he CBS reality series Survivor is now in its fifteenth season, and I’ve watched them all. George Bush, I’d guess, has watched none of them. At first glance this may seem like a rare instance of good cultural taste on his part, but it’s actually a shame. Survivor, you see, offers one big lesson for national leaders who fancy themselves world-historical geopolitical titans: Alliances matter. The show has included contestants ranging from pencil-necked Ivy League students to testosterone-laden Navy fighter jocks, but not once has any of them won by going it alone. Without a sturdy alliance, it’s only a matter of time before you’re voted off the island.
It’s probably too late to sneak a box set of Survivor: Palau into President Bush’s hands, but a decent substitute might be Fred Kaplan’s Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, a slim new volume with an elegant and finely honed argument to make. Kaplan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of the War Stories column for the online magazine Slate, says that George Bush’s foreign policy miscues, ranging from Russia to North Korea to Iraq and beyond, can all be attributed to one thing: his inability to understand that even after the cold war, even after 9/11, alliances still matter. In fact, they matter more than they used to.
The background for all this is well-trod territory: When the Berlin Wall fell and Boris Yeltsin was elected president of a democratic but economically hobbled Russia, suddenly no other country in the world was even remotely militarily competitive with the United States. For a while this was heady stuffwe were the “indispensable nation,” a hyperpower to replace the dreary old superpower we’d once beenbut for as long as Bill Clinton was president this had only a modest effect on America’s actual foreign policy.
Clinton, a natural alliance builder both by instinct and background, understood a simple truth: during the cold war, alliances had come almost naturally. Since fear is what drives most alliances, and the Soviet Union provided plenty to be afraid of, the United States had no trouble finding and grooming allies. But when the Soviet Union fell, that fear melted away and our erstwhile allies were, as Kaplan puts it, “free to go their own way, pursue their own interests, form their own alliances of convenience, without much regard to Washington’s thoughts about the matter.” Retaining alliances in a unipolar world was harder, not easier, so Clinton worked hard at it. We signed on to NAFTA and the WTO; cut a deal with North Korea to halt their nuclear bomb program; expanded NATO; and put together a multinational force that ended the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and forced the defeat of Slobodan Milosevic without the loss of a single American life.
But then two things changed, and this is where Daydream Believers picks up the story. The first was a technological revolution. The second was George Bush.
The technology revolution came in several phases, all of which started to coalesce at the same time the Soviet Union fell. The best known of them is missile defense, a topic of almost totemic power to conservatives ever since Ronald Reagan took up its banner in 1983. But as Kaplan reminds us, missile defense isn’t merely a technology that’s failed to deliver on its promises for the past two decades, it’s a technology that’s failed to deliver on its promises for the past five decades. From Nike-Zeus to Nike-X to Safeguard to SDI to the current ensemble of systems referred to generically as National Missile Defense, the United States has been pursuing the dream of an invulnerable missile shield since shortly after World War II. Once every five or ten years, like clockwork, an official report has concluded that missile defense technology doesn’t workbut that hasn’t stopped the dream. In the case of the Bush administration, it merely caused them to redouble their efforts.
The second leg of the technology revolution chronicled in Daydream Believers is the perfection of smart bombs. First used at the tail end of the Vietnam War and then to greater effect in the Gulf War, during the 1990s they finally became both accurate enough and cheap enough to seriously transform aerial warfare. JDAM-equipped bombs were instrumental in both the success of the Kosovo war and the (near) destruction of the Taliban in record time during the Afghanistan war, and for a while it seemed as if conventional infantry warfare really was becoming obsolete.
The third and final piece of the puzzle is a basket of technologies developed over the past couple of decades under the rubric of “military transformation.” Driven by advances in microprocessor technology and software development, it includes not just smart bombs but radar-guided missiles, high-resolution surveillance gear, and high-speed communications networks to link them all together. Collectively they provided the foundation for the “smaller, lighter, faster” military that then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld insisted on deploying in Afghanistan and Iraqa military that, it turned out, could accomplish half its mission with stunning success but the other half not at all.
What binds these three technologies together is not their actual deployment. After all, the first has been a habitual failure, the second has worked well, and the third is somewhere in between. But the reality of missile defense or smart bombs isn’t what’s important to Kaplan’s story. What’s important is the illusion of invulnerability they provided, an illusion that George Bush and his enablers used to convince themselves of something they wanted to believe anyway: that alliances no longer mattered. The United States could go it alone.
