America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
James M. Lindsay

September 1, 2003

When George W. Bush peered out the window of Air Force One as it flew over Baghdad in early June, he had reason to be pleased. He had just completed a successful visit to Europe and the Middle East. The trip began in Warsaw, where he had the opportunity to personally thank Poland for being one of the two European countries to contribute troops to the Iraq War effort. He then traveled to Russia to celebrate the 300th birthday of St. Petersburg. He flew on to Évian, a city in the French Alps, to attend a summit meeting of the heads of the world’s major economies. He next stopped in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, for a meeting with moderate Arab leaders, before heading to Aqaba, Jordan, on the shore of the Red Sea to discuss the road map for peace with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers. He made his final stop in Doha, Qatar, where troops at U.S. Central Command greeted him with thunderous applause. Now Bush looked down on the city that American troops had seized only weeks before.

Bush’s seven-day, six-nation trip was in many ways a victory lap to celebrate America’s triumph in the Iraq War—a war that many of the leaders Bush met on his trip had opposed. But in a larger sense he and his advisers saw it as a vindication of his leadership. During his first 30 months in office, the man from Midland had started a foreign policy revolution. He had discarded many of the constraints that had bound the United States to its allies and redefined key principles that had governed American engagement in the world for more than half a century. Like most revolutions, Bush’s had numerous critics. Yet he now traveled through Europe and the Middle East not as a penitent making amends but as a leader commanding respect. America unbound was remaking the course of international politics. Bush was the rare revolutionary who had succeeded. Or had he?

The Bush Revolution

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 unrivaled power. 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 did not argue that the United States keep its powder dry while it waited for dangers to gather. Whereas John Quincy Adams—the only other son of a president later to occupy the White House—had held that the United States should not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy,” Bush argued that America would be imperiled if it failed to do just that. “Time is not on our side,” he warned in the “Axis of Evil” speech, his 2002 State of the Union address. “I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” That logic guided the Iraq War, and it animated Bush’s efforts to deal with other rogue states.

These fundamental beliefs had important consequences for the practice of American foreign policy. One was a disdain for the sorts of multinational institutions and arrangements developed by presidents from Truman through Clinton and a decided preference for the unilateral exercise of American power. Unilateralism was appealing to Bush and his advisers because it was often easier and more efficient, at least in the short term, than multilateralism. In the Kosovo war, for example, Bush and his advisers believed that the task of coordinating the views of all NATO members greatly complicated the military effort. But in the Afghanistan war, Pentagon planners did not need 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 is impossible or unwise—involved building ad hoc coalitions of the willing, or what Richard Haass, a former adviser to Colin Powell, has called “multilateralism à la carte.”

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 in a report laying out his administration’s national security strategy, “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.” 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 change the regimes 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. It rested on the belief that if the United States pushed, nobody could push back.

September 11

The Bush revolution did not start, as many have suggested, on September 11. The worldview that drove it existed long before jet planes plowed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Bush outlined his philosophy while he was on the campaign trail. Most commentators failed to notice what he was saying because they were concerned more with how much he knew about the world than with what he believed. Bush began implementing his ideas as soon as he took the oath of office. His belief in the need for an America unbound was behind his pursuit of missile defense. It was also behind his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the International Criminal Court, and a host of other multilateral agreements he criticized or abandoned during the first eight months of his presidency.

What September 11 provided was the motive to enact the Bush revolution rapidly and without hesitation. Foreign policy went from being a secondary priority of his presidency to being its defining mission. “I’m here for a reason,” Bush told his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, shortly after the attacks, “and this is going to be how we’re going to be judged.” He told Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi something similar. “History will be the judge, but it won’t judge well somebody who doesn’t act, somebody who just bides time here.” The war on terrorism became an issue that boiled in his blood, and he intended to fight it in his fashion.

September 11 also gave Bush the opportunity to enact his revolution without fear of being challenged at home. Congressional displeasure with Bush’s handling of foreign policy had grown throughout the summer of 2001. Some Democrats even thought it could be a winning issue for them in the midterm elections. In the wake of the attacks, however, congressional resistance to Bush’s national security policies evaporated. Congress’s deference partly reflected the enormity of the attacks and a principled belief that lawmakers should defer to strong presidential leadership in times of national crisis. But it also reflected a healthy dose of politics. Rather than blame the president for failing to anticipate the attacks, Americans rallied around him. Bush’s newfound popularity translated into political power. Lawmakers may ignore the pleadings of an unpopular president, but they usually heed the demands of a popular one.

