CAMBRIDGE – This year’s presidential campaign in the United States has been marked by calls from Barack Obama’s would-be Republican challengers for a radical transformation of American foreign policy. Campaigns are always more extreme than the eventual reality, but countries should be wary of calls for transformational change. Things do not always work out as intended.
Foreign policy played almost no role in the 2000 US presidential election. In 2001, George W. Bush started his first term with little interest in foreign policy, but adopted transformational objectives after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman before him, Bush turned to the rhetoric of democracy to rally his followers in a time of crisis.
Bill Clinton had also talked about enlarging the role of human rights and democracy in US foreign policy, but most Americans in the 1990’s sought normality and a post-Cold War peace dividend rather than change. By contrast, Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy, which came to be called the Bush Doctrine, proclaimed that the US would “identify and eliminate terrorists wherever they are, together with the regimes that sustain them.” The solution to the terrorist problem was to spread democracy everywhere.
Bush invaded Iraq ostensibly to remove Saddam Hussein’s capacity to use weapons of mass destruction and, in the process, to change the regime. Bush cannot be blamed for the intelligence failures that attributed such weapons to Saddam, given that many other countries shared such estimates. But inadequate understanding of the Iraqi and regional context, together with poor planning and management, undercut Bush’s transformational objectives. Although some of Bush’s defenders try to credit him with the “Arab Spring” revolutions, the primary Arab participants reject such arguments.