- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2006


By Robert Lieber, Cambridge, $28, 268 pages

In “The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century,” Robert Lieber provides both a scholarly assessment of the current international environment and what is in essence a justification for the essential elements of the Bush administration’s foreign policy since September 11, 2001.

The author begins with the now commonplace but nonetheless accurate assertion that September 11 requires us to “alter fundamentally the way we think about the use of force and America’s world role.” The “combination of militant Islamic terrorism and WMD poses a threat of a wholly new magnitude.”

Because of these new threats, the United States must seek global pre-eminence, since “a large disparity of power is more likely to deter would-be powers than to provoke them.” Indeed, the fundamental argument of the book is that President Bush had it right when he opted for a very proactive strategy for meeting the challenge of the new security threats to the United States.

In an understated style, the author also systematically refutes the key arguments that have been raised against the administration’s approach. Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Lieber endorses the decision to adopt an overall strategy that clearly anticipates the possible use of pre-emptive attacks in dealing with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. He argues that given the circumstances, pre-emptive attacks can be consistent with both international law and the just-war tradition.

Mr. Lieber then rebuts those “realists” who have postulated that a strong American foreign policy would inevitablybe counterproductive. He points out, for example, that leading realist international relations theorists made two predictions at the end of the Cold War. The realists confidently argued that NATO would not only dissolve, but that other nations, including those in Europe, would inevitably join together as a counterweight to the United States in the post-Cold War era. Neither has happened.

Some of these same realists have also argued that an activist international role has transformed the United States into an empire, which will result in the nation’s inevitable decline. The author responds that “American power is likely to remain robust and its costs are necessary and manageable provided we avoid disastrous miscalculations.”

Mr. Lieber rejects the view that contemporary anti-Americanism is caused primarily by the nation’s activist policies. Rather, he argues that some degree of anti-Americanism is inevitable given our international role, and “much of this animus stems from deep and complex sources and cannot be understood simply in terms of the defects or virtues of U.S. foreign policy at any given moment.” In any event, terrorism is a threat that cannot be confronted primarily by treating “root causes” but rather by the use of force and power when necessary.

The author also critiques advocates of so-called “soft power” as a principal mechanism for ensuring America’s security. Mr. Lieber asserts that multilateral institutions, especially the United Nations, “are mostly incapable of acting or inadequate to the task.” Rather, “if America does not take action on the most dangerous perils, no one else is likely to have the capacity or will to do so.”

Regarding Iraq, Mr. Lieber strongly and forthrightly differs with the growing legion of Bush critics. He states that the “resort to force… was a lesser evil because of the dangerous long-term strategic threat posed to the region and to U.S. national interests.”

Finally, Mr. Lieber argues compellingly that while there are undoubtedly problems with an activist American foreign policy, critics “tend to dwell disproportionately (on these problems) rather than on the dire consequences of retreat from an activist foreign policy.” The author concedes that there inevitably are downsides to the active exercise of American power, but he argues that the harm to the nation’s security of not being first among equals would be much greater.

Mr. Lieber generally agrees with the policies of the administration. But he seeks to distinguish between its fundamental strategy, which he supports and defends, and its implementation of that strategy, which he at times critiques. “How policy is conducted can sometimes be as important as the substance of policy,” Mr. Lieber argues. He urges, among other things, that the administration consult more with others and that the nation’s public diplomacy be strengthened.

Mr. Lieber’s book gives a comprehensive and in-depth explanation of the foundations for the strategy and actions of the administration, of interest to its supporters. At the same time, the book will compel critics to consider the best arguments that can be made for the administration’s international policies.

W. Bruce Weinrod is a Washington attorney. He was deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.



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