With an almost certain war against Iraq impending (I write in early March 2003), and as Reed students toil away over papers and exams, it seems a good time to give the Bush administration’s foreign policy its own mid-term evaluation.
From my perspective as a diplomatic historian, the problem with the Bush foreign policy is not that it is too materialistic (“war for oil” is a serious misnomer), but that it is too ideological; not that it is too self-interested (would that it were only more intelligently so), but that it is what in the trade we call “Wilsonian.”
As many have already criticized the Bush foreign policy, in substance and manner the administration has indeed been unduly unilateralist — from its rejection of multilateral instruments from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and the International Criminal Court, to its “pre-emption” doctrine and current conflict with Iraq. It has ignored the interests and susceptibilities of those allies and neighbors whose assistance it needs for its own purposes — like pursuing Al Qaeda, or helping to clean up the aftermath of an Iraq war, or enhancing a worldwide free market. It has let itself be distracted from pressing threats such as North Korea’s nuclear policy by its concentration on — some have said obsession with — Saddam Hussein. It relies too much on the “hard power” of military pressure and too little on the “soft power” of defining one’s values and interests broadly enough that others follow willingly.
What especially worries me is the administration’s single-minded pursuit of “regime change” in Iraq, and through that the extension of democracy throughout much of the Middle East, remaking the entire political complexion and strategic configuration of that whole area. Given the enormous cultural differences between the West and Arab and Moslem states, the latter’s almost total lack of any viable democratic tradition, and the volatile (not to mention anti-American and Islamist) nature of so much of Arab opinion today, this aim to “democratize” the region appears to me rash, reckless, and quixotic — far more likely to destabilize even American-friendly governments than to extend democracy. Hence my criticism: that the Bush foreign policy has locked onto a moralistic, ideological goal with blinkered, single-minded tenacity, ignoring or under-estimating its likely severe costs over the whole range of the world scene.