Thursday, 29 January 2009

“The Crisis of American Foreign Policy”, by Ikenberry, Knock, Slaughter, Smith (Princeton University Press)

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A discussion on Wilson’s legacy in US Foreign Policy

It has often been argued that the president who has had the greatest impact on American foreign policy is the 28th, Woodrow Wilson. President George W. Bush’s foreign policy was often described as Wilsonian, though equally as often without knowing what that actually meant.

In The Crisis of American Foreign Policy, guided by G. John Ikenberry, Thomas Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Tony Smith attempt to explain what Wilsonianism actually is, as well as addressing whether or not they believe George W. Bush’s foreign policy can be located within this tradition. Ikenberry first offers up an appraisal of Wilsonianism over the past eight years, giving an account of how foreign policy and the international structure in which the American president must conduct his policies has changed since the end of the Cold War, and also his opinions on how the Bush Doctrine might fit within American traditions of foreign policy.

Thomas Knock provides a long (though interesting and well-written) explanation of the evolution of Wilson’s foreign policy ideology, placing the president’s thinking into the context of his time. Knock manages to pack in a lot of detail into his chapter, but rather than overwhelming the reader, he keeps things moving, offering a very illuminating historical context.

Tony Smith, the only non-liberal writing in this book, provides perhaps the best chapter, not including Ikenberry’s introduction. Smith argues that the Bush Doctrine and neoconservatives are the natural heirs to the Wilsonian tradition. His chapter is not so much an outright defense of neo-conservatism, but he does point out some important similarities between the two. In fact, according to Smith, there is only one major difference between the two ideologies, and that is their approach to multilateralism and international organisations.

The final chapter, by Anne-Marie Slaughter, is another defense of Wilsonianism and an attempt to point out every inconsistency between the Bush Doctrine and the Wilsonian tradition. While all of her points are valid and well argued, the chapter, coming after Smith’s, comes across as highly defensive in tone. Slaughter readily accepts that there are certain points with which she and Smith agree, but it appears that the main disagreements involve the importance of democracy promotion (Slaughter says Wilson wasn’t interested in promoting it) and the potential for American power to be used for good in the world. Slaughter thinks the potential is considerable, even though she concedes there are times when the US has failed to live to this potential. Smith is more dubious.

This is not a j’accuse account of the Bush presidency. Rather, it’s focus is a discussion of the tradition of Wilsonianism in American foreign policy, and whether or not George W. Bush’s presidency ought to be described as being part of this tradition. While the authors come to different conclusions, using different criteria, the debate is interesting and intelligent, offering plenty for both students, historians and enthusiasts alike. The Crisis of American Foreign Policy is the most readable, balanced and lucid theory-based publication I’ve read in quite some time.

Very highly recommended.

Also try: Ivo Daalder & James M. Lindsay, America Unbound (2005); Fred Kaplan, Daydream Believers (2008); Zbigniew Brzezinski, Second Chance (2007)

Friday, 23 January 2009

“Too Close To The Sun”, by Curtis Roosevelt (PublicAffairs)

Roosevelt-TooCloseToTheSunGrowing up in the shadow of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt

Following his parents’ divorce, three-year-old Curtis Roosevelt, his sister and his mother moved in with the newly-elected president and first lady, splitting their time between the White House and the Roosevelt estate, Hyde Park, in the Hudson Valley.

After a quick introduction to Franklin Roosevelt, and his struggle with polio and election as president, what follows is an endearing memoir of Curtis’ formative years. Curtis explains how this period informed much of his character and affected the rest of his life. It is certainly honest, with the author unafraid to draw on memories of his less flattering moments: “My early surroundings provided not only excitement and comfort but also a reality-rejecting sense of specialness, which did not stand me in good stead as I grew older.”

While the author (obviously) discusses his parents, his mother’s remarriage and so forth, by far the most interesting chapters and episodes in the book at those that involve FDR or Eleanor Roosevelt. A unique look at America’s 32nd president, from about three-feet off the ground. We see a softer, more playful side of the only man to hold the office of president for 12 years. What was also rather fascinating, was the period detail of how the wealthy elite in America lived during the depression years and after. It’s not difficult to see why Curtis might have some re-entry issues upon returning to “real life”: the servants, the huge estates, and the arms-length child rearing style of the Roosevelt clan.

The book is written in a plain-spoken, accessible and inviting manner. The reminiscences of FDR are still tinged with the awe and affection Curtis clearly felt for his grandfather, offering insight and observations that are quite apart from the academic tomes that seem to be churned out on a monthly basis. Sprinkled with amusing anecdotes (usually in the form of Curtis’ various faux-pas), Too Close To The Sun is an easy read, and one that should appeal to anyone interested in the presidency of FDR and also those interested in knowing more about society in that time.

A book that is well worth reading.

