The George WBush Presidency | America Unbound | Imperial America

Books Reviewed in This Essay

The George W. Bush Presidency

An Early Assessment

Edited by Fred I. Greenstein

Johns Hopkins University Press, $19.95, 320 pp.

America Unbound

The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy

Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay

Brookings Institution Press, $22.95, 246 pp.

Imperial America

The Bush Assault on World Order

John Newhouse

Alfred A. Knopf, $23, 208 pp.


The second most important thing about democracy is that you get to vote for the candidate of your choice. The most important thing is that when your candidate loses, the person who wins will nonetheless treat your views with respect. The same holds true when my candidates and policies prevail. My team should never forget about the other side. Should that happen, we would be not citizens of a democracy but participants in a war. And despite a certain cynicism expressed by Germanic theorists of realpolitik, war and politics are not the same; one leads to death and the other does not.

Some people on the left end of the political spectrum talk as if the United States under George W. Bush has experienced a coup d’état. Such language-expressed, for example, by the best-selling director/writer Michael Moore-strikes me as irresponsible. American democracy is strong enough to survive Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and even Karl Rove. Yet it is not too difficult to understand why many people feel politics has taken a new and unsettling turn. Bush, it is impossible to forget, lost the popular vote in 2000. Still, he has never acknowledged that a close and disputed election requires the “winner” to govern from the center. Bush’s pursuit of partisan majorities in Congress-designed to be as narrow as possible so as to maximize its appeal to the extremists in his political base-produces legislative victories, but leaves the victors feeling triumphalist and the losers feeling disenfranchised. The tendency of the administration to brand those who question not only its priorities but even its partisan tactics as disloyal comes perilously close to substituting wartime solidarity for open debate. Totalitarian, this administration is not, but hostile to the generally moderate and bipartisan way American democracy at its best is conducted, it most decidedly is. The Bush administration’s self-certainty, its in-your-face approach to judicial appointments, and its tendency to change the rules in midstream leave opponents feeling that their views simply do not count. No flourishing democracy can tolerate such polarization for long.

There is another element of Bush’s governing style that is unprecedented. Among those who are treated with disdain by the administration and its ideological supporters are the editors of America’s leading newspapers; the presidents of nearly all of America’s universities; the past leadership of the armed forces; all living and functioning former presidents of the United States, including Bush’s father and his advisers; just about every serious intellectual who is not being subsidized by a right-wing think tank; pretty much the entire history profession; the clergy of mainline religions; the news divisions of what used to be called “the three major networks”; and Old Europe and its friends in the United States. It is not just that Republicans treat politics as war. It is that they have chosen to fight the war against those once charged with the trusteeship of this country.

If policies have consistently failed, and if those in charge have been ill informed and incompetent, then a new president might be justified in ignoring them. The past fifty years, however, have by many measures been the most successful half-century in the history of the United States. Formed by the trauma of the Great Depression, recent presidents, Republican or Democrat, accepted a role for government in stabilizing the economy and insuring a modicum of financial stability for nearly all Americans. Faced with an unparalleled threat from a totalitarian society possessing nuclear weapons, presidents of both parties rejected a go-it-alone strategy to the cold war in favor of multilateral treaties that avoided World War III and left a stable global order in place when the Soviet Union collapsed. The very people and institutions the Bush administration ignores are those whose advice, experience, judgments, contacts, and recommendations have made it possible for Americans to live in remarkable material comfort and (with the exception of Korea and Vietnam) in sustained global peace.

Despite his radical repudiation of this legacy, Bush was given the benefit of the doubt by the media during his first two years in office. The media understood that the president was pursuing his agenda without an electoral mandate, but it was also determined to do its part to heal the deep divisions revealed during the Clinton impeachment and the disputed election in Florida. The administration’s often bogus economic claims were rarely challenged, nor were its indisputably exaggerated assertions about the threat posed by Iraq. But Bush’s free ride now appears to be over. Part of the explanation for the media’s new skepticism lies in the natural cycles of politics; as we get closer to the election that will either reaffirm or repudiate Bush’s agenda, scrutiny will automatically increase. The obvious disconnect between the president’s confident assertions on domestic and foreign policy and the realities of lost jobs at home and the quagmire abroad has stiffened the spine of the press. Those paying close attention now are increasingly the writers of books, often scholarly and well-informed ones, and not just reporters facing immediate deadlines. The Bush administration is about to get the evaluation it always deserved but somehow escaped. On the turf of serious intellectual engagement, the administration is not likely to dominate the debate as it has with an often-hapless Democratic Party in Congress and the all-too-willing-to-cooperate Washington press corps.

