Time's Unserious and Misleading Cover Story

Peter Wehner
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Posted: Jul 14, 2006 9:51 AM

1. The Time article asserts that our actions in Iraq have "emboldened" the rulers in Tehran and Pyongyang to obtain nuclear weapons. The implication is that North Korea and Iran would have taken a different path if the Iraq war had never happened.

This argument is contradicted by history. In 2003, the IAEA reported that "Iran has now acknowledged that it has been developing, for 18 years, a uranium centrifuge program, and, for 12 years, a laser enrichment program." In other words, Iran's secret nuclear weapons program predated the war in Iraq by nearly two decades. The IAEA also reported that Iran had produced small amounts of plutonium, generally only associated with nuclear weapons programs, between 1988 and 1992. The programs were secret and only came to light after the uranium enrichment program was exposed by an Iranian opposition group in 2002.

On October 17, 2002, The Washington Post reported "The North Korean government has acknowledged for the first time that it has been secretly developing nuclear weapons for years in violation of international agreements." In December 2002, North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors, removed UN monitoring equipment, and announced that it would restart work at its nuclear reactors and reopen a plutonium processing facility. In January of 2003, North Korea announced that it was quitting the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In February 2003, North Korea restarted a reactor at its primary nuclear complex.

All of these provocations occurred prior to a shot being fired in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

2. According to Time, the evidence that the Bush Administration is seeing a "strategic makeover" is that the President is now, at long last, "join[ing] multilateral negotiations aimed at defusing the standoffs with North Korea and Iran."

In fact, the United States, China, and North Korea held trilateral talks in Beijing in April 2003 and have had a six-party talks framework in place ever since the summer of 2003. Senator Kerry even campaigned against President Bush in 2004 on the charge that this Administration was excessively multilateralist in its approach to North Korea.

With respect to Iran, it is true the United States agreed to join the EU-3 at the negotiating table earlier this year - but we have been providing coordination, input, and support for the last several years. Throughout the campaign, Senator Kerry once again made the charge that the Bush Administration was relying too much on multilateralism.

The notion that multilateral negotiations is something new with respect to North Korea and Iran is simply false.

3. According to Time, the Bush team embarked on a post-September 11th path that included a "unilateralist vision of American power and how to use it." It goes on to describe unilateralism as "the last plank of the Bush Doctrine."

Let's start with the most obvious point: unilateralism is by definition undertaking actions by a single person or party. The President effectively answered the "unilateral" charge in his 2004 State of the Union address:

"Some critics have said our duties in Iraq must be internationalized. This particular criticism is hard to explain to our partners in Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador, and the 17 other countries that have committed troops to Iraq. As we debate at home, we must never ignore the vital contributions of our international partners, or dismiss their sacrifices. From the beginning, America has sought international support for our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we have gained much support. There is a difference, however, between leading a coalition of many nations, and submitting to the objections of a few. America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country."

A coalition of more than two dozen countries by definition cannot constitute "unilateral" action. Which raises the question: why does Time continue to insist that it does?

4. Time's "going it alone" thesis is undermined by a long list of achievements. For example, the United States has gained unprecedented cooperation in the war on terror from countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Traditional allies in Europe have helped in tracking and arresting terrorists and blocking their financing. We're witnessing unprecedented cooperation in law enforcement, intelligence, military actions, and diplomacy. And more than 70 countries now have joined the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), sharing intelligence information, tracking suspect international cargo, and conducting joint military exercises to stop all aspects of the proliferation trade and to deny terrorists, rogue states, and their supplier networks access to WMD-related materials and delivery systems.

I would add that the build-up of the Proliferation Security Initiative and many of our multilateral efforts to defeat Islamic fascism happened concurrently with the Iraq war. The point is obvious enough: the United States can handle alliance friction (which is sometimes inevitable) and alliance cooperation at the same time.

During his first term, President Bush signed a treaty with Russia's President Vladimir Putin to reduce nuclear stockpiles by two-thirds over 10 years. The United States and its allies obtained a commitment from Libya to abandon its chemical and nuclear weapons programs. American and intelligence officers from our allies uncovered and shut down a sophisticated black market network headed by A.Q. Khan, the architect of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.

In 2004, NATO formally welcomed seven new members from Central and Eastern Europe into the Alliance - something the United States advocated. In August 2003 NATO took over command of international forces in Afghanistan - the first mission in NATO's history outside the Euro-Atlantic region - and NATO is taking over military command of southern Afghanistan. NATO is also running training and mentoring programs for senior Iraqi security and defense officials both inside and outside of Iraq.

