With God at Their Sides

The Baker-Hamilton report submitted last week to President George W. Bush is supposed to give him an escape route from his failed attempt to shape a new world order. When he embarked on the war in Iraq, he promised to free the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's regime of horror and transform the country into a "beacon of freedom" in the Middle East. Since then, as everyone knows, the country has sunk into a murderous civil war, with dozens of people killed daily.

Bush is not the first U.S. president who went to war in order to change the world. In the early 20th century, Woodrow Wilson went to war in the hope of making the world a safer place, and above all, a more democratic one.

It is difficult to find two presidents who are more different in terms of personality and character. Wilson, a professor of political science, became the president of Princeton University, the governor of New Jersey and the first Democratic president in the 20th century. To his last day in the White House he remained an academic with a world-embracing vision, and he initiated the establishment of an international organization for the preservation of peace (the League of Nations).

Bush had no original vision in the 2000 election campaign, during which he once confused Afghanistan and Pakistan in a reply to a foreign journalist. Bush drew the main points of his foreign policy from neoconservative thinkers. Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Bush seems in little danger of winning this prize.

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Despite their vast personal differences, however, both presidents led the U.S. into war with remarkably similar promises. When he took the U.S. into World War I, Wilson promised a new world order in which liberty-seeking nations, led by the U.S., would join together to preserve the values of democracy and help nations whose peoples were suffocating under the yoke of tyranny. Bush promised to liberate Iraq from Saddam and light the way to democracy throughout the Middle East. Both sought, and found, an excuse to bring their country into war at a time of great popular and Congressional opposition to sending U.S. soldiers overseas.

After Wilson's reelection in 1916, he concluded that the U.S. could no longer remain neutral in the war raging in Europe. He used the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania by a German submarine and the "Zimmermann telegram" as pretexts for joining the war.

Bush used intelligence reports indicating that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, the veracity of which even he probably doubted, to prod Congress into approving the war in Iraq.

Both men shared an aspiration to impose a new world order, if for different reasons. What is interesting is that the rhetoric barely changed over more than 80 years, perhaps due to a naive belief by Americans in the vision of their presidents.

Portions of Wilson's speech to Congress on April 2, 1917 could easily have been made by the Bush of 2003: "There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war .... But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts."

Despite impressive military victories, the careers of both presidents were badly damaged by the war. Wilson failed to persuade Congress to join the League of Nations that he himself founded. This disappointment was almost certainly responsible for the stroke he suffered in early 1919, which ended his career.

The war in Iraq brought Bush's popularity to lows unknown in recent history. The damage to his party, which lost both houses of Congress in last month's midterm elections, was immeasurable.

Just as the consequences of World War I exploded Wilson's hopes and promises and prepared the ground for an even more horrible war two decades later, the war in Iraq will apparently lead not only to disappointment and disenchantment with Bush's promises but also to tremendous bloodshed, and may also undermine the fragile stability of the Middle East.

For the sake of historical justice, it must be said that the failures of Wilson and Bush to exploit the military successes derived largely from the failures of the U.S. allies. The Allied Powers were not keen, after World War I ended, to implement Wilson's vision of promoting self-determination for the world's nations. In the Iraq War Bush joined up with regimes that are less than enthusiastic about his ideas for promoting democracy in the Middle East.

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While an Allied defeat in World War I could have slowed the trend toward democracy, at least in Europe, a military victory for Bush's war in Iraq could lead to real chaos in one of the most fissionable parts of the world. While Wilson tried to create a new framework for international security, Bush's crude unilateral approach is effectively weakening the international institution that succeeded Wilson's League of Nations - the United Nations.

Bush has apparently fallen in love with his self-chosen role as leader of the free world and creator of "an American world order": the world according to Bush, or more precisely, the world according to the neocons. Bush is so convinced of the rightness of his way that he is prepared to put an end to everything that has been built, with a great deal of hard work and a lot of blood, since World War II. He is prepared to throw into the garbage can of history the organizations, covenants and treaties established since 1945.

To understand what makes Bush run, one must read his spiritual mentors. Two of them, William Kristol and Lawrence Kaplan, recently published "The War Over Iraq," in which they set forth their vision (which became Bush's vision) on this war: "The mission begins in Baghdad, but it does not end there." This "decisive moment," they write, is "about more even than the future of the Middle East and the war on terror. It is about what sort of role the United States intends to play in the 21st century."

What motivates U.S. presidents to position themselves at the forefront of global processes with the aim of reshaping our world. George Kennan, a senior post-World War II State Department figure who died last year at the age of 101, was the chief architect of the Cold War containment and deterrence policies. In an article in "American Diplomacy," Kennan argued that U.S. foreign policy is cyclically influenced by attacks of "evangelical idealism" rooted in the country's Puritan heritage. In order to succeed in their mission of trying to shape the world in their own image, Americans demonize any country or regime that stands in their way.

Applying Kennan's theory, we find that since September 11, neocons such as Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, David Wurmser, Michael Rubin and Douglas Feith, to name just a few, have sought to frame U.S. aims in the Middle East and beyond in evangelistic terms. And who is more suited to adopting, and trying to implement, this evangelical idealism than George Bush? At age 40, he became a born-again Christian who fully believes that God is guiding him in formulating America's foreign policy? Bush is truly convinced that his presidency is part of a divine plan.

Regarding the war in Iraq, Bush has often said, "We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them." At a meeting with Palestinian leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh in June, 2003, he said that "God told me to strike at Al-Qaida, and I struck them, and then He instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me, I will act."

In an interview with Bob Woodward as part of the reporter's research for his recent book on the war, Bush explained that the decision to invade Iraq came not from his political advisers, or even from his father, but rather from the "Father in Heaven." In his January 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush asked for divine intervention to justify the sacrifice of American lives, for the sake of the American people but also for liberty and freedom, which are "God's gift" to mankind.

Never has anyone in the White House spent as much time on his knees looking heavenward as George W. Bush, said one discriminating political observer of the president's foreign policy decisions.

Although the Baker-Hamilton report is supposed to provide Bush with a way out of the "new world order" mess that he created, it is very unlikely that he will be prepared to adopt its 79 recommendations after leading his country into war under the aegis of divine intervention. After all, the report deals with tangible, earthly matters, and offer a practical way to end the U.S. involvement in Iraq, whereas the president is convinced that this is a war of absolute good against absolute evil, and such a war must not end in compromises and concessions.