One question that arises when scholars turn their attention to the Bush administration is whether the rules of academic inquiry-caution, respect for data, objectivity-are the best approach to an administration that deliberately set out to transform the world. The contrast between a usually staid political science and the very radical George W. Bush is on display in Fred Greenstein’s collection of scholarly essays, The George W. Bush Presidency: An Early Assessment. Comparing Bush to his predecessors, for example, Karen M. Hult concludes that “his White House is defined far more by continuity than by discontinuity.” At one level, she is surely correct; organizationally the White House is a fairly large bureaucracy, and with (at most) eight years in office, no president can do much to change it. Yet while all administrations try to be secretive, no administration (with the possible exception of Nixon’s) has been as secretive as this one. All presidents spin the news, but none has so consistently stayed on message even when the message flatly contradicts reality. Claiming continuity between the Bush administration and those that came before is like saying that human beings and monkeys are basically the same since they share so much DNA; the differences may be small, but those differences make all the difference.

Another political scientist, Allen Schick, grasps what we are witnessing in Washington better. Indeed, Schick’s essay is one of the best short introductions to the radicalism of the Bush administration. Schick, an expert on budgets, focuses on money. How money is spent has a way of revealing other truths. The question Schick wants to answer-the question any responsible American wants answered-is how we can cut taxes without cutting expenditures and not produce deficits so staggering they will impose crushing debt on future generations. Schick argues that the administration knows exactly what it is doing. Think of Bush as the exact opposite of Ronald Reagan. Reagan talked about cutting programs but in reality let them grow. Bush, Schick points out, rarely talks about eliminating popular programs; if anything, he seems to be passionately in favor of them. Yet his budgetary profligacy makes it crystal clear that his goal is nothing less than to abolish many of the programs, such as Medicare, his rhetoric would lead people to believe he supports. “If Bush has his way,” Schick writes, “during his presidency many programs will be scaled back simply because there will not be enough money to go around, not because he has launched a frontal attack on government.”

One has to admire the brilliance of the political tactics on display here. As long as the Bush administration never announces that its objective is to roll back the Great Society and perhaps even the New Deal, Americans will treat their disappearance more as a natural disaster than as part of a well-thought-out Republican strategy. Since Americans pay relatively little attention to the ways in which policies and programs are carried out, Republicans may even be able to blame it all on the Democrats. (Republicans, recall, were able to paint Democrats as opponents of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, when in fact it was the Bush administration that long opposed the idea and the Democrats who consistently supported it.) It would be a serious mistake to underestimate Bush’s political skills. In his chapter in the Greenstein volume, Hugh Heclo points out that those who have done so “include Ann Richards, John McCain, Al Gore, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein.” This is a man who makes even the superbly skilled Bill Clinton look politically clumsy by comparison.

Still, politics is not policy. In fact, the Bush years seem to prove that bad policy makes good politics and vice versa. Bush, Allen Schick points out, “will be the last president before the front edge of the baby boom generation reaches retirement.” Government must begin now to prepare for the costs of that generation’s retirement and its medical bills. Such planning requires facilitating bipartisan cooperation. Instead, Bush is taking full advantage of the electorate’s short time horizons and lack of interest in policy details to create a long-term Republican majority now while leaving any structural problems to his successors. The Bush years, as Heclo points out, feature too much campaigning and too little governing, and Heclo, I hasten to add, is relatively well disposed to this president.

Digging through Bob Woodward’s all but unreadable Bush at War, Heclo comes across an astonishing statement attributed to the president. “I’m the commander-see, I don’t need to explain-I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president,” he said. “Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.” Heclo asks us not to take this assertion too seriously; Bush, he writes, is just a plainspoken guy who likes to take charge.

I find the president’s words far more troubling-to say the least. They suggest to me that Bush has no understanding of the reciprocal obligations that exist between a president and the electorate. His mission, he seems to believe, is to consult his God and his gut and to do whatever they tell him. It is all very well and good, especially after the vacillations of the Clinton years, to have a president who knows his own mind, but, as Heclo reminds us, “always being on message is not the same as being on target.” If the president’s policies fail to reach their target-and it is hard to imagine how long-term deficits and the endless occupation of Iraq will constitute success-what lies ahead? Bush’s unwillingness to share his real agenda with the American people and his inability to explain in straightforward terms the reasons for his decisions threaten to seriously damage our political system. Thinking he is under no obligation to explain his actions, the president will likely conclude, as he seems to have done already, that he is also under no obligation to take responsibility for his mistakes.