The United States has led in establishing the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria - and we remain by far its largest contributor. The United States has also led (through the G-8) in promoting debt-relief for heavily-indebted developing countries.

President Bush has completed 15 bilateral free trade agreements and is in the process of negotiating 14 more. The Bush Administration secured the passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with six Latin American nations, is in the process of creating the world's largest free trade area with the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), led the way in securing the admission of Saudi Arabia, the Ukraine, and Vietnam to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and is in the final steps of securing Russia's WTO entry.

Our relationship with Japan has never been better - and in the case of India, we made a strategic overture that is eclipsed in its long-stem significance perhaps only by the 1972 Nixon-to-China moment.

The President is also leading the effort to promote clean development and reduce air pollution worldwide by providing the most funding of any country for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; by creating the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development with Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea; by creating a joint committee with China on environmental cooperation; and by forming the Methane to Market program with 17 other partners.

So the notion that international agreements and strong, cooperative relations with other nations are new to the Bush Administration is simply fantasy.

For Time's thesis to have merit, the magazine would have rewrite most of the history of the past five years. It would have to erase virtually all of the day-to-day activity on the war on terror, which as a practical matter consists of unprecedented levels of cooperation and integrated planning across scores of countries, both long-time allies and new partners. Time would have to ignore virtually all of the day-to-day activity on curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, our work with Russia, and so forth). Time would also have to ignore our trade policy, our development policy, and more.

All of this calls to mind the scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian in which the Judean "guerrillas" debate whether the Roman Empire has brought any good to the Holy Land. The John Cleese character asks rhetorically what good the Romans have done. After his men point out one benefit after another, the Cleese character is obliged to say: "All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

Apart from the vast number of multilateral foreign policy initiatives from 2001 to the present, when has the Bush Administration ever worked in partnership with other countries?

5. According to Time, "The biggest illusion of the Bush Doctrine was the idea that the U.S. could carry out a strategy as ambitious as reshaping the Middle East and changing unfriendly regimes without a degree of international legitimacy and cooperation to back it up."

To reiterate: the United States did have international cooperation in the Iraq war.

The strategy to reshape the politics and culture of the Middle East is remarkably ambitious and, as the attacks on September 11th showed, quite necessary. And if it succeeds, (a) it will take longer than a few years to achieve and (b) there will be hardships and setbacks along the way. We are talking about an undertaking of historic dimensions, in a region with long histories, few freedoms, and many settled ways. The President was never under any illusion that this would be a sail on a summer sea and done (historically speaking) in the blink of an eye. But he believed the process of reform needed to begin. Perhaps Time thought this endeavor would be easy and fast; if so, that says more about Time than it does about the President.

6. There is an enormous amount of misinformation and disinformation when it comes to the facts surrounding the lead up to the Iraq war. The Conventional Wisdom is that the United States was "going it alone" and ignored diplomacy in its "rush to war." It's therefore worth reviewing what the reality was.

For a dozen years, the UN passed resolution after resolution after resolution - 16 in all - demanding that Iraq comply with the terms of the 1991 Gulf War ceasefire. Iraq violated every single one.

Over the course of those years, the world tried sanctions. They failed. The world tried the carrot of Oil-for-Food. It failed. The U.S. and its allies tried the stick of coalition military strikes. They failed. Saddam Hussein defied all these efforts. He answered a decade of UN demands with a decade of defiance.

On September 12, 2002, President Bush addressed the UN General Assembly, urging the nations of the world to unite and bring an end to this danger. On November 8, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441. Secretary Powell then presented the Administration's case against Iraq to the UN.

The United States and its allies worked within the Security Council for months to enforce the Council's long-standing demands. Yet, some permanent members of the Security Council publicly announced they would veto any resolution that compelled the disarmament of Iraq. These governments shared our assessment of the danger - but they did not share our resolve to meet it. Many nations, however, did have the resolve and fortitude to act against this threat to peace.

On the eve of war, President Bush made one last effort to avoid it. President Bush said that Saddam Hussein and his sons had 48 hours to leave Iraq; their refusal to do so, he said, would result in military conflict. Middle Eastern nations delivered public and private messages urging Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq. He refused. And finally, after more than a dozen years of defiance, the war came. And in the aftermath of the war, we saw the passage, by unanimous vote, of five separate UN Security Council Resolutions.

