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Number One With a Bullet

02.03.2004 | BOOKS

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

Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance
By Noam Chomsky
Metropolitan Books, 278 pages, $22.00

If a friend were to emerge from a coma tomorrow with the question, "Who won the recount?" on his or her parched lips, how would you start to explain the last three years? Would you say, "W. did, and then the towel-heads attacked us; but don't worry, li'l buddy, America is striking back against evil"? Or would you say, "Man, you don't want to know. Bush won and the patients are running the asylum"?

In America Unbound, Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay fall like a snowflake into the second category. Daalder is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Lindsay is director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, two facts that help explain the gentleness of their slaps. Although critical of what they call the "Bush revolution" in foreign policy, their book is largely a calm, detached, even respectful recap of how the Bush foreign policy team was assembled, what it believes and what it has done. America Unbound is most useful as a tool for helping the coma victim in your life catch up with three years' worth of Sunday afternoon political talk shows.

Which also makes it useful as a study in establishment banality. The authors are ensconced in think tanks with high-tech, well-endowed libraries; both no doubt have wide-ranging international contacts in government, academia and intelligence circles; and both are paid well to read and think long hours in the cool bellies of their respective institutions. Given these resources, it is instructive, if not surprising, that they could produce a book as dull and harmless as this--the equivalent of an old man removing his dentures and sinking his wet gums into Dick Cheney's forearm.

The 71 footnotes attached to the chapter on the Iraq war are indicative of the larger problem: Nearly every source is from, a major newsweekly or the New York Times. Rarely are the quotes probed or taken at anything but face value. It is conventional sourcing meant to buttress conventional wisdom, which can then safely and ridiculously be hailed as "provocative and original" by people like Robert Kagan.

Still, the book has its moments. Early in the tortured build-up, the authors assault the perception of the president as a puppet in the hands of scheming advisors. In making the case for Bush's competence, they quote choice scenes from Bob Woodward's filmic Bush at War, drag out the president's SAT scores (566 verbal; better than Bill Bradley!), and flatly state that, "George W. Bush led his own revolution." This defense of the president culminates in a bizarre challenge to his would-be detractors, in which you can almost hear the hurt in the authors' voices. "How many Americans," ask Daalder and Lindsay with furrowed brow, "have turned their lives around so completely that within a dozen years [of alcoholism] they became a two-time governor of the nation's second most populous state and a serious contender for the highest office in the land?" A better question is why two foreign policy experts are hurling such stupid rhetorical questions at us. Is he a stud in the sack, too, Ivo?

Once Bush's leadership credentials are established, Daalder and Lindsay sketch out the standard 9/11 story line: A domestic-oriented Bush was awakened by the attacks to the dangers of the world and boldly embraced the destiny of a foreign-policy presidency. Yet later they concede that 9/11 was less a trigger for Bush's "revolution" than a cover for it--correctly calling it an "opportunity" to implement a hard-right foreign-policy philosophy with a long lineage in the GOP. This cautious straddling of the two interpretations--that Bush both responded to and exploited 9/11--reaches an anticlimax with their ambivalent condemnation of Bush's "revolution." Will U.S. security be enhanced in the long run by invading any state it wants, tearing up arms-control treaties and alienating the world? "It is too early to tell," conclude Daalder and Lindsay, borrowing Chou En-lai's famous quip about 1789.

In the meantime, Bush remains the general at the center of his revolution in progress, surrounded by what the authors describe as two distinct camps: "democratic imperialists" (Wolfowitz, Perle) and "assertive nationalists" (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice). (The authors are very proud of this distinction, and recently penned a joint op-ed in the Financial Times reiterating the point.) Knowing this must seem like a split hair to most people outside Washington, the authors note the more important fact that both groups are aggressively "hegemonist" in outlook, eager and willing to use force in maintaining full-spectrum U.S. dominance.

