Posted: July 22, 2004
ontrary to conservative wisdom, Americans really have been misled on foreign policy in the past 18 months. The overheated rhetoric of the election season has left the impression that a lot of daylight separates Republican and Democratic positions, an impression reinforced when John Kerry says President Bush has pursued "the most arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in modern history." But when leading Democratic thinkers are pressed to spell out their vision of foreign policy, they end up seconding a great deal of the Bush Administration's policy. And when they disagree, they often reveal some very unserious thinking about national security.
Richard Perle and David Frum do not represent all conservative thought on foreign policy, any more than Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay represent all Democratic thought. But these two writing teams have produced popular books each illustrating, in its own way, how overwrought and polarized is the current debate over U.S. strategy. In the end, though, the conservatives offer far more insight into why this is so than the liberals.
Daalder and Lindsay are mainstream liberal foreign policy thinkers. Daalder is back at the Brookings Institution after serving in the briefly heady role of Howard Dean's foreign policy adviser. Lindsay is Vice President of the Council on Foreign Relations. Both served on President Clinton's National Security Council staff. Many liberal commentators invoke the "America unbound" argument by name: that the Bush foreign policy team operates on the mistaken assumption that our security is enhanced when the U.S. is freed from the constraints of multilateral practices and international institutions. Daalder and Lindsay charge Bush with a unilateralist "revolution" in foreign policy, an "imperious style" that has "entailed great costs for American foreign policy" in the form of reduced international cooperation and goodwill. They conclude that we must re-commit, for purely self-interested reasons, to the multilateral practices and institutions that the U.S. helped create after 1945. This is more or less the liberal message on foreign policy in 2004.
But in the final analysis America Unbound does not present a serious point of view. Consider first what Daalder and Lindsay do not talk about. They barely mention Japan, with which the U.S. has the most important economic relationship in the world. They basically omit South-East Asia, Australia, India, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. And they discuss China—almost certainly America's most important strategic competitor over the next half century—very briefly (and in the process they describe Bush's policy toward Beijing during the downed-plane incident as admirably "pragmatic"). Any one of these near-omissions would be noticeable. Taken together, they are staggering. While Daalder and Lindsay purport to identify a "revolutionary" shift in American foreign policy, they basically have no comment on Bush's policies toward countries comprising nearly 80 percent of the world's population. What's more, the book offers no substantive critique of Bush policies toward the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Organization of American States, or even NATO.
It's not difficult to discern why. The Bush Administration policy toward these regions and institutions is not new. The core policies have survived intact across several administrations of both parties: constructive engagement with China, freer trade with Latin America, increasing warmth towards India, and AIDS funding (and little more) for Africa. In these and many other ways, the Administration has not been noticeably more unilateralist than its immediate predecessor. For all the hype from its critics, the Bush Administration has reduced multilateralist practice only when it comes to a very narrow range of policies, mainly toward the Arab world and, to a much lesser extent, regarding cooperation with our West European allies in actions outside Europe.
Bush's practice of maintaining multilateralism in most contexts and reducing (not eliminating) it in some is a pattern that fits well within America's foreign policy tradition, even its post-1945 tradition. Putting it in that perspective reveals that it is not Bush, but rather Daalder and Lindsay, who are calling for a radical break with U.S. tradition, in the name of what might be called comprehensive multilateralism. And nowhere is America Unbound's analysis more disappointing than in its failure to help readers think critically about such systematic multilateralism. Above all, Daalder and Lindsay never entertain the notion that multilateralism can have downsides of any kind, which undercuts their persuasiveness in two profound ways.
First, they are unable to understand the administration they set out to criticize. The Bush foreign policy team, after all, appears convinced that such downsides do exist, at least sometimes. Most obviously, hawks have long argued that U.S. security is endangered if America commits to acting against a threat only in coordination with its major allies. The hawks point out that this could easily have prevented action when, for example, the U.S. in the 1980s proposed to retaliate against state-sponsored terrorism. It would be one thing for the authors to reject this charge, but they simply ignore it. The result is that they do not provide readers with the minimal tools necessary to consider intelligently the Bush team's choices.
This failure has a second, more important consequence. Daalder and Lindsay are left unable to explain why Democratic administrations, too, have departed from comprehensive multilateralism, and will inevitably do so again. After all, the administration in which they served participated in a Kosovo war that was opposed by Russia, China, and many (if not most) regimes in the developing world. The Clinton team did not send the Kyoto global warming accord to the Senate for ratification. It maintained a somewhat firm line toward Saddam even when France, Russia, and others clearly wanted to do otherwise. And it angered many in the "Arab street" by vetoing a number of U.N. resolutions against Israel. Similarly, John Kerry denounces Bush for abandoning the Kyoto Treaty. But he does not promise to push for its ratification himself. He scorns the doctrine of preemption, but has pointedly not said he would renounce it if elected. He criticizes Bush's withdrawal from the ABM treaty, but does not propose to restore it and scrap our embryonic missile defense systems. And clearly he does not promise to accept all U.N. resolutions on Israel.
