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Zachary Karabell Headshot

Bush's Chickens Come Home to Roost

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The Russian invasion of Georgia and the inability of the United States, NATO, the United Nations -- not to mention Georgia itself -- to do anything about it has cast into sharp relief one of the most disturbing consequences of recent American policy in the world. Having focused obsessively on the threat of terrorism -- and not simply on terrorism, but terrorism conducted by radical Islamic fundamentalist groups such as al-Qaeda, the United States and the administration of George Bush have de facto ignored a series of other pressing global issues. It's been said that governments and countries fight the last war; in the case of the Bush administration, we've fought the last war several times over, with strategic incompetence. As a result, our future security has been seriously jeopardized.

It goes almost without saying that the challenge posed by religious-motivated terrorism is a real one, and it is likely to remain a real one for many, many years. But however much the attacks of September 11 jolted the United States out of its complacency about security, those attacks do not define the entire global system, nor will the United States be permanently secure even if everyone associated with those attacks are permanently removed from the picture. To put it another way, even if al-Qaeda evaporated, even if Iraq becomes a liberal democracy without an army and Afghanistan a poppy-free tribal confederacy, even if Iran suddenly abjures its interest in nuclear weapons, the world will not become "safe." Human events are fluid; the international system is constantly morphing; and the mark of wise leadership is to recognize that there is no one single template for a complicated world, and that it is as important to attend to the new and unforeseen as it is to the old and predictable. Today and in the future, there will be and already are challenges that have nothing to do with radical Islam and the Arab world, whether those are traditional security threats such as Russia or non-traditional ones such as the globalization of capital and accelerated global warming.

Granted, that's a tall order for any government bureaucracy. But the Bush administration has acted as if all the threats reside in one corner of the world, and has actively sought to eliminate those. Not only has it failed in that aim -- an unrealistic one to begin with -- it has been forced into a position where it can only react, and weakly, to events in other parts of the world. Sometimes -- as in the case of North Korea -- that has proved to be a plus, but as we see now with Russia and Georgia, it is much more likely to be a minus, highlighting not our supposed strength but revealing a series of glaring weakness created by the architects of our current polices.

Bush, Cheney and the rest were obsessed with American strength, power, and manliness. They have instead helped hobble the United States and rendered us largely toothless in our ability to respond to acts of naked aggression. We have a powerful military on paper that is stretched needlessly thin on the ground; we have a powerful moral foundation rooted in our history that has been dangerously compromised in our present; and we have a mantle of leadership in the world that is frayed almost beyond recognition. The events in Georgia over the past few days are a terrible reminder of how much we have lost, and how quickly, because of a few years of misguided and incompetent policies.