Bush and the World

By Michael Hirsh

Michael Hirsh, a former Foreign Editor of Newsweek, is writing a book about American foreign policy to be published by Oxford University Press in spring 2003.


In its emotional impact, September 11, 2001, may have been the most horrifying single day in American history. As bloody as some of the great battles and disasters of the past have been, the news about them tended to trickle out: most Americans read detailed accounts of Antietam or Pearl Harbor well after the event. On September 11, Americans watched on television, in real time, as the twin towers of the World Trade Center burned and their fellow citizens flung themselves to their deaths from 100 stories up. Americans all watched as the towers imploded, and they all knew that they were witnessing, in seconds, the deaths of thousands of their compatriots in the nation's front yard.

George W. Bush experienced this terrible new reality as directly and as emotionally as any American. The difference was that he could do something about it. The United States was faced with an irreconcilable enemy; the sort of black-and-white challenge that had supposedly been transcended in the post-Cold War period, when the great clash of ideologies had ended, had now reappeared with shocking suddenness. And in Bush, the man seemed to meet the moment. For someone of the president's Manichaean sense of right and wrong and powerful religious faith -- not to mention unilateralist instincts -- the Bush doctrine came naturally (indeed, a senior adviser says Bush wrote the language himself). It also seemed to express the rage and grim resolve that many Americans were feeling. Bush's message to the world, first delivered on September 20, 2001, was this: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Either you stand with civilization and good (us), or with barbarism and evil (them). Choose. And to those nations that choose wrongly, beware.

In the year since Bush first gave voice to his doctrine, it has become the animating concept of American foreign policy, transforming the entire focus of his administration. The Bush doctrine has been used to justify a new assertiveness abroad unprecedented since the early days of the Cold War -- amounting nearly to the declaration of American hegemony -- and it has redefined U.S. relationships around the world. Under the hammer of the Bush doctrine, Pakistan was forced to relinquish its long-time support of the Taliban and its tolerance of al Qaeda, and Saudi Arabia had to confront the fact that 15 of its own disaffected citizens shaped under its fundamentalist Wahhabi brand of Islam had carried out the attacks.

The Bush doctrine has also helped to reinvigorate relations with major powers such as China, Russia, and India, each of which faces its own terrorist insurgency, and all of which are now, in a happily Bismarckian way, on friendlier terms with Washington than with each other. The president has used the Bush doctrine to isolate Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an "axis of evil" -- even though almost no one else around the world views them quite that way -- and to declare America's right to preemptively attack anywhere. "My job isn't to nuance," Bush once said by way of explaining his blunt unilateralism. "My job is to say what I think. I think moral clarity is important."

The truth, however, is that a year later there is still very little clarity about the real direction of U.S. foreign policy and the war on terror. First, it is not much of a "war" to begin with. Since the last major battle at Shahikhot, Afghanistan, in March, the effort has gone underground, devolving into the quiet seizure and detention of suspects, the day-by-day interdiction of threats. Indeed, it has become impossible to tell even if "our side" is winning. Much as the Pentagon brilliantly adapted itself to Afghanistan's mountains, the United States is now taking on terror cells with its own furtive countercells made up of spooks, paramilitaries, and G-men.

More important, the concept at the heart of the conflict has scarcely evolved beyond its bare-bones formulation of a year ago. The president keeps using the Bush doctrine to justify new calls to action. But what does it mean to be "with" the United States in the war on terror? Is it a temporary alliance -- the "coalitions of the willing" the administration vaguely referred to at the start -- or does it mean something more? The enemy is clearly Osama bin Laden and his Islamist sympathizers and collaborators, as well as terror-supporting states. But who is on the American side? And why are so many of those who are included in what Bush calls "this mighty coalition of civilized nations," such as countries in Europe and Asia, still griping that they do not feel a part of any larger cause?

