Center for American Progress

America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy
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America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy

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As the cold war ground on and America’s allies became less willing to follow Washington’s lead, it became harder to paper over the differences between those who emphasized cooperation and those who stressed the free exercise of power. While the former saw new possibilities for building multilateral organizations, the latter decried the ineffectiveness of many international organizations and despaired at the constraints they placed on America’s freedom to act. These differences flared into the open in the 1990s with the demise of the Soviet Union. Suddenly those who emphasized international institutions and law lost the trump card they had long held over those who favored the unilateral exercise of American power — the prospect that going it alone might produce costs that were unbearably high.

The foreign-policy debates of the 1990s were at first mistakenly seen as a replay of the debates between isolationists and internationalists of the 1930s. True, some voices called for America to return home, but this was a distinctly minority view. Most Americans had little interest in disengaging from the world. They quite liked American predominance and saw it as costing them little. As a result, politicians such as Patrick Buchanan, who thought they could ride an isolationist tide to power, instead sank without leaving a ripple.

The real debate in the 1990s was not over whether, but how the United States should engage the world. Bill Clinton’s presidency in most ways represented a continuation of the traditional Wilsonian approach of building a world order based on the rule of law. Clinton and his advisers argued that globalization was increasing economic, political, and social ties among nations and that this growing interconnectedness made fulfillment of Wilson’s vision all the more important. In keeping with this thinking, the Clinton administration pursued traditional arms control agreements such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a strengthening of the Biological Weapons Convention. It also sought to create new international arrangements such as the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court to deal with a new set of policy challenges.

Clinton’s opponents criticized his decisions on numerous grounds, but one in particular stood out: He had failed to recognize that, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States now had the freedom to act as it saw fit. In their view, Clinton not only failed to assert American primacy; he also ensnared the country in multilateral frameworks that did not even serve broader international interests. As the columnist Charles Krauthammer put it, “An unprecedentedly dominant United States . . . is in the unique position of being able to fashion its own foreign policy. After a decade of Prometheus playing pygmy, the first task of the new [Bush] administration is precisely to reassert American freedom of action.” America, in short, could and should be unbound.

George W. Bush delivered the revolution that Krauthammer urged. It was not a revolution that started, as many later have suggested, on September 11, 2001. The worldview that drove it existed long before jet planes plowed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Bush outlined its main ideas while he was on the campaign trail, and he began implementing parts of it as soon as he took the oath of office. What September 11 provided was the rationale and the opportunity to carry out his revolution.

But what precisely was the Bush revolution in foreign policy? At its broadest level, it rested on two beliefs. The first was that in a dangerous world the best—if not the only—way to ensure America’s security was to shed the constraints imposed by friends, allies, and international institutions. Maximizing America’s freedom to act was essential because the unique position of the United States made it the most likely target for any country or group hostile to the West. Americans could not count on others to protect them; countries inevitably ignored threats that did not involve them. Moreover, formal arrangements would inevitably constrain the ability of the United States to make the most of its primacy. Gulliver must shed the constraints that he helped the Lilliputians weave.

The second belief was that an America unbound should use its strength to change the status quo in the world. Bush’s foreign policy did not propose that the United States keep its powder dry while it waited for dangers to gather. The Bush philosophy instead turned John Quincy Adams on his head and argued that the United States should aggressively go abroad searching for monsters to destroy. That was the logic behind the Iraq War, and it animated the administration’s efforts to deal with other rogue states.

These fundamental beliefs had important consequences for the practice of American foreign policy. One was a decided preference for unilateral action. Unilateralism was appealing because it was often easier and more efficient, at least in the short term, than multilateralism. Contrast the Kosovo war, where Bush and his advisers believed that the task of coordinating the views of all NATO members greatly complicated the war effort, with the Afghanistan war, where Pentagon planners did not have to subject any of their decisions to foreign approval. This is not to say that Bush flatly ruled out working with others. Rather, his preferred form of multilateralism—to be indulged when unilateral action was impossible or unwise—involved building ad hoc coalitions of the willing, or what Richard Haass, an adviser to Colin Powell, called “a la carte multilateralism.”

