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The Bush Foreign Policy Revolution

James B. Steinberg
James B. Steinberg Former Brookings Expert, University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law - Maxwell School, Syracuse University

June 1, 2003

In the campaign, the Bush team made a great deal about the fact that they viewed the United States as being overextended in the world with too many military deployments, too many commitments and not a strong enough sense of trying to husband resources. They also offered a sharp critique of the idea of nation building. Scorn was heaped on the Clinton administration for not tending the core alliances and traditional allies in Europe and East Asia.

When it came to Iraq and North Korea, candidate Bush didn?t speak about it much, but now National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice wrote an article in Foreign Affairs in February of 2000 stating that Iraq and North Korea could be dealt with through containment. There was very little discussion of how to deal with the threat from terrorists to the US.

When the administration came into office, its chief approach could be called “anything but Clinton,” rejecting foreign policy positions just because the previous administration had taken them. We saw that very dramatically in the visit of then President Kim Dae Jung to Washington in March of 2001, in which the president basically said that he was not going to follow the path of either supporting the “Sunshine Policy” or of continuing Clinton?s negotiations with the North Koreans to deal with the ballistic missile threat. China was seen as a strategic competitor rather than a strategic partner of the US.

Of course 9/11 happened and the world changed very dramatically. Over the ensuing year we could see the evolution of both the president and his advisers? thinking about the world.

The first statement that foreshadowed the administration?s approach, and particularly the president?s approach, was his address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001 in which he announced that, henceforth, the US would hold states responsible for the actions of terrorists within their borders. And a few weeks thereafter, he acted on that principle with military engagement in Afghanistan.

That engagement was notable for the fact that—notwithstanding a decision of NATO to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and, in effect, commit other NATO allies to the defense of the US—the decision to mount the operation in Afghanistan was done outside of NATO. Although the UN also adopted a resolution, in effect endorsing the use of force against the terrorist threat, the administration did not seek any additional support from the UN.

ENTER WILSON | The action in Afghanistan was followed by the President?s State of the Union speech in January of 2002 in which he famously proclaimed the “axis of evil.” What was significant and perhaps underestimated at the time was the choice not of the word “axis,” which got most of the debate, but the choice of the word “evil.”

That was significant because it foreshadowed a much more normative view about the nature of the US role in the world in contrast to the very traditional, realist view about the nature of what the US should be doing enunciated during the campaign—that we should limit our military engagements to threats to our vital national interests, that we should have a very modest set of engagements and a “humble” foreign policy.

With the introduction of the idea that we were facing an “axis of evil,” a very strong Wilsonian dimension emerged for the first time clearly in the Bush foreign policy.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that this would come about, in part because of the president?s own proclivities but also because there had always been a strain among some of his advisers—most notably, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz—who believed there needed to be a stronger moral dimension to American foreign policy. That harkened back to the old Committee on the Present Danger during the 1970s that challenged the “moral neutrality” of the Nixon/Kissinger foreign policy.

This “neo-con” view—but what is really a kind of “neo-Wilsonian” foreign policy—has over time come to play a bigger and bigger role in how the president and his team think about the world.

The next major evolution was in the president?s commencement speech at West Point in the spring of 2002 in which he began for the first time to talk about the need for “preemption,” but which is more accurately called a doctrine of “preventive war.” Finally, in the summer of 2002, the administration turned its focus to Iraq.

At the same time that the debate on Iraq was going on, the administration issued its National Security Strategy Report, which stimulated a big debate about what the basic principles of our foreign policy ought to be. It asked: What is the nature of the threats and what is the nature of the strategy we ought to pursue?

WAR WITH IRAQ | There were many different rationales for why the US needed to deal with the problem of Iraq. The formal position of the administration was the threat of Iraq?s weapons of mass destruction. This position was hotly debated within the administration because many people, including the neo-Wilsonians, did not believe that we ought to make Iraq?s possession of weapons of mass destruction the main issue for two reasons: First, because they believed that there was a risk that the narrow problem of WMD might be solved with Saddam Hussein still in place, which was not acceptable. Second, they believed that this failed to provide a sufficiently compelling political rationale for undertaking a massive military operation.

In the end, the WMD rationale was formally accepted because that was what the UN Security Council resolutions were about and that was what the international community was most focused on. In fact, there were three other factors at play which, far more than the WMD issue, drove the decision to take military action in Iraq.

For the neo-Wilsonians there was the issue of evil. For them, Saddam was evil. His regime was one of the most brutal and repressive in the world and it was the obligation and responsibility of the US to use its power to change that. It seems that many people in the administration accepted Francis Fukuyama?s view about the end of history, that the world was evolving in the direction of democracies and market economies. But they felt it was the job of the US to help history along and get there a little faster. For this group, there was a reason independent of the WMD to rid the world of a dangerous regime.

