Totem and Taboo | The Nation


Totem and Taboo

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Take Clyde Prestowitz, for example. Here is a conservative economic analyst who served in the government under Reagan and describes Bush's foreign policy as not conservative at all but dangerously radical. Denouncing the Administration for its unilateralism, militarism, alienation of traditional allies and contempt for international institutions and agreements, he even titles his book Rogue Nation (though with the qualifying subtitle American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions). While this dissonance may be standard fare on the left, it is a sign of real distress coming from the moderate right that shows cracks in the old foreign policy consensus.

About the Author

Ronald Steel
Ronald Steel, the author of Temptations of a Superpower and other books on US politics and diplomacy, teaches...

A similar sense of alienation is displayed with brio by veteran journalist John Newhouse in Imperial America: The Bush Assault on the World Order. A Washington insider with ready access to policy-makers, Newhouse shows how Bush and Cheney's preoccupation with Saddam Hussein dominated an agenda already heavy with more serious issues in such places as Pakistan, Kashmir and the Arab-Israeli fuse box, not to mention the botched "war on terror." The greatest value of this short book lies in the author's sure sense of the play of politics and personalities in the imperial capital, and of how a band of zealots has taken over the controls of the ship of state.

Benjamin Barber's Fear's Empire is not so much about fear as it is an attack on those "eagles" in the Bush Administration, headed by a President eager to apply "missionary rationales for and military solutions to the challenges to global insecurity," whose "self-righteous wrath is steeped in the lore of American exceptionalism." In place of the doctrine of preventive war Barber proposes a "preventive democracy" based on law, cooperative alliances and internationalism. His is a worthy prescription, but one unlikely to make much impact on policy-makers either within the Administration or on the outside seeking to replace it.

No one exemplifies the centrist foreign-policy consensus better than Zbigniew Brzezinski. National Security Adviser to Jimmy Carter, cold war hawk, conservative Democrat, hardball bureaucratic player, he understands power and is not averse to applying it. Neither on the right nor the left, he is an experienced and intelligent foreign policy professional. It is therefore the impeccable provenance of The Choice rather than its tame prescription that makes his critique interesting. Like the internationalist that he is, Brzezinski takes the Bush Administration to task for its unilateralism and its adventurism. This book clearly shows trouble brewing within the establishment. Whether this has any effect on policy remains to be seen. The most disturbing question he raises--though, unfortunately, without pursuing it--is whether the current drive for "global hegemony could endanger American democracy itself."

What is most striking about these expressions of alarm from home and abroad is the Bush Administration's indifference to them. What critics disparage as messianism, contempt for the opinion of others, unilateralism, arrogance and an emphasis on military force are what George W. Bush views as righteous patriotism. That is the central message of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Rejecting the popular assumption that it is Dick Cheney, or the gaggle of neocons perched in the Pentagon, or Bible-thumping preachers who set the agenda, Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay energetically argue that Bush is a man sure of his convictions and with little concern for those whose sensibilities he may offend.

The authors, former Clinton staffers currently at Washington think tanks, portray Bush as an intelligent man who believes that because America's (i.e., his own) motives are only to spread freedom and peace, he must follow his own way unconstricted by international protocols or the opinions of others. "At some point we may be the only ones left," as Bush has acknowledged. "That's OK with me. We are America." In Daalder and Lindsay's view, Bush is governed by his convictions that the world is dangerous, that power exercised in a just cause need suffer no restraints, that a determined will is crucial to the exercise of power and that treaties and accords matter only insofar as they clearly serve American interests.

While all may not share their high estimation of Bush's intelligence, for those seeking to understand the Bush foreign policy and not merely to denounce it, this informative book will be highly useful. In the authors' view he is nobody's puppet, but rather the architect of his foreign policy--whatever one may think of that policy. Although they make a spirited argument, they are unlikely to persuade radical critics who see the current policy not as an aberration of a single team or individual but as a heavy-handed manifestation of a longstanding imperial project. For them the problem is not Bush but the structure of American capitalism and the militarism that produces, and indeed requires, such policies.

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