American foreign policy had still not recovered from its victory over communism when George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice took over at the White House in 2001. The incomparable American war machine, deprived of the enemy it had been designed to fight, was a colossus without a mission, and the foreign policy it served had become a profusion of high moral impulses in search of an idea. The new president did not have one, nor did Rice.
Bush’s interest in foreign affairs was slight; Rice’s, though considerable, centered on Russia and the cold war, now ten years in the past, the last generation’s thing. They were not a team prepared to cope with the shock of the new, which had already begun to explode out of Asia in waves of murderous religious fury.
If there was a lack of intellectual energy at the White House, however, there was a plentiful supply elsewhere in the Bush government, most notably among its neoconservatives, who were itching to give Iraq a taste of American power, and in what might be called the Cheney-Rumsfeld faction, built around two masterful old Washington manipulators.
It would be wrong to think of Bush and Rice as Hansel and Gretel lost in the forest, for neither was a complete stranger to political guile. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neocons, however, were all blooded veterans of the Washington wars. In 1976, as chief of staff to President Ford, Rumsfeld had engineered the removal of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller as Ford’s running mate; Cheney, assigned in 2000 to select a good vice-presidential candidate for the Bush ticket, ended by becoming Bush’s choice. These were people who had long fumed about the White House tendency since the Reagan years to use American power discreetly. What they wanted was a new, aggressively muscular approach to the world.
As the only superpower left, the United States was entitled to act like it: so went their theory. Old cautions about “the limits of power,” which dated back to the Vietnam era, went on the intellectual trash heap, and arrogance once again became power’s prerogative. With a president who had no broad vision of international affairs but personal grievances of his own against Iraq, their moment was ripe and they were quick to prevail.
As the President’s in-house adviser on national security, Condoleezza Rice apparently neglected to point out that startling changes in foreign policy always have large, lasting, and sometimes unhappy consequences. In any event, she went along placidly and apparently agreeably as policy underwent radical change. As the months passed, American diplomacy became increasingly interventionist and morally fervent, first with the announcement of a bellicose new policy of “preemption” asserting an American right to attack nations that were “evil.” Four years and two wars later, in a speech that might have startled even Woodrow Wilson, Bush declared an “ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
For her passivity as national security adviser, Rice has been widely and justly criticized. Her failure to…
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