Foreign Discomfort

The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic By Chalmers Johnson, Metropolitan Books, 400 pages, $25.00

America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy By Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, The Brookings Institution, 246 pages, $22.95

President George W. Bush's foreign policy has been nothing if not polarizing. Nearly all the Democratic primary candidates were able to throw darts at it in their stump speeches to cheers of approval. The front tables of urban bookstores teem with anti-Bush manifestos, and no end of exposés on the administration's mendacity circulate through networks of protesters over the Web.

There's something intoxicating about all this, but also reason to be wary. Polarization can be a mixed blessing for the opposition in an election year.

It doesn't only make Democrats and Republicans more energetically partisan; it also emboldens the radical fringes of both parties and draws them increasingly into the mainstream.

Liberals know how little they like the looks of this on the right. It's not much prettier on the left, where what passes for a foreign-policy vision can be frighteningly irresponsible in its analysis and offers virtually no practicable prescription. Chalmers Johnson's The Sorrows of Empire is no doubt a response to the reckless foreign policy of the Bush administration. But in its own recklessness, the book rehearses many of the conspiracy theories, invidious comparisons, and specious arguments that make leftist foreign-policy critiques so easy to caricature. We undoubtedly owe it to Bush that such a book is being released this year by a reputable publisher and has been respectfully reviewed in The New York Times.

To hear Johnson tell it, the United States has never faced a genuine threat, never had a legitimate strategic interest, and never been motivated in its foreign policy by anything other than greed. Other state actors -- including the "small, poverty-stricken, but resolutely defiant regime in North Korea" -- may respond rationally to actual security needs and concerns. Not the United States. Rather, writes Johnson, there are exactly five American post-Cold War foreign-policy objectives: to maintain absolute military preponderance, to eavesdrop on the world's people in order to flaunt our state-of-the-art technology, to control as many sources of petroleum as possible, to provide work and income for our military-industrial complex, and to keep our soldiers comfortable and entertained on lavishly appointed foreign bases.

This last objective is central to Johnson's analysis. The United States maintains 725 military bases around the world, Johnson tells us, from Okinawa to Guantanamo Bay, and many of them include such amenities as air conditioning, fitness rooms, and movie theaters. The country-club comfort thus afforded to American servicemen and women is therefore the primary purpose of U.S. overseas engagement, according to Johnson. We have built an "empire of bases," and they are "not really intended to contribute to war fighting capabilities. They are the headquarters for our proconsuls, visible manifestations of our imperial reach."

But Johnson does see a calculated interest as the true reason for the reconfiguration of U.S. bases around the Middle East, the Balkans, and Central Asia as opposed to Western Europe. It's not that the end of the Cold War has produced a shift in strategic priorities. Supposedly, the bases will help us secure the oil pipeline that we hope to run from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and eventually to the Balkans.

Of course, U.S. intervention in both Afghanistan and the Balkans was motivated not by what Johnson disdainfully refers to almost always in scare quotes -- "humanitarian intervention" -- or by the need to confront a terrorist organization that had become intertwined with the very structure of the Afghan state and directly attacked the United States. It was all about this supposed oil pipeline -- a notion Ken Silverstein thoroughly debunked in these pages ,nearly two years ago [see "No War for Oil!" July 22, 2002] but that still holds sway in some conspiracy-minded circles. Johnson, in one of his most bizarrely free-associative passages, suggests that the Department of Defense left the bases in Kosovo and Bosnia out of its last accounting of overseas assets in order to disguise their true purpose in this oil scheme.

Johnson's analysis is fraught with contradictions that can make your head spin. He claims that former military officials in government will turn foreign policy in an increasingly martial direction, yet elsewhere he rightly notes that civilians in the Bush administration have been far more hawkish than such military figures as Colin Powell and Richard Armitage. In fact, military leaders, who know well the costs of war, tend to be cautious about the use of American force overseas. Certainly the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Johnson opposes the very existence of this institution) resisted intervening in Kosovo, where Johnson, too, would apparently have preferred inaction.

