The hallmark of the Bush foreign policy has been a naive radicalism married to an operational incompetence. A small clique with a preconceived blueprint took advantage of a national emergency and a callow president, blowing a containable threat into war while dismissing more ominous menaces. These people are out to remake the world, with little sense of risk, proportion or history. At this writing, the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, has seized some authority over the Iraq policy from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who responded with adolescent pique. The long-abused Secretary of State Colin Powell offered new respect for the UN. President Bush even directly contradicted Vice President Dick Cheney's discredited claim of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.
In a different administration, these shifts would signal that the chief executive, clearly in control, had recognized the misjudgments and costs of a failed policy, demoted those responsible and shifted authority to others. But Bush seems incapable of that kind of decisiveness or discernment. These are mere skirmishes, indicative of the absence of leadership at the top. Bush is as callow as ever. The man even boasts that he never reads the papers.
By mid-October, the administration was mainly in PR mode, with Cheney insisting that Iraq is on the mend; the latest UN initiative, meanwhile, was extinct, a casualty of U.S. refusal to give the UN authority. The Bush presidency remained a kind of regency, in which the real power reposes with Cheney, Rumsfeld and the neoconservative intellectuals. And American foreign policy remained captive to the same bellicose dreams of unilateralism and hegemony.
Meanwhile, little progress has been made in stabilizing Afghanistan or rooting out al-Qaeda. The so-called road map to a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace is in tatters, while the administration fails to rein in Ariel Sharon's excesses. America's own homeland security is in the hands of an agency that has largely failed to assist first responders or coordinate the federal bureaucratic fragmentation. Instead, the administration keeps taking short cuts at the expense of civil liberty.
Two historical parallels come to mind: Vietnam and the Cuban missile crisis. In the former, it was not foreign-policy extremists but the best and brightest of the mainstream that led America into a disastrous quagmire. The familiar faith in American technology and contempt for facts on the ground, echoed today in Iraq, produced a calamitous overreach, which was reversed only by a public groundswell. Yet the disaster never turned to holocaust because the 1960s counterparts of today's neocons, who wanted to expand the war to China or to nuke Hanoi "into the Stone Age," were overruled.
By the same token, the Cuban missile crisis narrowly missed triggering a nuclear exchange and World War III. Instead, thanks to John Kennedy's leadership, it led to a new turn in U.S. foreign policy, with small, mutual, confidence-building steps between the United States and the Soviet Union. These eventually produced a partial détente, in which seeds of democracy could sprout in Soviet satellites and communism could collapse of its own weight.
The post-September 11 world is an even more difficult challenge than the Cold War. Our adversaries have no nation-state to hold hostage, no stable interests to inject a note of prudence. The threat is hydra-headed and reactive to what America does. That new, alarming context demands rare wisdom from our leaders. What we have is unprecedented hubris. Otto von Bismarck once said, "God watches out for fools, drunkards and the United States." But this is more of a historical inference than a future guarantee. We are pushing our luck.
This issue of the Prospect includes a special report on the foreign-policy emergency, in which thinkers who have served five different administrations offer a better, more secure path. The report is timed to coincide with a national leadership conference on American security, convened by The American Prospect, The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress. The conference, Oct. 28-29, will be webcast. You can find out more about the conference here.
Americans have been understandably traumatized by 9-11, and only in the past two months has broad public opinion turned tentatively against the administration. In the world of expert opinion, however, the neocons have always been a tiny, radical minority. The Bush policy is not just arrogant and isolating. It also makes America a less safe place.