Where the US went wrong
Published in January 2006 in The Dawn
THE Bush foreign policy has provoked intense debate both at home and abroad. Within the US,
one is stunned by the inconclusiveness of the debate; it is strained and confused. It is
obvious that the fractious debate is reflective of the testing times the country is facing
internally and abroad in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world. But scarred by the 9/11 trauma,
inspired by a religious outlook and driven by the supreme consciousness of power, the
American response tends to simplify or distort emerging challenges.
The fact is that although the United States may have become the sole superpower,
globalization and the end of the Cold War have also led to a certain devolution of power,
thus raising the status of other powers with competing interests and policies. This makes it
difficult for the US to lead, tempting her to dominate and so provoking reaction and
resistance. There is a tragic paradox in America.s condition; being the only superpower
encourages the temptation to use power yet constrains the prospects of success as never
before. American power, therefore, is not absolute. And, on many issues, the United States
is walking alone.
It was alright in the days when the US was a dominant power, at least in half of the world.
Now it may command the whole world but its power and influence are no longer incontestable.
Also, coalitions or partnerships these days are not as rigid as during the Cold War era.
They are based on narrow or limited interests, are transient and unstable, and ever more
susceptible to the vagaries of public opinion in each country. America has to thus learn to
lead not through domination but consensus and compromise. And that is the central dilemma it
faces: how to navigate the transition from hegemony to domination and to leadership. Its
recourse to unilateralism could well be an escape from this dilemma.
That said there is broad agreement in the United States that terrorism poses a grave threat
to national security. In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, Americans genuinely feel that they
are unsafe and vulnerable especially when the threat could conceivably be from weapons of
mass destruction. On that there is no difference of opinion in the US, nor is there any
dissent regarding the desirability of a demonstrable projection of power in response to
9/11. Any other American leader would have reacted equally strongly. When it comes to the
core issue of national security, the rights and wrongs of the response are hard to
Where did Bush go wrong? A major part of the problem has been the Iraq war. The Bush
administration has been a matrix of multiple political strands . ideologues, evangelists,
neo-cons, Cold Warriors, special interests, holdovers from the Reagan and Bush Senior era,
with strong and long-standing ties to big business, specially oil, and career lobbyists for
Israel. Many of them had been mighty men of power once. They had been waiting to regain
ascendancy, and could not resist the opportunity offered by September 11 to overreach
Their varying agendas merged and found a good focus in a president with a simple world view
and a combative and quixotic disposition. Drawing their support from an ideologically
committed and politically activist minority in the country they have prospered in America.s
fear and pain and have come to dominate the foreign policy discourse, thus hampering the
emergence of a policy based on a strategic calculation of America.s broader national
Doctrines such as that of preemptive strikes are basically .political oratory.. America has
struck preemptively in the past and will do so in future; so it was not a novel idea after
all. It is just that America attacked the wrong country for the wrong reasons and at a wrong
time, and badly entangled the war on terrorism with the WMD issue and the so-called
This created a huge backlash in the Islamic world at an emotionally charged time after 9/11
when both Islam and the West felt they were under siege. It simultaneously unleashed so much
anti-American and pro-Islamist feelings that the United States ended up intensifying rather
than weakening the radical forces and tilting the balance of power in favour of the
Anti-Americanism has complicated not only the war on terrorism but also Bush.s so-called
democracy initiative. There is a lot of talk in Washington about freedom and democracy, but
the fact is that in large measure it is driven by the need to redefine the Iraq invasion for
the sake of history and to sustain domestic consensus for the war effort.
This talk may also be meant to give a moral veneer to the hard-line approach the Bush
administration has adopted towards authoritarian regimes that threaten US interests or its
friends in the Middle East. Indeed, democracy may be a codeword for a change of regimes
perceived as unfriendly. The real test of American commitment to a democratic Middle East
will come when the US has to move against undemocratic but friendly regimes.
