Monday, October 04, 2004

Bush Foreign Policy In Perspective

There is an interesting Think Again feature on Foreign Policy Magazine's web site (which I think has been there a while) by UVA professor Melvyn Leffler on Bush's foreign policy. Much of it strikes me as wrong-headed, but this article, as well as an interview I found with Leffler with the Council On Foreign Relations provide some insight in recasting the issue with a focus on the Cold War. I'll take up a few points from the Think Again.

Leffler argues that Bush's policy is not revolutionary, but rather a continuation of the policies of presidents Jefferson, Wilson, (Franklin) Roosevelt, and Kennedy. I find little value in the comparison to Jefferson (how is reviving 200 year old imperialist policies not radical?), and on the others, even if some objectives remain the same, the shift in context is such that Bush's implementation remains new and adventurous. Certainly the US's Cold War policies, particularly early on, sought an America with a global influence and presence to push back against the communist threat. However, the differences between JFK's vision and the neo-con plan are as striking as the similarities. Kennedy stated in as many words that what he pursued was "not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war". While the neo-cons hope to achieve the same spread of American ideals that Kennedy did, in their realpolitik version American military force provides the impetus for the spread of American values. Wilson championed the League of Nations, Roosevelt the UN. To assert this trio of presidents as role-models for Bush's unilateralism seems to miss the mark.

Next Leffler cites Andrew Jackson's invasion of Florida and Teddy Roosevelt's incursions and the Monroe doctrine as examples of preemptive war doctrine. They smack more of imperialism and power politics to me. Spanish Florida, Cuba, and the other Latin American nations posed no true threat to the security of the US (in this perhaps they were a good precedent for Bush). Leffler also raises FDR's World War II policies as an example of preemptive actions. This seems absurd given that WWII is consistently the top example employed to illustrate the danger of not acting preemptively. Finally, as before, Leffler mentions US actions during the Cold War, which I think do serve his purpose. The US initiated many interventions in order to slow or halt the spread of communism, which was certainly considered a threat to the security of the nation.

Leffler refers to charges that Bush's policies are a departure from Clinton's as "lovely nostalgia". For this he cites statements by Clinton that he would take unilateral action if necessary. That is a far cry from choosing unilateral actions when the threat is not clear and other options exist. Clinton's measured foreign policy demonstrates that he considered such actions to be the option of last resort. Clinton generally upheld the policies established by Bush I of wielding the US's new found power through the mechanisms of multilateral authority. That Clinton would have employed unilateral military force if necessary does not change the fact that the broad sweep of his policy clashes with the policy implemented by Bush.

Relying on campaign statements by Condi Rice and statements of pre-war hype by Don Rumsfeld, Leffler concludes that Bush's foreign policy was transformed by 9/11. I would argue that the principles of the policy were only mildly affected, and rather it was the change in the domestic political atmosphere which gave rise to Bush's aggressive post-9/11 action. Bush had clearly established a belligerent unilateral foreign policy prior to 9/11 through rejecting Kyoto, the ICC, the ABM treaty, and various other multilateral initiatives. Moreover various administration insiders have disclosed that Bush was maneuvering towards military action against Iraq even prior to 9/11. Most of the prominent features of the post-9/11 foreign policy had already been established before the attack.

Where Leffler is most interesting is in his comparisons with Reagan and Cold War policy. At the end of the Think Again article, Leffler finds that Bush attempts to emulate Reagan's exercise of "moral clarity and military power". As mentioned he also draws parallels in Bush's preemptive strategies and unilateralism to Cold War policies. It's also notable that most of the neo-con group were prominent Cold War hawks. Even Condi Rice was formerly a Soviet Union specialist. Bush's policies can aptly be viewed as the right-wing Reaganesque Cold War policies updated for a world without an Evil Empire. All of the key elements are present: the grand idealistic moralism juxtaposed with realpolitik callousness, the focus on military might, the domestic promotion of nationalism. It is a good framework from which to view the Bush foreign policy. That these tactics seem poorly suited for the new context I'll leave for another essay...

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