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3:09AM

Deleted scenes: Chapter 1

A grand strategy grading sheet

 

On articulation, President Bush gets a "T" for "trying"--as in, too hard. As Jacob Weisberg argues in his 2008 book, The Bush Tragedy, George W. Bush was determined to succeed where his father had failed in articulating a grand strategy for a tumultuous era he felt clearly needed one. But as with the multitude of reasons offered by the White House for invading Iraq, Bush's inability to stick with any single message greatly hampered his delivery.  Indeed, Weisberg charts an ever-morphing grand strategy across Bush's two terms, starting with "unipolar realism" of 2001 and jumping to the "with us or against us" fervor immediately following the attacks of 9/11.  Once that very sizable political capital was translated into the doctrine of "preemption," the Bush White House boldly dreamed of creating "democracy in the Middle East," otherwise known as the "big bang" theory of politically recasting the region through Saddam's toppling. That vision was subsequently expanded into "freedom everywhere" in Bush's second inaugural speech, only to meet such widespread international scorn in the light of our continuing failures in the region that it was abandoned by the administration long before Hurricane Katrina basically sent it into a political lame-duck status from which it never recovered.

 

As for managing the world's balance of power, Bush-Cheney achieved an inadvertent passing grade for letting their self-proclaimed "war on terror" divert the administration's many hawks from targeting rising China for sustained confrontation--their initial instinct. To the extent that the Middle Kingdom was later slated for careful containment through a "hedging" strategy that saw Washington bolster existing bilateral military alliances in Asia (e.g., Japan, Australia) while forging new ones (India), the administration recovered the strategic initiative somewhat, but overall, that effort pales compared to China's persistent and pervasive "charm offensive" throughout Asia and beyond. Similar containment efforts against a resurgent Russia and a regionally revived Iran can also be described as failures in the sense that Bush-Cheney had no desire to actually trigger system-wide balancing against the United States--just the opposite. But when you begin your post-presidency two years into your second term, well . . . let's just say, you're asking to be disrespected.

 

As for bringing all elements of power to bear in the long war against radical extremism, or the so-called DIME package, the Bush administration, while displaying serious ingenuity in employing financial sanctions against both terror networks and rogue regimes, nonetheless failed miserably in creating a unified, government-wide effort in both of the major overseas interventions it launched.  While those failures have triggered, from below, a wave of bureaucratic experiments, such as the State-USAID-Defense-blended Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) originally fielded in Afghanistan, the inherent weakness of the interagency process itself remains unaddressed, leading me to expect future interventions will also be helmed by czar-like figures who appear and disappear at the whim of the chief executive. In short, Clinton's ad hocism on interventions has unfortunately been enshrined by the Bush administration, which instead chose to make its lasting bureaucratic mark in homeland security.

 

Bush's definitions of endstate, whether we're talking individual interventions or the long war itself, were slippery indeed, in large part because of his laissez fair attitude regarding America's efforts to shepherd the process. More than Clinton, Bush was eager to use military power as a sort of Deus ex machina that triggers downstream change, but unlike Clinton, Bush willfully ignored the need to line up one's allies sufficiently for the postwar handoff, leaving the U.S. military holding the bag, for all practical purposes, in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Those outcomes have naturally triggered great friction, both within the U.S. military itself (especially in the younger officer ranks) and America's relationship with NATO, dissipating whatever sense of institutional confidence either entity took away from previously shared experiences in the Balkans.

 

In terms of goals, the Bush-Cheney grand strategy of resetting the global rule set regarding rogue regimes was not just well-intentioned but well-directed. Much like the Sarbannes-Oxley Act, triggered in response to the Tech Crash and corporate scandals of the early 2000s, set a new minimum standard for being a responsible public corporation in the 21st century, the Bush pre-emption doctrine, however crudely articulated, possessed similarly laudable ambitions--namely, a new minimum standard for being a nation-state in the era of globalization.  SARBOX basically warned companies that if they did not meet this new regulatory standard, they'd be reduced to four choices: go bankrupt, go off-shore, go private or get bought. Bush's doctrine promised similar penalties to rogues--as in, get sanctioned, get isolated or get invaded and have your regime changed.