More to the point, Johnson seems to divine no legitimate purpose for the military's existence. Its values, and hence American imperial values, are as follows: "military machismo, sexual orthodoxy, socialized medicine for the chosen few, cradle-to-grave security, low pay, stressful family relationships (including the murder of spouses), political conservatism, and an endless harping on behaving like a warrior even though many of the wars fought in the last decade or more have borne less resemblance to traditional physical combat than to arcade computer games."

But Johnson can't decide whether American soldiers are pampered imperial proconsuls with rotten values or poor dupes manipulated into miserable service careers by the Pentagon. In one passage, he writes, "These military city-states [the bases] teach American youths arrogance and racism, instilling in them the basic ingredients of racial superiority." Elsewhere, Johnson notes that 38 percent of the U.S. armed forces is nonwhite, and he laments that disadvantaged youths get lured into the military's maw. These suckers apparently don't even realize that joining the Army might place them in harm's way. Writes Johnson, "What the Pentagon is not saying to the Private Lynchs [sic] and their families is that all soldiers, regardless of their duties, stand a real chance of injury or death because they chose the military as a route of social mobility."

Not only does the United States have no affirmative duty on account of its preponderant power, in Johnson's view; it does not even need to defend itself. Johnson writes as though the terrorist threat were wholly apocryphal. "In many ways, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 came as manna from heaven to an administration determined to ramp up military budgets," he writes. If Johnson believes that anything at all should be done to secure the nation against possible future attacks, he does not say so. He opposes the installation of a regional commander for homeland defense, is against using force overseas, and his view of the function of intelligence-gathering agencies is categorically dim. He's not even much for multilateralism, scoffing as he does at the continued existence of NATO.

Worse, Johnson deploys arguments about human rights and democracy opportunistically. He complains about American bases in such undemocratic countries as Uzbekistan, but makes nothing of the U.S. defeat of a decidedly anti-democratic regime in Afghanistan. He thunders about an American contractor's role in training Bosnian and Croatian troops that "went on to conduct systematic and bloody ethnic exterminations of Serbs, accompanied by many war crimes." And yet Serbian "ethnic cleansing" (it appears only in quotes) is the cause of no such outrage because it might require Johnson to wrestle with a moral question rather than simply presume that American militarists were eager (all evidence of their reluctance notwithstanding) to establish an indefinite presence in resourceless, landlocked, unstable Kosovo.

Johnson's is a worldview of almost reflexive negativity. If there are six possible motives for an American action and five of them make that action a rational, if debatable, means to a desirable end, the sixth must be the true motive. That's a mind-set that has long plagued the left and undermined the usefulness of its critique. Here is where it got Chalmers Johnson on September 11: "Until passenger manifests revealed that the airliner hijackers were mostly from Saudi Arabia, I myself thought that the attacks could be blowback from American policies in any number of places, including Chile, Argentina, Indonesia, Greece, all of Central America, or Okinawa, not to mention Palestine and Iran."

Real Threat, Real Questions

That no serious foreign-policy analyst presumed that the 9-11 attackers were Chilean or Okinawan is more than incidental. There is, in fact, a geopolitically specific terrorist threat, whether or not one agrees with the way the Bush administration confronted it. And the reality of virtually unchallenged American power raises deep and genuine moral and strategic questions that cannot be answered simply by wishing that power away.

Do we envision a world order governed by alliances and institutions, and, if so, is such an order a vehicle for American power or a check against its abuse? Do we believe, with the neoconservatives, that American pre-eminence is, or could be, better and more stabilizing for the world than a balance of power shared with states like China and Russia? Do we share the Wilsonian view that American power confers a responsibility to spread American liberties? Or do we reject, with the realists, any role that interferes in the internal affairs of other states, as well as any attempt to amass overwhelming power, on the assumption that such predominance invites counterbalancing and ultimately destabilizes the world?