Second, preemption was no longer a last resort of American foreign policy. In a world in which weapons of mass destruction were spreading and terrorists and rogue states were readying to attack in unconventional ways, Bush argued that “the United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past. . . .We cannot let our enemies strike first.”21 Indeed, the United States should be prepared to act not just preemptively against imminent threats, but also preventively against potential threats. Vice President Dick Cheney was emphatic on this point in justifying the overthrow of Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Iraq War. “There’s no question about who is going to prevail if there is military action. And there’s no question but what it is going to be cheaper and less costly to do now than it will be to wait a year or two years or three years until he’s developed even more deadly weapons, perhaps nuclear weapons.”

Third, the United States should use its unprecedented power to produce regime change in rogue states. The idea of regime change was not new to American foreign policy. The Eisenhower administration engineered the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh; the CIA trained Cuban exiles in a botched bid to oust Fidel Castro; Ronald Reagan channeled aid to the Nicaraguan contras to overthrow the Sandinistas; and Bill Clinton helped Serb opposition forces get rid of Slobodan Milosevic= What was different in the Bush presidency was the willingness, even in the absence of a direct attack on the United States, to use U.S. military forces for the express purpose of toppling other governments. This was the gist of both the Afghanistan and the Iraq wars. Unlike proponents of rollback, who never succeeded in overcoming the argument that their policies would produce World War III, Bush based his policy on the belief that nobody could push back.

George W. Bush presided over a revolution in foreign policy, but was he responsible for it? Commentators across the political spectrum said no. They gave the credit (or blame) to neoconservatives within the administration, led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who they said were determined to use America’s great power to transform despotic regimes into liberal democracies. One critic alleged that Bush was “the callow instrument of neoconservative ideologues.” Another saw a “neoconservative coup” in Washington and wondered if “George W fully understands the grand strategy that Wolfowitz and other aides are unfolding.” Pundits weren’t the only ones to argue that the Bush revolution represented a neoconservative triumph. “Right now, the neoconservatives in this administration are winning,” Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in July 2003. “They seem to have captured the heart and mind of the President, and they’re controlling the foreign policy agenda.”

This conventional wisdom was wrong on at least two counts. First, it fundamentally misunderstood the intellectual currents within the Bush administration and the Republican Party more generally. Neoconservatives — who might be better called democratic imperialists — were more prominent outside the administration, particularly on the pages of Commentary and the Weekly Standard and in the television studios of Fox News, than they were inside it. The bulk of Bush’s advisers, including most notably Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, were not neocons. Nor for that matter was Bush. They were instead assertive nationalists — traditional hard-line conservatives willing to use American military power to defeat threats to U.S. security but reluctant as a general rule to use American primacy to remake the world in its image.

Although neoconservatives and assertive nationalists differed on whether the United States should actively spread its values abroad, they shared a deep skepticism of traditional Wilsonianism’s commitment to the rule of law and its belief in the relevance of international institutions. They placed their faith not in diplomacy and treaties, but in power and resolve. Agreement on this key point allowed neoconservatives and assertive nationalists to form a marriage of convenience in overthrowing the cold-war approach to foreign policy even as they disagreed about what kind of commitment the United States should make to rebuilding Iraq and remaking the rest of the world.

The second and more important flaw of the neoconservative coup theory was that it grossly underestimated George W. Bush. The man from Midland was not a figurehead in someone else’s revolution. He may have entered the Oval Office not knowing which general ran Pakistan, but during his first thirty months in office he was the puppeteer, not the puppet. He governed as he said he would on the campaign trail. He actively solicited the counsel of his seasoned advisers, and he tolerated if not encouraged vigorous disagreement among them. When necessary, he overruled them. George W. Bush led his own revolution.

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Copyright 2003 Brookings Institution Press. Reprinted with permission of The Brookings Institution.