Over the last seven years, it's often been said
that George W. Bush exists in a bubble.
When it comes to the cast of characters in his administration – and the Washington
Consensus generally – it turns out he isn't alone. The other night I watched
Harvard academic Joseph Nye and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage
discuss the crisis in Pakistan with talk-show host Charlie
Rose. The two of them had just finished co-chairing a Center for Strategic
and International Studies commission that produced a report,
clearly meant for the next administration, on wielding American "smart power"
in the world.
Nye is an exceedingly conventional American internationalist; Armitage is
a former "Vulcan" who,
in the first years of the Bush administration, though Colin Powell's deputy
at the State Department, was close to the neocons of the Pentagon, but may now
be repositioning himself for a Democratic administration. They could be said
to represent the heartland of the present Washington Consensus.
Yet when they talked of Pakistani autocrat Pervez Musharraf ("I mean, Musharraf
has been our boy, but we've not been able to do much with it…"), of the
Pakistani situation more generally ("I mean, after Musharraf, there are other
secular generals…"), and of the American role there ("Well, we have to be working
with both Benazir Bhutto and also with our contacts in the army to make sure
this doesn't turn into chaos…," "If you do anything to help Benazir, it has
to be done very quietly and behind the scenes…"), they might as well have been
discussing deploying federal "smart power" to Maryland, or more appropriately,
to the U.S. Territory of Guam. Conceptually, they remain deep inside Washington's
Pakistan, Washington's dream of a controllable world.
The Bush administration, too, had its dreams of a controllable Pax Americana
to go along with a Washington-based Pax Republicana; but, as former diplomat
John Brown makes clear below, these were the most provincial of global dreams,
hatched at think-tanks inside the Washington Bubblesphere. The world was re-imagined
as a kind of imperial dreamscape for a go-it-alone group of armed imperial isolationists
who, unlike most imperialists, couldn't even imagine a way those elsewhere could
join in their imperial project. As Brown indicates, Bush and his top officials
were the most bubblicious of non-diplomats. In the language of another era,
they were not just Ugly Americans, but the ugliest of all – and proud of it.
But perhaps they were only extremes of the Washington norm. Perhaps Americans,
even in their post-World War II high-imperial phase, were never anything but
powerful provincials with little grasp of the wider world: a self-contained
universe of Joseph Nyes and Richard Armitages. Perhaps if you are singularly
wealthy and powerful, as the United States was from 1945 into the 1970s, the
provincial blunders you make don't blow back on you for 20, 30, 40 years. Now,
on the downside of hyperpowerdom, they seem to blowback in about the time it
takes to play your basic 30-second ad.
We also tend to ignore how much Americans actually take their bubble with them
into the world. Consider, for instance, this
description from the British Guardian's David Smith on his arrival
at Camp Victory, one of the monstrous "mega-bases" the Bush administration has
built in Iraq. American reporters often set foot in places like this, but almost
never offer such descriptions, perhaps because finding a Little America in the
midst of chaos and mayhem strikes them as nothing out of the ordinary.
"I arrived at Camp Liberty, one of the main U.S. bases, and found breakfast
in the 'morale area' where food facilities include a Burger King, Cinnabon,
Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits, and Seattle's Best Coffee Iraq. It's a sort
of pre-fab American simulacrum, Disney World meets Platoon in the desert. There's
also Alterations & Embroidery, Barber, Beauty, Electronics, Gift Shop, Jewelry,
Magic Island Technologies, Rug Shop, Photo Processing, and even New Car Sales.
I wandered around the Bazaar, which takes credit cards but is closed on Fridays,
and found kitsch mementos, hookah pipes, brass ornaments, 'Operation Iraqi Freedom'
rugs bearing the U.S. and Iraqi flags, and a collection of Saddam portraits
and clocks. A difficult purchase to explain at customs, perhaps."
So consider with Brown just how provincial the Bush imperial moment really
Too Parochial for Empire
The Bush administration conquers Washington
by John Brown
As I write, on a cloudy Washington afternoon,
my "Bush's Last Day Countdown Keychain" tells
me there are 433 days, 11 hours, 50 minutes and 41.3 seconds left before
our 43rd president leaves office. Like other citizens concerned about the fate
of the Republic, I wonder what the Bush legacy will be.