These are questions that the far left rarely engages but that preoccupy a broad bipartisan swath of the political center. If the Democratic Party has not provided a unified answer to them, in all fairness neither have the Republicans. The Bush administration, with its radical repositioning of the Republican Party on such strategic issues, has brought new urgency to the discussion.

In America Unbound, Brookings Institution fellow Ivo H. Daalder and Council on Foreign Relations Vice President James M. Lindsay argue that in promoting unilateralism, preemption, and the extension of unchallenged and undisguised American hegemony, Bush has revolutionized American grand strategy. In their briskly readable, narrative account of Bush's foreign-policy decision making, Daalder and Lindsay contend that although the terrorist attacks of September 11 accelerated the Bush revolution and in many significant ways shaped its outcome, Bush himself came into the White House with a unilateralist agenda. As a candidate he assembled a team of aggressively opinionated experts to advise him. Bush was not, however, a passive figurehead atop this structure. Rather, he mediated among his advisers, developing a unique synthesis of the assertive nationalism of Dick Cheney, the neoconservatism of Paul Wolfowitz, and the pragmatic realism of Colin Powell.

The claim that Bush is in charge of his foreign policy is hard to assess in the absence of knowledge about the true inner workings of the Bush White House. On the evidence, it could just as easily be argued that the warring intellectual tendencies inside the administration have produced an incoherent foreign policy precisely because Bush has proved a weak manager, buffeted by the more forceful personalities and intellects in his cabinet. That might explain the baffling welter of explanations for the Iraq War, as well as the lack of implementable planning for its aftermath. Still, Daalder and Lindsay make a good case for the consistency of Bush's personal vision, which is, in their view, "audacious rather than cautious, proactive rather than reactive, and risk-prone rather than risk-averse."

So, too, has Bush shaped American actions abroad with his assumptions about the American role in the world. These assumptions are as unrealistically sunny and self-regarding as Johnson's are jaundiced and self-flagellating. "If the United States led, others would follow," Daalder and Lindsay recount Bush concluding. "They would join with America because they shared its values and interests. To be sure, some countries might object to how Washington intended to lead. But Bush was convinced they would come around once the benefits of American action became clear."

The fallacy of this thinking was never more obvious than a year ago, when traditional Cold War allies such as France and Germany declined to follow the lead of a heedless U.S. administration as it headed off to war in Iraq. The United States, Britain, and Spain held a lonely summit in the Azores on March 16. "Nothing could have underscored these leaders' international isolation more graphically than this meeting in the middle of nowhere," write Daalder and Lindsay. "'It was seen as a defeat,' Powell later conceded, 'and it was a defeat.'"

Part of the problem, the authors note, was that "Bush's worldview simply made no allowance for others' doubting the purity of American motives." And not only did other nations -- even our allies -- require persuasion, their opinions, as it turned out, mattered. Grace alone, however much it was lacking, would not have solved the crisis. "The deeper problem was that the fundamental premise of the Bush revolution -- that America's security rested on an America unbound -- was mistaken," Daalder and Lindsay conclude. Their plea, like that of so many Democratic foreign-policy thinkers, is for a multilateral foreign policy that models the liberal values it promotes.

That's a sound message that echoes the best critical wisdom on the foreign policy of the last four years. Daalder and Lindsay have done an excellent job of chronicling history in the making, and of doing so soberly, with insight rather than vitriol. Nevertheless, one may come away from their book still wishing for something more. Multilateralism is a means nearly all liberals can agree on. But the question remains, to what end? How exactly do we view the role of the United States, acting in concert with others, if we don't accept Bush's premise that the projection of American power always promotes the common good, or the far left's equally dubious assumption that American power is always devoid of any rational purpose?

Here is where the hard, affirmative work begins: to define a foreign policy that takes security concerns seriously but does not abuse the public's fears, that strives to promote the best of American values without simply assuming we know what's best for others, and that neither retreats from the world nor frightens it with profligate use of U.S. military might. Working through these issues isn't just an intellectual exercise; it's an urgent task for those who hope the American people will entrust power to them.

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