Also try: Roy Jenkins’ Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2005); Conrad Black’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (2005); H.W. Brands’ Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2008)

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

“A Long Time Coming”, by Evan Thomas et al. (PublicAffairs)

Newsweek-ALongTimeComingAn illuminating behind-the-scenes look at the 2008 election

For anyone missing the heady news days of this past election cycle, A Long Time Coming will fill the hole created by its end. In a now time-honoured tradition (the first post-election book was released in 1984), Evan Thomas and the writers of Newsweek were allowed uncensored access to the candidates and their staffs on an embargoed basis – nothing was to be published until after the election itself. The results are impressive and entertaining.

The book is split into seven chronological chapters (plus intro, epilogue and a bonus interview with Obama). At first, they alternate between Obama’s and McCain’s primary campaigns – Obama’s vicious, grinding battle with the Clinton machine, the Clinton campaign’s infighting and self-immolation; McCain’s near political death (the chapter’s titled “Back from the Dead”), and subsequent victory, months ahead of an end to the Democratic contest (which he was never able to fully take advantage of). Then we move on to the national campaign, and two distinct characters emerge: Obama, clear-headed and calm, professorial, self-aware, and in control of his team. McCain, on the other hand, seems a little at sea, events spiraling out of his control with a needy base and unnecessary constraints on his character. The debates are analysed, and McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as vice-president is covered in-depth, as are the resultant problems she causes for McCain by going “rogue”, later described by staffers as a “wacko” and “diva”. (Obama’s choice of Biden is dealt with rather quickly.)

Obama’s and McCain’s staffers are also described: from David Axelrod as the somewhat paranoid Obama campaign manager, to Senator Lindsay Graham, who appears to play the role of security-blanket for McCain (not in a pathetic way, that’s just the best way to describe him, I think), offering light relief and, along with Mark Salter, a friendly face and familiar foil.

There is no disguising Thomas’s excitement at the prospect of a President Obama: “Hyperbole around elections comes easy and cheap, but this is a moment – a year – when even superlatives cannot capture the magnitude of the change that the country voted for on November 4, 2008.” He goes on to compare the 2008 election with FDR’s 1932 victory and Reagan’s 1980 victory as historical political shifts. Thomas’s enthusiasm luckily doesn’t get the better of him, as he is always diligent to bring things back to earth, highlighting either areas that will prove difficult for Obama (the economy, biggest of all), and also pointing out the occasional flaw in Obama himself.

While the idea of an uncensored back-stage look at the election might make some think this book is filled with deep and dark moments when one candidate shreds another to an aide, this is not the case. What you will find, instead, is an honest, non-sanitised look at the main players in the 2008 election. For those of us who were fond of McCain but disappointed with his campaign, you will find a portrait of an irascible man in the middle of a process that appears to have run away from him, straightjacketed by advisors and consultants. I can’t imagine hardcore Republicans will enjoy this book too much, as there are times when the reporting from the Obama campaign can have the feel of coming from someone who drank (a lot of) the Kool-Aid, and Palin in certainly taken apart.

For those who were on the fence about Obama, the book will serve as an endearing reintroduction – the book paints a picture of a self-confident man, a more realistic portrait to the character than has been described in the media and by celebrities (e.g. Oprah’s “the One”). He appears funny (I laughed out loud at least twice because of jokes or quips attributed to Obama), cautious, somewhat geeky, but also very human. In fact, this book offers a far more attractive portrayal of the candidate than that offered on the trail.

I devoured this book in two sittings (I had to sleep in between, otherwise it would have been one). The writing is tight and fluid (as one should expect from Newsweek), and the book contains plenty of interesting anecdotes and tidbits to entertain any political junky or casual observer. Collating all the main events and facts from the campaigns, this is a very highly recommended book, and easily one of the best political ones I’ve read in a while.

Thomas cannot resist bringing up the comparisons between Obama and Lincoln in the epilogue. Sure, Obama has made these comparisons himself in The Audacity of Hope, but Thomas rightly also draws comparisons with FDR and LBJ, warning against unrealistic exuberance, reminding us that Obama is “human like the rest of us.”

With Obama’s inauguration still a week away, only time will tell if his familiarity with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals translates to the emulation of Lincoln’s bipartisanship, helping him bring the country together to fix growing crises. Here’s to hoping…

Complimentary Reading (a selection): Joshua Green’s “The Front-Runner’s Fall (The Atlantic, September 2008 – about disastrous infighting in Clinton’s campaign); “The Atlantic’s 2008 Presidential Election Supplement” (October 2008); James Wenner’s “How Obama Won” (Rolling Stone, November 27, 2008); Matt Taibbi’s “Requiem for a Maverick” (Rolling Stone, November 27, 2008); “Campaign ‘08 in Rolling Stone

Others in the series: “The Quest for the Presidency - 1988”, “Back From the Dead - 1996”, “Election 2004: How Bush Won and What You Can Expect in the Future” (The first two are actually quite difficult to get ahold of in the UK, but the 2004 book is still readily available from Amazon UK and Amazon US)

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)

Friday, 2 January 2009

“How Bush Rules”, by Sidney Blumenthal (Princeton University Press)

Blumenthal-HowBushRules

A collection of articles spanning three years of Bush’s time in office (2003-2006)

Sidney Blumenthal (former advisor to President Bill Clinton) tackles the various radical elements of Bush’s administration in this series of articles published in The Guardian and at Salon.com.

