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Global Strategy or Grand Illusion?

DAYDREAM BELIEVERS, How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power

American troops bogged down in Iraq, a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, an overstretched military and National Guard, simmering tensions with Iran and North Korea, and growing hostility toward the United States around the world: these are just some of the consequences of Bush administration foreign policy over the last seven years. To the Slate columnist Fred Kaplan, these woes all stem from two grand misconceptions held by the White House and its top advisers: that the world fundamentally changed after 9/11, when in fact “the way the world works — the nature of power, warfare and politics among nations — remained essentially the same”; and that in a post-cold-war era, the United States “had the power to set the terms of the new world order” and could therefore act unilaterally, without entangling alliances and without compromising “with competing concepts or interests.”

The devastating consequences of the administration’s embrace of such idées fixes (along with its cavalier dismissal of facts and arguments that did not support its big theories) has been examined before, of course, most notably by the New Yorker writers Seymour M. Hersh and George Packer in their groundbreaking books, “Chain of Command” (2004) and “The Assassins’ Gate” (2005), respectively.What sets Mr. Kaplan’s “Daydream Believers” apart is his emphasis on the Bush administration’s failure to come to terms with a post-cold-war paradigm, which, he argues, left America’s power diminished, rather than enhanced, as former allies, liberated from the specter of the Soviet Union, felt increasingly free to depart from Washington’s directives.

Also illuminating is his close analysis of the impact that the White House’s idées fixes had, not just on the Iraq war but also on other foreign policy problems like North Korea, and his detailed examination of the formative role that the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky played in shaping President Bush’s determination to try to export democracy around the world.

Parts of “Daydream Believers” will seem terribly familiar to readers of books about the administration and the war in Iraq. For instance, Mr. Kaplan’s discussion of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s stubborn determination to wage the war in Iraq with a small, fast force — a decision that was meant to illustrate his theory of military transformation, but that in fact had crippling consequences on the United States military’s ability to restore law and order in Iraq and to manage the occupation — pales next to the Washington Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks’s detailed account of this monumental miscalculation in his seminal 2006 book, “Fiasco.”

Still, Mr. Kaplan (who has also written for The New York Times) does a lucid job of providing an overview of the fallout that the administration’s love of big ideas would have on foreign policy. He also sheds new light on the important part played by certain advisers within the Bush White House, while explicating several pivotal and perplexing matters concerning the administration’s decision-making process.

He underscores the crucial role the speechwriter Michael Gerson, a self-described evangelical, played in linking the president’s religious and moral imperatives with his expansionist foreign policy. And he argues that Elliott Abrams, a member of Mr. Bush’s National Security Council (and a former Reagan administration official who was involved in the Iran-contra scandal), “embodied both factions behind the administration’s new policies — the moral crusaders and the power-centric nationalists.”

Of the momentous and highly controversial May 2003 decree made by L. Paul Bremer III, the United States envoy in Iraq, to dissolve the Iraqi Army formally (a move, critics say, that contributed to the security vacuum, put several hundred thousand armed Iraqis on the street with no jobs and no salaries, and fatally fueled the insurgency), Mr. Kaplan writes that it took most of President Bush’s senior advisers by surprise. He says that top administration officials had decided unanimously at a March 12 meeting to disband the Republican Guard (Saddam Hussein’s elite corps) but to call the regular Army soldiers back to duty and to reconstitute their units after a proper vetting of their loyalty to a new regime; and that Mr. Bremer’s order thus “violated decisions made at the highest level of the U.S. government — and not routine decisions, but decisions of staggering importance that would shape the future of Iraq’s security, society and politics.”

Mr. Bremer has said that his decision was made in consultation with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz and Under Secretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, and was authorized by Mr. Rumsfeld. Although President Bush would tell his biographer Robert Draper that “the policy was to keep the Army intact,” The Times reported on Monday that Mr. Bremer and others who attended a May 22 video conference during which he outlined his plan said the president had seemed satisfied with what he heard. In December 2004 he would award Mr. Bremer the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Like so many earlier books about the Bush administration and its conduct of the war in Iraq, “Daydream Believers” leaves the reader with a portrait of a White House that circumvented traditional policy-making channels to implement its big ideas, and that often chose willfully to ignore history and the advice of experts — from the Army chief of staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki’s preinvasion recommendation that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to secure Iraq successfully, to warnings from the State Department that elections in the Middle East “could well be subject to exploitation by anti-American elements,” as they in fact were by Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Mr. Bush similarly emerges from this book as a naïve, impulsive and stubborn leader, whose moral certitude and penchant for denial have made him more inclined to double down on a bad bet than ever to admit a mistake, a president whose post-9/11 search for a bold new approach to the world made him susceptible to neoconservative ideas of pre-emption and unilateralism that had gained little traction with his father or Bill Clinton.

President Bush’s strategies, Mr. Kaplan writes near the end of this incisive book, failed “because they did not fit the realities of his era”: “They were based not on a grasp of technology, history or foreign cultures but rather on fantasy, faith and willful indifference toward those affected by their consequences.”

Failing to acknowledge the limits of American power, he writes, President Bush and his aides ended up trumpeting the country’s “reduced powers — and, as a result, they weakened their nation further.” They “set forth a new way of fighting battles — but withheld the tools for winning wars. They aimed to topple rogue regimes — with scant knowledge of the local culture and no plan for what to do after the tyrant fell. They dreamed of spreading democracy around the world — but did nothing to help build the democratic institutions without which mere elections were moot or worse. In their best-intentioned moments, they put forth ideas without strategies, policies without process, wishes without means.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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