Friday, June 17, 2005

"Think Local, Act Global" Dept.

In the historiography of Imperial Germany, and in particular in the historiography of German involvement in World War I, there is a classic debate between the Primat der Innenpolitik crowd and the Primat der Aussenpolitik coterie. The latter argue that German foreign policy was a largely autonomous realm, unbeholden to Germany's roiling internal challenges. By contrast, the former believe that the primary drivers behind German foreign policy (from Bismark to Weimar) were domestic political tensions; in other words, German statesmen used foreign policy as a proxy for internal, domestic political battles.

I've always believed that much of American foreign policy is best explained via a Primat der Innenpolitik methodology; that is, I've believed that much American foreign policy has not been driven by a deep understanding of, or engagement with, the complexities of foreign relations and nations, but rather in the main by domestic political issues, in which foreign policy served mainly symbolic or perhaps mythological roles within a domestic policy agenda. For example, the Spanish-American War is harder to explain in terms of the alleged urgent geopolitical need to acquire an empire than in terms of President McKinley's desire to stoke jingoist fervors in order to consolidate a political situation at home. (With that said, the particular places McKinley chose to conquer in 1898 were undoubtedly chosen based on perceived geopolitical imperatives.)

This pattern of letting internal politics driving foreign policy makes especially good sense when you consider the peculiar American habit of drawing our Presidents not from Washington itself but more usually from some provincial governor's mansion. These politicians naturally have much deeper understandings of domestic, regional, and national politics than they do of international relations and foreign policy. It would be odd, therefore, if their point of policy departure were anything other the beliefs and lessons they had garnered back home in podunksville. To me, the Bush II presidency has been an exemplar of this sort of thing. As I wrote long ago, the slogan of the Bush presidency might well be, "Think Local, Act Global."

At the same time, I've also always assumed that the primacy of Innenpolitik was not so much a self-conscious choice as it was a natural function of the fact that we recruit our national leadership from regional political organizations. This is why the following report, if accurate, may cause me to sharply reconsider how unselfconscious this process really is. Money:

Two years before the September 11 attacks, presidential candidate George W. Bush was already talking privately about the political benefits of attacking Iraq, according to his former ghost writer, who held many conversations with then-Texas Governor Bush in preparation for a planned autobiography.

"He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999," said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz. "It was on his mind. He said to me: 'One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.' And he said, 'My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.' He said, 'If I have a chance to invade·.if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency." Herskowitz said that Bush expressed frustration at a lifetime as an underachiever in the shadow of an accomplished father. In aggressive military action, he saw the opportunity to emerge from his father's shadow. The moment, Herskowitz said, came in the wake of the September 11 attacks. "Suddenly, he's at 91 percent in the polls, and he'd barely crawled out of the bunker."

That President Bush and his advisers had Iraq on their minds long before weapons inspectors had finished their work - and long before alleged Iraqi ties with terrorists became a central rationale for war - has been raised elsewhere, including in a book based on recollections of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. However, Herskowitz was in a unique position to hear Bush's unguarded and unfiltered views on Iraq, war and other matters - well before he became president....

According to Herskowitz, who has authored more than 30 books, many of them jointly written autobiographies of famous Americans in politics, sports and media (including that of Reagan adviser Michael Deaver), Bush and his advisers were sold on the idea that it was difficult for a president to accomplish an electoral agenda without the record-high approval numbers that accompany successful if modest wars....

According to Herskowitz, George W. Bush's beliefs on Iraq were based in part on a notion dating back to the Reagan White House - ascribed in part to now-vice president Dick Cheney, Chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee under Reagan. "Start a small war. Pick a country where there is justification you can jump on, go ahead and invade."

Bush's circle of pre-election advisers had a fixation on the political capital that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher collected from the Falklands War. Said Herskowitz: "They were just absolutely blown away, just enthralled by the scenes of the troops coming back, of the boats, people throwing flowers at [Thatcher] and her getting these standing ovations in Parliament and making these magnificent speeches."

Republicans, Herskowitz said, felt that Jimmy Carter's political downfall could be attributed largely to his failure to wage a war. He noted that President Reagan and President Bush's father himself had (besides the narrowly-focused Gulf War I)successfully waged limited wars against tiny opponents - Grenada and Panama - and gained politically. But there were successful small wars, and then there were quagmires, and apparently George H.W. Bush and his son did not see eye to eye.

"I know [Bush senior] would not admit this now, but he was opposed to it. I asked him if he had talked to W about invading Iraq. "He said, 'No I haven't, and I won't, but Brent [Scowcroft] has.' Brent would not have talked to him without the old man's okaying it." Scowcroft, national security adviser in the elder Bush's administration, penned a highly publicized warning to George W. Bush about the perils of an invasion.

Herskowitz's revelations are not the sole indicator of Bush's pre-election thinking on Iraq. In December 1999, some six months after his talks with Herskowitz, Bush surprised veteran political chroniclers, including the Boston Globe 's David Nyhan, with his blunt pronouncements about Saddam at a six-way New Hampshire primary event that got little notice: "It was a gaffe-free evening for the rookie front-runner, till he was asked about Saddam's weapons stash," wrote Nyhan. 'I'd take 'em out,' [Bush] grinned cavalierly, 'take out the weapons of mass destruction·I'm surprised he's still there," said Bush of the despot who remains in power after losing the Gulf War to Bush Jr.'s father·It remains to be seen if that offhand declaration of war was just Texas talk, a sort of locker room braggadocio, or whether it was Bush's first big clinker. "

The notion that President Bush held unrealistic or naïve views about the consequences of war was further advanced recently by a Bush supporter, the evangelist Pat Robertson, who revealed that Bush had told him the Iraq invasion would yield no casualties. In addition, in recent days, high-ranking US military officials have complained that the White House did not provide them with adequate resources for the task at hand.

Looks like we've got ourselves another disgruntled former insider on our hands....

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