 

But here's where Bush-Cheney's hubris proved to be their undoing: by assuming 9/11 empowered them to see the world differently, they presumed to lead the world differently, and, simply put, the rest of the world did not agree with that strategic assessment. What America saw as a deep disjuncture in history ("Our homeland is attacked!"), the rest of the world's great powers viewed as merely its resumption for a superpower whose geographic--and temporal--isolation from such hinterland violence had left it unusually brittle. For once the fraternal empathy faded, 9/11 came to be viewed by even our closest allies as a sort of "welcome to our world" moment that neither super-empowered America to act, nor lead them, against this common foe. But lead Bush did, and vigorously so, waiting only until the waning months of his presidency to consider why his leadership style was viewed as so unacceptably unilateralist. However, by then, most of what Bush proposed as his new minimum security standard had been rejected by other great powers eager to co-opt resource-rich pariah states on their own terms. Our strategic selfishness had spawned the same among others; if America could act unilaterally in response to its particular definition of unacceptable risk, so could others.

 

That is where Bush-Cheney muddied the waters of America's perceived national interests:  by declaring this a war of survival, they empowered any and all great powers to pursue whatever strategy they felt most fitting. That decision alone damaged our national interests by calling into question a global security rule set that America had been long in the shaping, because that rule set envisioned collective action by concerned great powers against regional threats in wars of discipline. Wars of survival are waged against imminent threats, a hard charge to levy against rogue regimes located nowhere near your neighborhood but instead in the neighborhoods of other great powers not similarly alarmed. Worse, by declaring a trio of these regimes to be an "axis of evil," the Bush administration threw down the gauntlet prematurely, like some drunk who walks into a bar and declares preemptively, "I'm taking all you bastards on--right here and now!"

 

So I'll give Bush-Cheney an "A" for tapping into America's post-9/11 jingoism, but an "F" for telegraphing their kinetic intentions long before Washington could possibly muster the requisite power--both hard and soft--in aggregate. By alerting the trio in advance, Bush courted strategic disaster by inviting all interested parties to target his Leviathan's initial deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. I mean, if I'm Tehran's ruling mullahs, I can't wait to play the "away game" against the Americans in Iraq versus the "home game" inside Iran.  Because if I can discredit Washington's latest geographic extension of its Monroe-like doctrines, I can call it into question the world over (like with my new friend Venezuela), empowering other rising powers to probe in ways both distracting and draining for this self-declared global cop.  So am I eager to see co-religionist ex-pats from Iraq sweet-talking the Bush administration into believing that both the war and the subsequent nation-building would be a "cakewalk"? You bet. Because I know the Americans don't have the staying power.

 

Unfortunately, before invading Iraq the Bush administration basically shot itself in the foot by declaring to all potential allies something to the effect of, "If you're not tough enough to show up for the war, don't bother showing up for the peace--and forget about any contracts!" Not surprisingly, the countries that will fight you on the "first half" decision to intervene militarily are the same ones who fear you'll shut them out economically in the "second half" peace. Why? They typically already have a better trade deal with the pariah regime in question, so what you decry as the "oil for food" scandal is simply their version of maintaining an open door in an unflat military world.

 

Where Bush-Cheney does deserve credit, despite their many errors in judgment, is in their staying power, or strategic patience.  But even here I'm loathe to give anything but a split verdict, because another six-to-nine months on the diplomatic run-up to Iraq and we could have had a lot better buy-in from clearly interested great powers, all of whom were not interested in a Vietnam-like quagmire if it meant they'd be shut out of the economic endgame. As it is, it's interesting now to watch Russia, China, and Iran consistently win infrastructure-building contracts in Iraq, because it only proves that good things come to those who placate. Then again, that was also true for the Bush White House regarding the al Qaeda-infused, Sunni-based insurgency inside Iraq. By sticking it out long enough, despite the high casualties, we simply waited long enough to take advantage of the Salafi jihadists' natural tendency to go overboard with the locals. Abu Musab Zarqawi's impatience to turn Iraq into al Qaeda's global cause celeb led to brutality that eventually alienated Iraq's Sunni tribes, yielding the "Anbar awakening" that signaled the beginning of General Petraeus' somewhat successful rollback (or is it buyback?) of al Qaeda's presence there.

