By John Brown To Our Readers
President George W. Bush and his tightknit group of close advisers don’t believe in formulating or implementing a foreign policy. This was the case in Bush’s first term, and will most likely be so in his second.
The White House is far more concerned with establishing permanent Republican rule at home than interacting with or reshaping the outside world according to a carefully conceived plan.
It was only Sept. 11 that forced the Bush administration into its confused and violent involvement in foreign affairs. But the so-called war on terror, a term so vague as to be incomprehensible, reflects not a foreign policy, but a haphazard reaction to an unexpected and tragic event.
As for the U.S. misadventure in Iraq, the evidence grows daily that it was anything but the result of a clear policy. The muddled neoconservative ideas about spreading democracy in the Middle East from the barrel of a gun used by Bush and his advisers to justify the invasion ex post facto are an intellectual fig leaf that can’t hide the administration’s failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that supposedly were the reason to lead the nation into a senseless war in the first place.
The fact of the matter is that, despite its unconvincing rhetoric about its lofty goals abroad, the administration saw the war on terror and the Iraqi shock and awe operation as politically useful for domestic purposes. It very consciously sought to win Americans’ support for a president who failed to win a majority of popular votes in the 2000 election by depicting him as a decisive commander-in-chief who deserved the allegiance of all patriotic citizens. No incumbent president, as Bush’s political advisers know so well, has ever failed to be re-elected in wartime.
It’s not without interest that Karl Rove, Bush’s key strategist, is a great admirer of the obscure 25th American president, William McKinley (1897-1901), who, before his assassination by an anarchist, succeeded in creating a Republican coalition that dominated American politics for decades, until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Like Bush, McKinley also led the country into war — the Spanish-American war that has been compared to the U.S. unilateral action against Iraq.
The White House’s infatuation with domestic political campaigns is not the only reason for Bush’s dismissal of foreign policy. Bush’s own lack of experience in international affairs as Texas governor contributes to this provincial attitude. More important, however, is that Bush’s indifference to the outside world has been shaped by deep-rooted historical characteristics of the country he governs.
First, if we go back to the 17th century, there is America’s Puritan heritage, thanks to which English settlers in the New World believed that, as predestined members of a holy “city upon a hill,” they could be spared the wrath of God by avoiding contact with the sinful rest of mankind. Central to American life is also the concern, from the very first days of the republic, of sacrificing the country’s much-prized independence by becoming overly committed to overseas partners, justified early on by George Washington’s warning in his Farewell Address against “permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” Washington did add, however, “let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements,” but this phrase is little remembered.
Additionally, there is an ingrained, widespread belief, among certain segments of the U.S. population, in American exceptionalism — a perceived national uniqueness that allows America, including its language, to ignore the rest of the world. “If English was good enough for Jesus,” said the Texas governor, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, about 80 years ago, “it’s good enough for us.” As a corollary to this belief, we have what American historians call manifest destiny, the relentless U.S. westward expansion across the North American continent, which was based not on a master strategy, but rather on the mass movement of aggressive, self-reliant, individualistic, sanctimonious and occasionally generous settlers toward the Pacific Ocean.
In this spontaneous process of Americanizing the frontier, there were recurrent clashes with “redskin tribes,” “insurgents” threatening the newly appropriated “homeland.” In many ways, the war on terror, for all its vagueness, is reminiscent in its methods of the Indians wars in the United States, which too were based on so-called preventive measures. It is not coincidental that Vice President Dick Cheney’s home state, Wyoming, was the scene of the last great Indian battles that ended in the 1870s. No military installation in the western United States had a bloodier history fighting Native Americans than Fort Phil Kearny, in northern Wyoming.
Once the continent had been declared American from coast to coast, the geographical configuration of the United States, with vast oceans as its two largest neighbors, gave its inhabitants a sense of splendid isolation from the rest of the world. America, in the words of the commentator Nicholas von Hoffman, is now “a 3,000-mile-wide terrarium,” a “biosphere” that “has cut it off from the rest of the world and left it to pick its own way down the path of history.” In such imagined conditions, where the rest of the planet doesn’t really count, why craft a foreign policy?
Finally, Bush and his advisers are aware that Americans, true to their democratic, pragmatic tradition, are ill at ease with the idea of an elite (for example, the United Nations, the State Department, the Council on Foreign Relations) making highfalutin’ decisions far from the public eye about the direction the country should take. To avoid such potential PR problems, the Bush team downplays the outside world, unless as a potential enemy, as well as the need for a foreign policy to deal with it. It’s the perfect approach to win the trust of the folks in the heartland.
There have, of course, been periods in American history when the United States projected itself, with some nobility of purpose, onto the world stage with a thought-out policy — as documents such as the Declaration of Independence (1776), Wilson’s Fourteen Points (1918) and Roosevelt’s Atlantic Charter (1941) suggest. The Cold War, to some extent, was the result of an actual U.S. foreign policy, although containment was not viewed or implemented in the same way by different administrations.
Bush and his White House advisers, however, reflect and support another tradition, the deep-seated American notion that the nation needs no foreign policy because aliens are of no essential importance to a continent-country except when they threaten it. Despite increased globalization and mass communications breaking down national barriers, this was Bush’s viewpoint during his first term, and it will continue to be the starting point for his administration’s overseas priorities for the next four years, unless global events, especially in the economic sphere, force him and his parochial White House entourage to realize that America is only a small part of humanity and cannot survive without it.
John Brown, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, contributes a monthly column on U.S. politics and current affairs to The Moscow Times.