Special Report

Did Bush Overreach?

If you think the international security environment is bad now, imagine if Saddam still ruled Iraq.

By 7.26.06

Send to Kindle

It is common now to charge that the invasion of Iraq was a moment where America's ambitions surpassed its abilities. Various articles have surfaced of late declaring that even President George W. Bush may be grasping the folly of his ways. A great deal of attention earlier this month focused on a Time magazine cover story declaring "The End of Cowboy Diplomacy." The July/August issue of Foreign Affairs contains a piece entitled "The End of the Bush Revolution," as well as an essay by Joseph Nye proclaiming that the Bush Administration's transformational foreign policy is unlikely to survive. But has the Bush Doctrine discredited itself? The facts speak for themselves.

Following the overthrow of the Taliban and with American action inevitable in Iraq, the question of empire surfaced both in the United States and abroad with regards to America's power and far-reaching ambitions. At the time, this drew proponents of an assertive foreign policy to offer the historical example of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt's leadership in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Filipino insurgency that followed. More recently, this same period of history has been presented by detractors of American involvement in Iraq as an example of presidents who had radically altered American foreign policy and engaged the country in a prolonged struggle as they fell to the temptation of overreach.

Joseph Nye notes in Foreign Affairs that this relatively short period of assertive engagement at the dawn of the 20th century was doomed by an inability "to overcome long-standing suspicions of balance-of-power politics in Congress and among the American public." Thus, the United States soon abandoned this approach but remained wise enough to maintain the gains. It is certainly worth noting that history has proven Roosevelt right as the acquisitions of Puerto Rico, Guam, and even the Philippines proved to be assets in the 20th century.

Puerto Rico's neighbors Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic have been far greater security vulnerabilities for the United States than has the Caribbean American commonwealth. Guam has become one of the most vital military instillations in the Pacific and remains an asset for American power projection capability in East Asia. Although the Philippines were lost to the Japanese in the spring of 1942, General Douglas MacArthur's retaking of the islands on his advance on Japan was greatly aided by Filipinos, with whom the United States had established strong relations over the years.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the objection to balance-of-power politics faded during the Second World War and became a staple of American foreign policy throughout the second half of the 20th century. Both Republican and Democratic administrations maintained this approach until Ronald Reagan ended the longstanding policy of containment in favor of defeating the Soviet Union once and for all. As a result of Reagan's policies, the United States achieved relative superiority, and containment along with the Soviet Union disappeared into the ash heap of history.

BUT THIS LESSON HAS LARGELY BEEN FORGOTTEN by both Democrats and a substantial element of the American public. Opponents of the war in Iraq have come to frequently charge now that the proper approach to Saddam Hussein's Iraq was containment. The claim put forth is that if the Bush Administration had not recklessly overthrown the Baathists in Baghdad, Saddam "could have been kept in his box." This is foolish. No one questions that the United States had complete and utter supremacy over Iraq in terms of relative power, but simply -- and mistakenly -- that the costs of the invasion have far outweighed the costs of containment.

Let's assume Saddam was still sitting happily in Baghdad and examine this though counter-factual history. How would the Iraqi tyrant react to one of his principal adversaries in Iran -- the Duelfer Report notes that Saddam's WMD programs were primarily due to these fears -- now rapidly developing a nuclear weapons program. Would he become more compliant with the Anglo-American efforts to persuade him to conform to UN resolutions, or would he embark on an expansive program of his own, not to be outdone by his Persian rivals? The latter is plainly the more plausible outcome. Saddam saw himself as the guardian not only of the Arab Middle East but of the Muslim world as well.

Instead of American forces sitting on Iran's borders, the United States would likely be in the untenable position of facing a WMD arms race between Baghdad and Tehran. Emboldened by the Security Council's failure to act on Iraq, both Hussein and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would emerge to present a problem in the Middle East that makes the current situation appear fortunate. Iraq would still be providing gifts of $20,000 to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, exacerbating the current Arab-Israeli conflict. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would have left his safe haven in Iraq to return to Afghanistan -- he was harbored by and provided medical care from Saddam's regime prior to the invasion of Iraq after being injured in Afghanistan -- to lead an al-Qaeda mujahideen there. Washington would be finding itself to be in state of diplomatic overextension.

Diplomacy has never been considered the Bush Administration's strong suit, and with the oil-for-food program enduring -- that is if sanctions had not been abandoned by now -- it is difficult to imagine how any alternative could have been more successful. Up to this point diplomacy has failed in both Iran and North Korea, and contrary to claims that President Bush has admitted to mistakes by engaging in multilateral diplomatic endeavors with North Korea, United States efforts to establish the six-party talks preceded the invasion of Iraq.

MIKE ALLEN AND ROMESH RATNESAR assert in their Time magazine piece that "in the span of four years, the Administration has been forced to rethink the doctrine with which it hoped to remake the world as the strategy's ineffectiveness is exposed by the very policies it prescribed." The authors proceed to state that the difficult occupation in Iraq "may have emboldened [Tehran and Pyongyang] in their quest to obtain nuclear weapons." This fallacy is largely contradicted by the fact that in April 2001, nearly two years before the initial invasion of Iraq, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that North Korea "probably has one or two nuclear bombs." It is also no secret that Iran has maintained its own long-standing nuclear program from well before the Iraq invasion.

Implying that the Bush Administration is beginning to grasp the need for change, Allen and Ratnesar contend that the president's oratory style has changed from one of unapologetic "Wild West rhetoric" to one emphasizing multilateralism and diplomacy as they offer the following:

Long gone were the zero-tolerance warnings that peppered his speeches four years ago, when he made North Korea a charter member of the "axis of evil" club and declared at West Point that "the only path of safety is the path of action." Instead, Bush pledged to "make sure we work with our friends and allies ... to continue to send a unified message" to Pyongyang.

While the White House has adopted more pragmatic language in some cases, a diplomatic track was always the goal with North Korea. In early February 2003, Bush told reporters, "I will continue working diplomatically to convince Kim Jong Il that he will be further isolated if he continues to develop a nuclear program." At the time, while Secretary of State Colin Powell was laboring to get all sides -- China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea -- to agree to convene at what would become the six-party talks, the Bush administration agreed that in the meantime they would meet with North Korean officials in Beijing to get the diplomatic process off the ground. In other words, not much has changed in President Bush's approach to the North Korean problem, but few achievements have materialized in the process. Washington should keep this in mind.

While McKinley and Roosevelt's polices of assertive engagement may have faded after they were no longer behind the wheels of power, many of the era's accomplishments survived to help shape the "American Century." From expelling the Spanish from the Western Hemisphere, to the acquisition of territory in the Caribbean and the Pacific, to keeping a rising Germany out of Latin America, history has shown that the assertive ambitions of the cowboy in Roosevelt failed to outweigh the capabilities of the United States. Currently, the Bush Doctrine has encountered many of the same criticisms voiced a century ago. Despite the frequent and tired charges of John Kerry that American efforts in Iraq are a "diversion from the real war on terror," success or failure in Iraq will determine which side is destined for victory and which side is bound for defeat. Al Qaeda has known this for quite some time; it's a shame so many freedom-loving people around the world still can't understand this. The United States will win in Iraq as a result of not only American power, but even more so, old-fashioned American ambition.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.