Even if Iraq does get on the road to democracy its example will not be relevant to other
countries. Muslims do not take American intentions to democratize the Middle East seriously,
even though the American public, specially the academic community, does. I guess the public
has great faith in the American idealism. Muslims, however, feel that the interventions in
Afghanistan and Iraq were not about democracy. They were about removing certain perceived
threats to the United States and to global security, and in the process, to set up client
states in a region of immense strategic and economic importance to the US.
It is a different matter that the US has ended up with unintended consequences in Iraq and
is now making the most of a bad bargain on which it is putting on a brave new face of
democracy promotion. Ironically, democracy may now be the only avenue open for the Iraqis to
seek an end to the American occupation and for Shia activists to empower themselves,
something the Americans may not have bargained for. Whatever the case, democracy in Iraq has
a unique context not to be extrapolated to the region. The only relevance that the Iraq
example holds is that this may not be the best way to bring democracy to the Islamic world.
In any case, the Islamic world does not need an example to inspire it towards democratic
ambitions. These ambitions have been flickering for decades. If anything, the Iraq war and
the war on terrorism have come to militate against the advancement of democracy. On the one
hand, they have raised the profile of the Islamists, and on the other, strengthened the
forces resistant to change since state power is needed to act against extremism and the
ruling elites in Muslim countries may have found another rationale to legitimize their
US foreign policy has traditionally rested on two planks: a measure of idealism wrapped in
soaring rhetoric and a missionary sense of exceptionalism, and cold-blooded power politics.
The US always claimed to have primarily acted in the name of principles and values but often
the facts have spoken against this stance. Yet America was either given the benefit of the
doubt or there were overriding factors to put up with its dominant behaviour as it
maintained some semblance of balance of power and international order and stability, and
played an admirable role in the two World Wars. There has also been at times a humanitarian
complement to the pursuit of its geopolitical interests.
But the world has changed. As America chooses to affirm some treaties and UN resolutions and
reject others, attacks some countries but tolerates others, enforces non-proliferation in
some places and not in others, kills innocent citizens in Afghanistan and Iraq and treats
prisoners inhumanely, the legitimacy and morality of its conduct is coming under serious
challenges. This fuels anti-Americanism particularly in developing countries many of which
do not feel as critically dependent on the US as before and have alternative choices of
allies among other big powers.
Their populations are becoming assertive and are expressing their resistance to their
pro-West elite and their pseudo liberalism, which has made little material difference to
their lives, through nationalism and anti-Americanism. The Islamic world is doing so in the
idiom of religion and Latin America through its flirtation with the Left.
Nonetheless not everything in the US foreign policy is exceptionable. Relations with China,
Russia, Japan and India are anchored in good strategic calculations. The fundamentals of its
alliance with Europe remain viable and enduring . it is not the alliance but the concept of
American leadership which is in trouble. Yet the US anticipates growing difference of
approach if not interests with the increasingly assertive .Old Europe. in the future as it
grows out of a relationship of dependency on the US. That is why America is trying to
strengthen its ties with the New Europe which will remain dependent on it. The same concept
of dependency is being tried with India in assisting it to achieve its big power ambitions
especially where China.s strategic shadow looms large. Pakistan will remain important for
some time, but for different reasons.
Do we see hints of .imperialism. in the US foreign policy today? No, America has not
embarked on an imperialist venture in this day and age. Yet America commands an immense
array of diplomatic, economic and political assets and its power will continue to play a
decisive role in international affairs, but for its own good and that of the world America
will have to learn to use its power differently.
The current policy is not sustainable. Major domestic crises seem to be gestating at home .
deficit, social security, health care, energy, political corruption, the state of education,
jobs, outsourcing and other challenges of globalization. There is no lasting place for an
expansive foreign policy in future national priorities. Indeed, the next election may change
more than a president.
Perhaps the Iraq experience is the best thing that has happened to America. A success there
would have set America on an even more dangerous course.