- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004


by Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay

Brookings Institution Press, $22.95, 238 pages

Mix the Brookings Institution with two authors who served on William Jefferson Clinton’s National Security Council staff and what does one get? Conservatives might say a liberal mare’s nest of cliches about George Bush the younger’s handling of foreign policy.

That thought alone might set some on the right wondering if Richard Nixon wasn’t correct after all about firebombing Brookings. But the preemptive critics would be wrong.

In fact, “America Unbound” is, for the most part, a sober reflection on the last three years of American foreign policy. It is not a diatribe, and it doesn’t always agree with the European standard model of post-2000 American foreign policy as rude, triumphalist unilateralism.

Instead, the book’s central thesis is that George W. Bush all along intended to remake U.S. foreign policy in an era when threats are multiple, rather than singular; when the unexpected is to be expected. In short, September 11 is the new paradigm, to use an overused word.

What does that translate into? Two overriding elements: a preference for the unilateral (or near unilateral) use of force in a dangerous world that allows little time to consult with friends and allies, and a reliance on preemption — hitting them hard before they hit you. No more sucker punches like September 11.

Iraq, of course, was the test case. In fact, it was almost too good. It featured the perfect blend of Wilsonian and Jacksonian elements that suffuse nearly all of American foreign policy since the founding of the republic.

Those elements are idealism (let’s get rid of a loathsome tyrant) and realism (Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction are dangers to be extirpated). Add one more element — the war on terrorism — and it is no wonder that Mesopotamia would be the site of the Anglo-American military expedition of ‘03.

But whether the venture will mean a democratic Iraq or greater stability in the Middle East remains very much an open question as the authors rightly suggest.

For Washington insiders (wannabes and otherwise) there is plenty of information on how the Bush foreign policy team works. In this the authors are especially good, sparing the reader the egregious mistakes most journalists make when trying to recreate what happens in the West Wing of the White House.

And they also show how the Bush 43 operating style differs from those of other presidencies, including that of George H.W. Bush. For instance, the book shows how much Vice President Dick Cheney has become a key player in national security policy, unlike any of his predecessors. We are a long way, for better or for worse, from Harry Truman’s fifth-wheel vice presidency.

But the authors simply don’t buy the stereotype of George W. Bush as a Texas gun-slinging know-nothing who lets others make the policy while he reigns and someone else rules. They argue convincingly that he makes decisions typically in Trumanesque fashion — quickly(perhaps too quickly) and decisively.

In the end, no matter what happens in Iraq or to the economy it will probably earn him another term in office even without the help of Democrats like Howard Dean.

And that is despite the well-documented mistakes and miscalculations of the Bush administration after September 11. The authors argue that even the relatively successful Afghan operation lacked focus. So far it has not succeeded in capturing Osama Bin Laden, who ordered the death of more American non-combatants than any tyrant or madman in our history.

But the half-success in Afghanistan only foreshadowed the problems with Iraq, where the operation in its entirety was never thought out. With its military success and the capture of Saddam, the Iraqi venture still has an election-year gloss, but the question remains of the country’s future viability.

And as for those weapons of mass destruction, surely the authors draw the right lesson. For the preemption doctrine to work, the United States needs reliable intelligence — something that was obviously lacking regarding the missing Iraqi WMD.

The United States can hardly go in pursuit of doing good, Don Quixote-like, when it cannot distinguish giants from windmills. Even great powers are not immune from the best intentions gone awry. That, of course, raises the final question — will the Bush revolution survive its author?

Roger Fontaine was a member of the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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