Blogs > Cliopatria > Ivan Eland Reviews 3 Books on Foreign Policy

Sep 6, 2005 10:17 pm

Ivan Eland Reviews 3 Books on Foreign Policy

Review of:

The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War By Andrew Bacevich

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden By Steve Coll

Preventing Surprise Attacks: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of 9/11 By Richard A. Posner

Most books on American foreign policy reflect the underlying and unstated consensus assumptions of the U.S. foreign-affairs establishment. Democrats and Republicans are passionate in criticizing each other's approach to world affairs, but that criticism is usually constrained by those common assumptions.

For example, liberals have heavily criticized President George W. Bush's "pre-emptive" -- actually, preventive -- war on terrorism and his invasion of Iraq. Yet President Bill Clinton threatened preventive war with North Korea if that nation failed to freeze its nuclear-weapons program (a harder line than the Bush administration has taken), bombed Serbia during its civil war in the province of Kosovo, and threatened an invasion of Haiti unless Jean-Bertrand Aristide was restored to power. Although Bush may win the prize for the most ill-advised overseas armed intervention, Clinton can take a bow for the greatest number of military excursions by any recent president.

Both of them, all of their recent Democratic and Republican predecessors, and most foreign-policy analysts in both parties are operating on a century-old set of principles derived from Christian missionaries sent abroad to save savage peoples from themselves. Those notions were first incorporated into U.S. government policy during the presidencies of William McKinley, a Republican, and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. During the Spanish-American War, McKinley wanted, at least ostensibly, to bring Christianity to the Philippines even though the islands were already predominantly Catholic. Wilson, the son of a minister, converted this overtly religious quest into a more secular version of saving implicitly inferior peoples. He believed U.S. military power should be used overseas to fight the "war to end all wars" (World War I) and to teach other peoples to "elect good men" (during his military meddling south of the U.S. border). Although the revulsion at the mass carnage of World War I temporarily interrupted the permanent enshrinement of Wilsonianism as U.S. foreign policy, Wilson has had the most enduring foreign-policy legacy of any president in the modern age. After World War II, both Democratic and Republican presidents copied his use of U.S. military power to remake the world in the American image.

Whether a president has been a leftward-leaning Wilsonian like Clinton or Lyndon Johnson, or a rightward-leaning Wilsonian like Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes, U.S. policy has been fairly consistent: an activist overuse of the powerful U.S. military to intervene in the affairs of other nations.

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