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Making the World Safe From Evil | The Nation

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Making the World Safe From Evil

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For most of the postwar era, Republican centrists like John Foster Dulles, Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger agreed with cold war liberals in the Democratic Party on just about everything beyond the water's edge; there was a seamless consensus inside the Beltway on containment, internationalism, the NATO and US-Japan alliances, and the iron necessity to consult with our allies at the UN, the IMF and the World Bank. (This is what made Gore's sharp critique, delivered in a moment of crisis, so extraordinary.) Often the result was unilateralism disguised as multilateralism (Korea, Vietnam), but everyone bespoke the internationalist mantras, and knew that the only lasting, sustainable hegemony is a consensual partnership, with the United States as first among would-be equals.

About the Author

Bruce Cumings
Bruce Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, is the author, most recently, of North...

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The defining moment of this consensus was not World War II but Korea, when American forces marched up to the Yalu River to "liberate" North Korea and started a war with China. At the time, only one prominent "wise man" urged Truman not to convert the defense of South Korea into a war to roll back the Communist North: Mr. X himself, George Kennan. After the Chinese intervened, however, everyone learned Kennan's lesson well: Republicans like Dulles and Nixon merged with Democrats like Dean Acheson on the central importance of containment. Liberation, or "rollback," had failed miserably, and had raised the specter of World War III; thereafter Dulles used the rhetoric of liberation only to sate the appetites of the Republican far right [see Cumings, "Reckoning With the Korean War," October 25, 1986]. Out of that centrist unity came an unprecedented bipartisan commitment to gigantic peacetime military budgets, regardless of fiscal discipline.

An uneasy coalition between the Eastern and Western wings persisted into the 1960s, punctuated by the humiliation of Rockefeller at the Goldwater-dominated 1964 Republican convention, and Richard Nixon's choosing to move from California to New York City as the 1968 election campaign drew near. But since then the stronger tendency has clearly been the West, bringing to the fore Sunbelt Republicans like Reagan, who were ostensible libertarians and fiscal conservatives but who had no qualms about using military Keynesianism to lubricate the enormous government-corporate complex nourished by huge military spending in the Sunbelt states. (Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, of course, are poster boys for how to work this military-industrial nexus to one's best career advantage.) The most successful Republicans tried to ride both circuits, but there has really been only one master at this: Tricky Dick--a classic Western Republican at one point in his career, an Eastern internationalist at another.

As a Westerner, by the 1960s Nixon understood the demographics of political realignment: Air conditioning and massive water works made life livable for large populations in the vast humid or arid reaches of the Sunbelt, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act had opened the entire South to any demagogue who wanted to use racist code words to separate the Democrats from their longtime base in the segregationist states. This "Southern strategy" brought Nixon into the Oval Office, and ushered in decades of Democratic ineffectiveness. But on foreign policy Nixon was a centrist, and paid no attention to the Republican lunatic fringe. After his first two years, neither did Reagan.

Then, suddenly, the cold war ended. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The Soviet Union collapsed. Sometimes history has a sense of humor--who could have imagined that George Herbert Walker Bush would preside over these momentous events and would mainly be remembered for two phrases, "read my lips, no new taxes" and "the new world order." By reneging on the first and championing the second, he confirmed the worst fears of the Republican right.

Bush Senior is a thoroughly Eastern Republican, raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, combining internationalist foreign policy with great wealth and aristocratic privilege. His Texas credentials, honed since he moved there in the 1940s, never fooled anybody. His career in government was that of a charter member of the internationalist consensus. George W. is not his father; he is the real thing, a Yankee who went Texan with a vengeance--and this is the dilemma in this Administration. George II is a tabula rasa, straddling two wings of the same party, like a feckless cowboy on two horses. In domestic policy he cultivates a conservative right wing that cannot elect him (Bush I was right about that), but he does so because of Karl Rove's dictum that Daddy failed them and thus lost the 1992 election. In foreign policy, however, his team of horses runs--always strenuously--in various and often opposite directions, stretching the logic of his diplomacy to the breaking point. He bolts first in one direction and then in another; his staggering around puts our best friends on the permanent defensive, as Al Gore noted, wondering what comes next, while doing little damage to our adversaries and not nearly enough to the demonic Al Qaeda.

The homing tendency of this Administration has been an inveterate unilateralism, with a brief nod to internationalism only after 9/11. It is not a coherent or logical unilateralism, however; it lurches off in one direction after another. It isn't that the Bush prima donnas don't like consulting with our allies in Europe and Asia (even though they don't); they don't like consulting with each other, either. Powell announces one policy and Cheney undercuts him the next day. O'Neill denounces bailouts, then unloads tens of billions on Brazil when it looks like Lula might win the presidency. Rumsfeld carries on as if he answers to no one, even refusing to speak to a German diplomat as if he were Zhou En-lai and Rumsfeld were John Foster Dulles. Powell declares his support for engagement with North Korea; the next day Bush denounces Kim Jong Il.

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