Making the World Safe From Evil

Making the World Safe From Evil

Current US foreign policy is the most incoherent it has been in recent memory.


So this is the way the cold war finally ends: not with a whimper but a bang. Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev chose not to mobilize massive Soviet armies on the soil of East Germany and other Communist states to save them from their own people, thus sealing the fate of the Soviet empire and bestowing a virtually bloodless victory on the containment doctrine, analysts and pundits have been vying to define the post-cold war era, and incidentally to become the next George Kennan: an end to history, back to the future, a clash of civilizations, Jihad vs. McWorld, the Lexus and the Olive Tree.

But the cunning of history dashed their ambitions and gave us instead an unexpectedly muscle-bound and imperial “Mr. X”: George W. Bush. No passive containment or pusillanimous deterrence for His Accidency: Now we will have pre-emptive attacks, “counterproliferation” for everyone (except ourselves and our allies), untold billions for the Pentagon to dissuade any and all comers from “a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States,” and endless wars into the disappearing and newly darkening future to “rid the world of evil.”

Where does this “National Security Strategy” document come from? In the first instance, from the shop of NSC Adviser Condoleezza Rice, which perhaps accounts for its breathless and quasi-academic quality, although some of its logic would flunk even a freshman class: as in, pre-emptive attacks are OK for us, but other nations “should [not] use pre-emption as a pretext for aggression.” Pre-emption, Rice later opined to reporters, is “anticipatory self-defense,” that is, the right of the United States to attack a country that it thinks could attack it first. (It is hard to believe the State Department actually signed off on this Bush League document, but Rice is right that it’s not a new strategy: In the early months of 1964 Lyndon Johnson in “the utmost secrecy” agonized over whether to take out China’s Lop Nor nuclear facilities in a pre-emptive strike before they produced a bomb.)

Of course, the driving forces behind the Bush doctrine include more than just one Bush adviser; George W., like Ronald Reagan in the first two years of his presidency, is surrounded by ideologues, hawks and extremists. They talk loudly and carry a big stick, but it isn’t clear that they will ultimately prevail.

Bush’s pet doctrine is not just about foreign policy, however; it’s also about domestic politics, and a Republican administration that is both motivated and flummoxed by deeper conflicts that go to the heart of the party and its historic foreign policy stance. In the short run, “anticipatory self-defense” aroused a perfect storm for Karl Rove, who wants Bush to talk about the evildoers until the November elections so no one will remember that the economy is tanking and Bush’s CEO buddies are in handcuffs. More important, however, is that this has been the first Republican administration to so fully embody the Republican right’s foreign policy views on a host of issues: arms control, the environment, the United Nations, post-Soviet Russia, China, North Korea, Iraq and the presumed failings of our traditional allies. The massive outflow of commentary and punditry on Bush’s new doctrine somehow never got around to this fundamental point, until Al Gore (the name Bush dares not speak) stood before the Commonwealth Club on September 23 and said that Bush has been trying “to please the portion of [his] base that occupies the far right.” Everyone knows this is Rove’s daily bread for domestic policy, but Gore linked the new doctrine to a “go-it-alone, cowboy-type” foreign policy–and not since Saddam moved into Bush’s gun sights, but since the day after he won the 2000 election, five to four.

The new doctrine embodies phrases and nuances that are the stock in trade of right-wing pundits like Charles Krauthammer, who have long called for a new American imperialism. But there is also a back-to-the-future quality; it recalls the onset of the cold war and the formidable critique of containment by Republicans like James Burnham, co-founder with William Buckley of National Review. Like Bush, Burnham assumed that “the unparalleled supremacy” of the American military would continue into the indefinite future. In 1947 he denounced internationalism as appeasement and error, containment as too passive (Bush says the United States “can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture”) and isolationism as a political-economic impossibility. Instead, the United States should pursue a “World Empire,” based on its monopoly of atomic weapons. Why not wield the bomb to “make politically possible…the domination of the world by a single sufficiently large state”? (That monopoly lasted exactly two more years.) In 1950, in The Coming Defeat of Communism (which like the Bush doctrine was applauded at the time by many centrists of both parties), he urged Washington to “join the offensive”: American policy should aim “not at the defeat of Russia, but at its liberation.” Like Burnham, the Bush document prefers “liberation” to containment, but treats September 11 as if that watershed event founded the new strategy.

Those attacks did indeed come from an implacable and diabolical enemy: Nothing will deter it, and it passionately loves suicide. Containment wouldn’t scare Osama bin Laden, to say the least, even if we could find him. But little can be done about that threat, the past year of the “war on terrorism” notwithstanding; it is still child’s play to conjure up variations on what calamity Al Qaeda might think of next. Bush’s doctrine is about a lover of homicide, Saddam Hussein, the other charter members of the “axis of evil” and anyone else who might dare to threaten American might and power–anywhere, anytime, for eternity. And it is about fissures that go to the heart of the Republican Party.