Some of these complaints about the American superpower are not new; indeed, the violent protests that another unilateralist president, Ronald Reagan, touched off with his visits to Europe in the 1980s were worse than those that greeted Bush on his last visit. Much of the grumbling has to do with foreign -- especially European -- resentment over the vast disparity in power between the United States and the rest of the world. But the complaints this time have some merit. While Bush talks of defending civilization, his administration seems almost uniformly to dismiss most of the civilities and practices that other nations would identify with a common civilization. Civilized people operate by consensus, whether it is a question of deciding on a restaurant or movie or on a common enemy. The yearly round of talks at institutions such as the G-7 group of major industrialized nations, NATO, or the World Trade Organization (WTO) are the social glue of global civilization. The mutual desire for security and an eagerness to benefit from the global economy supplies the motivation. Diplomacy is the common language.

But Bush, to judge by his actions, appears to believe in a kind of unilateral civilization. Nato gets short shrift, the United Nations is an afterthought, treaties are not considered binding, and the administration brazenly sponsors protectionist measures at home such as new steel tariffs and farm subsidies. Any compromise of Washington's freedom to act is treated as a hostile act. To quash the International Criminal Court (ICC), for example, the administration threatened in June to withdraw all funds for UN peacekeeping. Global warming may be occurring, as an administration report finally admitted in the spring, but the White House nonetheless trashed the Kyoto Protocol that the international community spent ten years negotiating, and it offered no alternative plan. One State Department careerist complains that the unilateralist ideologues who dominate the administration have outright contempt for Europe's consensus-based community, with little sense of the long and terrible history that brought Europe to this historic point. When NATO after September 11 invoked its Article V for the first time ever, defining the attack on the United States as an attack on all members, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dispatched his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to say this would not be necessary because "the mission would define the coalition." One senior hard-liner at a Pentagon meeting summed up the U.S. view thus: "Preserve the myth, and laugh."

The effect is that when Bush does invoke his "we're in this together" rhetoric or talks of creating a "common security framework for the great powers," it rings hollow. It suggests a towering insincerity: fine words, but no real commitment to anything enduring except American security. U.S. security, of course, must be number one on any president's agenda. And the disparity in power does justify a certain degree of unilateral leadership. In recent months, Bush has also, in small ways, begun moderating his unilateralism. Faced with European outrage, he compromised on the ICC, and for the Middle East, he created a "quartet" -- the EU, Russia, the UN, and the United States -- to oversee the creation of a Palestinian state. But if Bush plays the war leader well, as a global leader he still falls short, for Bush's stunted vision fails to recognize that U.S. security is now inextricably bound up in global security and in strengthening the international community.

September 11 and its aftermath had the paradoxical effect of demonstrating, within the space of a few months, both the unprecedented vulnerability of the United States and its unprecedented power. Its economic and military centers were more vulnerable than anyone had thought possible, and yet within several weeks Americans were displaying more power than anyone thought they possessed on one of history's toughest battlefields, Afghanistan. Even the Pentagon was surprised by the swiftness of the Taliban's defeat, which occurred despite much naysaying from British and Russians harking back to their own failures in Afghanistan.

What does it mean to possess such power and vulnerability at the same time? It means that America must make use of the full panoply of its tools of hard and soft power to secure itself. On one hand it is clear that the demonstration of U.S. might is needed, and not just to wipe out al Qaeda. The use of overwhelming force in Afghanistan helped to restore U.S. credibility after a decade of irresolution, halfhearted interventions, and flaccid responses to previous attacks. Bill Clinton's sporadic cruise-missile strikes only seemed to encourage bin Laden, who derided the United States as a paper tiger. But at the same time, the nature of the terrorist threat demonstrated the necessity of bolstering the international community, which is built on nonproliferation agreements, intelligence cooperation, and legitimizing institutions such as the un, as well as a broad consensus on democracy, free markets, and human rights. It also demonstrates the necessity of a values-driven foreign policy -- and of nation building under multilateral auspices in places such as Afghanistan.

