Site Meter

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Was Bush So Different?

Continuing the theme of continuities in US foreign policy, below is a post that reviews an interesting book arguing to the contrary: that there is clear daylight between the policies pursued by George W. Bush and the administration of Barack Obama. Although I disagree with the author, I think he is right to criticise the Bush administration for violating human rights, engaging in torture as a matter of policy, continuing the practice of ‘extraordinary rendition’ (it was used by the Clinton administration and endorsed by Al Gore as a ‘no-brainer’), and preventive war.

A More Legitimate, Benevolent American Hegemony

Professor Ilan Peleg has written a well-argued and accessible book (The Legacy of George W. Bush's Foreign Policy, 2009) criticising the national security and foreign policies – and their underlying neoconservative ideology – of the George W. Bush administrations (2001-2009). Peleg also criticises Bush’s personality and the character of the top-down loyalty-based decision-making process that he developed and operated as America’s first “MBA president” (p.103). Peleg holds Bush’s personality and his adoption of neoconservative ideology for what are widely held to be major US foreign policy disasters – particularly the war on Iraq. To Peleg, the United States must remain globally hegemonic by which he means it ought to try consensually, sensitively and multilaterally to recapture the levels of ‘popularity’, ‘legitimacy’ and effectiveness it enjoyed during the 1990s and even the Cold War. Well-structured and organized, this book is ideally suited to students’ use – indeed, I can see myself recommending the book to my upper level students.

This book is one of many that examine the policies and legacies of the Bush presidency. In one sense, however, this book stands out: it provides a most robust argument for the discontinuities of the Bush administration’s policies with practically all previous Republican and Democratic administrations, and the more or less complete separation of neoconservatism from American conservatism, liberalism and Realism alike. In short, Bush and the neoconservatives are to blame for the disastrous war on Iraq, the faltering war in Afghanistan, and so on. Peleg follows this argument throughout the book thus providing coherence to the whole volume. It also makes the book read a little more polemically than he may have intended but, I suspect, it will make very comfortable reading for Democrats – whether or not they supported the Iraq war of 2003.

At one level, of course, it can hardly be denied that President George W. Bush was responsible – he was, after all, in charge. It is also the case that the neoconservatives were highly influential within the Bush administration. At another level, however, there are difficulties associated with arguments that isolate too much particular presidents and belief systems for the assignment of blame (or success). And, to Peleg’s credit, he does empirically step back from such strong positions from time to time; indeed, it is necessary to his argument that he does so, as every political actor has a past, often in previous administrations, where clues to the causes of their behaviour may sometimes be found. This is the case, for example, when Peleg traces the role of certain influential Bush appointees, such as Paul Wolfowitz, to the George H.W. Bush administration.

It is the area of the degree to which George W. Bush and the neoconservatives are actually separate, alien, to previous administrations and from conservatism and liberalism, and Realism for that matter, that Peleg’s argument, for this reviewer, is weakest. For example, Peleg suggests several times that Bush and the neoconservatives were democracy crusaders due to their attachment to democratic peace theory (DPT), the idea that democracies do not wage wars against each other (p.41). He cites Francis Fukuyama, in effect, as the source of such views, especially in his triumphalist “end of history” messages at the end of the cold war. Yet, to imply thereby that the democratic peace thesis is sourced in neoconservative thought is a little misleading; as Professor Peleg will know, the likes of Michael Doyle, Jack Levy, Jack Snyder, and Bruce Russett, none of them neocons, were fundamental to the development of democratic peace theory and its testing and refinement. It is also clear that the Clinton administrations – with their development of strategies of ‘democratic enlargement’ and ‘democratic engagement’ (the latter most clearly influenced by some of the aforementioned scholars’ work) – were highly influenced by DPT. In Clinton’s case, Larry Diamond (labelled by many a neocon but certainly a militant democracy promoter) played a key role in the adoption of DPT through his work with the Democrats’ Progressive Policy Institute in the early 1990s and through his Journal of Democracy. It was also during Clinton’s presidency that “regime change” in Iraq was established – with bipartisan support – as desirable, though through supporting anti-Saddam Hussein opponents, such as Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi, as Peleg notes (pp.119-120), remained a key US ally, and supplier of misleadingly optimistic scenarios in a post-US- invasion Iraq.

The liberal internationalists’ culpability in the Iraq war is explored in Tony Smith’s A Pact With the Devil (Routledge, 2007), a volume missing from Peleg’s bibliography. Smith shows, very convincingly, that liberals, mainly after the Cold war, were increasingly interventionist, casting off their reticence about military interventions overseas, less burdened by the fall out of the Vietnam War. He explores how liberal internationalist scholars developed DPT, along with arguments about the relative ease with which states could be democratised (on this aspect, Nicolas Guilhot’s The Democracy Makers is excellent), and the necessity of loosening the protective power of the concept of national sovereignty to ease military intervention. That is, the intellectual building blocks of the Bush doctrine were not the work of neocons but liberals who wished to use American power in a Soviet-free world in order to ‘improve’ it, to spread democracy and freedom. In the words of President Clinton’s national security adviser, Tony Lake, the idea was to expand the zone of liberal market democracies, to expand the zone of peace.