 

Shifting gears to seapower, I'd have to give the Bush administration high marks for letting U.S. Navy leaders explore new, more globally networked definitions of sea control, even as I know most Americans remain convinced that Bush did little to secure our ports. But here's why I'm lenient:  port security at home is really an unobtainable dream absent a comprehensive effort to spread transparency across all the world's oceans and into ports of debarkation--meaning "over there." In other words, even if I'm scanning everything here, that's far too late in the process to declare any security achieved. America needs what the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard are now pitching: maritime domain awareness throughout the global supply chain system. No, that's not going to happen overnight, but for now, our naval forces are steaming in the right direction--toward partnership with the private sector and the rest of the world's navies and coast guards.

 

I'm less inclined to worry about reducing the threat of violent extremists over time than I am about inducing unreasonable fear concerning them, so I'm less one to argue that Bush-Cheney have made the world a more dangerous place, because I don't think they have. When, several years into a long war, your aggressive engagement of the enemy in his home neighborhood appears to have swelled his numbers, I'm not surprised. Frankly, that would be like expecting fewer numbers of Japanese to have fought in World War II as America drew ever closer to the imperial capital. The goal here isn't fewer terrorists but fewer successful terrorist acts, and by "successful" I mean impactful to the point of lowering our resolve or forcing us to systematically adapt our global networks in ways that degrade their efficiency (not easily done, because most terrorist threats get lost in the noise of our day-to-day challenges in keeping networks up and running, meaning they're not necessarily bad for business if they force routine "tightening up" that's otherwise beneficial).

 

What does worry me, however, is the tendency of many security experts and political leaders to describe our world as constantly under attack from terrorists--in effect an existential crisis rather than a security/management challenge. Other than the classic capture/kill kinetics of our military units in the field, dealing with transnational terrorism remains overwhelmingly a police function in the Core countries, where, in terms of business, terrorism is but one of many complex management challenges routinely faced in building, operating, and protecting global supply and service chains. More on that in Chapter 10.

 

Where Bush-Cheney get an unambiguous passing grade is in their decision to stand up an Africa Command with an eye toward maximizing its capacity for unconventional operations, or what I like to call "pre-emptive nation-building." Long strategically ignored and divided among three separate combatant commands (Europe, Central, Pacific), Africa finally gets some serious attention in what should end up being a farsighted, geographic flanking maneuver against the radical Salafi jihadist global insurgency, which, after it inevitably fails in the Middle East, will be sorely tempted to shift its center of gravity there--unless that door is pre-emptively slammed shut by progressively integrating Africa into globalization on sustainable terms. Will that be Africom's task? Yes, it will be, but hardly its task alone. More on that in Chapter 9.

 

In no area does Bush-Cheney get a lower grade than in the question of virtue, but since this is an entire chapter devoted to sinning, let me beat that dead horse more thoroughly in a bit.

 

Regarding WMD, here I'd have to cite the Bush administration for a strange sort of wobbliness regarding Iran's pursuit of the bomb. After all, we've survived the Christian American bomb, the commie-atheist-now-Russian-Orthodox bomb, the Anglican (UK) and French Catholic bombs, the Confucian (China), Hindu (India), Jewish (Israel) and Sunni (Pakistan) bombs. So what's all this end-of-times, "World War III" talk about Shiia Iran finally getting the bomb? Sure, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been a master at shooting his mouth off on the subject, but we've "been there and survived that" with a real genocidal leader in Mao, not to mention a far more strategically tense stand-off in Pakistan-versus-India, so why such an intense fear factor on Iran?  Does strategic deterrence all of a sudden not work? And as for being a declared nuclear power, isn't that a better outcome if our concern involves Tehran possibly passing nuclear technologies to less stable third parties? Because history indicates that pariah or undeclared nuclear powers are more willing to behave in that way than accepted, declared powers--to wit, some truly nefarious relationships pursued over the years by Pakistan, North Korea and even Israel (remember apartheid South Africa?).