Many commentators have written about how the domestic politics of this administration
have left the United States more divided than ever; or perhaps the unsettled
illegal immigration issue is what Bush will be most remembered for – with an
barrier across the U.S.-Mexican border as the main monument to his eight
years in office.
To some concerned with foreign affairs, the Bush era will be remembered most
for the acceleration of America's putative march to empire. Advocates of such
a view highlight the exorbitant sums the U.S. has sunk into its land bases in
the Middle East and Afghanistan, its massive sea power, and its all-volunteer
professional army; the inordinately expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (the
latter being evidence that the U.S. is engaged in a ruthless effort to control
the world's oil resources); the threats of possible military action against
Iran (interpreted as a desire to control the Middle East in collaboration with
Israel); the growing tensions with Russia, as well as the urge to maintain and
expand its foothold in former Soviet areas in Eastern Europe and Central Asia
(seen as a reflection of America's determination to remain the global
hegemon); the increasing frictions with China (proof that the U.S. will not
tolerate a competitor in Asia); the constant disagreements with the Europeans
(a reminder on our part that we – not they – are the boss).
Indeed, there is little doubt that the military, economic, and cultural impact
of the United States continues to be enormous. Calling this global footprint
"imperial" is certainly tempting. But for a nation to be an empire, its leaders
must have a plan or vision for how to deal with the rest of the world – as,
arguably, Theodore Roosevelt and his entourage did with their "large
policy" for American overseas dominance. Some historians cite these schemes
as the beginning of an American-style empire that led to "the
American century," a period that now seems so long ago and so far away.
(Are we not now, in fact, living in the
Bush and Visions of Empire
The immense (but declining) global power of the United States notwithstanding,
the conceptual baggage required to engage in truly imperial ambitions has simply
not been a part of the Bush administration's mindset. This remains so despite
its assembly-line-style production of countless "national security" reports
on a vast range of global security matters – committee-written, unreadable documents
marked by a total lack of intellectual coherence or clear direction. These can,
if anything, be seen as a collective "cover-up" for the administration's obvious
lack of thought beyond the here-and-now.
To be sure, no imperial plan is ever perfectly framed or implemented (as Theodore
Roosevelt himself realized),
but the Bush administration's version of such now appears to have been remarkably
without rhyme or reason – on, in fact, an automatic pilot, driven by a self-aggrandizing
Pentagon budgetary process and "priorities" strikingly determined by shifting
domestic politics (what congressional district or crony corporation had put
in the best, or most influential, bid for a base, military-style activity, or
war-production plant). True, our generals remain engaged in the fearsome-sounding
"Global War on Terror" by order of the White House – but this has proven a helter-skelter
example of global confusion, regularly renamed by an administration clueless
about what its "war" really is.
Put another way, the Bush administration was never able to define, shape, or
direct in an "imperial" fashion the powerful forces, negative and positive,
stemming from various segments of American society that do so much to determine
the destiny of our planet. (This may have been inevitable, given the contentious
nature of American democracy.) As for the once-dynamic duo who characterized
much of this administration – Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld (and those clustered around their "offices") – the only "empire"
that really counted for them was the parochial world of Washington, D.C.,
with its lobbyists, bureaucrats, politicians, and assorted supporting think-tankers,
all absorbed in their petty turf-wars about who among them would get government
money for their minions and projects, overseas or at home. This was the narcissistic
province that the vice president and secretary of defense had the urge to dominate
with their "unitary executive," "wartime," commander-in-chief presidency and
the foreign wars that made it all possible. Developments outside the U.S., however,
mattered largely to the extent that they helped in the aggrandizement of their
own power, their fiefdoms, and those of their cronies, on the banks of the Potomac.
The President and His Diplomats
To make some sense of all this, let's start at the top. With his utter lack
of experience in foreign-affairs and complete lack of curiosity about the outside
world (with the possible exception of Mexico), George W. Bush was incapable
of having a global vision himself, imperial or otherwise. In the words
of commentator William Pfaff, "Bush is happy deciding, even though he knows
nothing." The president's major foreign-policy decision – to invade Iraq – was
certainly not based on any understanding of the global implications of what
he was doing (including, conceivably, expanding an empire). It was taken for
reasons that still remain unclear, but may have ranged from his tortuous relationship
with his father to his desire to portray himself as a decisive commander in
chief to the American electorate. Perhaps, to use his words, the former cheerleader
boy just wanted to "kick
ass" overseas to show the media, voters, and possibly even himself, that
he was doing something other than sitting in the Oval Office preaching the virtues
of compassionate conservatism.
