War Stories

In the 21st Century, the United States Has Been Led by Fantasists

When Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state, she hung a portrait of Dean Acheson in her office. As she explained in a Washington Post op-ed piece, Acheson worked in that office at the start of the Cold War, “as America sought to create the world anew.” His portrait was to serve as a reminder that we too “live in an extraordinary time,” that “the terrain of international politics is shifting beneath our feet,” and we must “transform volatile status quos that no longer serve our interests.”

George W. Bush liked to invoke the same era of history. In the fall of 2006, after the Republicans lost both houses of Congress, mainly as a result of the war in Iraq, Bush was said to be reading biographies of Acheson’s president, Harry Truman. At a meeting of Republican congressional leaders, he noted that Truman’s policies were unpopular in their day but were vindicated by history. The implication was that history would vindicate Bush, too.

But the comparisons that he and Rice invited were far from flattering. Where were Bush’s new institutions and alliances, his Marshall Plan or NATO? Which of his doctrines would survive the year, much less the ages?

Truman and Acheson’s legacies—the strategies of deterrence and containment—have been romanticized of late, but they endured and, on their own terms, succeeded because they fit the basic realities of their time. They were grounded in an understanding of history, technology, and the culture of America’s allies and adversaries.

George Kennan, the State Department policy planner who laid out the ideas for containment, was a scholar of Russian history and a seasoned observer of Soviet politics. The pioneering nuclear strategists who spelled out the requirements of deterrence were versed in the power—and the limits—of nuclear weaponry. The advisers who built the institutions that revived Western Europe’s prosperity and freedom—the Marshall Plan, the Bretton Woods agreement—were economists and bankers who understood the mechanics of finance. Finally, the decision makers—especially Acheson and, before him, George Marshall—understood that to be a global power, America needed strong allies, not puppets, and an international order with rules that it too would have to follow, if only to promote the compliance of others.

By contrast, 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.

When Acheson came to office, the world was clearly convulsed and transmogrified by world war, the atom bomb, and the crumbling of old empires. He realized that, although many things about the world had changed, the way the world worked—the nature of politics among nations, the basic motivations of human beings—had not. What he helped create was not a “world anew” but a set of strategies and institutions through which the emerging American superpower could advance its interests without triggering World War III.

To do that, he began not with an abstract vision or a rigid concept of “moral clarity,” but rather with empirical observations. Communism tended to thrive amid poverty and chaos; so part of Acheson’s strategy was to help make the West’s war-ravaged nations more prosperous and stable. The atom bomb was imponderably destructive; so he helped build a security framework that contained Soviet expansion while also keeping the rivalry from spiraling out of control.

If America’s Cold War presidents had adopted Bush’s strategic post-9/11 strategic outlook, they would have attacked the Soviet Union at some point during the long standoff, on the grounds that Communism was the “root cause” of many problems. If Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had thought the way Bush did while planning the strategy for World War II, they would not have formed an alliance with the Soviet Union in order to beat Nazi Germany, because Communism, especially Josef Stalin’s version of it, was evil, too. They might even have declared war on both Russia and Germany—and, in their high moral dudgeon, suffered catastrophic defeat.

The great divide in thinking about American foreign policy these past few years is not so much between Realists and Neoconservatives; it’s between realists (with a small r) and fantasists. The split lies not in what is desirable over the long run but in what is possible here and now. It is a debate about not so much what America should do as what it can do—about the limits of American power in the post-Cold War world, about whether there are limits, about the way the world works.

In the opening years of the 21st century, the United States has been led by fantasists—by the sort of people that T.E. Lawrence decried as “dreamers of the day.” Most people, he wrote, “dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds” and “wake in the day to find that it was vanity.” But the daydreamers “are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Lawrence acknowledged that he was one of those dangerous men, acting the British empire’s dream of remaking Arabia at the turn of the 20th century. So too are America’s present-day aspiring empire-builders, who dream of remaking not just the Middle East but the world.

They 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.

Tomorrow: How to confront this challenge.