Learning to Lead

President George W.

President George W. Bush has made a persuasive case for disarming Iraq through intrusive inspections if possible or, more likely, through military action. In essence, the President argued that Iraq is a "unique" threat to the United States and that after repeated violations of UN cease-fire resolutions, it is also already in a state of semi-war with America. Under the circumstances, he explained, we cannot afford to trust that Iraq would not use weapons of mass destruction against the United States or secretly share them with our terrorist enemies.

Both the United States Congress and the United Nations Security Council are likely to support the President. Though the precise language of a new Security Council resolution or resolutions remains to be seen, it is increasingly clear that the body's Permanent Members-who hold veto power-will be prepared to send Saddam Hussein an ultimatum and deliver President Bush a mandate to enforce it.

Considerable credit for this goes to the President's personal determination, which created a sense of inevitability around American action that was a virtual precondition for productive discussions with our allies and others. The President's father took the same approach in building the Gulf War coalition against Baghdad. But the administration's decision to focus on Iraq's particular dangers and misdeeds-rather than some officials' and advisors' original arguments about America's mission to reshape the entire Middle East in the name of democracy (and, coincidentally, Israel's security)-also made an essential contribution. Not surprisingly, no Arab states, and none of Iraq's neighbors, had welcomed the prospect of Saddam's fall as the first step in an American program of regime change throughout the region. Taking into account that the support of many such countries, including Saudi Arabia, is important to the success of an attack on Iraq, the administration's shift in rhetoric was not inconsequential.

As President Bush asserted during his second debate with then Vice President Al Gore, the extent to which other nations are willing to follow the United States "really depends on how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we are an arrogant nation, they will resent us. If we are a humble nation, but strong, they will welcome us." One of the reasons that selling American policy on Iraq proved to be so difficult both at home and abroad was that the Bush Administration initially gave in to the messianic unilateralist temptation rather than begin the complex and time-consuming task of humble but effective leadership. It is now clear that the latter approach is especially important precisely because the United States is the world's only superpower and, accordingly, suffers inevitably from suspicion of its motives and goals.

From this perspective, there is a considerable difference between arguing that American power and, indeed, its military preponderance create a favorable environment for freedom worldwide and, alternatively, claiming that American values are universal and that whoever is in charge of the United States is therefore entitled to Godlike power in telling other peoples and governments how to organize their affairs. More broadly, the notion of an universalist ideology aimed at global revolution seems much more a product of Leon Trotsky and his Bolshevik comrades (albeit with nobler aims) than Thomas Jefferson and America's Founding Fathers. The latter group assumed quite explicitly that men were imperfect and, accordingly, believed in representative government, checks and balances, separation of powers, and the protection of minority rights. The entire American political ethos rejects the notion of enlightened autocracy. Yet in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it may seem easy to throw our weight around, an influential movement has emerged composed of those Americans eager to place the United States in just this role as a benign global hegemon. And omnipotent and ambitious self-appointed hegemons rarely appear benign to others. In fact, they often provoke opposition even when their cause is just and, as in the case of disarming or even removing Saddam Hussein, when it does not clash with the legitimate interests of other important nations.

In confronting Saddam, the administration has tried parading its hegemonic capabilities and acting as a genuine leader. It has discovered that acting as a leader both builds greater respect for the United States and delivers better results.


Dimitri K. Simes is the president of The Nixon Center and the publisher of In the National Interest.