Kicking ass – playing cowboys and Indians with the world, as little boys once
did on playroom floors or in backyards – has remarkably little to do, however,
with anything that might once have been defined as imperial planning or the
knowledge necessary to implement such plans. For example, a year after his "axis
of evil" State of the Union Address, when informed by Iraqi exiles that there
were both Sunnis and Shi'ites in their country, "emperor" Bush allegedly responded
that he thought "the Iraqis were Muslims." (No way, after all, that you can
tell those Indian tribes apart!) And what better summarizes George W. Bush's
preparation for putative empire building than the following nugget from
the 2000 presidential campaign season, as related by Elaine Sciolino of
the New York Times:
"When a writer for Glamour Magazine recently uttered the word 'Taliban'
– the regime in Afghanistan that follows an extreme and repressive version of
Islamic law – during a verbal Rorschach test, Mr. Bush could only shake his
head in silence. It was only after the writer gave him a hint ('repression of
women in Afghanistan') that Mr. Bush replied, 'Oh. I thought you said some band.
The Taliban in Afghanistan! Absolutely. Repressive.'"
Given the tabula rasa in Bush's mind regarding the world outside "the
homeland" (a word his administration has regrettably contributed to the American
language), it is hardly surprising that he selected as his main foreign policy
advisers two people with very limited global visions of their own: Condoleezza
Rice as National Security Advisor and, as Secretary of State, Colin Powell.
(Rice herself admitted
in 2000 that, as a "Europeanist," "I've been pressed to understand parts
of the world that have not been part of my scope"; and Powell's qualifications
were based on his military savvy – and loyalty – not his geopolitical perspectives.
The general, as Bill Keller of the New York Times reported
in 2001, was "a problem solver, not a visionary."
As became clear after the horror of 9/11 – a foreign policy failure of the
first order, if ever there was one, that no "empire" in its right mind would
have allowed – Rice and Powell essentially became talking-point briefers on
day-to-day events they had not foreseen and did not control. Compare them to
Henry Kissinger, who held each of their positions at some point in his White
House career. A cynical maneuverer who may not have been to everyone's liking,
he nonetheless worked in the realm of global strategy. In the way he attempted
to play off the Soviet Union against China in relation to the Vietnam War, he
was an imperial planner of the first order (if not always with the greatest
success). Contrast his meaty books on Metternich and on nuclear weapons to the
sole tome that Rice authored by herself – a bland monograph on the relationship
between the Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak army, 1948-1983, excoriated by
the scholarly American
Historical Review in 1985. What her sad little historical "study" demonstrated,
if anything at all, was that Rice was, from scratch, anything but a geopolitician
of Soviet – or any other – affairs.
Had Rice and Powell been capable of a global imperial vision – or even of grasping
essential global cause and effect – they doubtless would have advised
their president that his much-desired Mesopotamian (mis)adventure was bound
to be a bloody, costly imperial mess. With certain down-to-earth military smarts,
Powell may have sensed this, but evidently he lacked the nerve (or was it intellectual
inclination?) to ask the simple questions at White House meetings that would
have been the key to any imperial decision-making process: "Why exactly are
we doing this?" "Is it really in our interests to invade a third-world country
thousands of miles from our shores?" Or, put another way: "How does this invasion
preserve or expand the American empire"?
All the President's Men: Cheney and Rumsfeld
According to some commentators, when it came to the American ascendancy abroad,
the real powers behind (or in) the White House were Vice President Cheney and
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who had been collaborators ever since the distant
Ford administration. Some argue that they – and their neocon poodle and second-in-command
at the Defense Department, Paul Wolfowitz, as well as assorted neocons once
linked to the Likud Party in Israel and the Christian Right in the U.S. – were
the true framers of a Bush empire.