The president himself has occasionally seemed to recognize the full challenge. As Bush said rather grandiosely in a defining speech at West Point, "We have our best chance since the rise of the nation-state in the seventeenth century to build a world where the great powers compete in peace." The problem is that on this issue his administration is almost as much at war with itself as with the terrorists. Caught in the middle of titanic fights between Secretary of State Colin Powell and his lonely band of moderate multilateralists, the Donald Rumsfeld-Dick Cheney axis of realist unilateralists, and a third group of influential neoconservatives led by Wolfowitz, the president cannot seem to decide which world view he embraces. As a result, Bush has veered between a harsh, pared-down realism, which seeks to stay out of the world (and in which nation building, much less world building, is shunned), and a strident internationalism that seeks to reorder the world "for freedom." But the overall tilt of his administration remains toward disengagement except in the use of military force. The bottom-line problem may be that the belief system that the president brought into office -- which condemned Clinton as a serial intervener and sought to withdraw from U.S. overcommitments to peacekeeping, nation building, and mediation -- is in direct conflict with the reality Bush was handed on September 11. And this outdated belief system is giving way too slowly against the incursions of the real world.

The result is ideological paralysis, followed by policy paralysis. For all of Bush's eagerness to look decisive, he has projected an image of vacillation to the world. The president is trying to lead a global fight that cries out for deep U.S. engagement from Afghanistan to Kashmir to the Middle East. But held back by the ideological hard-liners in his administration -- and perhaps by his own stubbornness -- he still barely acknowledges the global system he is ostensibly fighting for. Even after the attacks, when it became apparent that the enmities between the Israelis and the Palestinians and between the Indians and the Pakistanis would complicate the war on terror, the Bush administration had to be dragged into mediating those conflicts, heels first. Another example is the ICC controversy, in which the administration's scorched-earth refusal to cooperate made its ultimate compromise all the more humiliating.

Vacillation between engagement and withdrawal is a chronic problem in U.S. foreign policy, but under the current administration, it is especially striking. The impression it creates abroad is deeply damaging and has benefited America's Islamist enemies. U.S. allies may be annoyed with Bush's apparent insincerity, but terrorists love it. They believe their patience will be rewarded with the thing they desire most: American inattention and withdrawal. And they may be right. Consider the following cases.

In Afghanistan, after a decade of debate about whether humanitarian intervention in failed states was in the U.S. national interest, September 11 showed beyond any doubt how much harm can emanate from failed states. Bush acknowledged this fact in speeches, even indirectly criticizing his father for abandoning Afghanistan in 1989. He invoked the Marshall Plan in declaring that America will help Afghanistan to develop a stable, free government, an educational system, and a viable economy. Top officials such as Wolfowitz acknowledged that the key to making this work is money. The strategy was also straightforward: channel large amounts of this aid through the Western-friendly leader Hamid Karzai, giving Kabul power and leverage over the warlord-led provinces. But behind the scenes, the administration's ideologues acted to minimize U.S. involvement. Washington pledged a scant $296 million and fought off congressional leaders who wanted to pitch in more aid. (Bush's budget director, Mitch Daniels, told congressional leaders who wanted to allocate $150 million for educational and agricultural assistance that they would get no more than $40 million.) And the administration maintained a doctrinaire refusal to use any U.S. troops as peacekeepers. As a result, other nations were parsimonious with their troops and resources as well. Not surprisingly, as Afghans despair of long-term U.S. involvement, the nation has fallen increasingly under the control of warlords.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Bush continued his policy of "parking" the Arab-Israeli conflict even as the Palestinian intifada raged out of control. Finally, in an eloquent speech in the Rose Garden on April 4, he declared that "enough is enough" and that America was "committed" to ending the conflict. Bush demanded that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdraw "without delay" from a Palestinian incursion. After months of simply demanding an end to terrorism, Bush appeared to recognize that Palestinians needed some concrete reason to abjure violence -- and that only the United States could broker a deal. Powell proposed a peace conference. But two months later, prodded by the hard-liners, Bush lurched in another direction. In a big speech on June 24, he dropped the peace conference and demanded a new Palestinian leadership "not compromised by terror" before he would approve statehood (his three-year target date put resolution conveniently after the 2004 elections). Bush's new stance was morally satisfying: by wishing Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat out of the picture and demanding democracy, he preserved the essence of his doctrine and his conservative, avidly pro-Israel base. But this focus on Arafat effectively gave Sharon a new green light to crack down and continue obstructionist tactics such as promoting new settlements in the Palestinian territories. Islamists used the moment to propagandize again that America was in bed with Israel.