 

Finally, the XYZ factors all yielded failing grades for Bush-Cheney. America has become more unwelcoming to outsiders since 9/11, and some of that xenophobia could have been avoided by a little less crusader-like imagery from the administration. When you're talking about a region as religiously charged as the Middle East, the image of a largely Christian occupation force will always be a hard sell, especially when most of the area's downtrodden have long obsessed over the tendency of the "distant" devil (Yankee) to align itself with Jewish "occupiers"--that other, older Zion.  And here, the tail-wagging-the-dog description holds some truth, because much of the argument offered by the Bush administration, as well as Israel's backers in the States, is that the Jewish nation cannot possibly be allowed to live under the threat of total nuclear annihilation--a second Holocaust. Putting aside the reality that more Jews live in the United States than in Israel, America needs to be careful about extending any sort of implied, strategic zero-deductible insurance policy to Israel. It's not something we ever extended to Europe during the Cold War, because our transatlantic allies were expected to should their share of the risk--just like we did for decades. Long armed with roughly 200 nuclear warheads, Israel cannot expect America to defend its monopoly on WMD in the region ad infinitum. And as Israel has longed lived with an existential threat, its intellectual journey toward accepting the logic of mutually assured destruction will be a short one.

 

...

 

And what of America's relationship with the ICC? It's strained at best, as the U.S. government has systematically strong-armed roughly a hundred nations into signing bilateral immunity treaties, making us exempt from ICC prosecution. We worry that American troops and even government officials will be subject to war-crimes accusations following future military interventions. That's not an unreasonable fear, so I've long supported these "interventionary pre-nups," as I like to call them. There's little incentive in serving as the world's "marshal" if rounding up the bad guys gets you in legal trouble on a regular basis. But having achieved such blanket immunity from the vast majority of states likely to be on the receiving end of a U.S. military intervention, why should America remain so aloof from the ICC? After all, the court's purview truly extends only to lawless or rogue states that refuse, or are unable, to police their own. So far, all of the ICC's cases have involved the very same states from which America has obtained or sought ICC immunity.

 

The Bush administration's stubborn stance, continued from the Clinton years, retarded the development of global case law concerning the terrorists, warlords and dictators that America routinely targets in this long war against radical extremism. Not surprisingly, our go-it-alone strategy undercut our moral authority around the world.  I mean, if our own judicial system can't stomach much of this, how can we expect to win any hearts and minds abroad by mimicking the human-rights abuses of the very same authoritarian regimes (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Egypt) targeted by our lawless enemies, the Salafi jihadists?

 

The ICC, which was set up as a permanent version of the U.N.-sponsored International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, is—in many fine ways--a logical descendant of the American-designed Nuremberg war-crimes court constituted after World War II to try Nazi officials. With 104 signatory states, the ICC possesses a well-credentialed system for adjudicating and imprisoning these bad actors. What the ICC critically lacks is a credible mechanism for snatching these criminals and hauling them before the court once they've been indicted. By definition, all typically remain beyond the reach of accepted law, hiding out in either failed states or behind rogue dictatorships.  Oddly enough, the United States possesses just such a mechanism in our armed forces, whose global reach allows us to snatch and grab these bad actors with relative impunity, only then to shunt them into our highly controversial alternative judicial system.

 

You don't have to be a grand strategist to see where I'm going with this:  once America gets the ICC comfortable enough with its unique "marshaling" capability, there's no reason why our "chocolate" and the ICC's "peanut butter" can't go well together. Indeed, figuring out how to stitch these two systems together is logical and inevitable.

Reader Comments (1)

Bravo Tom, succinct, to the point/points, with a bit of brilliance thrown in for good measure.
January 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAaron B. Brown

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