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Bush's Foreign Policy Metamorphosis

By Ivan Eland
March 14, 2006

Editor's Note: Nearing the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush has attached a new label to the critics of his costly military adventure -- "isolationists." At least, it's less insulting than some of the earlier epithets hurled by Bush loyalists against Americans who didn't favor invading Iraq -- "traitors," "cowards," "America haters," "Saddam sympathizers," and "French."

But there is an irony in Bush accusing his critics of "isolationism" since he himself was a leading critic of what many Republicans viewed as Bill Clinton's over-eagerness to intervene in complex political crises abroad. In this guest essay, Independent Institute's Ivan Eland examines Bush's metamorphosis on foreign policy:

President Bush is now warning against a retreat into “isolationism” and has begun recommending international engagement. This from a man who morphed a campaign pledge of adopting a “more humble foreign policy” into virtually unilateral invasion of Iraq—another sovereign nation posing little threat to the United States.

In the past six years, the president has undergone an interesting metamorphosis: from “isolationist” to muscular unilateralist to advocate of international engagement.

The root of the president’s change of heart has been a defensive reaction to the debacle in Iraq. First, taken by surprise even after being warned about a possible post-invasion insurgency, he has had to substitute Republican nation-building for the Clinton administration’s Democratic nation-building, which he so despised for being armed social work.

Second, his new “internationalist” pose allows him to smear critics who advocate a withdrawal from Iraq as “isolationists.” But this tactic is nothing new.

At the turn of the last century (the end of the 1800s and start of the 1900s), Alfred Thayer Mahan, a naval strategist who was pushing for a large U.S. naval force to dominate the globe, coined the dreaded I-word to discredit those who supported the traditional, more restrained foreign policy originally instituted by the nation’s Founders.

Ever since then, interventionists have tried to attach this general label to critics of any particular overseas military adventure. The name-calling gets especially intense when interventionists are trapped in a failed brushfire war, such as Iraq. Critics who see the writing on the wall and want to cut U.S. losses are accused of “cutting and running” or of “aiding the enemy.”

These accusations of cowardice and near treason are designed to deflect the critics’ searing questions about the interventionist policy: why the ill-advised military action was undertaken in the first place and how the United States has aided future enemies by showing them how to fight the United States—using guerrilla tactics—and by providing a haven and training ground for terrorists in Iraq.

Of course, using the label “isolationist” to describe critics of the war is inaccurate and says more about the accuser than the accused. Most critics of the war do not want to cut off the United States from the world; they simply want the U.S. military out of Iraq. For interventionists to describe this view as “isolationist” is merely an indication of how militarized U.S. foreign policy has become since World War II.

The Defense Department and its regional military commanders around the world have resources that dwarf those of other U.S. departments engaged abroad—for example, the State Department. And having such a large and capable military—U.S. security expenditures exceed the combined defense spending of all the other major world powers—has increasingly tempted U.S. presidents to use it to solve the world’s problems.

President George W. Bush is not the first recent president to use military power to intervene in the affairs of other countries, but he probably has been the most reckless and incompetent.

In terms of numbers of useless military interventions, Bill Clinton was the modern day champion—intervening or threatening to intervene in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo—but he was smart enough to have avoided a large ground invasion that might have led to a quagmire. Even Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon—who sent large ground forces into the Vietnam tar baby and persisted in that futile war, respectively—did not have the potential to inflame radical anti-U.S. terrorists worldwide by their actions.

Instead of completely neutralizing al-Qaeda after 9/11, President Bush’s ignorance and lack of understanding of Islam have increased the threat from radical Islamists against the United States. In Islam, even moderate Muslims believe that when Islamic lands are invaded by non-Muslims, every Muslim must do what he or she can to resist.

The fierce Islamist response to the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Russians in Chechnya, and the Israelis in Palestine should have given the Bush administration pause about how a foreign invader would be received in Iraq.

Compounding this difficulty, it didn’t occur to the Bush administration that Iraq was an artificial country that had always been held together by brute force and that when that force was removed, it would descend into anarchy and civil war. Nor did it occur to the administration that the chaos would create a haven and training ground for radical jihadists, who could launch future attacks against the United States.

If George W. Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States, he would have attacked Russia, making the problem far worse.

If the president had stuck with his campaign promise to conduct “a more humble foreign policy”—or “isolationism” as he now pejoratively labels it—the nation would not be hemorrhaging blood and treasure in a foreign bog that is undermining U.S. security.


Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.


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