`Fear's Empire' addresses the flawed logic of pre-emptive strikes

Benjamin Barber contends that the Bush administration's strategy of imposing a world pact rooted in force is hazardous and likely to provoke enemies

Taipei Times

By Michiko Kakutani

Sunday, Oct 12, 2003, Page 19

Benjamin R. Barber's 1995 book, Jihad vs. McWorld, was a provocative and in some ways eerily prescient work. It depicted the post-Cold War world as a place simultaneously subject to the fragmenting forces of religious and ethnic fundamentalism and the homogenizing forces of global capitalism: forces, he suggested, that were threats to democracy, and that were on a dangerous collision course with each other. The paperback edition of that book quickly surfaced on best-seller lists after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Barber's latest book, Fear's Empire: War, Terrorism and Democracy, was written as a kind of response to the Bush administration's "rollout of a new preventive war strategy after 9/11 leading to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq" and the "prospect of pre-emptive moves" on its part toward other hostile regimes.

It is a decidedly less original work than Jihad vs. McWorld, and it has the reactive feel of a hastily written piece, filled at once with abstract generalities that reprise ideas Barber has articulated with more specificity in the past and with brusque, off-the-cuff responses to recent policy manifestoes by writers like Robert Kagan, Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis.

The thesis of Fear's Empire is that nations coping with today's interdependent world have "but two options: to overpower the malevolent interdependence that is terrorism by somehow imposing a global pax rooted in force; or to forge a benevolent interdependence by democratizing the world."

Barber contends that the Bush administration's pursuit of the former strategy is hazardous and self-defeating, provoking enemies rather than deterring them; and he makes an impassioned if often simplistic argument in favor of the latter multilateral approach, asserting that an "international framework of cooperation and law" alone can "overcome terrorist anarchy."

Barber's discussions of how US foreign policy has changed since 9/11 range from the obvious to the familiar, as do his cursory discussions of the role that the animating myths of exceptionalism and New World innocence have played in the shaping of US history. For that matter, most of his criticisms of the Bush administration's policies -- from the war against Iraq to broader notions of pre-emption -- feel like a rehash of arguments made in more detail by reporters and scholars in recent articles and books.

He argues that in an increasingly interdependent world (grappling with transnational issues like AIDS, global warming and terrorism) the administration has asserted, perversely, that it is more than willing to go it alone.

He writes that in the last two years America "has reached for increasingly obsolete military strategies associated with a traditional sovereignty it no longer fully possesses." And he points out that under a universalized doctrine of pre-emption, "Pakistan can argue for preventive war against India, anticipating an Indian strike in Kashmir; North Korea can justify a strike against South Korea, anticipating an American action (based on American rhetoric) against North Korea."

As his earlier books attest, Barber has a predilection for taxonomies that explain highly complex phenomena through no-frills dialectics and dynamics, and this volume is no exception. Unfortunately the terms Barber concocts in these pages lack the cogency and freshness of those he used in Jihad vs. McWorld and often devolve into simplistic Manichean dichotomies.

This time he tries to recast debates within the Bush administration between hawks and doves as debates between "eagles" (Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) and "owls" (Secretary of State Colin Powell). He contrasts what he calls "Pax Americana" ("a universal peace imposed by American arms; fear's empire founded in right's good name, because it matters not if they hate us as long as they fear us") with what he calls "lex humana" ("universal law rooted in human commonality").

He also contrasts the Bush administration's policy of "preventive war" with what he calls "preventive democracy," which "assumes that the sole long-term defense for the US (as well as other nations around the world) against anarchy, terrorism and violence is democracy itself."

While Barber can be highly persuasive in laying out the dangers of unilateralism and pre-emption, his talk about "preventive democracy" all too often devolves into fuzzy-minded generalities, made all the more confusing since administration hawks (or eagles, as he would have it) are also fond of talking about the exportation of democracy as a means of making the world a kinder, gentler place.

Worse, Barber's talk about "preventive democracy" has a way of slip-sliding into half-baked utopian musings about "global citizenship" and "the newly empowered voice of global opinion," Pollyanna-ish notions that undermine the many more valid points he wants to make in this book.