I was in Britain in the summer of 2002 when Europeans first got wind of the American plan to invade Iraq. As it happened, they learned this news not from President George W. Bush, not from Secretary of State Colin Powell, and not from the American ambassador, but rather from a leak that appeared in The New York Times. The debate began immediately. The archbishop of Canterbury denounced the war, The Daily Telegraph denounced the archbishop of Canterbury, and so on. Instantly, the war became a central issue in the German election campaign.
Looking back on it, this was an important moment—a real turning point in the war on terrorism. Instead of responding truthfully to the European debate, the Bush administration flatly denied that any invasion of Iraq was imminent. Instead of engaging the European public, Bush said he was still "explor[ing] all options and all tools at my disposal." No one believed him—and, of course, they were right not to.
Looking back on it, this was also the point at which I should have questioned some of my early assumptions about the Bush administration. Until then, I had taken it for granted that the administration's big hitters—Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and, to some extent, even Powell—were united, if nothing else, by one common experience: All had been staunch opponents of the Soviet Union. That meant not only that they'd been right about the cold war, but that they knew that we had won it only partly thanks to U.S. military strength. As we have been reminded in recent days, Ronald Reagan's launch of the Strategic Defense Initiative did finally scare the Soviets into attempting perestroika at the end of the 1980s. But the web of alliances that the United States created over the previous half-century to fight its military battles, as well as the ideological war for democracy and capitalism, were just as important as Star Wars, if not more so. The events of 1989 may seem inevitable in retrospect, but, 50 years ago, it was not at all obvious that the stable, prosperous Western Europe we now take for granted would emerge from the disaster of World War II. Communist parties were—and long remained—very powerful in France and Italy. Radical terrorists threatened the stability of Germany. The Soviet Union was funding those groups and, at the same time, filling East German warehouses with guns and ammunition in preparation for an invasion.
Not military power alone, but military power coupled with creative political decisions ultimately prevented communist regimes from coming to power in Western Europe. By this, I do not mean the United Nations, but rather the Marshall Plan; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (nato); the trade organizations; and the small, but enormously influential, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Institutions like these not only kept the Red Army on the far side of Checkpoint Charlie, but they also attracted the admiration and envy of Eastern Europeans. In the end, the mere existence of a strong, free, and prosperous Western Europe beside a weak, totalitarian, and impoverished Eastern Europe proved more powerful than all the American military's European divisions put together. The Berlin Wall fell, in large part, because of the political, economic, and ideological success of the Western alliance. The Soviet bloc wasn't defeated so much as persuaded to switch sides.
After September 11, I was certain that the Bush administration, packed with old cold warriors as it was, would also treat the war on terrorism as a moral and ideological battle, a struggle for hearts and minds, and not just an opportunity for the United States to show off its advanced weapons systems. Certainly the president himself often spoke that way, even explicitly comparing the war on terrorism to the cold war. It was odd, and somehow ominous, that the administration made so little use of NATO forces in the first phase of the battle for Kabul. It was strange that Rumsfeld sounded so cavalier about the Geneva Conventions--surely the sort of treaty that reflects the kind of values we want to advertise--and that the Defense Department happily published photographs of bound prisoners being marched into cells at Guantanamo Bay. But, given the time pressures and the urgency, those decisions seemed just about excusable.
What came next, however, was totally inexcusable: an arrogance so extreme that American politicians who had benefited for decades from international alliances and treaties began to treat them as an unnecessary frill. "It's not just that we didn't need the Europeans in Afghanistan," those in sympathy with the administration were gleefully repeating to one another at the time. "The Europeans were in the way in Afghanistan." It was as if European military weakness negated Europe's substantial technical and intelligence cooperation, as if the U.S. war against the Taliban had not enjoyed widespread support. Never mind that there are still European troops—including French and German troops—in Afghanistan today, although few Americans are aware of it.
EVERYTHING ELSE FOLLOWED from that attitude: Bush's (and Powell's) failure to sell the Iraq war in Europe; the rise of international anti-Americanism. Even the Abu Ghraib scandal was, in its way, the product of a new White House attitude toward Western values, a puffed-up feeling that Americans are so superior that they no longer require the rule of law that defines Western civilization. The Geneva Conventions--those were Old Rules. We needed New Rules. And so we got them.
Incredibly, given their backgrounds, top Bush officials still seem not to understand that, like communism, radical Islam cannot be defeated with military power alone. Like communism, radical Islam is an ideology--one that people will die for. To fight it, the United States needs not just to show off its firepower, but also to prove to Arabs that Western values, in some moderate Islamic form, will give them better lives. The war on terrorism cannot be a narrow American or American-Israeli military struggle, or we will lose it. Like the cold war, the war on terrorism will be over when moderate Muslims abandon the radicals and join us.
Mistakenly, I assumed this was what the president meant when he talked, in that vague sort of way, about "democracy in the Middle East." The fact that he was vague didn't bother me, since this president is vague about a lot of things. But I should have been warier since, in this case, his vagueness was not just a personality tic or a speech impediment, but a sign of a deep lack of seriousness. In fact, this administration never had any interest in a dialogue with the Arab world. In the wake of the president's speech in February 2003 at the American Enterprise Institute, where Bush said it was "presumptuous and insulting" to suggest that the Arab world was uninterested in democracy, a German diplomat of my acquaintance told me that his government was flabbergasted: No one ever told them that the administration was gearing up to promote democracy or human rights in the Middle East, and no one had asked them for help or advice. Bush had been to Germany and had never even mentioned an invasion of Iraq, leading the German government to conclude that he wasn't interested in one.
But, even if Bush hadn't felt like discussing his plans with the admittedly unpalatable Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, there were alternatives. European countries are democracies ultimately run by voters. Yet, neither then nor later was there a serious American campaign, using ambassadors or diplomats who actually speak languages like French and Italian, to convince Europeans of the rightness of the Iraq war. Powell hardly traveled; neither did the president. Broadcast radio and TV stations were set up in the Arab world, but far too late. The time to create the Al Hurra channel--which broadcasts in Arabic and has been dubbed "the American answer to Al Jazeera"--was before the war in Iraq, not afterward. In 2002, the one decent, American-funded radio station in Iran was actually disemboweled in order to make way for more pop music. Instead of presenting the mullahs with an intellectual challenge, we seem to believe we can seduce the Muslim world with Britney Spears.
THE TRUTH, OF course, is that, for all its talk of universal human rights, this is not an administration that actually perceives itself as a part of something greater than the United States. For all of its talk about spreading American values to benighted foreigners, this is not an administration that even likes foreigners. It never occurred to me that American troops would arrive in Baghdad and have absolutely no idea what to do next, or who was important, or who was on their side. But then, I hadn't realized that the Pentagon leadership had no interest in or knowledge of the Iraqi people. I thought these were cold warriors, whereas in fact they are narrow-minded American nationalists, isolationists turned inside out.
Nothing is irreversible: Listening to everybody throw around labels like "quagmire" and "tragedy" when they speak about Iraq at the moment, I am reminded of the wise words of Zhou Enlai who, when asked his opinion of the French Revolution, allegedly shrugged and said, "It's too early to tell." Two hundred years is a short span of time, from a Chinese perspective, and, even from an American perspective, one or two years is a blink of an eye. It took 80 years to bring about the ideological defeat of the communist revolution, after all, and, even so, some communist outposts still survive. If we alter our thinking now, maybe we can rob radical Islam of its revolutionary glamour in a similar amount of time—assuming our mistakes in Europe and Iraq haven't already set us back a generation.
This article originally appeared in the June 28, 2004 issue of the magazine.