The India-Pakistan crisis is another example of vacillation. For nine months after September 11, at a time of maximum U.S. leverage in South Asia, the administration ignored the seething Kashmir issue that threatened to destabilize that critical region. Only when war threatened to erupt did Bush send Powell's deputy, Richard Armitage, to negotiate a de-escalation in June. As part of that effort, a senior administration official said, the United States was looking for a trade: in return for Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf's promise to stop infiltration across the line of control, India would open up discussions on Kashmir with the United States as facilitator. But Bush, still deeply averse to Clintonian personal mediation, resisted using his unprecedented influence with New Delhi and Islamabad to address the now nuclearized Kashmir issue. This inaction has been a gift to al Qaeda, which has trained Islamic militants to fight in Kashmir and would benefit enormously from a destabilized Pakistan.

On the whole, then, the Bush hard-liners are winning the policy battles. The diplomatically disengaged realism of Rumsfeld and Cheney seems to have the edge over the crusading neoconservatism of Wolfowitz and others, who call for enlarging the "zone of democracy." Even so, in practice most of these conservatives have become united under the banner of neoimperialism, or "hegemonism." This belief holds that the unilateral assertion of America's unrivaled hard power will be the primary means not only of winning the war on terror, but of preserving American dominance indefinitely, uncompromised for the most part by the international system or the diplomatic demands of other nations. Hailing mainly from the antidetente right wing that dates back at least to the 1970s, the Bush hegemonists feel that for too long America has been a global Gulliver strapped down by Lilliputians -- the norms and institutions of the global system. They feel vindicated in their assertion of U.S. power by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and of the Taliban a decade later, as well as by the relative ease with which they achieved a key goal, the dissolution of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Their next plan is to preemptively attack Iraq, perhaps by the end of the year.

As a result of the hegemonists' primacy, attempts by Bush moderates such as Powell to push a more all-embracing global agenda have faltered. A speech last spring by Richard Haass, head of policy planning at the State Department, called for a new, suspiciously Clintonesque "doctrine of integration" that would "integrate other countries and organizations into arrangements that will sustain a world consistent with U.S. interests and values." It sank quickly out of sight. As Armitage, another Powellite, said later at a congressional hearing, "We are not as far along in a public diplomacy strategy as we ought to be." Powell, who once envisioned himself as arbiter of the Bush foreign policy, has been relegated to cleaning up the diplomatic imbroglios that the hard-liners leave behind.

Today, Washington's main message to the world seems to be, Take dictation. But truly effective leaders do not work by diktat, even during wars. Previous presidents offered a compelling countervision that inspired the world to their cause. Faced with what seemed to be the breakdown of Western civilization in World War I, Woodrow Wilson declared his plans to build a new world of democracy and open markets in the "common interest of mankind." Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan all may have disdained Wilson's excesses of idealism, but they fought World War II and the Cold War along distinctly Wilsonian lines when confronting alternative world views. Many of the institutions that the Bush hard-liners have so little use for were conceived as part of a new vision to correct the weaknesses of Western democratic capitalism in the face of opportunistic threats like fascism and Marxism-Leninism.

Even when Bush does wax Wilsonian, he often does so in a policy vacuum, making his unilateralist moralism all the more grating on foreign ears. "The twentieth century ended with a single surviving model of human progress," Bush declared at West Point, "based on non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance." Compare this to Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech in 1941 -- an expression of hope, rather than a declaration of what was non-negotiable -- which Roosevelt swiftly incorporated into the Atlantic Charter and, later, the UN Charter.

