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October 22, 2003 BOOKS OF THE TIMES | 'IMPERIAL AMERICA' A Double-Barreled Attack on American War Policy By CHARLES A. KUPCHAN
IMPERIAL AMERICA The Bush Assault on the World Order By John Newhouse 194 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $23.
As the burdens of stabilizing Iraq mount, many Americans are wondering whether their government has gone off course. John Newhouse's indictment of President Bush's foreign policy thus appears at an opportune moment, offering a lucid and accessible account of how he says the administration has done more to imperil the United States than to enhance its security.
Mr. Newhouse begins with the ideas that inform policy, exposing the dangers in the Bush doctrine's twin pillars of preventive war and pre-eminence. By embracing the principle of prevention, Mr. Bush risks mayhem by setting a precedent that individual countries can decide for themselves when to start a war against a suspected threat.
The author says that a doctrine of prevention also hampers democratic oversight by making decisions of war and peace depend on intelligence information not open to public scrutiny. (Several of the intelligence reports that Mr. Bush made public to justify the Iraq war were of dubious reliability.) Mr. Newhouse additionally points out that Mr. Bush's penchant for prevention skews priorities, soaking up resources to rebuild Iraq that should be spent countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
A doctrine of American pre-eminence is similarly problematic. The United States does have uncontested military dominance, but Mr. Bush's exaggeration of "the role and utility of raw military power" has fueled his dismissive attitude toward allies. An illusory sense of omnipotence has also made the administration underestimate the importance of diplomacy, leading to the uncompromising stances that have cost the United States so much good will abroad.
Mr. Newhouse notes that America's standing abroad will begin to recover "only if and when Washington softens its approach to the world by becoming less unilateral and threatening and more inclined to operate with sensitivity to the views of others."
Mr. Newhouse next moves from principle to practice, cataloging the unwelcome effects of Mr. Bush's doctrinal excesses. His critique of the Iraq war contends that Mr. Bush predicated military action on faulty assumptions, bungled prewar diplomacy at the United Nations and failed to prepare for postwar reconstruction. The Democrats come in for their own criticism when he says they were "intimidated, reluctant to take on a president who had with some skill made national security the consuming issue."
In the strongest section of "Imperial America" Mr. Newhouse recounts the lost opportunities arising from Mr. Bush's fixation on Saddam Hussein. The list is long and troubling.
At its top is Pakistan, a country that "is likely to stand out in the years ahead as the single most dangerous place in today's world" because of a volatile mix of nuclear weapons, political instability, terrorist networks and Islamic radicalism, but Washington focused instead on the lesser danger that emanated from Baghdad. The same goes for North Korea. Despite Pyongyang's open efforts to build nuclear weapons, Mr. Bush played down that threat to keep Americans focused on the impending campaign against Iraq.
Meanwhile, Mr. Newhouse contends, the Bush administration missed a chance to recast relations with Iran, a country whose intellectual and social capital gives it the potential to anchor regional stability. After the events of Sept. 11, the Iranian government supported ? although tentatively ? the American campaign in Afghanistan, and moderates in Tehran were gaining ground against the radical clerics. Nonetheless Mr. Bush branded Iran a member of the axis of evil, undercutting the reformers and scuttling chances for rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.
These lost opportunities are all the more worrisome against the backdrop of the damage that Mr. Bush has done to the Atlantic alliance, Mr. Newhouse says. With the United States and its key partners in Europe already drifting apart before the Iraq war, it remains to be seen whether the alliance survives the strategic rift that has opened across the Atlantic.
Mr. Newhouse's account of the political and ideological sources of these strategic missteps is less compelling than his critique of American policy. He tends to assign a false uniformity to Mr. Bush and his advisers, lumping them together (except Secretary of State Colin L. Powell) as hawkish neoconservatives.
Mr. Newhouse insists, for example, that Mr. Bush "arrived in Washington a convinced unilateralist." But Mr. Bush hails from America's inward-looking heartland, explaining why, before Sept. 11, his isolationist instincts were far more pronounced than his appetite for global dominion. The heartland's distaste for imperial adventure is one of the main reasons Mr. Bush's popularity is now lagging.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, may both be conservative hawks. But Mr. Rumsfeld, it has been reported, holds a more circumscribed notion of America's role in the world and shares little of Mr. Wolfowitz's enthusiasm for an expansive American effort to bring democracy and pluralism to the greater Middle East. Their disagreements over the scope of the American mission in Iraq contributed to the inadequacy of planning for postwar stabilization.
Mr. Newhouse might have drawn more heavily on his long and distinguished career as a journalist to explore these differences and shed more light on the internal workings of Mr. Bush's foreign policy team. The White House's tight-fisted approach to the flow of information keeps it on message but leaves the American people in the dark about how policy is formulated and how much influence is wielded by key players like Vice President Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser.
Americans need to know more about what goes on behind the scenes if they are to act on Mr. Newhouse's ominous warning that "American military power is constantly growing, although the country's overall security may be declining, if only because its priorities are skewed and unbalanced." ------ Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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