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 hrs, 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 unfinished 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 Anti-American Century?)
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, DC, 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 frat 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 Shiites 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 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 imperium.
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, DC. 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 DC’s self-absorbed biosphere, a kind of lost space station far removed from Mother Earth, and a place where they had longstanding, 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% 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, DC.
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 treatment 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, their foreign policy “experts” and their acolytes was to raise the flag of their own power high above Washington, DC, 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 hide-bound insularity. The United States remains a hegemonic global superpower sporting the narrow outlook of mini-states like Monaco and Lichtenstein.”
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 at email@example.com.
Copyright 2007 John Brown