When President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney finally left the White House in January 2009 after eight tumultuous years, the popularity of both men was at an historic low. Plagued by an oftentimes dysfunctional national-security team, Bush departed the White House with the knowledge that his case for an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 would go into the confines of history as one of the worst intelligence blunders ever recorded. When combined with the worst financial crisis in the country’s history since the Great Depression happening on his watch, it raised the Republican leader’s disapproval rating to a 71 percent high at the end of his tenure. Cheney’s numbers were even worse.
By the time Barack Obama assumed the presidency as America’s first black president, the public was exhausted from the Bush years and perhaps as divided as it had ever been in modern times. Popular parlance often painted Bush as a one dimensional cowboy who was simply overwhelmed by the job; someone who relied heavily on his vice president for wisdom, to the point of implementing whatever his deputy said.
Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, debunks most of these myths in his newly released book, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. Read more
American Strategy Could Use “A Modest Acceptance of Fate”
In his latest book, Robert D. Kaplan thankfully revives an appreciation of geography’s influence on foreign policy — and just as appropriately tempers this with an enduring optimism in human agency.
The Revenge of Geography is a particularly timely volume. As America’s euphoria, that characterized the immediate aftermath of the Cold War and informed its newfound liberal interventionism, wanes and Eurasian powers increasingly challenge its supremacy on what the geostrategist Halford Mackinder called the “world island,” policymakers ought to be reminded that geography — and the history it has shaped in such farflung places as Central Asia and Eastern Europe — can have far more of an impact on world events than noble American values and intentions. Read more
Crossed Swords? Rethinking the “Clash” of Christians and Muslims
Since Samuel Huntington unveiled his “Clash of Civilization” thesis in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article, a cottage industry of critiques have emerged to challenge it. Great thinkers, such as Amartya Sen, Amin Maalouf and Edward Said, have expended time and ink to refute Huntington’s controversial thesis. For the most part, these works have presented rationale critiques that focus on theoretical problems raised by Samuel Huntington’s board game like simplification of geopolitics and global history. Few of these critiques have, however, tried to counter Huntington’s argument with primary source research or been as readable as Ian Almond’s Two Faiths One Banner: When Muslims Marches with Christians Across Europe’s Battlegrounds (2011).
In this slim book, Almond shows that European history is far more muddled than Huntington’s depiction of one overarching “clash” between two visions of Abrahamic monotheism. Indeed the individual motivations and allegiances proves far to complex to paint with even the most vivid neoconservative or Marxist brush strokes. In making this argument, Almond cuts across wide historical periods, as well as the politics of several different centuries, demonstrating a mastery of facts, figures and a flair for colorful details. Read more
Brzezinski’s Strategic Vision Rather Short on Vision
In Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, Zbigniew Brzezinski promises to map out a broad vision for American foreign policy in years to come but his recommendations aren’t particularly visionary, nor is his vision particularly compelling.
Since Brzezinski served as President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor in the late 1970s, he has been among the United States’ leading foreign policy thinkers even when his realist views weren’t necessarily in vogue.
During the administrations of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, American foreign policy often served the country’s values instead of its interests. Left-wing internationalists in the 1990s and right-wing neoconservatives in the first decade of this century refused to see that there could a tension between the two. The saddest failure of this tendency in strategic thinking, or lack thereof, was the war in Iraq which not only ruptured sectarian relations across the Middle East but emboldened America’s nemesis Iran.
Brzezinski, who opposed the most recent expedition in Iraq from the start, cautions against ever pursuing a similar adventure in his latest book. But he falls short of making the necessary philosophical case against interventions of this kind. Rather he lists all the repercussions of the war — how it divided the West, tainted America’s image in the world, weakened its position in the Middle East — and seems to say, “this didn’t work,” without explaining why. Which is particularly unfortunate because Brzezinski laments the lack of strategic, well, vision on the part of American policymakers and the American public, both of whom are too susceptible to moralistic notions in foreign policy for his liking. If he’d truly wanted to remedy the lack of a realist perspective in American foreign policy thinking, he should have challenged the notion that the United States have any moral obligations to promote democracy and freedom abroad. He doesn’t. Read more
Lieberman Finds Strange Parallels He Can’t Explain
In the two volumes of Strange Parallels, Victor Lieberman manages if anything to put Southeast Asia in a global context.
Studying a period of over a thousand years, Lieberman’s two voluminous books propose a new world history, one that curiously originates in a traditional backwater of historiography: Burma. Developments there serve as a blueprint for what Lieberman believes must be interpreted as an “Eurasian-wide pattern of secular integration punctuated by coordinated periods of collapse” roughly between the years 800 and 1830.
From studying the history of Burma to the three continental realms of Southeast Asia, Lieberman derives the notion that all of the “rimlands” of Eurasia, which also include Japan, Western Europe, even Russia, are subject to similar administrative cycles of consolidation during the aforementioned period. He identifies ancient empires in these regions as “charter states” which were all “regarded by local successor states as normative and legitimating.” Their political and ideological organization was initially duplicated and later sophisticated by successive polities situated in the same area. Between subsequent periods of consolidation, the interregna of collapse became ever shorter. By the early nineteenth century, in Southeast Asia at least, this phenomenon had “yielded an unprecedentedly powerful and extensive formation.” Read more
In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam suggests that we act politically because of a shared trust and sense of community. Other political scientists (such as Benedict Anderson) believe that cultural cleavages are what drive us to act. Still others (Lipset, Almond, Verba) think that a shared tradition and shared cultural norms are what drive our political activity. These culturalist schools of political science all have merits and all can explain some past forms of political motivations.
Putnam’s idea of shared trust (“social capital”) and sense of community can explain a lot and is closely related to those who believe in a shared tradition and cultural norms as motivational factors. Read more