The Big Picture
(King of the Mountain)
Jude Wanniski
August 20, 2003


For some weeks now, I have been thinking about standing back to offer a wide-screen look at the world political economy. Late August is a good time for such reflections, if only because Congress is in recess and there is less need to keep track of its movements on a daily basis. Things move faster after Labor Day and there is less time for philosophy. This broader canvas should help in understanding the flow of news at least for the balance of the year and perhaps well into the 2004 election year.

* * * * *

Growing up in Brooklyn during the 1940`s, I remember playing “king of the mountain” in snowy winters. The object was to get to the top of a small snowbank and keep the other kids from dislodging you. The “king” did a lot of kicking and had to avoid having his feet grabbed by one or two others or down the bank he would slide, replaced by a competitor. This is the best metaphor I can think of for the Bush Administration’s approach to managing the world economy. It was more or less laid out in exactly those terms in the Project for a New American Century almost a decade ago, drafted by the project’s chief philosopher, Paul Wolfowitz. With the end of the Cold War, the PNAC team agreed that the central objective of American foreign policy should be to remain atop the mountain, to prevent another country or group of countries from challenging U.S. global hegemony. 

As it happens, this involves lots of kicking, which has led to an official embrace of the concept of pre-emptive war at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Iraq is only the latest manifestation of the Wolfowitz Doctrine, but as we now begin to realize it is the first to really threaten the U.S. perch atop the mountain. Unless there is a sufficient counterweight to this Doctrine to rein it in as it contemplates pre-emptive wars in Iran and North Korea, practically the whole world will coalesce to end U.S. supremacy. It would do so not by declaring war, but by choosing sides as they have been in ways that slowly drains the American electorate’s appetite for this kind of imperium. At the rate violence is escalating in the Middle East, with the administration’s rosy scenario of democracy, peace and prosperity evaporating in Iraq, it would not take many months before the projected costs of occupation became unbearable.

The $12 trillion U.S. economy can support temporary budget deficits of $400 or $500 billion, as they are now. If the costs of the kind of empire that are in the PNAC plan are made permanent, though, there would be no resources left to finance the retirement years of the baby boomers. As easy as the war with Iraq had been, it has already run up $100 billion in out-of-pocket costs and could easily add that much in the next several months if demands for more troops, more nation-building amenities are approved by the Congress. The indirect costs nobody talks about also escalate, as military pay is hiked to attract enlistments and as military retirement benefits are folded into the totals.

Even before the United Nations building in Baghdad was blown up, the Pentagon warhawks were insisting they would not share power over Iraq’s future with the United Nations or with NATO. In this American imperium, the King of the Mountain sits alone at the pinnacle, exercising power by dictate. If the United Nations Security Council agrees with the dictate, that’s fine. But if it disagrees, it becomes irrelevant, with the U.S. proceeding alone and pre-emptively. The Wall Street Journal front page today reports on the consequences, the “Occupational Hazard” in Baghdad. “Iraq Blast Prods U.S. to Choose: Go It Alone or Give U.N. Big Role.” That is, should President Bush “expand and fortify U.S. forces against an increasingly sophisticated opposition, or look to the U.N. for more help?” He hoped to avoid either, hoping his rosy scenario would play out. “But yesterday’s attack was the kind of stunning event that figures to prompt re-evaluations from Baghdad to the White House to the Security Council chamber at the U.N.”

The warhawks will of course argue for more money and more troops to keep Iraq out of U.N. hands, knowing that fork in the world would lead away from the Wolfowitz Doctrine not only in Iraq, but throughout the world. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the most voluble Republican among the warhawks, has already urged a greater financial commitment when Congress returns after Labor Day. The Democratic presidential candidates are almost uniformly urging UN/NATO involvement, with only Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Wolfowitz warhawk, following that party line.

When I began thinking about an American Empire in the 1980s -- anticipating an end to the Cold War and the emergence of a unipolar political universe, the King of the Mountain would be a benevolent father of the family of nations, a “Good Czar.” I saw the United States of America as the “nation of nations,” the only political entity on earth that began as a state which then brought forth a new nation. We were populated by émigrés from every other nation on earth, who had sent their sons and daughters here as an investment in the future. This would be the time for a return on that investment. The concept naturally did not involve any pre-emptive kicking of those trying to displace the sole superpower. Instead, the U.S. would share its wisdom on how it got to the top with the family of nations, instructing and guiding them on an upward path. The objective of staying on top of the mountain still would be realized, but in the process, the mountain would itself climb higher. In this kind of world, it would be in the interest of the UNSC and the General Assembly of nations to help the U.S. manage the world, to alert it to any signs of dangers arising out of discontent here or there, from “terrorists” or other social pathologies. [Here is a link to my 1995 essay, “An American Empire.”]

Admittedly, this was also a rosy scenario, but it really was the philosophical design for the United Nations in 1945. It does not work when the United States is at war with alien states hostile to its national security. The U.N. really did not contribute much during the Cold War, and in many cases frustrated U.S. policymakers because the General Assembly divided sharply between the “capitalist free world” and the “communist slave world.” In a world at peace, though, the system that underpins the U.N. should work better than pre-emptive war and U.S. dictates. Now that it becomes clear Iraq was not an “imminent threat” to anyone, and the pre-emptive war was unnecessary, that principle should be accepted. The hawks die hard, though, even promoting a fresh pre-emptive war with Pyongyang, on the grounds that it is threatening to build nuclear weapons unless we sign a pact agreeing not to attack them as we did Iraq. We should sign such a pact. There is no reason not to, unless we wish to provoke more conflict.

It’s probably the case that the hawks and their followers had to experience the consequences of their approach to global management. If they had been denied, they would have continued to make the argument that the world would be a better place if only they had been given a free hand. There is no doubt that the world’s only superpower has to be taken seriously or feel our sting. But when the justification for war dissolves, as it has been in the failure to find an imminent threat, the doves are now able to make their case for diplomacy and a serious role for the United Nations. If Iraq is to be pacified, it can only be through a UN force that is not seen as an extension of the occupying power.

* * * * *