Bush is at his most radical in foreign policy. Indeed, Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, in their book America Unbound, call Bush’s unilateral approach a revolution. (An excerpt from the book appears in the Greenstein volume). Daalder and Lindsay both served on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and now work at establishment think tanks (Brookings for the former; the Council on Foreign Relations for the latter). Former government officials usually go easy on those who come after them, hoping, no doubt, for the same treatment in return. Daalder and Lindsay respect that convention in some ways; their book treats Bush as the master of his own policies and avoids the “gotcha” language so popular on cable television. Still, their willingness to use a word like “revolutionary” to characterize Bush’s policies suggests a deep unease. Daalder and Lindsay go about as far as books of this type can go in indicting an administration’s arrogance and incompetence.

On assuming office the Bush administration could barely bring itself to listen to former Clinton officials, let alone follow their recommendations. One of the recommendations it rejected involved international terrorism. “You’re going to spend more time during your four years on terrorism generally and Al Qaeda specifically than any other issue,” Sandy Berger, Clinton’s National Security Council head, told his Bush counterpart Condoleezza Rice. Rice ignored him, as well as others who tried to deliver the same message. Bush later said that before September 11 terrorism did not make his blood boil. Now he knows the nature of the enemy, but has yet to give credit to his predecessors for understanding something about the world that had escaped him.

Daalder and Lindsey argue that despite the lack of knowledge about foreign policy Bush revealed during the 2000 campaign, his views are well formed and held with deep conviction. They describe Bush’s views this way: “If all states pursue their self-interest, if power matters above all else, and if American virtue is unquestioned, then U. S. foreign policy should not be about searching for common policies. Rather it should be about pushing the world in the direction Washington wanted it to go, even if the initial reaction was resistance.” Whether or not this worldview was ever appropriate to issues such as global warming or missile defense, it would seem to have been rendered completely irrelevant by September 11. Terrorists have no state of their own, a major problem for those who see the world in terms of inter-state conflict. Terrorists are motivated not by self-interest but by ideals, however perverse. Power means far less to them than martyrdom. Since terrorists can live anywhere, stopping them before they strike requires international cooperation. The tactics terrorists use are so unprecedented that no one nation can anticipate or prevent their actions.

Yet Bush treats terrorists and the problems they represent as if nothing in the world has really changed. The best example of this tendency to twist reality to conform to a preexisting worldview is the effort to link Iraq-a state using its power at home and abroad in ways that would be familiar to Machiavelli or Clausewitz-to the unprecedented attack of September 11. Daalder and Lindsay provide the earliest date I have seen when the administration connected the two: September 15, 2001. Even before troops were committed to Afghanistan, Paul Wolfowitz told the president that there was as much as a 50-percent chance that Saddam Hussein was involved with Osama bin Laden. His arguments at the time were ignored; as Daalder and Lindsay put it, “Afghanistan would have to come first.” Still, one can see in the initial response to September 11 all the disturbing features of the Bush foreign policy, especially its firmness in setting goals whether the assumptions underlying those goals make sense or not.

Daadler and Lindsay conclude that the Bush revolution is only a partial one, and is best understood as changing the way the United States conducts foreign policy, not the goals of foreign policy. The key actors are not neoconservative intellectuals such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle but “assertive nationalists” like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The difference between the two groups comes down to ideology. Neoconservatives, many of whom were once Trotskyites, still see the world in idealistic terms: as Trotsky hoped for permanent revolution, their goal is to bring democracy to countries that have never known it. Assertive nationalists, by contrast, dispense with any Wilsonian idealism in favor of realpolitik: their intent is to maximize American power. Consider Saudi Arabia. If the country has oil and influence, assertive nationalists want its leaders anchored firmly in the American camp, even if the Saudi brand of Wahhabi Islam is anti-Semitic, hostile to women, and a breeding ground for terrorism. Neoconservatives, by contrast, will always be suspicious of the Saudi royal family, and hope to replace it with a more open and Westward-looking regime.

