WASHINGTON — More than three decades ago, Nixon White House Counsel John Dean called the Watergate cover-up “a cancer on the presidency.” Another one exists today, posing a challenge for the next president to restore the office as a credible voice in foreign policy.
President Bush’s detour in Iraq off the multilateral track adhered to throughout the Cold War years has caused a deep drop in American prestige abroad, requiring extensive repair by his successor regardless of which party wins in 2008.
While Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq has been the immediate trigger for the decline of American influence, just as significant was his original failure to capitalize on the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to mobilize a truly collective global response.
The outpouring of empathy for the United States in the wake of those events was quickly short-circuited by the invasion. In diverting the American military from its legitimate focus against the real perpetrators of the attacks, Bush left the primary job undone in Afghanistan, in order to chase a more ambitious dream of superpower dominance.
A decade earlier, neoconservative theorists in the Republican Party saw in the collapse of the Soviet Union an invitation for America to assume a vastly more assertive, unilateral role in imposing its power and political ideology elsewhere.
Among these theorists at the Pentagon was Paul Wolfowitz, deputy undersecretary to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who worried that with the demise of Soviet communism the strongest rationale for a muscular national defense was gone. Yet serious threats remained, from nuclear ambitions in North Korea and the determination in Iran and Iraq to assure control of their vast oil resources essential to American power.
Under Wolfowitz, a quest was undertaken for a strategy justifying continued American military hegemony. As James Mann wrote in his revealing 2004 book, “The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet,” Wolfowitz assigned his chief assistant, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, to have a draft prepared that “set forth a new vision for a world dominated by a lone American superpower, actively working to make sure that no rival or group of rivals would ever emerge.”
Libby gave the assignment to another Wolfowitz aide named Zalmay Khalilzad, little known then outside defense circles. He ultimately became the American ambassador to occupied Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of a new American-sponsored regime in Baghdad, and subsequently ambassador to the United Nations.
A leak of the Khalilzad draft, according to Mann, caused embarrassment and was rewritten, but the finished product became a rough blueprint for the radical new American foreign policy that flowered in the George W. Bush administration.
The draft envisioned a world in which American military power alone would rival or replace the collective security that had marked U.S. containment policy through the Cold War. It even hypothesized, Mann wrote, the possible future need for “preempting an impending attack with nuclear chemical and biological weapons” — the rationale eventually dusted off for the Iraq invasion.
A side incentive for developing the new strategy was pressure from congressional Democrats for a substantial “peace dividend” after the Cold War’s end. To counter such diversions of defense spending for neglected domestic needs, the Pentagon theorists needed a persuasive argument for a lusty military budget.
When Khalilzad’s draft kicked up criticism that it smacked of hostility to other nations, Libby toned down the language in what became the Defense Policy Guidance of 1992, but the essential message remained. By keeping America militarily all-powerful, other countries would be deterred from attempting to match its strength.
When Bill Clinton took over the White House after the 1992 election, he didn’t, according to Mann, seriously challenge the basic force concept, focusing more on domestic matters. The neoconservative theorists, out of power, nevertheless fretted about Congressional projections of static or shrinking defense budgets.
In 1997, they banded together as the Project for the New American Century to build on the 1992 policy statement. A subsequent paper called for more defense spending to preserve “the current Pax Americana … through the coming transformation of war made possible by the new techniques,” including nuclear weapons, in the hands of new, often regional threats.
The group noted critically that the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review of 1997 “assumed that [North Korea’s] Kim Jong Il and [Iraq’s] Saddam Hussein each could begin a war—perhaps even while employing chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons—and the United States would make no effort to unseat either ruler.”
The paper observed that “past Pentagon war games have given little or no consideration to the force requirements necessary not only to defeat an attack but to remove these regimes from power and conduct post-combat stability operations …
“The current American peace will be short-lived if the United States becomes vulnerable to rogue powers with small, inexpensive arsenals of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads or other weapons of mass destruction. We cannot allow North Korea, Iran, Iraq or similar states to undermine American leadership, intimidate American allies or threaten the American homeland itself. The blessings of the American peace, purchased at fearful cost and a century of effort, should not be so trivially squandered.”
According to Gary Schmitt, a co-chairman of the project, George W. Bush, governor of Texas at the time, was neither a member of the group nor as far as Schmitt knows aware at the time of its findings. But among the participants were Wolfowitz and Libby, architects of the basic concept of a muscular defense including preemption of threats of weapons of mass destruction.
Did Bush as president come on his own to embrace the precepts of the project or was he sold on them by Cheney, Wolfowitz, Libby and others of the circle known as “the Vulcans”? Either way, events of the post-9/11 years have confirmed that those precepts were at the core of the radical foreign policy that have imperiled his presidency and American leadership across the globe.
Among the first challenges for Bush’s successor in 2009 will be to demonstrate dramatically that he or she has learned the hard lesson of that go-it-alone foreign policy, which in the end forced America to go hat-in-hand to the international community. The new president must waste no time putting America back on the track of multilateralism and collective security.
With very good luck and a return to diplomacy, the United States could be out of Iraq by that time, giving the next president, Republican or Democratic, a free hand to restore the reputation of the American presidency in the eyes of friends and foes abroad, and at home as well.
Jules Witcover, a political columnist for 30 years, has written a dozen books about American politics, including “No Way to Pick A President” and “The Year the Dream Died.” His most recent book is “Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.”