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The Bush Administration must drop America's insistence on going it alone

By Clyde Prestowitz Jr - posted Tuesday, 2 September 2003

With American casualties in Iraq mounting and weapons of mass destruction remaining elusive, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress recently that he is suspicious of United Nations offers of help because they might entail some constraints on U.S. actions.

About the same time, South Korean students marking the 50th anniversary of the Korean War armistice called America more dangerous than North Korea; production of opium destined for the U.S. heroin market was reported to be soaring in Afghanistan; looting and slaughter continued under Liberia's thuggish dictator as Washington declined a UN request for humanitarian intervention; and African cotton farmers faced growing penury as President Bush failed to reduce subsidies to U.S. growers as they flooded world markets with excess production.

Americans have been wondering why the world has not rallied to our side in the last two years, and our leaders have provided convenient answers. "They hate our freedom" or "they envy our success" or "criticism just goes with the territory of being the top dog", we are told.


Glibness, however, requires gullibility.

Take first the very notion of America battling alone in the face of envy and hatred. The outpouring of sympathy and support that occurred around the world on Sept. 12, when even the French newspaper Le Monde proclaimed "We Are All Americans" should have put that notion to rest. If it didn't, certainly the number of world leaders, from India to Canada, backing UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in his offer of help in Iraq showed a worldwide willingness to help with reconstruction even though most nations had opposed the war.

The real problem here is not so much foreign hostility as America's insistence on going it alone in its own way. Wolfowitz's testimony is the tip-off. The United States would rather be in absolute control than accept any help that might in any way dilute that authority or that might even slightly complicate U.S. operations.

This was evident in the case of Afghanistan long before the Iraq question arose. Immediately after Sept. 11, America's longtime allies in NATO voluntarily invoked the treaty's "an attack on one is an attack on all" clause and literally begged Washington to include their troops in the invasion of Afghanistan, to no avail. It would be easier and faster simply to move alone, the Pentagon said.

The lack of interest in NATO and UN help is the natural result of the adoption by the United States of the radical new doctrine of preventive and pre-emptive war developed by Wolfowitz and a small group of self-styled neo-conservatives after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991.

Although the United States won the Cold War with a strategy of deterrence and by building alliances and multilateral institutions such as NATO, the UN and the World Trade Organization, the new thinking argued for military superiority such that no other power would even consider a challenge and a unilateral approach based on the view that while friends are nice to have they are really not necessary for the United States to achieve its objectives.


Much discussed and partly adopted during the 1990s, this doctrine of pre-emption and "coalitions of the willing" in place of deterrence and alliances became the foundation of U.S. strategy since Sept. ll. In the world of the 21st Century, it was argued, the threats will be so dire and immediate that we must be prepared to strike first, and perhaps alone, to avoid being struck.

Of course, to be credible as something other than an excuse for permanent war, such a strategy must be based on accurate intelligence about the immediacy and seriousness of the threat.

In the run-up to the recent Iraq war, the Bush administration repeatedly emphasized that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had large numbers of weapons of mass destruction that could be unleashed against the United States at any moment. Other countries harbored doubts, but, claiming superior knowledge as well as virtue, the United States overrode allied requests for further investigation and deterrence and set course for war with a "coalition of the willing".

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This article was first published in The Chicago Tribune on 17 August 2003.

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About the Author

Clyde Prestowitz is founder and president of the Economic Strategy Institute. He was a U.S. trade negotiator in the Reagan administration and is the author of Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions.

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