Daalder and Lindsay’s thesis is reassuring in its way, for assertive nationalists are less likely to engage in endless revolution than are neoconservatives. John Newhouse is not so sanguine, however. A former foreign correspondent for the New Yorker, Newhouse’s Imperial America: The Bush Assault on the World Order goes much further in its condemnation of Bush. Newhouse uses terms like “hard right” to characterize the administration’s outlook. For Newhouse, Bush is revolutionary in both means and ends. “Bush’s doctrine,” he writes, “is based...on prevention and preeminence-that is, taking military power to a level never before seen, one that would so intimidate all parties that no one would consider an attack of any kind against the United States.” Such a doctrine puts into practice a “me first” attitude that shuns alliances, ignores history, and fails to acknowledge the interests of other states. Bush, in Newhouse’s view, has taken extraordinary risks. The payoff will be great if he wins, disastrous if he fails.

Newhouse believes the damage inflicted on U.S. interests has already been tremendous. Bush, he writes, brought with him “a set of strongly held opinions arising from one man’s take on moral clarity. What he didn’t bring was the one attribute that a commander-in-chief must have-an interest in knowing what he doesn’t know.” Bush’s greatest failures are not the actions taken in Afghanistan and Iraq. At least in those situations, the president had coherent views and acted on them. Far more dangerous, if not downright scary, is the administration’s ignorance in dealing with other “rogue” nations. North Korea provides one example. Neither firmness nor moral clarity has marked the administration’s actions. Bush lumped North Korea into the “axis of evil,” thereby suggesting that regime change was our goal. No effort was made to implement this policy, though, for the simple reason that U.S. intervention would have resulted in the deaths of millions. (So much for moral clarity.) Unable to effect regime change, the administration settled for refusing to talk to the North Koreans. That policy was equally unproductive-the North Koreans simply ignored the president and announced their intention to build more nuclear weapons-and it was abandoned. (So much for firmness.) Perhaps we should be glad that the administration never put its theories into practice on the Korean peninsula. At the same time, North Korea’s aggressive behavior has left the impression that nations possessing nuclear weapons can stand up to the United States.

Iran is the other country included in the “axis of evil” category. Was it strategically wise to do that? Given the long-existing hostility between Iran and Iraq, and the importance of the Shiite majority in Iraq, wouldn’t it have been shrewder to win over Iran? Iran was willing to be wooed: the population had tired of the harsh rule of the clerics, and some of its leaders, including President Mohammed Khatami, were making all the right noises. Newhouse attributes the administration’s failure to seize this opening to its dependence on Ariel Sharon, who can see nothing but support for Hezbollah in Iran. Clearly Bush’s fixed ideas also stood in the way; pronouncing a country evil is not the best way to begin negotiations with it. “We’re trying to move from ideology to modernity, and Bush is moving from modernity to ideology,” says an Iranian student quoted by Newhouse. In U.S. relations with Iran, neoconservative dreams of forcing a new reality on the world have triumphed over advocates of realpolitik who are willing to cut deals with a regime, no matter how theocratic or dangerous, so long as doing so serves American interests.

The most interesting sections of Newhouse’s book deal with Pakistan. In the run-up to the war in Iraq, administration officials evoked the horrifying thought that terrorists could gain control of a state possessing nuclear weapons. Iraq, we now know, had no such capacity. Pakistan, however, already possesses nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s government is unstable, and large sections of the country are virtually autonomous. Many supporters of President Pervez Musharraf are also sympathetic to Al Qaeda, and have no doubt helped Osama bin Laden escape capture. Yet this is a country the Bush administration has allied itself with. So far, Musharraf has kept his hold on power, but rising Islamic fundamentalism, fueled by the occupation of Iraq, could spread to Pakistan and topple its government. Should that happen, the Bush administration will have brought about the very nightmare its foreign policy was designed to avoid. The risks of such a charge may be small, but if it occurred the consequences would be catastrophic.

Imperial America presents anything but a balanced treatment of Bush’s foreign policy. A journalist, not an academic, Newhouse is in attack mode from first page to last, and he spends too much time demonizing Israel. Yet because the administration’s agenda is so extreme, Newhouse’s righteous indignation comes closest to grasping the essence of what is now happening to America. In foreign policy in particular, but in domestic policy as well, Bush is trying to reverse the course of the last half-century of American history. This is not politics as usual. end

Published in the 2003-12-05 issue: 

Alan Wolfe’s most recent book is At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews.

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