Thursday, August 21, 2008

George W. Bush and World Politics

Robert Kagan, at the new Foreign Affairs, makes the case that President George W. Bush came to office with a realist perspective on international affairs.

This approach hardly endeared the administration to the nations of the world.

The U.S. in the late-1990s was frequently rebuked for pursuing a narrow national interest on issues ranging from global warming to the International Criminal Court to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. American preponderance was ridiculed in 1998 by French Foreign Hubert VĂ©drine as unreconciled "hyperpower." Leaders across the capitals of Europe called for promoting an "international community" concerned with "the common interests of humanity." America's focus on self-interest power maximization was out of step with international demands for a more cooperative internationalism.

Thus, the accession of President Bush to the White House was seen around the world as a continuation of the 1990s pattern of self-centered power management in in international politics:

Even before he took office, cartoonists were drawing him as a Texas cowboy with six-shooters and a noose. The French politician Jack Lang called him a "serial assassin." The Guardian's Martin Kettle wrote, on January 7, 2001, in The Washington Post, that "the mounting global impatience" with the United States predated Bush but that his election was the "best recruiting sergeant that the new anti-Americanism could have hoped for."
Kagan's historical refresher on the Bush transition in global poltics will likely cause fits of cognitive dissonance for those hostile to this adminstration's foreign policy. For one thing, he makes the case that the war on terror has been an astounding success:

Judged on its own terms, the war on terror has been by far Bush's greatest success. No serious observer imagined after September 11 that seven years would go by without a single additional terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Only naked partisanship and a justifiable fear of tempting fate have prevented the Bush administration from getting or taking credit for what most would have regarded seven years ago as a near miracle. Much of the Bush administration's success, moreover, has been due to extensive international cooperation, especially with the European powers in the areas of intelligence sharing, law enforcement, and homeland security. Whatever else the Bush administration has failed to do, it has not failed to protect Americans from another attack on the homeland. The next administration will be fortunate to be able to say the same -- and will be contrasted quite unfavorably with the Bush administration if it cannot.
But what may be particulary touchy for the antiwar forces is Kagan's dicussion of the link between September 11, bipartisanship, and American regime change in Iraq:

The invasion was partly related to the war on terror. The Clinton administration had also worried about Saddam's terrorist ties and had used those suspected links to justify its own military action against Iraq in 1998. Clinton himself warned that if the United States did not take action against Saddam, the world would "see more and more of the very kind of threat Iraq poses now -- a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists, drug traffickers, or organized criminals who travel the world among us unnoticed." After September 11, a dramatically lowered tolerance for threats helps explain why realists such as Cheney, who had earlier believed Saddam could be safely deterred and contained, suddenly felt differently. The same logic drove Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and many other Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress to authorize the use of force in October 2002, producing the lopsided Senate vote of 77-23. It was why outspoken opposition to the war was so rare. The Time columnist Joe Klein reflected the mood in an interview on the eve of the war: "Sooner or later, this guy has to be taken out. . . . The message has to be sent because if it isn't sent now . . . it empowers every would-be Saddam out there and every would-be terrorist out there."

The principal rationales for invading Iraq predated the war on terror, however, and also predated Bush's realism. They were consistent with the broader view of U.S. interests that had prevailed in the Clinton years and during the Cold War. Iraq in the 1990s had been seen by many not as a direct threat to the United States but as a problem of world order for which the United States had a special responsibility. As then National Security Adviser Sandy Berger had argued in 1998, "The future of Iraq will affect the way in which the Middle East and the Arab world in particular evolve in the next decade and beyond." That was why people such as Richard Armitage, Francis Fukuyama, and Robert Zoellick could sign a letter in 1998 calling for Saddam's forcible removal. That was why, as The New York Times' Bill Keller (now the paper's executive editor) wrote at the time, liberals in what he called "The I-Can't-Believe-I'm-a-Hawk Club" supported the war, including "op-ed regulars at [The New York Times] and The Washington Post, the editors of The New Yorker, The New Republic and Slate, columnists in Time and Newsweek," as well as many former Clinton officials.

Those liberals and progressives who favored war against Iraq did so for much the same reason they had favored war in the Balkans: as necessary to help preserve the liberal international order. They preferred to see the United States get UN backing for the war, but they also knew this had been impossible in the case of Kosovo. Their chief worry was that the Bush administration, after toppling Saddam, would take a narrow realist approach in dealing with the aftermath. As Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.) put it, "Some of these guys don't go for nation-building." A former Clinton official, Ronald Asmus, asked, "Is this about American power, or is it about democracy?" If it was about democracy, he believed, the United States would "have a broader base of support at home and more friends abroad."

This broad consensus among American conservatives, liberals, progressives, and neoconservatives, however, was not replicated in the rest of the world. For Europeans, there was a big difference between Kosovo and Iraq. It was not about legality or the UN. It was about location. Europeans were ready to go to war without UN authorization in a matter that concerned them, their security, their history, and their morality. Iraq was another story. To American liberals such as the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, "Europe's cynicism and insecurity, masquerading as moral superiority," was "insufferable."
Kagan concludes the essay making the case for America adopting a more "enlightened" view of U.S. interests in the world, interests of a more normative, liberal internationalist tone. He also reminds us, however, of the importance of values, and that America's vision of democracy and liberty remain the touchstone of expansive global freedom.

This too may strike readers as neoconservative ideological hubris, although the facts indicate that Americ's self-image as a beacon of liberty also predates the years of George W. Bush.

See also, "The Bush Legacy Begins."