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America's mess, not Bush's

MUCH AS Democrats and liberals hate to admit it, the Bush disaster did not begin with him. That he swatted aside the structures of international law as a mode of responding to Osama bin Laden was prepared for by Washington's habit, begun in the Reagan years, of dismissing international courts, ignoring treaties, and refusing to meet obligations to the United Nations and other transnational bodies.

The International Criminal Court, just coming into existence as America's war on terrorism was mobilized, fulfilled the impulse to replace revenge with adjudication. Completing the Nuremberg legacy, this new court would have been the perfect arena in which to make world historic cases against Al Qaeda, Bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein, but George W. Bush, in one of his first acts as president, had ''unsigned" the ICC treaty.

This momentous act of political destruction had been prepared for, though, by Bill Clinton, who, despite signing the treaty, had never argued for it. Both presidents were protective of the US military because the Pentagon regarded itself as a ready target of ICC prosecution, a fear that seemed paranoid until revelations both that American soldiers routinely abused prisoners in Iraq and high Pentagon officials unilaterally rejected norms set by the Geneva Convention. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were epiphanies of a new Pentagon lawlessness, but it was rooted in several decades' worth of dismissal of international law.

Ironically, US military initiatives, including the invasion of Iraq, were justified with the language of human rights, as if the promotion of elections and the liberation of females defined the heart of Washington's agenda. This fulfilled a trend that began when liberals and neo-conservatives found common ground in the Clinton-era ideal of ''humanitarian intervention," as if every war in history hadn't been justified by its perpetrator as humanitarian.

The measure of the humanitarian character of interventions, of course, is taken by what happens on the ground in the countries at issue. In Afghanistan and Iraq, new levels of sectarianism, ethnic conflict, warlordism, drug trafficking, and radical Islamism are all evident in the broader context of destroyed infrastructure, widespread malnourishment, obliterated civil society.

Bush administration officials crow that girls in Afghanistan and Iraq can at last attend schools as equals, without acknowledging that, with rare exceptions in heavily protected enclaves in both countries, there are no schools for anyone to attend. The two countries had been human rights nightmares before Bush's wars, but the wars themselves -- destroying cities and villages to save them -- hardly represent improvements in the lives of ordinary people. Even under the best of outcomes -- if, say, civil war can be avoided -- Afghanistan and Iraq will be decades in recovering from America's self-proclaimed good intentions.

Bush's ''humanitarian" doctrine of ''preventive war" was officially promulgated in the National Security Strategy of 2002. ''This country must go on the offense," Bush said, ''and stay on the offense." Many commentators regarded this move as a break with a tradition that had emphasized ''defense," even to the name of the US war ministry.

In public discussion, war had always been treated as the last resort, but now it would be a first response to threat. Bush had his ''doctrine," and it was the doctrine of ''preventive war." Yet arguments for preventive war had defined the culture of the Pentagon since immediately after World War II. Over the years, not even the Soviet nuclear arsenal inhibited many senior military officials from making them. Always, presidents pushed such arguments to back burners, but they were never off the stove. Under Bush, a long-simmering impulse had come to a boil.

The deeper origins of the current crisis are revealed in other ways. The compelling, but rarely admitted purpose of shoring up American control of supplies of oil and natural gas is expressly reflected in the job histories of Bush's policy team, but the explicit claim of economic hegemony over the Persian Gulf region, with the threat of military force to back it up, had begun with the ''doctrine" of Jimmy Carter. The stated focus of America's Mideast war is on the threat of terrorism, yet the overriding strategic issue remains oil supply. That reflects the old thirst, the old policy.

Democrats and liberals blame George W. Bush for the American mess, but it is worse than that. In sum, the immoral and futile war in Iraq, increasingly disapproved in polls but steadily unopposed by politicians, belongs not just to our feckless president, but to the nation.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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