- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

Andrew J. Bacevich
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 312 pages

"American Empire" actually is two books in one volume. In the first, Andrew Bacevich provides an overview of the foreign and national security policies of the administrations of the first President Bush and of President Clinton. In the second, the author attempts to offer a conceptual framework for understanding U.S. foreign and defense policy not only during this period but throughout American history.
The narrative of 1990s foreign policy is solid and useful. Mr. Bacevich provides a detailed survey of the major foreign policy and defense initiatives and challenges of the period. But he seeks to be not only a narrator but an interpreter, and in this latter role he falls short.
A central thesis, which the author reinforces with extended references to the thoughts of Charles A. Beard and William Appleman Williams, is that underlying similarities between the Bush and Clinton administrations were much greater than any apparent differences; and that both reflected at their most fundamental level broad continuities with other 20th-century presidents.
Thus, U.S. leaders have "adhered to a well-defined grand strategy" whose essence is to "preserve and … where feasible … expand an American imperium," with the ultimate objective of establishing an international order "based on the principles of democratic capitalism, with the U.S. as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms."
In one sense, this assertion is unexceptional. It is undoubtedly true that over the decades there has been bipartisan agreement on ideal U.S. international objectives, including the desirability of an international system that safeguards American interests and encourages democracy and market economies.
That said, there have been very important differences as well, and the author's contention that these differences are minor and irrelevant to an understanding of U.S. foreign policy cannot be sustained. A brief look at several recent administrations is sufficient to contradict Mr. Bacevich's assertion.
As a starting point, Ronald Reagan's policies dealing with the Soviet Union reflected important fundamental differences with those of President Carter. Mr. Carter's thinking was highlighted by his denunciation of an "inordinate fear of communism," by which he really meant those who wanted to pursue a tough-minded approach toward Moscow.
Mr. Reagan, however, pursued precisely such an approach. He substantially increased U.S. defense capabilities, launched the Strategic Defense Initiative and tightened strategic trade restrictions on Moscow; all actions it is inconceivable that Mr. Carter would have supported. These policies, as affirmed by a number of former senior Soviet officials, were instrumental in undermining the Soviet system.
Also, to the dismay of almost the entire foreign policy establishment, Mr. Reagan accurately described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." None other than Natan Scharansky, then a prisoner in a Soviet jail, has said that this pronouncement was a crucial turning point in the unraveling of the Soviet Union. Parenthetically, it is revealing that Mr. Bacevich himself employs the phrase "viscerally anticommunist," a term used by those dismissive of Mr. Reagan's approach, when referring to the Reagan foreign policy team.
Mr. Bacevich also fails to understand the idealism that motivated Mr. Reagan. The author writes "… before 1989 U.S foreign policy appeared in the main realistic, with the stated objectives of diplomacy quite limited" and "primarily defensive." President Reagan, however, was truly idealistic, albeit using pragmatic means to achieve ideal objectives. A principal example was his initiative to establish the National Endowment for Democracy whose avowed purpose is to seek the institutionalization of democracy in any and all non-democratic societies globally.
Further, Mr. Reagan's speech to the British parliament where he predicted that Soviet communism would end up on "the ash heap of history" can in no way be considered as defensive thinking. The approaches of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton also differed in important ways. Mr. Bush sent troops to Somalia for a very specific and limited humanitarian mission. Mr. Clinton, on the other hand, sought to implement a much broader mission in which the U.S. military was to be used for "nation-building" purposes in Somalia, a nation that at that time was of no strategic concern to the United States.
With respect to Mr. Clinton and George W. Bush, the differences between key policies are striking, and fundamentally contradict the author's assertion that on foreign policy Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton "thought alike." For example, would Mr. Clinton have: abandoned the ABM Treaty and energetically supported the deployment of a missile defense system; rejected the International Criminal Court; refused to meet with Yassir Arafat; pursued a fundamental transformation of the U.S. military? Obviously not.
Perhaps most compellingly, George W. Bush's policy on Iraq today is fundamentally different from Mr. Clinton's "kick the can down the road" approach. Unfortunately for the author, his manuscript was submitted before Mr. Bush's recent very forceful approach to Iraq emerged publicly, which allowed Mr. Bacevich to argue that the Bush policy on Iraq is essentially the same as that of Mr. Clinton. The problem for Mr. Bacevich is that subsequent developments undercut his book's key thesis that there really are no meaningful foreign policy differences between U.S. administrations.
In any event, what is missing from this book is a clear sense of the author's own views on the current U.S. international role. Reading between the lines, it can be inferred that Mr. Bacevich is uncomfortable with the objectives and extent of U.S. international commitments and activities. It is not a view with which this writer agrees, but it deserves thoughtful articulation, and perhaps this could provide the author's next topic.

W. Bruce Weinrod is a Washington, D.C. attorney. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO Policy in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. He is the co-editor of "U.S. International Leadership in the Twenty-First Century" (Potomac Foundation).

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide