“The person in charge is me.” So said George W. Bush in response to a growing chorus claiming the president was not in control of his own administration — at least as far as national security is concerned. To many, Bush is the “boy king,” as Maureen Dowd memorably put, with real power residing in hands of Cheney, the Duke of Halliburton, and Cardinal Rumsfeld.
The image of Bush as a rudderless ship held barely afloat in the swollen seas created by the hurricane-strength feuding among his foreign policy advisers is evocative. But it is profoundly wrong. Bush, in fact, is very much in charge of his own administration, on the domestic as well as the foreign policy front. His decision to surround himself with “very strong, smart people” who often disagree was a deliberate one. “I know that disagreement will be based upon solid thought,” Bush said about his team before taking office. “And what you need to know is that if there is disagreement, I’ll be prepared to make the decision necessary for the good of the country.”
Bush has modeled his presidency on the corporate model. He is the CEO and his advisers are the people with the knowledge and competence to make the ship of state run on course. They will know the details of policies and they will implement the decisions. But there is no doubt about who makes the decisions.
The foreign policies of this administration are very much Bush’s own. They are not the product of some compromise among competing interests or views nor do they represent the much-heralded triumph of neo-conservatives. Instead, they derive from Bush’s clear vision of how the world works and his steadfast convictions about the manner in which America should operate in that world.
Bush, in fact, has led a revolution in American foreign policy. It is a revolution not in the ends that he seeks to achieve, but in the means by which he seeks to achieve those ends.
This revolution rests on the strongly held belief that in a dangerous world the best — if not the only — way to ensure America’s security is to shed the constraints imposed by friends, allies, and international institutions. An America unbound is essential, Bush believes, because the United States is a tempting target for any country or group hostile to the West. Americans cannot count on others to protect them; countries inevitably ignore threats that did not involve them. Moreover, formal arrangements inevitably impede Washington’s ability to make the most of its unrivaled power.
In practical terms, Bush’s revolution has led to three fundamental changes in the way America engages the world.
First, Bush has demonstrated both great disdain for the sorts of formal multilateral arrangements developed by presidents from Truman through Clinton and a decided preference for the unilateral exercise of American power. This is not to say that Bush flatly opposes working with others. Rather, as his policy toward Afghanistan, Iraq, and now North Korea demonstrate, his preferred form of multilateralism—to be indulged when unilateral action is impossible or unwise—involves building ad hoc coalitions of the willing.
Second, Bush has elevated preemption from a tool of last resort into a guiding doctrine of American foreign policy. In a world where terrorists and rogue states can lay their hands on weapons of mass destruction, Bush has said, “we cannot let our enemies strike first.” Indeed, Washington should be prepared to preempt not just imminent threats but to prevent even potential threats from materializing.
Finally, Bush maintains that America should use its unprecedented power to change the regimes in rogue states. The idea of regime change is not new to American foreign policy. Just think Mohammed Mossadegh, Fidel Castro, or the Nicaraguan contras. What is different is the willingness, even in the absence of a direct attack, to use American military power to topple other governments.
The Bush revolution in foreign policy has a lot to commend itself. Behind it stands great clarity about the threats we face in a dangerous world — the need, as Bush put it, to prevent the worst weapons falling in the hands of the worst people. Bush has also demonstrated great effectiveness in the pursuit of his revolution, showing how the confident exercise of America’s power can produce decisive results.
Ultimately, though, the Bush revolution is bound to fail, because its core premise — that America’s security rested on an America unbound — is deeply mistaken. For all the talk of the United States as a hyperpower, the world at the start of the twenty-first century is beyond the ability of any one country to control. Many of the most important challenges America faces overseas — from defeating terrorism to promoting economic prosperity and halting the spread of killer diseases — can be tackled successfully only with the active cooperation of others.
The Iraq example demonstrates that American power is not enough to ensure such cooperation. Rather than follow the American lead as Bush and his advisers predicted other countries would inevitably do, the rest of the world has largely chosen to abstain. In contrast to other peace operations in the past decade, where the American troop and financial contribution represented a small percentage of the overall effort, the vast majority of the troops deployed, casualties suffered, and dollars expended in Iraq are American.
For more than sixty years, American presidents, whether Republican or Democrat, relied on international institutions and cooperation as a crucial means to exert authority. They bound everyone else into a U.S.-run world order. Bush has preferred to rely on American power alone rather than from the greater power that comes with working with friends and allies. American military power proved extraordinarily effective in defeating the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but far less effective in building a lasting basis for peace and prosperity in Afghanistan and Iraq. The lesson is clear. Far from demonstrating the triumph of unilateral American power, Bush’s wars have demonstrated the importance of basing American foreign policy on a blend of power and cooperation.
Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, respectively a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and Vice President and Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, are co-authors of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy published this week by the Brookings Institution press.