The Neoconservative Myth

By the end of the Iraq War, most commentators acknowledged that Bush had presided over a revolution in American foreign policy. They were doubtful, however, that the president was responsible for it. They instead gave the credit (or blame) to “neoconservative” thinkers 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 writer alleged that Bush was “the callow instrument of neoconservative ideologues.” Another remarked on the “neoconservative coup” in Washington and wondered if “George W. fully understands the grand strategy that Wolfowitz and other aides are unfolding.” A third thought the neoconservatives’ victory was obvious. “Unless you live at the bottom of a well, you’ve probably noticed that 9/11 and Iraq have a transforming effect on the American Right. The short formulation is that so-called neoconservatism has triumphed.”

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 were more prominent outside the administration, particularly in 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. 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. Whereas neoconservatives talked of lengthy and expensive military occupation in Iraq, assertive nationalists spoke of a quick transition and leaving “Iraq for the Iraqis.”

Although neoconservatives and assertive nationalists differed on whether the United States should actively spread its values abroad, both were deeply skeptical of the cold war consensus on the importance of the rule of law and the relevance of international institutions to American foreign policy. They placed their faith not in diplomacy and treaties, but in power and resolve. Agreement on this key point allowed neoconser-vatives 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 with 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 30 months in office he was the puppeteer, not the puppet. 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.

Whither the Revolution?

Not all revolutions succeed. As Air Force One tipped its wings over Baghdad in a gesture of triumph, there were troubling signs of things to come for an America unbound. U.S. troops in Iraq found themselves embroiled in a guerrilla war with remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Anger overseas at what was seen as an arrogant and hypocritical America had swelled. Close allies spoke openly not of how best to work with the United States, but of how to constrain its ability to act. Washington was beginning to confront a new question: were the costs of the Bush revolution in foreign policy about to swamp the benefits?

Part of the problem with the Bush revolution lay in how Bush and his advisers conducted it. They declined to cloak the iron fist of American power in the velvet glove of diplomacy, preferring instead to express contempt for opinions different from their own. Donald Rumsfeld, as his dismissal of France and Germany as “old Europe” attested, had a particular zeal for insulting friends and allies. Not surprisingly, this attitude struck many outside the United States—and more than a few within it—as an arrogance born of power, not principle. They resented it profoundly.

The deeper problem, however, was that the fundamental premise of the Bush revolution—that America’s security rested on an America unbound—was mistaken. For all the talk at the start of the 21st century of the United States being a hyperpower, the world was beyond the ability of any one country to control. Many of the most important challenges America faced overseas could be met only with the active cooperation of others. The question was how best to secure that cooperation.

Bush maintained that if America led, friends and allies would follow. True, they might grumble because they disliked how Washington intended to lead. Some might even decide to wait until they saw the benefits of American action. In the end, however, they would join forces with the United States in combating threats such as terrorism and weapons proliferation because they trusted America’s motives and they shared its interests. Countries would not cut off their nose to spite their face.

Iraq exposed the flaw in this thinking. Most countries, including all members of the UN Security Council, shared a major interest in making sure Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons. But that common interest did not automatically translate into active cooperation in a war to oust Saddam Hussein—or even into support for such a war. A few countries actively tried to stop the march to war, and many others simply sat on the sidelines. Little changed after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square. Although many countries believed that stabilizing postwar Iraq was vitally important—for regional stability, international security, and their own national safety—they did not rush to join the reconstruction effort. In July 2003, American troops constituted more than 90 percent of all forces supporting the Iraq operation—at an annual cost to the American taxpayer of $50 billion. Britain provided most of the other forces. The remaining foreign contributions were insignificant. Hungary, for instance, agreed to provide 133 truck drivers but no trucks, mechanics, or anything else. In other cases, countries agreed to contribute troops only after Washington agreed to pay for them—giving a whole new meaning to the concept of burden sharing.

The lesson of Iraq, then, was that sometimes when America leads, few follow. This ultimately was the real danger of the Bush revolution. America’s friends and allies seldom could stop Washington from doing as it wished, no matter how much some commentators opined to the contrary. However, America’s friends and allies did not need to resist American policy to make Washington pay a price for its desire to play unbound by any rules. They could simply refuse to come to its aid when their help was most needed or desired. That, in turn, risked undermining not only what America could achieve abroad but also domestic support at home for engaging the world. Americans could rightly ask: if others are unwilling to bear the burdens of meeting tough challenges, why should we? In that respect, an America unbound could ultimately lead to a America that is less secure.