And as the war on terror grinds on, America is missing the historic chance that Bush referred to. Ironically, what remains of al Qaeda's wounded network has made a common civilization even easier to define, because terror cells are now targeting Europeans and Asians as well as Americans. The credo that drives Islamism -- extremist Salafism -- is not just anti-American; as scholar Michael Doran has noted in these pages, it sees all of modern civilization as the "font of evil." In response, this is precisely the moment to put forward a powerful, inclusive idealism with which the world can identify -- a countervision that will dispel the lingering attractions of Islamism, especially for younger generations in places such as Iran and the Palestinian territories.

It is true that this is a different kind of war. In terms of hard power, the threat is small compared to the hegemonic challenges posed by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. But in ideological terms, the challenge that the Islamists pose is similar -- a point Bush himself made when he declared in his September 20 speech that the terrorists are "the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century." They may not have tanks and planes, but they do have a substantial support base in the mainstream Islamic world and the "superempowerment" that globalization has granted to small groups of fanatics. Pakistan, one of the United States' chief allies, is also now a chief launching pad for al Qaeda. Suicide bombing is a way of life in the Palestinian territories, where bin Laden's picture hangs prominently on many walls. Saudi and Persian Gulf oil money continues to fund Salafism, which has a nesting ground and sympathetic roosts around the world. Its message is carried daily by al Jazeera, the pan-Arab "news" station, and even in many U.S. mosques.

The hegemonists are right about one thing: hard power is necessary to break the back of radical Islamic groups and to force the Islamic world into fundamental change. Bin Laden said it well himself: "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like a strong horse." The United States must be seen as the strong horse. The reluctant U.S. interventionism of the 1990s made no headway against this implacable enemy. Clinton's policy of offering his and NATO's credibility to save Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo won Washington little goodwill in the Islamic world.

But to reverse the broader trend of anti-Americanism, Washington cannot simply bomb the enemy out of existence or root it out with its special forces. Homeland defense will improve national security only marginally (and may ultimately be more costly than beneficial to a country whose rise to power was built on its openness to all peoples, ideas, and technologies). So Islamism must also be crushed in the war of ideas. It is at this moment, when the ideologists of al Qaeda are transmitting their message of civilizational war on the Internet and marketing it in hateful ways such as the video of the execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, that those who call themselves a "civilization" must give that structure a name.

As Kennedy once said in summarizing what was at stake in the Cold War, "The real question is which system travels better." Americans believe their system puts the failed economic, political, and social alternatives of the Arab world to shame, but that point does not seem clear to many people, especially in the developing world. If the United States is in fact draining the swamp of terrorism -- which is doubtful -- it is certainly not filling it back in with something more appealing. This is especially true as the West dithers over the failures of globalization -- another Clintonian agenda left adrift by Bush administration ideologues (especially Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill) since the momentum of the 1990s free-market revolution petered out. Even if many terrorists are not directly driven by poverty, the inequities of globalization feed a general anti-Westernism that is a seedbed for Islamism.

Because the world gets only marching orders from Bush and not a common vision, it will be less inclined to follow them, especially if the United States begins to take large-scale preemptive action against states such as Iraq. Preemption may be inevitable against an enemy that cannot be deterred (and the Europeans and Russians seem increasingly willing to sanction a campaign against Iraq), but Washington will need to apply consummate diplomacy to persuade its partners that such a campaign is in their self-interest, and to get them to clean up the mess afterward, as in Afghanistan. It will also need to work hard, diplomatically, to convince others that preemption is not the overriding principle of action in the war on terror -- for what will then stop India, for example, from preemptively attacking Pakistan? The United States can only lead by example here. Even during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy worried what the reaction in the UN and the international community might be if he launched a preemptive strike on Cuba, ultimately choosing to defy his hawkish military advisers and opt for a naval quarantine instead.

But to understand where the Bush administration needs to go, it is first necessary to understand where it is coming from. If there is one reason Bush has maintained his hard-edged policies, it is that they continue to be popular with the American people. So if Bush is to change his outlook, Americans must too. And to do so, they must change their own frame of reference.

Source on page http://www.foreignaffairs.org/articles/hirsh0902.html

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