Bush's Bad Foreign Policy

Unilateralism and remaking the world don't mix


America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy, by Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 238 pages, $22.95

Perhaps no country in history had ever enjoyed the position that the United States held in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. The U.S. was so pre-eminent in military power as to be unchallengeable in any serious way, but it was also widely admired and emulated. We enjoyed unparalleled influence that could be sustained without the use of force. We had no enemies of any consequence. America was unbound and, at least in relative terms, unburdened.

September 11, 2001, closed that chapter in our history. Yet stunning as that day was, it ultimately served to enhance America's stature and its security. Horrified by the sight of those vast towers collapsing into dust, the world rallied behind the United States. The Bush administration resolved to punish Al Qaeda and its allies, making sure they could never hurt us again. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban regime that had harbored Osama bin Laden.

That moment marked a new pinnacle, demonstrating how quickly and easily the United States could apply its military power to destroy its enemies. Our speedy, almost cost-free victory came as a welcome surprise to our friends and sent a stark warning to anyone inclined to challenge us.

The attainment of nearly complete security, however, made some Americans, including the president, even less tolerant of the dangers that remained. One in particular stood out: Saddam Hussein. Never mind that he had been defeated, defanged, isolated, and contained. Never mind that he had not attacked the United States, threatened to attack the United States, or acquired the means to attack the United States. He was a longstanding nuisance, one that Bush decided not to tolerate any longer.

How different things look now. Instead of having the sympathy and support of the world, the United States has become a near-pariah. Instead of being able to mobilize the United Nations and other institutions behind our various ventures, we find the U.N. resisting, obstructing, and at the very least declining to provide much help. Other countries paid most of the cost of the first Gulf War. This time we're facing a large and growing bill almost alone. Despite the U.N. resolution in October that gave the American occupation effort an international mandate, few countries have offered substantial financial help, much less military support.

Worse, the invasion of Iraq led to a debilitating, open-ended guerrilla war in a Third World country where public sentiment runs the gamut from impatient to hostile. Six months after the president declared the end of major combat operations in May, we had suffered nearly 2,300 casualties, put terrific strains on the military services, incurred a cost that has already reached $155 billion, and isolated ourselves diplomatically.

Rebuilding Iraq has been a much greater undertaking than the administration expected, and many problems that were supposed to be solved by a U.S. occupation have gotten more intractable, not less. For example, rather than being cowed by American might, North Korea and Iran, the other two members of Bush's "axis of evil," have made progress toward becoming full-fledged nuclear states. The Arab-Israeli conflict has continued to spill blood on both sides. Terrorists who had been beleaguered and marginalized are now on the offensive in the chaos of postwar Iraq.

The crackup didn't happen by accident. In America Unbound, Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay argue that the war reflected Bush's approach to foreign policy: assertive, unilateral, enamored of pre-emptive action, and eager not to contain enemy regimes but to eliminate them.

During the Cold War, anti-communists dreamed of rolling back the tide of Soviet conquests but were constrained by the threat of nuclear war. Bush was able to take a more aggressive approach, Daalder and Lindsay write, because of his "belief that nobody could push back." Nor was he about to be inhibited by the fear of alienating other countries. In a unipolar world, Bush felt the United States had the right, the duty, and the power to act entirely on its own to advance its interests. By acting on that belief, the authors contend, Bush "set in motion a revolution in American foreign policy. It was not a revolution in America's goals abroad, but rather in how it achieved them."

Daalder and Lindsay, who toil respectively at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, don't pretend that Bush is a dedicated student of international relations. But they give him credit for having clear instincts and admire his determination to act on them. Those who assumed he would be the captive of his advisers were badly mistaken, they contend: "He may have entered the Oval Office not knowing which general ran Pakistan, but during his first thirty months in office, he was the puppeteer, not the puppet. He governed as he said he would on the campaign trail." His philosophy, expressed before and after the election, was that "America should use its primacy to advance its interests and values, not to curry favor with foreign countries." Daalder and Lindsay see him as "a revolutionary" who has distinguished himself by being "bold rather than timid, proactive rather than reactive."

America Unbound is a thorough and learned account of how Bush has handled international relations. It's also balanced, to the point that sometimes the authors can't quite seem to decide whether to give the president an A or an F. Though much of the book's material is familiar, it pulls together just about everything that is publicly known on the subject and does a competent job of trying to make sense of what has occurred. It is written in a brisk, engaging style that one does not automatically associate with Washington think tanks.