By ignoring these matters, the authors never have to make clear why they aren't guilty of the sin they say Bush commits: that of "ignor[ing] how others view [us] from abroad," when it is deemed necessary or prudent. There are two ways they could square this circle. The first would be to insist that America's security, even in an age of terrifying risks, can always be satisfactorily achieved multilaterally. But this would presume that in every crisis the U.S. can persuade its allies to cooperate by the decisive hour. That is an arrogance that no hawk would admit to. The second would be to do the reasonable thing, and admit that in fact the U.S. has to decide on a case-by-case basis how multilateral to be. But that is what the Bush Administration proposes—and does—and admitting as much would be no way to sell books.
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The contrast in seriousness with Frum and Perle is striking. Frum is an author and former Bush speechwriter, who has now joined Perle—an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan—at the American Enterprise Institute. Their core message is that "in a dangerous world the toughest line is the safest line." They cite approvingly Donald Rumsfeld's aphorism that "weakness is provocative," because weakness attracts predators. They apply this classic axiom of deterrence theory to diverse potential dangers, including China, which is not yet (and might never be) threatening. But uppermost on their minds are terrorists, especially if armed with weapons of mass destruction.
Frum and Perle are among many who insist that terrorists cannot be deterred, but belie this when they note that even suicide bombers need to believe that their actions will have the desired effect. Accordingly, the centerpiece of their strategy is not only to interdict terrorist personnel, weapons, and funds, but also to deter states from supporting terrorists and to convince would-be terrorists that they will ultimately fail. A sufficiently muscular approach can push us over the point at which "even [terrorists'] supporters perceive that terrorism is not only pointless but actually counterproductive." In other words, we could deter people with acute grievances from adopting a terrorist strategy to begin with. But, they argue, our credibility on that score suffered a sharp erosion in the 1990s, as anti-Western acts were met with pinprick air-strikes, criminal proceedings, and general indifference. "So we had to strike back and hard after 9/11, to prove that terrorism was not winning."
Like other neo-conservatives, Frum and Perle do not shy away from discussing root causes of terrorism. They argue explicitly that one root cause is Mideast tyranny, which incubates what President Bush has called "stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export." They also appear to argue that radical ideologies, linked usually to tyranny, are another root cause. The Iraq invasion, then, had at least two goals for them. First, a democratic Iraq could inspire democratization in the region. Second, the war could dent our enemies' confidence by exhibiting the spectacle of the U.S. defeating an anti-Western extremist. They hope that such events will parallel earlier historical victories, in which noxious ideologies "yielded to new realities" such as "unexpected defeats."
They propose an expansive agenda which extends to confrontations with diverse rogue states, aggressive measures against terrorists, aid to various societies and governments in distress, and profound reforms of the U.S. government's foreign policy bureaucracies. They also argue that multilateralism is desirable when it serves U.S. interests and is not when it doesn't. For example, they conclude that the best approach to North Korea is precisely multilateralist. This is not the doctrinaire unilateralism that America Unbound decries. In that sense, it is Frum and Perle who are advocating a flexible strategy and Daalder and Lindsay who are fixated on one approach alone, not the other way around.
But that in turn places burdens on Frum and Perle, which they do not always meet. Above all, their detailed proposals almost entirely concern how to reduce the confidence of our enemies, not how to mitigate anti-Westernism to begin with. They trace extremist ideologies to tyranny in the Muslim world. But at a page-and-a-half long, and with a dashed-off feel to it, their support for this claim is unpersuasive. Its theoretical connections are weak and speculative. And above all, it cannot account for the fact that although several authoritarian regimes have incubated anti-Western extremists, most have not, including, for instance, Muslim sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia.
This matters for two reasons. First, their theory of extremism's origins directs their policy prescriptions toward interventionism: after all, their account suggests that U.S. security can be finally served only by worldwide democratization. Even attempting that (no promise of the results) would surely require ongoing, large-scale American intervention. By contrast, one could imagine that U.S. security could in many cases be achieved by a much less intrusive approach, if one took seriously the fact that most non-democratic regimes do not incubate terrorists.
Second, the "tyranny theory" of anti-Western extremism leaves Frum and Perle in no position to consider that of the many measures that might cause America's enemies to lose confidence—a key goal of theirs—some may be more prone to backfire by generating anti-American sentiments. If such a distinction exists, it is incumbent on us to choose among measures carefully. And such a distinction almost certainly does exist. Consider a counterpart: Israel's repeated battlefield victories clearly persuaded Arab frontline states, from the late 1970s on, that Israelis could not be driven from the region. They thus abandoned serious military threats to the country's existence. But over the same decades, significant numbers of Palestinians appear to have become convinced of the exact opposite, helping inspire a horrifying terrorist campaign. One possibility is surely that Israeli practices in the West Bank and Gaza both showed superiority in arms and contributed to the appeal of radical ideologies. But Frum and Perle treat as relatively generic all measures that could cow one's enemies, without investigating whether some of them might do more harm than good. This leaves readers persuaded that our enemies' confidence must indeed be sapped, but they are in need of another book to tell them how best to do that.
Frum and Perle's unsatisfying discussion of the origins of anti-Western extremism has an inevitable companion: an unsatisfying consideration of pro-Americanism. The goal, after all, should not be simply to persuade America's enemies that they cannot win, but to prevent their becoming anti-American to begin with. Daalder and Lindsay would no doubt say that multilateralism can restore our global popularity. But it was during their administration that al-Qaeda initially dispatched Mohammed Atta and his henchmen to American shores and flight schools. Frum and Perle may leave too many questions unanswered, but at least they don't get the largest ones wrong.