Monday, February 04, 2008

How conservative fantasies have worked to destroy American power

This week Slate has posted two excerpts from Fred Kaplan's new book, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power. Kaplan argues
that the failures in Bush's foreign and military policy stem from two great misconceptions: that the world changed after Sept. 11, when it didn't, and that the United States emerged from the Cold War stronger than before, when in fact it was weaker.
Instead of me spending time writing "I told you so!", just go read the excerpts in Slate. They can be found at
  1. Part One - In the 21st Century, the United States Has Been Led by Fantasists,
    posted Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008 and
  2. Part Two - The Importance of Allies
    posted Monday, Feb. 4, 2008.
Kaplan has nailed it. From Part one
Bush's strategies neither succeeded nor endured—not even through the two terms of his presidency—because they did not fit the realities of his era. They were based not on a grasp of technology, history, or foreign cultures but rather on fantasy, faith, and a willful indifference toward those affected by their consequences.

Those in charge of his policies cared little about the details of warfare, knew little about the realities of the Middle East, and had not thought through what made freedom work in their own country, much less what might make it work elsewhere.
Except for the fantasies that will be maintained by American conservatives like those true-believers who still believe that Nixon did nothing wrong and that Watergate was a liberal dirty trick and a coup d'état, these ideas from Kaplan's book will form the core of the historical legacy of the Bush administration.

Here, according to Kaplan, it a description of the Bush administration fantasy, where it has gotten things wrong and the way both the Republican and Democratic parties have responded to the fantasies as they were enacted into government policy and actions.
They [the conservative Republicans especially] believe that America emerged from its Cold War victory as not only the most powerful nation but the only nation whose power deserved heeding. From there, it was a short leap to view America's values and interests as identical with those of the world; to assume that, deep inside, everyone would want to live the way Americans live, if only they were set free from tyranny. Combine these notions with America's technological superiority, and the stage was set for the delusions that followed.

The high-tech weapons developed in the 1990s—the smart bombs and the computerized intelligence networks—certainly gave the U.S. military an unrivaled edge on the open battlefield. But they don't win wars; they can't achieve the political objectives that inspire a war in the first place. They're useful for toppling regimes, but of no use in inspiring order afterward. In the end, the old verities—boots on the ground, shrewd strategy, knowledge of the local language and culture—remain key.

Finally, the world might be a more peaceful place if every nation were free and democratic (or all alike in some other way). It's merely utopian to believe that this someday might happen; it's folly to base policies, as Bush did in his second term, on the premise that this utopia is imminent.

There is no Universal Man marching inexorably down a common path to freedom. Real human history is molded, not fated; and its raw materials are the culture, geography, traditions, and past events of particular areas. It's not only naïve but reckless to believe that blowing off a tyrant's lid will unleash the geyser of liberty. It will unleash only whatever social forces have been teeming or festering underneath. If those forces are favorably disposed to democracy, as in some of the central European nations after the Soviet empire fell, democracy will have a good chance of flourishing. If they're not so well disposed, as in, for example, Iraq, the chances for democracy will be dim.

George W. Bush violated these common-sense precepts to an unprecedented degree and at staggering cost. But the Democrats have not presented an alternative approach. They may lament the skyrocketing defense budget, but they rarely cut or challenge specific weapons systems and veer away from military strategy. They criticize Bush's unilateralism, but only rhetorically. They stop short of acknowledging that America's interests might differ from those of prospective allies and that, therefore, building alliances often requires serious compromise.

In short, they sidestep the central challenge of foreign policy in a fractured world—facing up to the limits of America's power while preserving its stature and influence.
All the pieces of Kaplan's articles have been talked about in the blogosphere. Bush's well-known "bubble" in which he resides with little connection to reality along with the incompetence of his administration are descriptions of the fantasies Kaplan discusses. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's clear incompetence in prosecuting the war in Iraq with too few troops and an expectation that simply removing Saddam would create an economic powerhouse and American-style democracy in the Heart of the Middle East showed the extent of the fantasy and its failure. Bremer's CPA was an extension of the failed fantasy.

The support of the Bush fantasy by the Republican Party has been unsurprising. It is part of the conservative ideology to live in a fantasy world. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Democratic Party have either bought into the fantasy or been intimidated so badly that they refuse to oppose that lack of reality. This, too, is well-known and widely discussed in the blogosphere. Oddly enough, recognition of the unreality and danger of the Bush and Republican conservative fantasy and failures is widely derided by the Washington D.C. media as being a "left-wing extremist" position. That shows how utterly out of touch the Washington D.C. media is when they consider demanding reality-based government policies to be an extremist position.

Kaplan pulls all of these disparate elements together and explains them as the result of the conservative fantasies which have so badly damaged America and a great deal of the rest of the world.

Kaplan's book, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, is badly needed. It should sit on the shelf of every good American right alongside David Cay Johnston's devastating exposé - Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill) -, of the right-wing economic fantasies which have been devastating the American economy and the American middle class.

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