But the authors' insistence on evenhandedness sometimes gives Bush too much credit. The idea of advancing U.S. interests that they attribute to him was not so much a theme as a substitute for a theme, since it had no obvious meaning either to the electorate or the candidate. And whatever it meant changed in transit from the campaign trail to the White House: A stated aversion to "nation building" in 2000 gave way in 2003 to the most ambitious effort at nation building since the Marshall Plan.

At the 2000 Republican convention, Condoleezza Rice said America should not be the world's 911. When Liberia called that number, though, Bush answered, sending Marines to help West African peacekeeping forces end the country's 12-year civil war. Like many a presidential candidate, he criticized the incumbent administration for not being tougher on China. But when an American spy plane had to land in China after colliding with a Chinese fighter, he agreed to a deal that required the U.S. to meekly attest it was "very sorry" its plane had breached Chinese airspace.

Daalder and Lindsay see continuity between the early Bush and the late Bush. But the evidence suggests a different story. Before the 9/11 attacks, he had no real idea what he wanted to do with America's military and diplomatic resources. As they note, he said early in his presidency that "the United States has no more important relationship in the world than our relationship with Mexico"—which told more about Bush's limited acquaintance with the world than it did about Mexico's strategic importance. Lacking much knowledge of foreign relations, he settled on policies that were vague and inconsistent—until the terrorists presented Bush with a clear duty: to avenge the crime and make sure it couldn't happen again. For him it became not just a responsibility but a mission, as it likely would have for any president. Most foreign policy issues are complicated. Coming under attack from abroad is not.

The obvious lesson of 9/11 is that when you are attacked repeatedly by a capable, dangerous, and unscrupulous enemy—as the United States had been in the 1990s by Al Qaeda—you can't afford to ignore it. The threat posed by Al Qaeda was not exactly a secret before 9/11, but it was never taken as seriously as it should have been by President Clinton, by the American people, or by Bush in the first eight months of his term. When someone declares war on you, declining to fight is not an option. After 9/11, Bush recognized that.

But he also extracted a broader and dangerously erroneous lesson. He concluded that the United States has to attack its enemies before they attack us, long before the potential threat ripens. He declared a new doctrine, asserting that "we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively." In addition, he embraced the ambitious idea promoted by advisers like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz that the United States could best protect its security and honor its values by acting vigorously to spread democracy abroad. His handling of Iraq wedded the two policies. Invasion would erase the possibility that Saddam would someday endanger us with weapons of mass destruction and allow the creation of a democratic state that would stimulate liberalization throughout the Middle East.

The actual outcome has not been quite so congenial. Daalder and Lindsay think Bush stumbled because he was "blind to the limits inherent in the unilateral exercise" of American power. In fact, they say, "Bush's war demonstrated the importance of basing American foreign policy on a meld of power and cooperation." But did it really? The real flaw in his policy was its confusion of relative power with absolute power.

America certainly has the military might to defeat any country on earth. But there are limits to what it can do beyond that. The invasion and occupation of Iraq would be only modestly easier and less expensive if Bush had mobilized a broad coalition of countries to help. To match past nation building efforts, half a million troops would be needed in Iraq, which is more than any conceivable coalition could provide.

Ruling over an alien people in the 21st century is an uphill struggle, regardless of how many allies you have. What we are likely to face in Iraq is similar to what the British confronted in trying to maintain their empire: The price of the undertaking eventually exceeded its value.

Daalder and Lindsay think the president's worst error is his unilateralism, arguing that the "fundamental premise of Bush's revolution—that America's security rested on an America unbound—was profoundly mistaken." There is something to this argument. But unilateralism was not Bush's invention. Bill Clinton also offended many other governments by balking at collective action on matters ranging from global warming to the international ban on land mines, and Ronald Reagan often clashed with our closest allies despite the looming Soviet threat.

In Bush's case, the go-it-alone approach was a mistake for two main reasons. One is that it blinded him to realities that other governments understood, such as the feasibility of corralling Saddam through containment and deterrence. The other is that it conflicted with his hugely ambitious agenda. A nation that wants to exert control over events in every corner of the world needs lots of allies in the effort. As Daalder and Lindsay contend, it can't afford to alienate the world.

But Bush's greatest mistake was refusing to acknowledge the limits of what even the world's sole superpower can do. As the debacle in Iraq has shown, the costs of such intervention can escalate rapidly, the benefits can prove dubious, and the options for escape can be highly unsatisfactory. Whatever happens in Iraq, the nasty aftermath will almost certainly dampen public support for new military adventures.

That's why the Bush "revolution" in foreign policy (fortunately) looks like a short-lived aberration rather than a lasting template. The United States may be powerful enough to act without tying its actions to the cooperation of other governments. In some cases, such latitude can be liberating. But if you were looking for a phrase to describe the situation in Iraq, "America unbound" wouldn't be it.