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Book Reviews

America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy

by Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay
The Brookings Institution Press, 2003, 246 pages

Reviewed by Benjamin Zyla

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Book coverThe Iraqi war rekindled an old debate about whether the United States, in dealing with global security threats, should act unilaterally or multilaterally in concert with its allies. The intensity of the debate about the war can be measured in the number of scholarly articles and editorials published in the media and most recently in academic journals. The focal point of almost every article was the President of the United States, George W. Bush. He became the personification of American foreign policy. The American people and the international community opposing the war wanted to know how decisions were made, who made them, and what went wrong. Was the President a puppet of the neo-conservatives? Did the new Bush doctrine of pre-emption enhance American security, prosperity and liberty?

In their new book America Unbound, Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay provide a comprehensive analysis of Bush’s foreign policy record in the first thirty months of his presidency. They heavily rely on articles, reports, interviews, and statements that appeared in major American newspapers.

The first part of the book is somewhat unexciting because, for the most part, it repeats information that the informed reader already knows. It provides background information about the key actors in the Bush administration – the so-called Vulcans: Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and others – and their intellectual roots, and discusses Bush’s leadership and his world view. An early section of the book focuses on Bush’s apparent ignorance of foreign policy and international security issues prior to his being elected. Nevertheless, during his run for presidency, Bush made clear that “American foreign policy cannot be founded on fear”. His world view was deeply rooted in the realist take on international affairs that shares the following assumptions: (1) The United States would only get involved in international affairs if its vital national interests are threatened; (2) The United States lives in a dangerous world; (3) Nation states are the key actors in international relations; (4) Military power and will are important to defend vital national interests: “If America leads, others will follow; and, (5) Multilateral agreements are neither important nor necessary. Overall, Bush wanted his foreign policy to be ABC – Anything But Clinton.

We are told that domestic politics, such as tax cuts and educational reforms, dominated the agenda of the White House during the first months of Bush’s presidency, and not foreign policy or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

September 11th changed that picture. All of a sudden, Bush’s agenda was dominated by foreign policy crises, one after another, reaffirming his view that the world was a dangerous place. In the ensuing months, the war on terrorism became the defining mission of his presidency. Among the administration’s responses was a new national security doctrine that advocated pre-emptive strikes against states that pose a threat to America’s national security. Terrorists should be engaged and defeated, the doctrine said, outside American territory. Daalder and Lindsay see “the willingness to strike before rather than just in response to an attack” as a revolution in American foreign policy: deterrence and containment were now outdated concepts from the Cold War. We find here one of the book’s weaknesses – its failure to explain the deep historical roots of this unilateralist policy. We know, for example, from Walter McDougall’s book, Promised land, crusader state: the American encounter with the world since 1776, that American unilateralism goes back to the 19th century and the Hamiltonian tradition of US foreign policy. However, as the Hamiltonians learned quickly, the United States was highly dependent on trade relations with Europe, even though Washington wanted to abstain from European wars and stay neutral. What was new about Bush was the explicitness of this pre-emption approach and the tendency towards preventive strikes.

Because Americans demanded quick action by their government, the war on terrorism was begun without the administration being properly prepared for it. The US military had no contingency plan in place for going after Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, so plans for Special Forces operations and the participation of coalition partners had to be hastily drawn up by the Pentagon. In fact, little capability was available to the US military the day the bombing started. It also “lacked clarity of purpose”, Daalder and Lindsay postulate. Moreover, the political leadership argued over when and where to strike against the Taliban.

Perhaps even worse, the Bush administration had no plan as to how to reconstruct Afghanistan after the war because of its “ideological distaste for nation-building”. It is not surprising, therefore, that Daalder and Lindsay argue that the US military failed to produce effective stability and security in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and that this failure reveals the state-centric approach of the Bush doctrine, i.e., assuming that terrorists rely on nation states to plan, finance, and harbour their activities.

Daalder and Lindsay avoid the heated controversy of where and when the war in Iraq was planned, but they do examine the administration’s internal deliberations before bombs fell on Baghdad. Powell, the former General, favoured a regime change in Iraq without war, rather than an invasion which was advocated by the hardliners Cheney and Wolfowitz who thought that war would be necessary to effect a regime change. The authors also discuss Powell’s attempt to convince the President of the need to involve the United Nations, an internal struggle that Powell won, and which led ultimately to Security Council Resolution 1441.

Daalder and Lindsay suggest that, once the war in Iraq was underway, the Bush administration began to repeat many of the same mistakes it had made in Afghanistan. In particular, it grossly underestimated the enormous effort that would be required for post-conflict nation building: “With America’s extensive experience with peacekeeping operations in the 1990s, that was a lesson that should have been learned before rather than after the Iraq War”. The authors contend that the Pentagon made three wrong assumptions about post-war reconstruction: (1) that the first need of Iraqi people would be humanitarian assistance; (2) that they would have to deal with large numbers of refugees; and, (3) that they would have to prevent an ecological disaster created by burning oil wells. Instead, what Iraq needed most was security on the streets and a functioning government. Then there was the critical matter of faulty intelligence about Iraq’s suspected cache of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which were never found. This highlights one of the major weaknesses of Bush’s pre-emptive doctrine: good intelligence is of vital importance in a military campaign, and application of the doctrine “stands or falls on accurate intelligence”.

In the final chapter, Daalder and Lindsay provide an overall assessment of the Bush foreign policy record: “Were Americans better off with or without the Bush revolution”? They argue that President Bush overestimated what America’s unilateral exercise of power could achieve. Not surprisingly – the authors being former employees of Clinton’s National Security Team – they clearly favour multilateral approaches for solving international problems: global problems cannot be solved without international support.

Among their conclusions is that during the first two years of the Bush administration, American people and others around the world “lost trust in the United States, doubting that it had much interest in them or their problems.” Indeed, Bush seemed to care little about America’s image in the world. Daalder and Lindsay note that “the Iraq experience underscored that how America led mattered as much as whether it led.” The war in Iraq showed that if the United States leads unilaterally only a few will follow, and the lesson is that if America’s friends could not constrain the US administration they could stop supporting the Americans when support was needed most. The authors state: “Indeed, the more others questioned America’s power, purpose, and priorities, the less influence America would have.” They add: “In that respect, an unbound America would be a less secure America.” Bush’s foreign policy is built on military power, and not on the greater power that comes with strong alliances.

This book places Bush’s foreign policy in its historical context of similarities and differences with the policies of previous presidents. It clearly shows the dilemma of any American president: the world wants to be led by the US, but responsibilities are attached to that leadership.

America Unbound also points to new paths for research into American foreign policy. In a few years, when more governmental documents are declassified, we will better understand how far Bush revolutionized US foreign policy. Thus far it can be said that the Bush approach was indeed a marked change from that of Clinton, but that it drew on older traditions in US foreign and defence policy. It remains to be seen whether this approach will be sustained.

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Benjamin Zyla is a PhD Candidate in the War Studies Program at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston.