Drift & Mastery, Bush-Style

March 1, 1991 Topic: Great Powers Regions: Americas Tags: Superpower

Drift & Mastery, Bush-Style

Mini Teaser: It is said that one cannot argue with success.

by Author(s): Owen Harries

It is said that one cannot argue with success.  On the contrary, one can and one should, for euphoria and complacency are the enemies of sound judgment.  Before August 2, 1990, George Bush received high praise from the American foreign policy establishment for doing very little in relation to the collapse of communism.  Since then he has received equally generous praise for being spectacularly activist in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.  First masterly inactivity, then masterful engagement: How sound are these judgments?

For a recent example of an admiring account of George Bush's passive response to the end of the Cold War, consult Michael Mandelbaum's article in the current "America and the World" issue of Foreign Affairs.  Professor Mandelbaum's conclusion that the president deserves high marks is based almost entirely on how well he believes George Bush played the role of the dog that didn't bark.  The president "kept the United States in the background"; he "steered clear" of the pitfalls and blind alleys of interference; he "refrained from," "avoided," and "declined" to do this and that; he "correctly calculated" the wisdom of letting things "run their course," without either collaborating with or confronting Moscow.

Mandelbaum suggests that the president's performance in this respect has gone "underappreciated," but I don't think so.  True, some conservatives have chided Bush for being insufficiently exultant in victory, and for inadequate zeal in pressing America's advantage over an adversary in crisis; and true, some liberals, gamely ready to embrace yet another hero on the Left even as the pillars of the temple are crumbling, have complained that not enough was being done to "help Gorby."  But in the think tanks, editorial offices, and schools of international relations in which wisdom is made conventional, the bulk of opinion has approved the Bush administration's passivity.  Professor Mandelbaum is expressing an orthodoxy, not a challenging reassessment.

On the whole, and with a qualification I shall come to, I agree with the orthodoxy.  To adapt the old saw, if something you don't like is broke or breaking, don't feel obliged to fix it.  And don't feel compelled to hasten a process that is proceeding nicely of its own accord; at best your efforts will be superfluous, at worst counterproductive.

More specifically, the case against Bush's conservative critics is that blatant attempts to exploit the crisis in the Soviet Union, either in propaganda terms or by attempting to influence events there, would in all likelihood weaken the reformers and strengthen the reactionary forces by allowing the latter to exploit Russian national pride.  Expressions of conservative outrage at the use of Soviet force against the Baltic peoples and other nationalities, especially when accompanied by demands that the Bush administration must respond punitively, are not convincing.  What we are witnessing in the Soviet Union is the collapse of the last great empire of the twentieth century.  The earlier collapse of empires--including those of the democratic powers--was accompanied by much violence and bloodshed.  The British departure from the Indian subcontinent, Kenya, and Malaya; the French from Vietnam and Algeria; the Dutch from Indonesia; the Belgians from the Congo; the Portuguese from Timor--millions of deaths accompanied these vast adjustments in the international system.  So far, the collapse of the communist empire has been surprisingly parsimonious in blood, particularly given the regime's demonstrated taste for violence.  Who would have predicted that fundamental challenges to the integrity of the Soviet Union would result in deaths measured only in dozens and scores?  This may well change of course--indeed it will be surprising if it does not--but until it does, protestations of shock and horror ring rather hollow.  Another observation suggested by earlier examples of imperial collapse is that whether or not the Soviet republics achieve independence will depend overwhelmingly on their own determination and staying power.  Except as a side effect of a major war, there are few examples of outside intervention being decisive.

Liberal criticism of the Bush administration's passivity is also unpersuasive.  That criticism has usually taken the form of complaints that the United States is being insufficiently supportive and generous with aid.  But the gap between what would be required to make a significant difference to the Soviet economy and what the United States, even at its most generous, could conceivably give is very large.  Further, there is no evidence that the Soviet system could make good use of any aid given to it.  A country that wastes its own record harvest because of failure to gather, store, and distribute is hardly likely to use foreign aid effectively.  The only exception to this inefficiency is the Soviet military-industrial complex, which almost certainly could make good use of Western material aid and technology.  But aiding it would obstruct rather than facilitate reform.  Indeed, arguably, any economic aid that was not entirely wasted would have that effect, in that it would lessen the incentive to change.

The liberal stress on the importance of material aid is quite mistaken.  The most important thing the West, and particularly the United States, has to give--or to withhold from--the Soviet regime is legitimacy.  This commodity is as scarce as soap and hypodermic needles in Moscow, and even more valuable.  As a discredited ideology is no longer able to confer legitimacy, good relations with the world's major powers, particularly with the only authentic superpower, become increasingly important for the leaders in the Kremlin.  So far, the Bush administration has been prepared to satisfy that need in a sober and moderate way, and in return for limited Soviet cooperation on matters of importance to Washington--particularly the Gulf Crisis.

It is true that Bush was given a good hand to play by the departing Reagan.  It is also true that Bush would have been wiser to spread his bets, rather than to have put so much of his money on the personal future of Mikhail Gorbachev.  On the whole, however, the praise given to Bush for his handling of relations with the Soviets in crisis has been well earned.  But--and this is the qualification I signaled earlier--a policy that was appropriate when things were going very much as we wanted them to go, and when a good deal of cooperation on bilateral and international matters was forthcoming, may not continue to be appropriate if, as now seems evident, reactionary forces are gaining the upper hand in Moscow.  While the United States will still have an interest in ensuring that events in the Soviet Union and Central Europe do not lead to a dangerous systemic instability, it should also be concerned to prevent the suppression of reform.  But even then it should proceed with a clear sense of the limits of its likely influence, and of the dangers of unintended and counterproductive results.

President Bush's response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait has been enormously popular with both the foreign policy establishment and the American public.  His unhesitating commitment; the unwavering demand for complete and unconditional withdrawal; the marshaling and holding together of a great international coalition; the use made of the United Nations; the smooth and rapid assembling of a huge military force in the Gulf and its subsequent successful deployment--all have been generally acclaimed for the decisiveness shown, the sense of control and authority conveyed, and the skill in implementation.

In the early stages of the crisis, I subscribed to this assessment.  In a piece written for an Australian audience in early October, for example, I described the administration's handling of the crisis as "superb."  Since then I have had second thoughts.  While I certainly continue to support the opposition to the Iraqi aggression, and while much of the implementation of policy has been impressive, the policy itself now seems to me to be deeply flawed.

The first mistake made by President Bush, I believe, was the immediate, unqualified, and unilateral commitment of American power to achieving the complete, unconditional withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait.  By this premature commitment, the president deprived the United States of the leverage necessary to get other countries to play their part, thus ensuring that the United States would play the leading role and bear most of the burden.  If the president had really wanted to establish that the old way of doing things was yielding to a "new world order," as he insisted he did, he should have made it clear at the outset that the days of leaving it to the United States to bear the burden of responsibility and leadership--to "do the hard work of freedom"--were over.

This could have been done without jeopardizing the security of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states.  The United States should have put enough air power in place, together with a small trip-wire force on the ground, to ensure that Iraq's aggression would not immediately extend beyond Kuwait--and then should have turned to the Europeans and the Japanese and said: "Given your greater dependence on its oil, you have much more at stake in the Gulf than we have, so you call the shots.  The United States will support you, but the initiative must be yours."  This would have established a new "ground rule" for the post-Cold War "order" with a vengeance.  It would have been a true "defining moment," one that would have concentrated the minds of the Germans and Japanese wonderfully. 

Essay Types: Essay