That party has long embraced two tendencies, the free-trade multilateralism and Atlanticism of the Eastern wing, and the expansionist, unilateralist Western Republicans, symbolized by the “Asia firsters” of the 1950s. The former was hegemonic on the British model, taking the world economy as its main arena of action; the latter was imperialist, beholden to the myths and realities of the frontier, the cowboy and the cavalry, unilateral expansion to the West, the subjugation of the Philippines and eventually of China (always, to these foreign affairs naïfs, the “China” of their imagination). The reigning hero of this tendency was Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a classic man on horseback, brutalizing the Bonus Marchers, ruling the Philippines, defeating Japan thus to become its benign emperor for six years, only to have his measure taken by a Sino-Korean peasant army in 1950.

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.

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.

Usually the point of foreign affairs is to keep your allies happy and your enemies off balance: Bush has invented a way to fire up and miss on all cylinders, while pushing our allies to their wits’ end. The result is the most incoherent US foreign policy in recent memory. The idea of a bipartisan consensus in foreign affairs seems not to have occurred to this crew; Democrats are also the enemy. By repudiating Clinton’s proactive diplomacy, Bush has alienated two critical allies: Junichiro Koizumi, who broke with US policy in an unprecedented way to hold a successful summit with Kim Jong Il in September, and Gerhard Schröder, whose vocal opposition to an invasion of Iraq has “poisoned” American relations with Germany (according to Pentagon Czar Rumsfeld). In August these strains caused a huge falling out among Republicans, with Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger and James Baker attempting in different ways and with different arguments and nuances to warn Bush about the consequences of attacking Iraq.

This is really the gang that can’t shoot straight–now taking aim at everyone. Bush prides himself on staff loyalty and discipline, having arrived with three foreign policy bigwigs and one hallowed CEO in tow: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and O’Neill. That this experienced crew would tower over the President was a foregone conclusion, but who could have imagined that they would form independent kingdoms and fashion their own policies, while George jogs and lifts weights? It is inconceivable for this President actually to make a foreign policy decision based on his own superior judgment, as against Cheney or Rumsfeld or Powell. This is not to say that it doesn’t happen, just that it’s impossible to conceive of it happening, given the paucity of evidence that Bush knows or cares much about the rest of the world, and his apparent lack of a Harry Truman-like seat-of-the-pants common sense.

The absence of wise and steady presidential leadership is one key to this Administration’s foreign policy chaos. A bigger problem is that the old guard doesn’t work well together, and is more often at cross purposes. This gives space and standing to the multitude of independent kingdoms. Each man thinks himself capable of running everything, that is, of being the President. And so Rumsfeld stars as the Administration spokesman on war, Powell on diplomacy and foreign relations (if there is any; who could have imagined that Powell would be such a doormat?), Cheney on foreign and domestic policy, and O’Neill on foreign economic policy (although he barely has one, and neither does the White House).

Will Bush invade Iraq? History tells us that when push comes to shove in foreign affairs, the multilateralism of the Eastern wing always wins–at least it has since 1945. In the next several months Bush will finally have to make a critical decision (safely after the November elections). I believe that decision will reveal him to be a Connecticut Yankee after all. Reality bites George W. only in the face of crisis (as happened when our spy plane crash-landed in China last year). Daddy and Scowcroft will prevail and Saddam will remain in Baghdad. Bush will execute the kind of backflip that New York Times columnist Frank Rich believes to be his trademark. The Republican right will stew, Richard Perle will ventilate and Paul Wolfowitz may immigrate back to the private sector.

But even if war is averted, the Bush doctrine is real and it is dangerous. Saddam is a bête noire from central casting; that’s more useful than a post-Saddam Iraq in ruins. The greater danger is that a restive world may present a sudden and unexpected crisis, for example with North Korea, where containment and deterrence could abruptly give way once again to pre-emption and disaster.

George Kennan, a 98-year-old major leaguer, gave a little-noticed interview to Albert Eisele on the day before Gore’s September speech. Bush’s new doctrine was “a great mistake in principle,” he said; anyone who has studied history “knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind,” but you end up fighting for things “never thought of before.” Launching a second war with Iraq “bears no relation to the first war against terrorism,” he thought, and anyway a decision for war “should really rest with Congress.” But Congressional Democrats have been “shabby and shameful,” he said, not to mention “timid,” in their reaction to Bush’s war plans. Not so Al Gore, however: Out there in California, Mr. X might as well have been his ventriloquist.

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