I'm pointedly avoiding TV coverage of the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on 11 September 2001. So this post is not about that. Want to know where I was? I was at Eckerd College in a class called, The Constitution and Individual Rights. Good, glad we got that out of the way.
The rest of this is response to 9/11 in Retrospect by Melvryn P. Leffler in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs. I'm not linking to it because I assume it is behind a firewall. I pay for my subscription - if anyone feels inspired to go buy the issue after reading this, then great. Except, you should probably readjust your priorities. There are and will be better critiques than mine.
9/11 in Retrospect
The author appears to have several main points in his article - it is time to look long and hard at U.S. policy after September 11th without an eye to blame and that the Bush administration's policy choices were not so revolutionary as they were purported to be and all have a grounding in previous U.S. foreign policy. He uses the Bush administration's National Security Strategy of 2002 to examine the administration's response to terrorist attacks in 2001. He gives the priorities of that document as "preemption (really, prevention), unilateralism, military supremacy, democratization, free trade, economic growth, alliance cohesion, and great-power partnerships."
Leffler quite rightly points out that the GWOT and the related wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not the total of the Bush administration's policy. I rather agree with him that the Bush administration continued or marginally altered policies such as free trade (continued the Doha talks), prioritizing democratization, and that U.S. military expense and build-up had started under Clinton. Sure, Bush may have increased defense spending, increased rhetoric about democracy (and really, that's all he did), and was a champion of the free market in the face of increasing inequalities, but these were policy constants in Washington for years and were never really going to be challenged. Moreover, Bush managed to smooth relations with China after a rough start, realigned the U.S.'s relationship with India and dramatically increased aid to Africa. While there are complaints about the particulars of these policy moves, they largely were not controversial.
However, it is the GWOT and subsequent wars that are controversial and that have come to define the Bush presidency.
Leffler argues that the Bush administration's adoption of preventive war has historical precedents, specifically in the Western hemisphere associated with the Monroe doctrine, Roosevelt's policy regarding ships at sea and Germany, and Kennedy's imposition of a blockade of Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis. He also notes that the Clinton administration, in response to terrorism, proclaimed its intention to "preempt. . . individuals who perpetrate or plan to perpetrate" terrorist attacks against the U.S.
To me, it is somewhat telling that the most recent incident cited had taken place some nearly 40 years earlier. I don't dispute any of the precedents cited, but would point out that the latter two were specific incidents and were not part of a global policy. The Monroe doctrine is certainly a precedent, since U.S. power was limited to the Western hemisphere at the time. Such U.S. policies had formally ended and had been acknowledged as inappropriate or at least "unneighborly." A declared willingness to engage in preventive warfare on a global scale was new, especially in a post-Cold War environment. The Clinton administration's pronouncement was very specifically about preemption rather than prevention (the difference in this case being plans and the attempts to acquire means, rather than to generally wish the U.S. harm). Moreover, the Clinton administration specifies "individuals," not states. Both in scale and scope the Bush administration's endorsement of global preemptive/preventive war was a deviation from existing policy.
Leffler first cites the undercurrent of unilateralism in U.S. policy dating back to speeches by Presidents Jefferson and Washington. He notes that in the most modern times, even in the midst of Cold War alliances and the Clinton adminstration's use of NATO, the U.S. always publicly reserved the right to act unilaterally. The Obama administration's first National Security Strategy explicitly retained that right as well.
Color me unconvinced in this regard as well. In recent history, Cold War, Clinton, and Obama administrations have reserved the right to act unilaterally. . . as any state in a self-help system does. The difference is the propensity to do so and in fairness, the characterization of the Bush administration to act unilaterally is perhaps unfair. NATO was involved in the invasion of Afghanistan and, although just an alliance of convenience, the Bush administration did involve a number of other countries in the invasion of Iraq (some more useful than others). The real difference was the Bush administration very loudly proclaimed their willingness to act unilaterally. Previous administrations and the current administration have suggested that unilateral war would be an act of last resort and undesirable. The Bush administration and some of their louder-mouthed domestic allies suggested that it would better for the U.S. to act unilaterally and that they were unwilling to allow U.S. power to be constrained by international institutions. The only actual difference is that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was not pre-approved by the United Nations.
The Invasion of Iraq
It is regarding the 2003 invasion of Iraq that I most strongly disagree with Leffler. He argues that the common perception that a Democratic administration would not have invaded Iraq is unjustified. He cites belligerent statements from Al Gore, Joe Biden, and Bill Clinton regarding Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
While there were certainly plenty of aggressive statements from many Democrats and their liberal allies regarding Iraq, I would argue that some of these statements were political posturing in the run up to the war. But the crux of my argument lies in the reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq. There are two generally accepted arguments that the Bush administration went to war in Iraq: Either the promotion of democracy in the Middle East by establishing a beachhead and thereby undermining the allure and arguments of militant Islamism or because of the nexus of between terrorist organizations and states that produce weapons of mass destruction (the so-called Axis of Evil), in this case, Hussein's dislike of the U.S. and supposed WMD programs. However, the neo-conservative movement played an essential role in both of those motivations. The democratic beachhead idea was first-and-foremost a neocon idea. In the case of the WMD program, the sources used to support the notion that Iraq had active weapons programs were from sources that had already been rejected by the previous administration. It was the neocons who revisited these sources and reintroduced them into the discussion.
I possess no super-human abilities to prove a counter-factual, but I see little reason to suspect that the invasion of Iraq would have been a preferred policy option in a Democratic administration.
Leffler concludes that it is time to stop assigning blame and it is certainly hard to disagree. The Bush administration has left office and the current administration has made plenty of its own mistakes. However, Leffler lists the damages done to U.S. goals as a result of these policies. Many of these I feel were unfair, but I argue that the Bush administration did in many cases switch policies dramatically and that the Iraq war was unique to the Bush administration. These, at least short-term, damages are the Bush administration's responsibility and those decisions should reflect upon those decisionmakers.