This idea didn’t start with Bush, of course. Kaplan traces its origins to Andy Marshall, the gnomic, near-mythic analyst who’s run the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment through seven administrations. Marshall’s view wasn’t merely that we should have better weapons than anyone else, but that “the Pentagon should focus on weapons and strategies that would give the United States such overwhelming superiority that other countries wouldn’t even bother trying to compete.” The goal wasn’t American power, it was uncontested American power.
This was a worldview that appealed to Bush, Rumsfeld, and Vice President Dick Cheney. In other hands, the technology revolutions of missile defense and smart bombs would have been useful tools. In the hands of Bush and his neocon cheerleaders, they became the key to a transformation in the way America dealt with the world.
The results are all around us. Russia? It would be a paper tiger once we abrogated the ABM treaty and got missile defense up and running. North Korea? Ditto, which in turn meant there was no need to compromise or negotiate with them over their nuclear weapons programs. Iraq? Alliances would just slow down our transformed military machine. Iran and Syria? Pinpoint air strikes would be enough to keep them in line.
All of these miscues were a direct result of Bush’s belief in an American military machine that was not merely strong, but literally invincible. Iraq, needless to say, is by far the most visible of these failures, and while there are other books that provide considerably more detail on just how the Iraq catastrophe unfolded (Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco, George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate, and Michael Gordon’s Cobra II chief among them), Kaplan does a good job of providing a capsule summary of how the Bush administration’s arrogance led to cataclysm and meltdown.
What’s most striking in his account is how deeply this attitude infected everything. The stories of Rumsfeld badgering his commanders to slim down their battle plans are well known, as is his blanket disdain for any postwar activity that didn’t depend on his smaller and lighter military. But it’s also visibleif one step removedin other famously ill-conceived decisions, most notably in the far-reaching effects of the first two orders issued by Jerry Bremer after he became viceroy of Iraq: one that ordered a comprehensive de-Baathification of the Iraqi government and another that disbanded the Iraqi military. These orders have been dissected in detail by dozens of authors, but in a small but telling passage in Daydream Believers Kaplan reports for the first time exactly how they came about.
It turns out that shortly before the war started, two principals’ meetings were held. These meetings, which included the president, vice president, CIA director, secretaries of state and defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, produced two decisions. The first was to set up a commission to root out undesirable Baathists but not to carry out a comprehensive de-Baathification program. The second was to keep Iraq’s regular army units (though not the Republican Guard) intact. Both decisions were unanimous.
So what happened? The orders were unilaterally countermanded by the Pentagon. Colin Powell was taken by surprise, the Joint Chiefs were taken by surprise, and, judging by his later comments, even George Bush was unsure just how it happened. And although the responsibility for the new orders is still shrouded in mystery, it was most likely the work of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, the two men most obsessed with the nearly limitless power of military transformation. Why bother with half measures, after all, if you’re in charge of a military machine that’s invincible?
This attitude, so disastrous in Iraq, was a model for the entire world. “Bush and his top advisors,” Kaplan concludes, “began their administration believing that America was so peerlessly strong it could impose its will unilaterally.” But they forgot that wars are fought to achieve political goals, and until those goals are met the war isn’t over. High-tech wonder weapons may give us a huge edge on the battlefield, “but they don’t win wars [and] they can’t achieve the political objectives that inspired the war in the first place.”
Any successful foreign policy has two components. First, it has to encompass a clear-eyed understanding of the world and its actors as they really are, not merely as we wish them to be. Second, it demands an equally clear-eyed vision of how we wish the world to be, not merely how it actually is. George Bush failed on both counts. Blinded by technological prowess, he failed to understand the pragmatic necessity of alliances even for an indispensable nation. And, blinded by visions of democracy and freedom, he failed to understand the practical requirements for promoting either.
Successful foreign policies are always of their time and place. Neither the Congress of Vienna nor the policy of containment are models worth emulating in a world of jihad and weapons of mass destruction. But certain principles of statecraft are timeless, among them the primacy of both alliances and the vision and skill to exploit them in the service of enlightened national interest. Both have been missing in action for the past seven years, and on this score Daydream Believers is both a field guide and a warning.