4.4 Neoconservatism questioned: foreign policy beyond Bush
Some critics of neoconservatism argued that there were inherent limitations to the ability to use military power to bring about political change in a post-colonial world. The power to rule foreigners, either directly by occupation or indirectly by imposing compliant regimes, is undermined by the likelihood of widespread national resistance. Michael Mann wrote of an ‘incoherent empire’ that was incapable of producing durable political rule or even widespread economic order. Military supremacy, said Mann, is ‘not nuclear weapons or weight of numbers but global deployment and fire power’, but this cannot guarantee desired political outcomes, only a ‘massive intimidatory presence … vis-à-vis any which dares to stand up to it’ (Mann 2003: 24). Similarly, Emmanuel Todd charted the sharp economic and demographic constraints on US global power, speaking of a ‘“theatrical micromilitarism” that was becoming less and less convincing’ (Todd, 2003).
Moreover, while the ‘return to force’ was accompanied by an enhanced presidential initiative and autonomy in the use of force, the continuing price to be paid for the Iraq war was the subordination of political ends to military means and tactics. Bush could only order the strategic use of force by surrendering control over military tactics to the generals. If the military tactics then turned out to be inappropriate for the strategic objective – as was the case in Iraq where Saddam Hussein’s armed forces could be defeated but a new pro-Western state could not then be quickly imposed – Bush was left with little room for manoeuvre. Not surprisingly, therefore, critics also questioned whether the relations between means and ends were sustainable given the inability of the US military to conduct long-term counter-insurgency operations.
Of course neoconservatism suffered when the Bush Administration struggled to negate these constraints on the unilateral exercise of military power aimed at imposing political change on other societies. Emmanuel Todd writes:
If we want to understand what is happening, we must absolutely lay aside the idea of an America acting on the basis of a global plan that has been rationally thought through and methodically applied. American foreign policy has a direction, but it is about as directed as the current of a river. ... Things are no doubt moving but without the least bit of thinking or mastery. This is now the American way – the way of a superpower, there is no question, but one powerless to maintain control over a world that is too big and whose diversity is too strong for it.
Richard Hofstadter, US commentator and social critic, once said that ‘the most prominent and pervasive failing [of American political culture] is a certain proneness to fits of moral crusading that would be fatal if they were not sooner or later tempered with a measure of apathy and common sense’ (quoted in Lieven, 2004, p6). And indeed domestic opposition to the war in Iraq, not least among Bush’s political opponents, and geostrategic realities soon tempered the application of the Bush Doctrine, though the consequences of – and for – Iraq and the rest of the Middle East will be long-standing.
Walter Russell Mead states that the US political system has never yet been able to ‘develop a coherent, politically sustainable strategy for American world leadership in peacetime’ (Mead, 2002, p321, emphasis added). The US impulse to spread its values and mores abroad, while never far from the surface in US politics, has been discredited and chastened by the Bush Administration’s blunders in the Middle East and the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.
Activity 10 The next intervention
In a newspaper article, two commentators (one of them, Robert Kagan, is closely associated with the neoconservative movement) argue that the US, while still seeking to wage the ‘war on terror’, needs to do so in conjunction with other liberal democracies. Now read.
Critics of the Bush Doctrine, among them Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University, have long argued that the international costs of cooperation offers the best way to deal with terrorism (Nye, 2008). Nye argues that that the unilateral exercise of coercive military power prevents such cooperation, not least by undermining US ‘soft’ power. By ‘soft’ power, Nye means the ways in which broader elements of US society and culture act as a target of positive example, encouraging other states to identify with – and perhaps even imitate – the US. This could, it is suggested, help make the US a pole of attraction for other forces and states in the international system. Such ‘soft’ power (cultural strength, economic advantage, modernist values), should it be used as a complement to the US’ ‘hard’ power (population size, economic clout, military might), could therefore advantage the US by making it a positive pole of attraction for other forces and states in the international system.
Activity 11 Interview with Dr Simon Bromley
Please read the transcript of an interview with Dr Simon Bromley of The Open University. Simon is an international-relations scholar who studies the nature of US power in the international system, and the author of American Power and the Prospects for International Order (Polity Press, 2008).
Please click ‘Reveal comment’ to read the interview.
From President Bush to President Obama
On the 20 January 2009, George Bush was succeeded as president by the Democrat Barack Obama. Obama made clear in his inaugural address that the US was still ‘at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred’ and declared to ‘those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you’ (Obama 2009).
For Hillary Clinton, Obama’s Secretary of State, the US has to now secure its longstanding objectives, including defeating terror, by making best use of what she has called ‘smart power’. By this Clinton means ‘the full range of tools at [its] disposal – diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural – picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy’ (Clinton 2009). Such ‘smart’ power – a combination of the aforementioned ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power – will, it is envisaged, enable the US to make more effective use of both international diplomacy and military might; and renew and strengthen its international alliances. It means the US might choose, whenever possible, to pursue US leadership by working multilaterally with and through others as well as, whenever necessary, being always prepared to take unilateral military action. When facing its enemies, the US may now be willing to ‘extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist’ (Obama 2009), but will remain as determined as ever to protect and advance its security, interests, and values and those of its allies. As a result, the US may now recognise – in Secretary of State Clinton’s formulation – that it ‘cannot solve the most pressing problems on [its] own, and the world cannot solve them without America’ (Clinton 2009).
However, the US under Obama may well seek only to refine, not necessarily abandon its neo-conservative certainty. At the time of writing (March 09), it remains too early to say exactly how Obama’s foreign policy will differ from that of Bush. It is likely, however, given US history and Obama’s preferences, that there will be considerable policy continuity amid some change; the US-led ‘war on terror’ (even if that particular phase is not deployed) will certainly continue.