Sunday, 11 January 2009

“Daydream Believers”, by Fred Kaplan (Wiley & Sons)

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A detailed, engaging look at the evolution of ideas that brought the US to where it is now

Daydream Believers is one of the better books to come out in recent months about the Bush administration’s effect on America’s place in the world.

Before he gets to the current administration, however, Kaplan writes extensively on the subject that’s clearly dear to his heart (if his previous reporting is anything to go by): the evolution of military strategy, weapons technology (Rumsfeld’s beloved “revolution in military affairs”), and the ideas that evolved into the neoconservative and nationalist positions we see evident in the Bush administration today. The seeds for these ideas were planted half a century ago, as Truman’s advisors attempted to develop a proper strategy to approach the new Cold War era. This history takes up approximately half of the book, which might disappoint those who want something that focuses more on the current situation. For me, the extensive historical context proved illuminating and very interesting indeed, adding plenty of flavour and deep-background to my understanding of the US’s recent foreign policy predicaments and policies.

When Kaplan finally turns his attention to Bush and his advisers, the book really takes off. Daydream Believers collates, illuminates and explains the various influences whispering in President Bush’s ear. Focusing some of his attention on the main shapers and influences on the Bush administration’s approach to foreign policy, Kaplan creates a well-rounded and in-depth explanation and expose of the forces tugging at the President’s attention: the usual suspects are all accounted for (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rice), as well as some lesser-known voices (Douglas Feith, Natan Sharansky, Michael Gerson, Ahmad Chalabi). Kaplan describes the evolution of Bush’s realism from the pre-9/11 days, followed by his “sense of mission” in the days after the attack. He explains Rumsfeld’s particular ineptitudes over post-war Iraq, how he insisted on the Defence Department controlling the reconstruction plans, only to largely lose interest when he had it. A lot of time is spent focusing on Condi Rice’s evolution from hardcore Realist to Bush loyalist, and then back to shepherd of a more Realist foreign policy.

Towards the end, covering the time after the Democratic 2006 mid-term rout, Kaplan describes a return to a more realistic foreign policy approach, guided by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Iraq policy directed by General Petraeus (an interesting choice for a president who values loyalty above all – Petraeus was responsible for the new counterinsurgency manual, which effectively ridiculed Bush’s conduct of the Iraq misadventure). Kaplan explains how Bush’s disastrous attempts to “rebrand” America in the face of the precipitous decline in international favourable opinion (especially depressing considering the outpouring of support and good will following 9/11). Kaplan describes how, after six years, Bush’s hope for an unstoppable wave of freedom and democracy sweeping all before it, “lay shattered”.

There is an overall feeling of Bush and his officials’ moves being undermined or failures whenever they pursue purely ideological policies, success and progress only becoming possible when the United States returned to a more realistic approach. Generally speaking, the Bush administration completely misunderstood the situation on the ground, ignoring or cherry-picking the intelligence and opinions that converged with their own pre-held positions and biases. But, while many will welcome the whiff of anti-Republican content, Kaplan doesn’t leave the Democrats unscathed, pointing out that despite their rhetorical opposition to pretty much everything Bush stands for, they have failed to oppose any military funding.

While the mistakes and blunders of the past eight years are well known, Kaplan offers an important look at the genesis of the ideas driving US foreign policy today, offering a balanced critique and appraisal of Bush’s freedom agenda, making extensive use of primary sources (primarily interviews, speeches and articles written by the main protagonists).

In the concluding chapter, Kaplan discusses the problems with US foreign policy, how the major strands and preferences (realpolitik, isolationism, neoconservatism) are not equal to the task of dealing with the current world situation. More space could have been expended furthering his argument and explanation of his thoughts on this, but it’s at least good that he touched on them at all. One interesting device Kaplan makes use of is President Bush’s interest in President Truman. Drawing comparisons between the two administrations, Kaplan shows how Bush’s policies have been misguided and largely absent deeper understanding of the world and situation, dealing more with “fantasies” and idealistic dreams than reality.

A rewarding read, excellently written and structured, with plenty to offer any with an interest in the evolution of America’s approach to the world. Recommended.

Also try: Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power (2008), Arthur Schlesinger Jr., War and the American President (2005), Ivo Daalder & James Lindsey’s America Unbound (2005), Francis Fukuyama’s After the Neocons (2006)

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