NEW DELHI — As U.S. President George W. Bush readies a war on Iraq without any direct provocation, the United States faces international opprobrium and isolation. Rarely before has the U.S. risked its future international role and image on a huge strategic gamble untied to the protection of its vital interests.

Such is the size of this gamble that its outcome is likely to have worldwide consequences, determining the shape of international relations and the future of the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and America’s place in the world.

Even before the invasion of Iraq has begun, the U.S. has shed its cultivated image as a benevolent superpower in the eyes of much of the world.

The expected U.S. attack on Iraq will have little to do with international terrorism, or with weapons of mass destruction, or with Washington’s professed love for democracy.

Bush, like his predecessors, has openly flaunted U.S. double standards on these issues, aiming to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein while propping up Pakistani dictator President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. By any objective criteria, Pakistan is a far more egregious case than Iraq on the issues that are supposedly motivating Bush to invade Iraq.

Yet, present U.S. diplomacy is remarkable for its constant advocacy of Musharraf and its dogged efforts, among others, to help Pakistan reclaim strategic ground in Afghanistan.

To understand Bush’s real, unspoken motivation to invade Iraq, one has to reckon with the significance of 9/11 and the fertile opportunities it opened up for Washington, which it has readily exploited. Since 9/11, the U.S. has expanded its military and diplomatic interests in an unprecedented manner. With its new bases, stretching across the Caspian Sea basin and Central Asia, the U.S. military is now active in the largest array of nations since World War II.

Fighting terror, in fact, has yielded a strategic windfall for Washington, buoying up the global ambitions of the Bush team. Bush’s pre-9/11 obsession with missile defense was replaced after 9/11 by his obsession first with Osama bin Laden and then, when he could not capture the Saudi outlaw dead or alive, with Hussein. But behind the preoccupation with the Iraqi despot, who came to power in 1968 with the CIA’s tacit backing, lie imperial ambitions.

Except for National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, the other members of the Bush core team were closely associated with the first Bush administration. Since the end of the Cold War, most of these men have been itching for the U.S. to seize the unipolar moment to create an empire in the true, historical sense.

As president, George H.W. Bush had to repudiate a Pentagon report authored by several of these global empire-builders after its leaked recommendations created a public furor in 1992. The report, drafted by then Defense Undersecretary for Policy Paul Wolfowitz, with the support of then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, recommended a Pax Americana that enforced its will on other nations and remade the world in its own image.

Those controversial ideas were regurgitated in a new report eight years later by a group calling itself the “Project for the New American Century,” and now form the undeclared blueprint of what Bush is seeking to do. The authors of the new report got jobs in the present administration.

The pervasive impact of their ideas can be seen in the president’s National Security Strategy document, released soon after 9/11, which included the doctrine of preemption in place of containment; rejection of deterrence in favor of “convincing or compelling states to accept their sovereign responsibilities”; unilateralism on core interests as part of “American internationalism”; and untrammeled military and economic dominance across the globe. In fact, as suggested by that report, the administration has stepped up U.S. defense spending from 3 percent to 3.8 percent of GDP.

If not for 9/11, Bush and his team would not have had the political space or the courage to make public their imperial concepts or adopt their present posture against Iraq. In fact, 9/11 opened the opportunity to translate into practice their commitment to the creation of the new American Empire.

It is against that background that 9/11 will go down in history as a major man-made earthquake that shifted the geopolitical fault lines and set in motion the implementation of imperial American ambitions. History is shaped not just by the event itself but more by the extent and force of its aftereffects.

When critics lament that Bush has no exit strategy from Iraq once he has effected regime change, they overlook that empire building demands only an entrance-and-stay strategy. No true empire can be built with a quick exit from occupation. With its strategically vantage position and bountiful oil reserves, Iraq is an ideal target for occupation and a key first step to the reordering of the world. Bush has acknowledged that regime change in Baghdad is imperative at least for reordering the Middle East.

In fact, the occupation of Iraq is central to Bush’s plans to shift the regional U.S. military headquarters from Saudi Arabia to Baghdad in preparation for regime change in Riyadh. Bush is determined to make King Fahd Abdul Aziz pay for the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis.

Bush and company did not, however, anticipate that their case against Iraq would be met with such international cynicism and incredulity. The irony is that a war that was supposed to underpin the unipolar moment has triggered a challenge to unipolarity even before the attack has occurred. It is equally ironic that a U.S. plan to topple a brutal despot with a genocidal record should become an international rallying point to vent opposition to American intervention.

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