Ilan Peleg has written an accessible thesis on George W. Bush’s foreign policy and what it means for the future of American standing in the world, including his prescriptions of how the US should move forward.
Broken into easily-digestible chapters, the book attempts to explain US foreign policy between 2001 and 2008 in terms of global changes and challenges, ideological formulae, the personal characteristics of George W. Bush, and the decision-making process adopted by the president and his advisors. Each of these factors receives a chapter, and is well discussed. There is an undoubtedly liberal slant to Peleg’s arguments, but predominately the author’s preference for ideologically-neutral foreign policy Realism is welcome and sensible (in my opinion), and outlined and argued in a calm and measured manner.
Peleg argues that Bush’s approach to foreign policy was “a dramatic shift from the traditional principles of American foreign and security policy, particularly the strong American tendency toward pragmatism,” the result of an administration looking at the world through “an attitudinal prism somewhat detached from the reality of the international system.” He sets his argument out by first locating Bush administration in the context of other post-Cold War presidents (whose foreign policies Peleg seems to have approved of), and then providing a short look at the evolution of Neoconservatism – the ideology he believes influenced Bush’s foreign policy more than any other. These are common themes to include in any book about the Bush administration, and they are well summarised here.
It is the second half of the book, however, that is most useful and interesting. The chapter on Bush’s character in particular, as it attempts to ascertain the impact of Bush the individual on foreign policy. The author acknowledges that the influence of any one man on policy is limited, but in the case of 2001-2008, “the impact of the president’s personality seems to have been substantial.” This is the result of the situation Bush found himself in; during times of crisis the president often takes a central role in policy formulation. In this instance, Bush brought with him an “extreme Manichean, absolutist mindset, a tendency to view the world as a monumental, moralistic battlefield between good and evil.” In this chapter we also have one of Peleg’s more inflammatory statements: “Bush’s personality, along with several world events and the Neocon ideology, made an endless war unavoidable.” While I am personally unconvinced that this is the case, the author does an admirable job of arguing his position.
Peleg argues that the influence of the Neoconservatives and assertive nationalists on George W. Bush is likely the result of “conviction, weakness, or inexperience, or possibly a combination of all three.” In the decision-making chapter, Peleg analyses the influence of those Bush surrounded himself with, most particularly the influence of Vice President Dick Cheney (I’d recommend Barton Gellman’s Angler for more on Cheney’s role in the Bush administration). He also briefly discusses the importance of think tanks, the media, the political elite, and other governmental branches (State, Defence, Congress, etc.). It makes for a comprehensive, yet compact chapter.
In the book’s final chapter, Peleg outlines his suggestions for how best to put the US back on track. With an increasing number of issues on Obama’s agenda – from a rising China and reassertive Russia, Afghanistan, energy, environment, Iran and North Korea, “only a multilateral and global approach to these unprecedented challenges of the twenty-first century can succeed.”
While I agree with about 90% of what he writes and argues, I would say that he does not give enough attention to the ideological shift in Bush’s second term, and particularly the final two years of his administration, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (a foreign policy Realist) was able to exert greater control on diplomatic endeavours, and when Dick Cheney’s influence waned. The author touches on this early on in the book, but doesn’t give enough credit to Rice for steering certain policies back onto a more sure-footing. It is strange especially because it adheres to one of Peleg’s main arguments of how the US should pursue its foreign policy in the future – namely, in a more Realistic manner. The Neoconservatives are therefore given perhaps a little too much credit for their influence.
Ilan Peleg writes in a very accessible style, always ready to explain certain terminologies and bits of jargon, in an attempt to make the book useful for academics, but also interesting for laymen. The book pulls together the major approaches to the Bush Foreign Policy, outlining the various aspects of the field of study. In this respect, the book is an excellent addition to the ever-growing body of work discussing Bush-43’s foreign policy, and could work very well as an introductory text.
On Bush’s FP: Ivo Daalder & James Lindsay’s America Unbound (2005); Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power (2008); Fred Kaplan’s Daydream Believers (2008); Bob Woodward’s Bush At War (2003), Plan of Attack (2004), State of Denial (2006), The War Within (2008); Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy (2007); Ikenberry, Knock, Slaughter & Smith’s The Crisis of American Foreign Policy (2009); Jacob Heilbrunn’s They Knew They Were Right (2008)
On Future US FP: Melvyn Leffler & Jeffrey Legro’s To Lead The World (2008); David E. Sanger’s The Inheritance (2009); Fareed Zakaria’s Post-American World (2008); Timothy Lynch & Robert Singh’s After Bush: The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy (2008 – an alternate perspective)