But the desire to lock in hegemony isn't the defining feature of Bush's "revolution," and it's not what troubles Daalder and Lindsay. Where they diverge from the Bush hegemonists, as opposed to the Clinton hegemonists, is in the present administration's bad manners. "[Bush's] was not a revolution in America's goals abroad," they write, "but rather in how to achieve them." The authors openly support the project of America über alles, but would simply prefer to work more politely through the shells of institutions that help legitimize U.S. power in the eyes of the world, even if the facts, uses and ends of that power differ little. In arguing the prudence of maintaining the trappings of the old system, they remind readers that America has always dominated multilateral institutions and decided the selective enforcement of international law.

They site the Wilson, Truman and Clinton administrations as models of a more responsible imperial balance, in which a "blend of power and cooperation...serve American interests and advance American values." Until Bush, nations felt they had a say and a stake in international order, making it easier for them to accept natural subordination to the superpower. "[And] when multilateral organizations refused to heed American wishes," write the authors in describing this preferred arrangement, "the United States could--and frequently did--act alone."

In other words, we can have our cake and eat it, too.

Even though the authors think turning our back on this tradition is cause for alarm, the kid gloves stay clean. Nowhere is this gentlemanliness more effete than when the two are ballet dancing around the official rationale for invading Iraq. Daalder and Lindsay don't want to be too hard on the administration because, after all, everybody in Washington overestimated Iraq's WMD program. "For whatever reason," the baffled authors conclude, "the Bush administration did not know what it thought it knew about Iraq's weapons program."

That's one way of putting it. Or you could say that the administration all but manufactured what it said it knew about Iraq's WMD. Which also happens to be the functional definition of a lie. But that might make Daalder and Lindsay sound too much like Molly Ivins. It would also force the question of what purpose that lie served, leading to deeper questions about the meaning of the Bush revolution, the kind that aren't raised at Better not get into that. Besides, who could question the post-9/11 convictions of a president of such shining moral character? Did we mention that he used to be an alcoholic?

* * *

Like Daalder and Lindsay, Noam Chomsky does not see Bush's unilateralism as a significant change in either the means or ends of U.S. foreign policy. Unlike Daalder and Lindsay, Noam Chomsky marshals a typically impressive array of sources to paint a bold and sobering big-picture sketch of what is happening in Bush's Washington, how it fits into the history of American foreign policy and what it might mean for the world.

For Chomsky, the biggest difference with the Bush administration is that it is openly admitting its intent to do what the U.S. has frequently done in the past. Only now it will be enshrined as permanent policy and carried out with an especially mindless swagger.

"The September 2002 unveiling of the imperial grand strategy justifiably sounded alarm bells," he writes in Hegemony or Survival. "[The Bush administration is] officially declaring an even more extreme policy, one aimed at permanent global hegemony... [They] took action at once to put the world on notice that they mean what they say."

The administration chose Iraq, a weak country, as the petri dish and showcase for the new imperial strategy. Chomsky's damning and conclusive dismissal of the official justification for the war is, as usual, drawn from wide but easily available sources. The same sources were available to the authors of America Unbound, of course, but somehow Daalder and Lindsay ended up cooking a fudge-brownie cake stuffed with minutia about prewar "diplomacy" and Bush's SAT scores.

Why such blasé regurgitation from informed and intelligent men? Chomsky would point to the "doctrinal apparatus" within which mainstream and elite debate in the U.S. operates, a phenomenon he's been dissecting since the 1967 publication of his American Power and the New Mandarins. Within this apparatus, fundamental assumptions about the benevolence of American power are shared, and taking foreign views hostile to U.S. interests too seriously into account--if at all--is anathema. Nobody gives guided tours of this world better than Chomsky.

Thirty-six years and dozens of titles after The New Mandarins, the Sisyphean Chomsky is essentially still writing the same book, regularly updating it with new chapters and expanded footnotes. The "survival" in the title of his latest represents the disturbing return of a consistent, if often unspoken, undercurrent in this multi-volume work. Chomsky has always held that American foreign policy is to be opposed not only on moral grounds, but also because it drives the logic of proliferation and destabilizes international order.

