In the final throes of a presidential campaign, the depth and breadth of a foreign policy debate are necessarily highly constricted. I am extremely pleased that John Kerry is now making the case against the President's Iraq policy in an aggressive and frontal fashion. But the thrust of that critique is inevitably on the policy's manifest failures rather than its intellectual and policy underpinnings.
A side note: It's revealing -- and the Kerry campaign should make something of it -- that whenever Kerry attacks Bush's management of the war all the Bush team can do is attack the alleged contradictions in Kerry's position on the war. That may work politically. But it's awfully telling. They have, quite literally, no response on the merits. Kerry should point that out and tell the president to stop making excuses for endangering the country.
In any case, back to the debate over foreign policy and war. If you're interested in getting more deeply into the questions raised by the Iraq war -- not WMD and troop strength, but the mix of empire, violence and democratic idealism -- I cannot recommend strongly enough John Judis' new book The Folly of Empire
The book is half history, half polemic. Much of the historical focus is on America's experience as an incipient imperial power from the final years of the 19th century through the first two decades of the 20th century. The key events are the bloody war America fought to put down the Philipine rebellion and the ill-fated American intervention in Mexico. This Judis contrasts with a very different approach to foreign affairs that prevailed -- with relative consensus and consistency among presidents of both parties -- from Franklin Roosevelt until Bill Clinton. It was a model that in key ways grew out of the sobering experience of this imperialist interlude when America's deep-seated and in most ways benign missionizing impulses were wedded to the imperalism that would soon shake Europe, and much of the globe, to its foundations.
The image of Teddy Roosevelt that emerges from this book is very different from that which has been in vogue in recent years in Washington, DC. And in our current moment, when TR and Wilson loom so large in our historical imagination and disfigured latter-day versions of them direct our nation's affairs, it is an instructive examination of how the thirst for domination can masquerade as idealism, often in a toxic fashion fooling even itself.
With the US completely isolated and in a Mesopotamian snake pit, it's not hard to argue that President Bush's own special model of petulant unilateralism has been ineffective in securing American interests and security. But if you want to get more deeply into this -- how lessons of the past were ignored, how vacuous idealism can slide into hubris and then disaster -- this is the book
Soon, another recommendation of a very different sort of book about empire: Hugh Thomas's new Rivers of Gold