a decisive difference? Will other states accept the concept of a benign hegemony or regard it as a contradiction in terms? Do they have a choice?

The thrust and tone of the doctrine reject the advice given by most pundits on the best way to play a hegemonic role in order to prolong its duration – which is to be restrained and prudent in the use of its power, to disguise it, to strive to act as far as possible by persuasion and consensus to co-opt others.

In the 1940s, when the US was the dominant power in the Western Alliance, it acted on this advice. It went out of its way to act multilaterally, to create a network of rule-making institutions – the UN system, IMF, World Bank, GATT – that allowed it to act co-operatively with others, as the first among equals. There is little of this in the Bush doctrine; no talk of creating institutions to run the new order.

The Bush doctrine should be taken very seriously and any inclination to treat it as rhetoric would be a serious error. It has already been put into effect in Iraq. All four of the features that I have drawn attention to have been evident there: the use of US military force as the main instrument; pre-emptive action; a clear indication that the US was prepared to act without a great power consensus, and unilaterally if necessary; and the avowed intention to replace a tyrannical regime with a liberal representative government.

That is why the Iraq commitment has an importance that goes way beyond the fate of Iraq. If, in the end, it turns out successfully, it is likely that the mishaps that have occurred since the end of the heavy fighting will be seen as part of a learning experience.

If it fails at the first hurdle – if, that is, the US finds that bringing about security, stability, a decent political order, and an improvement in the living standards of Iraqis, is beyond its capacity; if the whole thing becomes a "quagmire", or if it has to internationalise the project by giving the UN a pre-eminent role – then not only will there have to be a reconsideration of the whole global strategy, but the limits of US capacity will have been made evident, and the inclination to resist it greatly strengthened.

All this is understood by the advocates and supporters of the policy. The influential neo-conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, for example, insists that "the future course of American foreign policy, American world leadership, and American security is at stake. Failure in Iraq would be a devastating blow to everything the US hopes to accomplish, and must accomplish, in the decades ahead."

As for sceptics and critics, some will conclude that having committed itself so far, the US now has no option but to see it through – an argument that prevailed for a long time in Vietnam. Others will argue that even at this late stage, it is preferable to cut one's losses than to proceed further with a deeply flawed policy, citing the old saw, "If you're in a hole, stop digging".

Owen Harries is a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. This is an edited extract of the second of the ABC's 2003 Boyer lectures. The full lecture will be broadcast on ABC Radio National this Sunday at 5pm and repeated on Tuesday at 1pm. An extract from the third lecture will be published on this page next Friday.

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