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Unbinding Prometheus

Authors: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, and Ivo H. Daalder
March 29, 2004


The Iraq war was very much a product of the foreign policy revolution George W. Bush launched when he entered office. At the same time, the year since the war started underscores the limits of that revolution.

The Bush revolution challenges a fundamental tenet that had guided U.S. foreign policy for more than a half-century— the belief that American security was advanced by building alliances, creating international institutions and extending the reach of international law. For Bush and his advisers, the best— if not the only— way to ensure America’s security is to shed the constraints imposed by friends, allies and international institutions. Those constraints prevent the U.S. from making the most of its primacy and transform Prometheus into a pygmy. Equally crucial is the belief that an unbound America must use its strength to change the status quo in the world. Turning John Quincy Adams’ famous admonition on its head, Bush believes that the U.S. should aggressively go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

Those two beliefs have had practical consequences for American foreign policy. One is a decided preference for unilateral action. When the U.S. does work with others, it should create “coalitions of the willing” that can be disbanded when a particular crisis passes. Another practical consequence of the Bush revolution is the commitment to acting pre-emptively against potential dangers. “We cannot let our enemies strike first,” Bush argued in the wake of 9/11. And so pre-emption was transformed from a seldom used policy option into strategic doctrine. Finally, Bush maintains that the U.S. should use its unrivaled power to overthrow leaders of rogue states. The idea of regime change is not new to American foreign policy. What is different is Bush’s willingness, even in the absence of a direct attack, to use American troops to topple other governments.

The Iraq war brought all the elements of the Bush revolution together. Bush pushed for a war that few U.S. allies believed was necessary. He was not content to contain Iraq’s programs for weapons of mass destruction (WMD); he wanted Saddam Hussein removed from power. When the U.N. Security Council refused to authorize war, Bush assembled a small “coalition of the willing.” Once American troops controlled Iraq, he spurned calls to hand responsibility for the occupation over to the U.N.

But if the Iraq war highlighted what the Bush revolution could achieve, its aftermath demonstrated what it could not. The occupation is not yet the “fiasco” that the incoming Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero described. But putting Iraq back together has proved far harder— and bloodier— than Washington had envisioned.

It has always been doubtful whether the U.S. on its own had the power to build a stable and democratic Iraq. The perceived lack of American legitimacy compounded the problem. Washington’s high-handed approach left many allies— as well as many Iraqis— skeptical about U.S. motives and content to sit on the sidelines. Only recently has Bush acknowledged that success in Iraq requires more than the assertion of American power. It also requires the legitimacy that only international institutions like the U.N. can confer.

The wisdom of pre-emptive war has been called into question by the failure to find WMD in Iraq. When David Kay, the chief U.S. weapons inspector, declared earlier this year that “we were all wrong” in believing that Saddam had stockpiled chemical and biological weapons, he effectively dealt a death blow to Bush’s pre-emption doctrine. Unless future administrations can produce a smoking gun, who is going to trust intelligence claims enough to support another pre-emptive war? The Iraq war, finally, demonstrates that successful regime change requires more than removing evil leaders. It also requires a concerted effort to build secure, stable and— hopefully— democratic successor governments. The Bush Administration proved singularly unprepared for such an effort. The White House’s failure to make nation building a priority from the outset has exacerbated all its problems in Iraq.

Bush’s revolution was directly responsible for the Iraq war. What remains to be seen is whether the revolution’s shortcomings will persuade him to reverse course. Given how grudgingly Bush has responded to his critics, don’t bet on it.

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