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U.S. hubris leading nation to war

President George W. Bush is about to embark on a war of unintended consequences. A huge prosperous nation is determined to squash, to obliterate a small enemy. The motives are mixed, not pure.

This war is about removing a bad actor and his weapons from a troubled neighborhood. Worthy ends certainly, though the means contemplated to effect such change lead many here in the United States and through much of the rest of the world to cry out, “No!”

It’s also about oil imperialism, carried out under the administration’s enormous blanket, “national security.” It’s a Bush family grudge match that has the additional benefit of masking bad economic news on the home front and the administration’s failure to divine any significant collection of terrorist cells across the Axis of Evil.

Finally, and at the highest levels of our government, it’s about hubris -- an attempt to organize a messy world to our liking. The Cheneys, Wolfowitzes and Rumsfelds have a plan and the power, they think, to make it happen. This crowd’s in-house journal -- Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard -- unashamedly makes “The Case for American Empire.” Iraq is step one in this foolhardy plan.

Lone superpowers have gone this route before.

Just a century ago, the lone superpower was Britain. The sole difference, when one cuts right to the core, is that the British had battleships where the United States has missiles. Britain would parade its Ruler of the Waves weaponry and opponents could either cower and comply or be pummeled by the huge shells.

In the late 1890s, Britain was irritated by, and decided it had been humiliated by a nation of squatters, the Boers, settlers from Holland who occupied vast areas of Southern Africa. The British government, urged on by a gleeful public, masked the real issues. These were commercial, of course: gold and land.

The United States was then a nation of 76 million, and Franklin D. Roosevelt would soon be a Harvard freshman. The British Empire was 425 million people. Lone Superpower England was buoyed by visions of glory, and gave the world a new word, jingoism. In echoes that could have reverberated through the U.S. Congress Oct. 10, the British sang: “We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do/We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and we’ve got the money, too.”

The Boers, however, gave the world of warriors a new concept, guerrilla warfare. The British did not win. No one did, but history was on the side of the Boers.

A century later, a faction within the Arab world has, with the World Trade Center butchery-by-fire, given the word terrorist a new meaning. And given the world a new take on extremely small-band guerrilla warfare, backed by vicious cunning and intelligent planning.

The Bush administration is playing all the keys on its imperial and military organ trying to find the right tune to lead the world against Hussein. But the president will tire of it and march off on his own, if necessary, with Britain’s Tony Blair carrying his briefcase.

And then?

On his way to cover the Boer War, which the Times of London said would be “all over by Christmas,” the 25-year-old war correspondent, Winston Churchill, wrote to his American-born mother: “Why did they declare war if they had nothing up their sleeves?”

And now?

If Bush invades, if American troops land in Iraq, the United States will settle in for a long drawn-out conclusion that the nation will weary of. Running an empire is an expensive and exhausting business. In an era of modern warfare, it is also very bloody.

The unintended consequences could include a wider conflagration. It’s not difficult to picture a back-to-the-wall Saddam launching a jihad with a chemical strike against Israel, and Israel, as promised, responding with its own awful weapons.

And, of course, a new breed of terrorists will have been encouraged to populate and control the landscape. Who bears the grudge will then have shifted from Bush’s shoulders to the likes of those his administration has been unable to catch.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002