For a second group in the administration, the issue was how to deal with the new threats to the US. Their view was that, over the course of the 1990s, the US had put itself at risk because it had failed to demonstrate it had the will and determination to take on our new terrorist and rogue state adversaries. The way to transform America?s posture from being defensive and under attack from terrorists and rogue regimes was to demonstrate we had not only the capability but, more importantly, the will to stand up and say to those who would challenge us, “No more.”

This group, which I associate most closely with Vice President Dick Cheney, is not about the ability of the US to transform the world, to promote democracy and change nations. Theirs is a more traditional view that the way to protect US national security is to exert US power and to make clear to adversaries that we would respond effectively. In effect, they want to restore deterrence—a word that the administration is uncomfortable about using but, in fact, I think, underlays much of its thinking.

The third dimension, which figured most prominently in both the president?s discussions and in the National Security Strategy itself, was this idea that the greatest threat to the US was the nexus of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Although we had no speci?c knowledge that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime were prepared to collude with terrorists, the mere fact that they might, and the fact that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, meant that we were facing a risk that was just too great to take.

In the post 9/11 world, in their view, we could not take the chance of letting such a threat develop, to see if it ripened into an imminent threat. By their thinking, the nature of terrorists was such that you would never see the threat ripen because they were in the shadows, elusive and clandestine. If you miscalculated and were too complacent, and these terrorists obtained weapons of mass destruction, and most dangerously nuclear weapons, we would not be able to recover.

This was not like the old days where adversaries might steal a jump on you in a military battle a la Pearl Harbor, and you could still come back and fight another day. The prospect of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of American casualties from misjudging meant that we needed a new approach to this problem.

All these dimensions came together in the decision to take military action in Iraq. For each of these different rationales there was a good reason to take on Iraq. In the end, the fact that Iraq had been in defiance of the Security Council for 12 years by refusing disarmament made it possible for the administration to convince many Democrats to support the war irrespective of the quite different reasons embraced by the administration.

PREVENTIVE WAR | The nexus of weapons of mass destruction and terrorists clearly lies at the heart of the administration?s discussion about what they call preemption and what I call preventive war.

It has been long accepted that nations are entitled under Article 51—”Right of Self Defense”—in the UN Charter, to act in the face of an imminent threat. You don?t have to wait until somebody attacks you to attack them. But the jurisprudence of war had suggested that it was important that threat at least be imminent to justify the use of force. But the administration had come to argue that such a test was no longer viable in the face of today?s terrorism. As the president said, “We cannot wait while dangers gather.”

The second development that emerged from both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars was the operationalization of Secretary Rumsfeld?s famous statement that henceforth the mission will define the coalition, rather than the coalition define the mission. In this formulation, the nature of the challenge was such that we could not let other people?s judgments about the nature of the threat sway or deflect us from dealing with the threat as we saw ?t.

This was not pure unilateralism but as the policy planning director of the State Department, Richard Haas, put it, “multilateralism a la carte.” That is to say, you want to have people with you when you act but you don?t want to be bound by their disagreements.

Closely related to this “a la carte” multilateralism is the approach to international institutions, especially the UN. It is clearly desirable to have the support of the UN, as the president decided in September of last year when he made the decision to go to the UN. But he also made clear when he went to the UN that we were going to deal with the threat posed by Iraq irrespective of whether we got the support of the UN or not. We?ll consult, the administration said, but at the end of the day we will do what we have to do.

Part of this view entails not substituting others? judgment for our own when it comes to US national security. The other aspect, even more important in the times to come, is a deep questioning of the legitimacy of the UN as a whole. Why, many members of the administration and its supporters ask, is a UN where the Human Rights Commission is run by Libya and in which Cameroon and Angola can determine the outcome of the debate in the Security Council, more legitimate in terms of conferring the right to use force than a democratic US and its British partner? In other words, the Bush administration view is one of substantive justice—that if the action is just it is legitimate—instead of one of procedural legitimacy.

SORTING IT OUT | To what extent is this Bush Revolution a good thing for American foreign policy? What are the dangers?

The administration is right in arguing that we do face a different kind of threat that does require us to rethink the notion of self-defense in the modern world. We don?t have the luxury of waiting for armies to mobilize as they did in WWI, or to watch forces mass up on a border before deciding to act. We are entitled to take whatever are the appropriate but effective means to disrupt the terrorist threat without waiting for it to be specifically manifest in each case.

The question is whether a broader doctrine can be justified to deal with countries like Iran or North Korea or Syria or Libya. The danger is that while acting to head off threats which you might not otherwise get to in time, you also, in effect, make use of force as the first resort rather than the last resort in dealing with international challenges.

Condoleezza Rice once said that the problem with diplomacy and a political approach is that before you see a smoking gun, you may see a smoking mushroom cloud. But the problem is also that there then can be no moment in which you ever can be confident in saying, “Well, we should give it a little more time.”

However justified, a doctrine of early use of force poses enormous risks not only for the stability of the global system, but also for our national security itself because of the destabilizing and unintended consequences of war.