To be sure, Rumsfeld was an early member of the
Project for the New American Century and no doubt had ideas – or perhaps
simply fantasies masquerading as ideas – about a more aggressive use of American
military strength throughout the world. Cheney's former position as CEO of Halliburton
and his connections
with large corporations certainly made him the prime imperial candidate for
considering global energy flows and eyeing Iraq as one vast oil field just waiting
to be seized, one more country with must-have natural resources for the American
Even if the duo were eager indeed to expand U.S. influence and resources overseas,
as veterans of countless Washington partisan and personal battles, what really
got their aged blood flowing was the sleazy, vindictive inside-the-Beltway world
of Washington, D.C. Rumsfeld's utter inability to focus on post-invasion planning
in Iraq was in itself strong evidence that what happened there ("events" which
he so often simply made
up) was of secondary concern. Iraq – or success in that country – was indeed
important but mainly to the extent that it heightened his profile as a monster
player in Washington.
For both Cheney and Rumsfeld, it was the imperial capital, not the empire itself
that really mattered. There, "war" would mean the loosing of a commander-in-chief
presidency unchecked by Congress, courts, anything – which meant power in the
only world that mattered to them. War in the provinces was their ticket to renewed
prominence within D.C.'s self-absorbed biosphere, a kind of lost space station
far removed from Mother Earth, and a place where they had long-standing, unfinished
accounts – both personal and political – to settle. "Foreign policy," in other
words, was an excuse for war in a far-off country that 63 percent of American
youth between the ages of 18 and 24 could not, according to a National Geographic
survey, find on a map of the Middle East. That, in turn, would make both the
vice president and secretary of defense (for a while) little caesars in the
only place that mattered, Washington, D.C.
If Saddam and assorted terrorists were enemies, they weren't the ones who really
mattered. In the realest war of all, the one on the banks of the Potomac, Cheney
and Rumsfeld were, above all, targeting those symbols of American internationalism
that they had grown to despise in their previous Washington stays – the State
Department and the CIA – perhaps because those organizations, at their best,
aspired to see how the world looked at the United States, and not just how the
United States could dismiss the world. Just as Bush "kicked ass" in Iraq, so
Cheney and Rumsfeld used Iraq to "kick ass" among the striped-pants weenies
at Foggy Bottom and the eggheads in the intelligence community. (Consider Cheney's
of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who questioned
the validity of the administration's claim about Saddam Hussein's search for
uranium yellowcake in Niger in the late 1990s.) In toppling Iraq, the "imperial"
aim of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their foreign policy "experts" and acolytes
was to raise the flag of their own power high above Washington, D.C., while
discrediting and humiliating those in the foreign-policy profession interested
in the outside world for itself, those willing to consider how it related to
actual U.S. national interests, not fantasy ones, and who therefore dared to
question the goals and intentions of the dynamic duo.
To see how Washington-centered this cast of characters actually was, just recall
the secretary of defense's self-glorifying press conferences in his post-invasion
heyday, when he played the strutting comedian. In that period, Rumsfeld, venerated
by, among others, aging neocon Midge Decter in a swooning biography, was the
king of the heap and visibly loving every second of it. Front-page headlines
in the imperial capital were what counted, never the reality of Iraq; any more
than it did when George W. Bush strutted that aircraft-carrier deck in his military
get-up for his "mission accomplished" moment, launching (against a picturesque
backdrop of sailors and war) Campaign 2004 at home. Poor Iraq. It was the butt
of the imperial joke, as was – for a while – the rest of the outside world.
Political theorist Benjamin Barber caught
the Bush foreign-policy moment perfectly. The U.S., he wrote, made "foreign
policy to indulge a host of domestic concerns and self-celebratory varieties
of hidebound insularity. The United States remains a hegemonic global superpower
sporting the narrow outlook of mini-states like Monaco and Liechtenstein."
In the end, the Bush administration is likely to be remembered not for a failed
imperialism, but a failed parochialism, an inability to perceive a world beyond
the Washington of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, beyond George W. Bush's national
security "homeland." That may be the president's ultimate legacy.
John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer who resigned from the State
Department over the planned war in Iraq, compiles a near-daily Public
Diplomacy Press and Blog Review, available free by requesting it
Copyright 2007 John Brown