The war to liberate Iraq was more than a decade in the making. President Bush spent enormous time and energy on diplomacy in an effort to avoid war. Nothing more could have been done. By breaking every pledge he ever made, by his deceptions and by his cruelties, Saddam Hussein brought war upon himself and his country.

7. It's worth recalling that regime change in Iraq was the official policy of the Clinton Administration; that President Clinton used military force against Saddam Hussein in December 1998 (bombing sites related to Iraq's weapons programs); and that President Clinton used military force against Iraq without the approval of the UN Security Council. As The New York Times reported at the time:

"President Clinton's decision to strike Iraq tonight without the customary round of consulting allies drew sharp criticism from Russia and France, the two countries most reluctant to use force against Saddam Hussein.... In Moscow, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin said on Thursday that the American strikes against Iraq violated the United Nations Charter and demanded that they stop, Reuters reported.... The French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, said his country regretted 'the situation that has been created and which prompted these American strikes in Iraq'... while China joined Russia in angrily denouncing the American strike."

8. There is a lot of intellectual sloppiness surrounding the discussion of multilateralism. Everyone can agree that it is better to have the support of many nations rather than a few - and multilateral agreements can be quite important (see point #4).

But the nature of the world is that unanimous support is rare and even broad consensus is not always forthcoming, precisely because nations often have fundamentally different views of what constitutes their national interest and the moral good.

The leaders of France and Russia clearly had one view of Saddam Hussein and his regime; the United States and Great Britain had another. Cuba and Syria view human rights differently than America does. And if strains develop in an alliance, or keep a large coalition from increasing its numbers, the underlying cause needs to be taken into account. For example, if a wise and enlightened action by a major world power has the effect of causing some traditional allies to balk, the responsibility for the strains may rest not with the major world power but with the allies themselves.

For the sake of the discussion, let's stipulate that action by a handful of nations could overthrow a brutal tyranny, advance liberty, and stop the killing of innocent people on a mass scale. Should that objective be blocked if other nations don't want to support the effort? Is multilateralism a moral end in itself, or a (preferable) means to an end? If it is an end in itself, what standards apply? Should nations be paralyzed from acting unless they receive the support of the UN Security Council? How many nations need to support an action before it is considered sufficiently multilateral and therefore justifiable? Ten? Fifty? One hundred and fifty? And what happens if a nation, perhaps for reasons of corruption or bad motivation, seeks to prevent a particular action from being taken? What happens if more good can be achieved with a smaller rather than a larger coalition? What if multilateralism and diplomacy, pursued in good faith, ultimately fail? What then? These are the kind of questions commentators and magazine writers should address in an intellectually serious manner.

9. Time writes, "Iraq may prove to be not only the first but also the last laboratory for preventive war." There is (once again) a lot left unsaid in Time's discussion of this topic.

The doctrine of preemption - which essentially states that if we wait for threats to fully materialize we will have waited too long, and so the worst threats must be confronted before they emerge - has been embraced by past Presidents. To return to the Cuban Missile Crisis as an example: On October 22, 1962, President Kennedy said this:

"Neither the United States of America nor the world community of nations can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small. We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation's security to constitute maximum peril. Nuclear weapons are so destructive, and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace."

The core argument made by President Kennedy was that the deployment of offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba was unacceptable to the United States; he would do what was necessary, including using preemptive military strikes, to dismantle them. President Kennedy made as clear a case as can be made for the doctrine of preemption. In his words, "This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base - by the presence of these large, long-range, and clearly offensive weapons of sudden mass destruction - constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas."

In his book Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Kennedy wrote this: "If the Russians continued to be adamant and continued to build up their missile strength, military force would be the only alternative."

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One of the interesting things to observe in Washington is how journalists lament what they often encourage. Members of the media despair about the polarization of politics, even as many of them put a premium on drawing attention to conflict and controversy. They bemoan the obsession with poll numbers and covering politics like a horse race, yet that is what they focus on day after day after day, hour after hour after hour. They speak about the importance of deepening the public's understanding of the key issues of our time, yet they often build caricatures and toss out simplistic and misleading labels like "cowboy diplomacy."

The American media is a large, varied, and vital institution, and it consists of many smart and honorable people. At its best, it is (in the words of Walter Lippmann) "like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision." But too often, it fails at that task. It takes away, rather than adds to, our knowledge and insight into events. This is certainly the case with Time magazine's current cover story.

Peter Wehner is deputy assistant to the President and director of the White House's Office of Strategic Initiatives.