There is also a problem in making this a US doctrine because it legitimates it for others as well. What is to prevent India or Pakistan from employing the American precedent in their own conflict, for example?

The danger of letting go of UN legitimacy is that it may lead to a free-for-all in the international system where each country?s judgment counts for the same and there is no objective principle that others can point to.

One of the reasons why the action in Kosovo, at least, seemed to be more acceptable is because it was not a judgment by the US acting alone but had the support of NATO. Because of the risks associated with preventive war, the fact that others agree with you in terms of the assessment of the threat is critical to legitimacy.

With respect to alliances, it is obviously very convenient to operate under “coalitions of the willing.” You don?t have to persuade anybody, you just stake your flag and see who rallies to it. It allows you to shape the mission without complication along terms that you want.

As attractive as this might be, we are beginning to see the risks associated with this approach in the broad sense in which countries are now beginning to resist supporting the US. That is not because they necessarily disagree in a particular case with what we are trying to do, but rather because the absence of reciprocity makes it much harder for them to say, “Well, we do this because we know we want the US to rally to our side when we need help.” They suspect they can?t count on it.

This is most dramatically evident in the really serious risk of divergence between the US and South Korea. Our primary interest is in dealing with the proliferation threat from North Korea, but we may not get the support we need from the South Koreans because they question whether we are going to be sensitive to their primary need to preserve peace on the peninsula.

The problem with the US deciding for itself whether the use of force is just without recourse to the UN or to other legitimating principles is that this strategy works only as long as the problem can be solved through the application of hard power, through force, where the US can just go and do it on its own because it is so powerful.

But for most problems—including fighting terrorism—you can?t do it by yourself. They can only be resolved through the support of others, through intelligence cooperation, through diplomacy and the like. If countries don?t accept the legitimacy of what you are doing, they are not going to support you. When we arrogate to ourselves the right to decide whether the use of force is legitimate we seriously undermine our soft power, our ability to get the cooperation of others. There is a big price to be paid over the long term.

WHAT NEXT? | The Bush doctrine of stronger emphasis on preventive war, coalitions of the willing rather than alliances and stepping away from international legitimation is not a policy sustainable in its extreme form over the long term.

As a practical matter it is difficult to extend it. Iraq was the easy case in many ways. Even for many people who had questions about the broader Bush agenda, there were a lot of good reasons to think it was time to deal conclusively with the Iraq problem. We had 12 years of UN Security Council resolutions that had been ignored. Iraq was viewed as a threat by all its neighbors. Nobody was sorry to see Saddam go.

Are there other Iraqs out there? With the possible exception of Syria, which is an easy next case, which is why the administration is putting a lot of pressure on Syria, it is hard to see the strategy working very effectively with either of the two other members of the “axis of evil”—North Korea and Iran—or other countries.

Indeed, we see today that the administration is taking a dramatically different approach to the problem with North Korea. Though there are some in the administration who want to take on Iran, as a practical matter, that is going to be nearly impossible to do both because the military challenge is much more daunting and, unlike with Saddam?s Iraq, there is zero support in other countries for actually trying to do away with the regime in Iran.

Instead, as we are already seeing, the US will put greater pressure on Russia to cut off its support for Iran. The chances of a preventive war against Iran even if Iran moves forward with its nuclear program just as North Korea has, seems to me very small.

Further, we are beginning to see the re-emergence of deep divisions within the administration over what the core objectives of the strategy ought to be. All factions came together around Iraq because war satisfied what they all wanted?it overthrew Saddam, demonstrated American power and removed any threat of the nexus of terrorism and WMD.

But now what is next? How committed should we be to staying? How much of an obligation do we have to stay and really rebuild the country to create a stable system? All of a sudden we hear Secretary Rumsfeld and others talking about, “Well, maybe 50?70,000 thousand troops, get them out soon, let the Iraqis handle it.” Whereas, others would argue, “Gee, if you are going to make it work, you are going to have to stay for a long time.”

To carry out the extreme or purist version of the Bush doctrine would require a willingness to stay the course, to do the nation-building, to stay engaged at a level in which the administration is going to find hard to sustain even within its own ranks, and even harder to sustain in Congress.

Finally, the extended use of preventive war and moving away from alliances is a policy that doesn?t have profound support in the American public. Americans value alliances. They see the US being a respected soft power leader as very important to who we are as a nation. Self-legitimating unilateralism is just not sustainable in American public opinion.

While there has clearly been a dramatic shift in the strategic landscape, the notion that the Iraq episode is going to represent the first of many to come is very unlikely.

The Bush doctrine does offer, however, a point of departure to rethink how we work with others from now on. I think we have a chance now to have a real debate with our friends, particularly in Europe and East Asia, to rethink the idea of when force should be used, how to deal with threats and what the role of international institutions like the UN and NATO should be. There is a potential way forward that not just accepts a Bush doctrine for the future, but forges a new American foreign policy which combines an understanding of the need to use power with the importance of cooperation and international support into a synthesis that could sustain us into the future.