It is certainly the case that the Bush administration took the implications of the DPT agenda far further forward, mainly after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001. It would have been interesting to see, had the Al Gore-Joe Lieberman ticket been allowed to take office after the 2000 presidential elections, how a supporter of ‘rendition’ (Gore) and a neocon (Lieberman) would have reacted to 9-11. Of course, this is speculation, but interesting all the same to see whether a Democratic administration – always seen as weak on national security – could have weathered the Republican storm, principally a conservative-nationalist Republican storm, after 9-11. As it is, Vice-President Joe Biden was an early supporter of the Iraq war, as was the current secretary of state, and many other appointees of President Barack Obama’s administration. Once again, there are many continuities between the politics of one administration and another, across party divides.

It is also the case that neocons’ think tank affiliations were not exclusively in the watertight ‘neocon’ think tank world, but ranged across liberal and conservative divides, wherein reside all manner of ‘Realists’. For example, George Shultz, President Reagan’s secretary of state (1982-89), was a supporter of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a militant pro-war ‘neo-con’ grouping, of the PNAC, a member of the conservative Hoover Institution and the ‘liberal’ Council on Foreign Relations, as well as co-chair of the liberal internationalist Princeton Project on National Security. Detailed analysis of the interconnections and overlapping membership of ‘neocon’, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ think tanks – even among George W. Bush’s appointees, makes this point rather forcefully, once again confirming the degree of consensus across political-ideological groupings on goals and policy objectives, if not details of timing and tactics (Parmar, 2009; Abelson, 2006). Unfortunately, Peleg devotes just one paragraph to the role of think tanks in the run up to the Iraq war (p.124-125).

Having isolated neocons and Bush from liberalism and conservatism and from previous and current administrations, Peleg sees clear daylight between his own positions and those of Bush et al. Yet, his own approach, in some degree, bears resemblance to the aims of American power animating the Bush administration. He sees America as the “natural leader” of the capitalist-democratic world, especially the “West”. He sees American global leadership as essential, and as essentially well meant and for the world’s general good. A great deal of Peleg’s criticism of the Bush administration relates to the excessive attachment to military means (“overuse of the military option backfired” – p.132), excessive nationalism, excessive insensitivity to other states, and so on, rather than fundamental rejection of the administration’s goals. At other times, Peleg appears more concerned with the disastrous effects of Bush policies rather than the policies themselves. That is, a case may be made for some overlaps between the objects of Peleg’s critique and his own fundamental beliefs.

This is further underlined by the author’s general support of a number of neocons’ core beliefs – which are really ‘American’ core beliefs, such as ‘exceptionalism’, ‘imperial universalism’, evangelism and unilateralism - or, at least, practices of several traditions in US foreign policy (pp.45-74). Peleg calls for a return to the cold war values and norms of the US foreign policy establishment – moderation, “incrementalism, compromise, gradualism, pragmatism” (p.131; see also Hodgson, 1972-3), although it was the practice of such values that led to the Vietnam War (Barnett, 1972).

Peleg is optimistic about the current Obama administration's foreign policy which, though it has exhibited the language of diplomacy, consensus and moderation, has been largely continuous with that of the Bush administration. Peleg recommends that America aim at consensus-based hegemony rather than global domination, that it work through international organisations and with allies, especially in Europe and the “West”. It is the world’s ‘natural leader’, after all. Yet, Obama’s appointments show significant continuity with both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, as well as a strongly militarist character. That is, the case for continuity between administrations – Republican and Democratic, liberal and conservative – remains strong, suggesting that radical, as opposed to stylistic, changes in US foreign policy were always unlikely. Indeed, Peleg recognises that Bush’s second administration inaugurated several changes in its attitude to Iran, North Korea, and Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, effectively paving the way to continuity with the administration of President Barak Obama.

Professor Peleg’s book is stimulating and refreshing: he takes a stand and makes a very strong case. I am not sure that the analysis will stand the test of time but it does provide a strongly argued case that puts the presidency of George W. Bush in the dock and finds it guilty of many crimes. This is thoroughly justified.


Abelson, Donald (2006), A Capitol Idea: Think Tanks and US Foreign Policy (London: McGill-Queen’s University Press)

Barnett, R. (1972), Roots of War

Guilhot, N (2005), The Democracy Makers (New York: Columbia University Press)

Hodgson, G. (1972-73), “The Establishment,” Foreign Policy 9 (Fall), pp.3-40

Parmar, I. (2009), “Foreign policy fusion: Liberal interventionists, conservative nationalists and neoconservatives – the new alliance dominating the US foreign policy establishment,” International Politics 46 2/3, pp.177-209

Smith (2007), A Pact With the Devil (New York: Routledge)

No comments:

Post a Comment