From Fantasy to Fiasco

Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power by Fred Kaplan (John Wiley & Sons, 246 pages, $25.95)

Darth Vader makes a better villain than Mr. Magoo. A sinister mastermind is not only more dramatic than a myopic bumbler but more reassuring, because a universe controlled by a malevolent intelligence is at least controlled by intelligence. For this reason, explanations of the Bush administration's disastrous foreign policy in Iraq and the world in terms of Halliburton profits and alleged connections between the House of Bush and the House of Saud satisfy many who recoil from the depressing thought that a great nation could be led into disaster by people who are well intentioned and sincerely deluded.

The latter proposition is the thesis of Daydream Believers, by Fred Kaplan, the "War Stories" columnist of Slate magazine. Supplementing well-known facts with fresh reporting, Kaplan makes the case, no less true for being familiar, that two broad streams of thought converged in the Bush administration. One intellectual tributary influenced "conservative nationalists" like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney; the other is identified with neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Elliot Abrams.

From the 1970s onward, the conservative nationalists were drawn to the vision of unchallenged American superiority in high-tech warfare, a longtime theme of Albert Wohlstetter of the RAND Corporation and his younger colleague Andrew Marshall of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment. In his 80s now, Marshall is known as the "Yoda" of the "revolution in military affairs." Kaplan writes: "On January 24, 1991, eight days after the air war [portion of the Gulf War] started, Andy Marshall called a staff meeting. He was wondering whether the 'revolution in military affairs' had begun, whether the opening air strikes of the Gulf War ... marked a fundamental change in the nature of warfare."

Kaplan also observes: "Nearly twenty years earlier, Marshall and Wohlstetter had thought that these new weapons would restore parity to the Soviet-American military balance in Europe. Now that the Soviet Union was gone, it seemed that they might secure American military preeminence worldwide." A decade later, in January 2002, then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld declared that the role of airpower in swiftly routing the Taliban in Afghanistan proved that the revolution in military affairs was complete. One more test remained for the idea that the U.S. could win wars with quick, surgical, high-tech airpower on the cheap: Iraq.

The neoconservatives, for their part, held "two planks": rejecting multilateral diplomacy as a restraint on American power and using that power to reshape the world. "In their first few months in power, Bush and his top aides -- Rumsfeld, Cheney, and [Condoleezza] Rice -- made good on their derision of multilateralism, which they viewed as a vestige of Clinton's liberal sentimentality, and, more than that, an unnecessary burden in an age of indomitable American power," Kaplan writes. "The open intention to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty, the explicit scuttling of talks on missiles and nuclear weapons with North Korea, the brusque discarding of the Kyoto environmental accord -- all signaled that a new, hard-nosed team was running the White House and, by extension, the world." And with September 11 came an opportunity for the neocons to push the second plank by reshaping the Middle East.

The exemplary abuse that the establishment press heaped on Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer for their book, The Israel Lobby, was clearly intended to deter other scholars from suggesting that Israel and some of its American supporters had anything to do with the Iraq War or Bush administration foreign policy. While avoiding exaggeration, Kaplan documents the influence on the Bush administration of the Israeli right and its neoconservative allies, such as pardoned Irangate criminal Elliot Abrams, whom Kaplan quotes as saying: "Tomorrow's lobby for Israel has got to be conservative Christians ... because there aren't going to be enough Jews to do it." Appointed by Bush to be the National Security Council's director for Near Eastern, South Asian, and North African affairs and the point man for the "Greater Middle East Initiative," Abrams supervised a report cataloguing all the failings of the Arab world that "seemed to confirm the Arab world's deepest paranoia. ... Speaking privately with his aides, Powell said the White House was, in effect, telling Arabs, 'Get down out of those trees and be democrats.'" Kaplan emphasizes the influence on the Bush administration of Natan Sharansky, the Soviet Jewish dissident turned Israeli hardliner. As Kaplan points out, "In Israel, Sharansky was widely viewed as an obstructionist to peace talks" by proposing unrealistic demands for democratic purity among the Palestinians as a precondition for Israeli concessions.

In his catalog of Bush administration failures, Kaplan includes the disastrous 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon. Kaplan reports that the Bush administration refused to heed calls for shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State Rice to broker a truce, because "they wanted to wait a while, to give Israel a chance to demolish Hezbollah." The radicalism of the administration was apparent, when Rice made "the remark that dropped jaws and made headlines. 'What we're seeing here,' she said, 'is, in a sense, the growing -- the birth pangs of a new Middle East.'" Kaplan writes that Bush and Rice "believed that reversing [historic American] priorities -- pursuing democracy at the expense of stability -- would yield both; but there was nothing beyond faith to support this belief." The administration's willingness to work with despots like Pakistan's Musharraf and Saudi Arabia's rulers, while refusing even to talk to Iran and Syria, only made the United States look hypocritical as well as ineffectual.

Kaplan's depressing account of the wreck of American foreign policy by the toxic interaction of dogmatism, ignorance, and zeal is all the more sobering in light of the virtual certainty that Sen. John McCain will be the Republican presidential candidate. One of the most fervent supporters of the Iraq War, McCain has made his support for the Bush administration's "surge" strategy central to his campaign. His idea of a joke is publicly singing what he referred to as "the old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran," to the tune of "Barbara Ann," and, more seriously, he has said that he can envision U.S. military bases in Iraq for the next 100 years. During the primary campaign of 2000, many neoconservative "McCainiacs" preferred the Arizona senator to the eventual nominee, George W. Bush, and recently The Weekly Standard published the inevitable article comparing McCain to Winston Churchill, an unapologetic imperialist whom neocons prefer to the liberal internationalist Franklin Roosevelt.

While McCain vows to plunge onward to an illusory victory in Iraq, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, despite their differences, have made it clear that, if elected, they would wind down the Iraq War in order to focus on al-Qaeda. The prospect that discredited neoconservatives might regain the ability to shape U.S. foreign policy under President McCain means that the stakes in the 2008 election could not be higher. Kaplan writes: "The great divide in thinking about American foreign policy today is not so much between Realists and Neoconservatives; it's between realists (with a small r) and fantasists. ... In these opening years of the twenty-first century, the United States has been led by fantasists." If McCain wins, the fantasists may get a third term.