There is little doubt that Sidney Blumenthal falls on the more critical side of the debate over Bush’s presidency. No doubt he believes that history will not designate Bush a latter-day Truman. While some will be put off by the overwhelming negativity, there is still plenty of useful opinion and analysis in How Bush Rules.

The first chapter is basically a summary of everything that is to come, and it lays out succinctly and eloquently Blumenthal’s position and explains how the Bush administration’s first nine months were “a quick march to the right”, and how this has effected his administration since.

In these articles, Blumenthal argues that George W Bush is “the most willfully radical president in American history,” and that this is something nobody predicted. On foreign policy, Bush declared that he would be “humble”: “If we are an arrogant nation, they’ll view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation, they’ll respect us.” Considering this, it is amazing that he failed to heed his own warning, pursuing a largely unilateral and arrogant approach to foreign policy (though, regardless of what Bush critics say, this is not wholly unheard of in American foreign policy). Blumenthal discusses various topics, divided into three sections:

- Hubris: This section covers events from Bush’s declaration of “Mission Accomplished” aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln to the 2004 election and Bush’s victory over John Kerry (with plenty of discussion about the low tactics taken to besmirch Kerry’s Vietnam record). Blumenthal is perhaps a little too free with labeling everyone a “neocon” in this section (e.g. Cheney and Rumsfeld, who aren’t actually neocons). Blumenthal also writes in defense of Joseph Wilson, Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill, Bush officials who failed to “stay on message” about Iraq and terrorism; and also discusses the humiliation of Colin Powell. He writes damningly of Condoleezza Rice’s tenure as National Security Adviser.

- Nemesis I: From the Terry Schiavo debacle to Cindy Sheehan’s anti-war vigil outside Bush’s Crawford ranch. Some good observations about the usurpation of government by what Blumenthal calls “a confederacy of shamans”, keen as always to conduct some form of “necrophiliac spiritualism” (this is in regards to the Schiavo case which, I think, could be argued as an exceptional case of political tone-deafness from the Christian Right). Blumenthal laments at how “For the first time public policy in the United States is being made on the basis of pitting invisible signs against science.” Bush’s second term attempted strategy of transferring the fear politics of his first term’s foreign policy onto his domestic agenda, only to find that it doesn’t work so well.

- Nemesis II: The disastrous, cold reaction to Hurricane Katrina to the Revolt of the Generals. Blumenthal also discusses the irony of Bob Woodward being caught up in the Valerie Plame case, where he allegedly withheld information about who leaked what, which he gathered from various interviews for his Bush At War series of books, and how he seems to give Bush and his cronies the benefit of the doubt, even having seen the worst of the executive branch, when he uncovered, along with Carl Bernstein, the Watergate scandal. Condoleezza Rice is spared nothing, as her intellectual dishonesty and blind loyalty to Bush makes her utter fallacies continuously, only for them to be either undermined by Rumsfeld or proven inaccurate by other investigations. The demise of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff. Karl Rove’s odd assertion that he’s modeled his political style off President William McKinley’s…

The nature of the book – a collection of articles that usually span no more than two or three pages – makes this a particularly quick read. However, this format does present a couple of drawbacks. The main problem is one of repetition: with many articles, Blumenthal provides background that has often been covered in previous articles. While this is understandable, I wonder why no effort was made to perhaps combine the articles into a single narrative/text? Also, due to the short-length of each article, there’s not always space for particularly deep analysis of Bush’s choices and policies.

Having said that, Blumenthal is a skilled writer, and his understanding government, politics and US history is on display throughout this collection. He also comes up with interesting perspectives or analogies to get his point across. (One particular example that stands out; his comparison between the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Iraq and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.) To return to the problem of length, the timeliness of these articles adds extra insight into the impressions of the day, allowing us to see how Blumenthal and America’s understanding of each situation unfolded as more information came to light, or as events developed. Blumenthal’s treatment of Karl Rove, too, is especially well done – Rove is clearly portrayed as a shadowy presence, tugging on certain strings when he deems it politically advantageous. To get this impression across, rather than spelling it out, Rove crops up infrequently and almost inconsequentially, while his role is still very clear.

In all, while a good book, I did not find this as enjoyable or rewarding as Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars (2004 – surprisingly difficult to get a hold of in the UK). But it was nonetheless an interesting and insightful read, and will prove useful for anyone who wants something they can pick up now and again, without having to worry about continuously having to flick back to find their place in the narrative.

A damning portrait of a president disengaged from the reality that he is, in fact president, and one who has delegated most of his responsibility to zealots, surrounding himself with an inner circle apparently appointed following the template of “enforcer”, “loyalist”, and/or “incompetent.”

Complimentary Reading: Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty (2004), Robert Draper’s Dead Certain (2007), Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy (2007), Barton Gellman’s Angler (2008), and Michael Kinsley’s Please Don’t Remain Calm (2008)