The last three years have seen an acceleration of this logic, and are reminiscent of the last time Chomsky explicitly raised the alarm about human survival. His 1982 Towards a New Cold War addressed the dangers posed by the first Reagan administration's denouncement of detente in favor of a full-court press against the Soviet Union, a high-risk strategy that scared the hell out of the Russians and most sane observers in the U.S. Full of what Chomsky calls the "more reactionary sectors of the Reagan-Bush I administrations," the Bush II team has put the hawkish pedal back to the radioactive metal, tearing up the foundations of arms control and barreling ahead with policies that both encourage the spread of WMD and lower the threshold for their use. These policies include missile defense (currently receiving more funding than the entire State Department), spurning the Non-Proliferation Treaty, modernizing nuclear forces, blurring the line between nuclear and conventional weapons, publishing the preemptive war doctrine, openly discussing "offensive nuclear strike systems," weakening treaties on biological and chemical weapons and, last but certainly not least, cutting funds for programs to secure Russia's vast and leaking nuclear arsenal. For Chomsky, these policies are as much a part of the Bush "revolution" as the invasion of Iraq and the ongoing "war on terror" of which it was supposedly a part.

This is not the first time Chomsky has held the rhetoric of a U.S. "war on terror"--there have been several--up for examination against the facts and the unspoken assumptions behind them. In Hegemony or Survival, post-9/11 U.S. policy represents less a clean break from the past than a "redeclaration" of a war invoked whenever it's needed to provide cover for a controversial invasion or two.

[When the last "war on terror" was declared by the Reagan administration,] important questions should have arisen at once: What constitutes terrorism? How does it differ from aggression or resistance? The operative answers are revealing, but the questions never entered the arena of public discussion. A convenient definition was adopted: terrorism is what our leaders declare it to be. Period. The practice continues as the war is redeclared.

Thus when U.S. Marines are bombed in Beirut or Riyadh--terrorism. When the U.S. blows up an Iranian airliner or kills a few thousand Panamanians while arresting a drug dealer--freedom-fighting or protecting interests. Exposing this double standard is the mission and crucible of Chomsky's political writing, and Hegemony and Survival includes an essay on this theme for a post-9/11 world. Without dismissing the threat posed by al Qaeda, he suggests broadening our historical memory beyond the most recent White House speech.

[S]omething dramatically new and different did happen on that terrible day. The target was not Cuba, or Nicaragua, or Lebanon, or Chechnya, or one of the other traditional victims of international terrorism, but a state with enormous power... For the first time an attack on the rich and powerful countries succeeded on a scale that is, regrettably, not unfamiliar in their traditional domains. [C]ommentators outside the ranks of Western privilege often responded to the 9-11 atrocities with a "welcome to the club," particularly in Latin America, where it is not so easy to forget the plague of violence and repression that swept through the region from the early 1960s, or its [U.S.] roots.

[When] a front page story in the national press warns turning to so-called "soft targets"...[t]he story should at once recall Washington's official instructions to its proxy forces to attack "soft targets" in Nicaragua. Whether attacking "soft targets" is right or wrong, terrorism or a noble cause, depends on who is the agent.

Of course, comparative passages like this sound callous and absurd to many people. This is why Chomsky includes a heavy and repetitive set of brush-up lectures in each of his books: Nicaragua, Gaza, Panama, East Timor, Indochina, El Salvador, Gulf War I and the sanctions, etc., etc., etc. The predictability of this exercise causes even many sympathetic readers to roll their eyes and dismiss Chomsky as a broken record and a naif, but these episodes constitute the necessary background for seeing fully through today's official hypocrisy and double-speak; our own terror campaigns continue to this day, and they must be understood and included in any serious effort to slow the escalating cycle of violence in the world of 2003. The continuities between the past and the post-9/11 present are stronger than the discontinuities. And as Chomsky makes clear where Daalder and Lindsay do not, confronting the present has never been more urgent in preserving any future worth having.

Originally published in New York Press.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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