A book by well known author John Newhouse, “Imperial America” is an important account of the Bush administration, and what the author called a “squandered foreign policy opportunity” in Iraq. The author describes the ways in which the United States’ relationship with much of the world went wrong after the events of September 11, 2001; at a time when most nations were ready to accept US leadership in the war against terrorism. The author asks how the administration’s truculent behaviour, misguided actions as well as inactions at critical moments, undermined efforts to curb the production of weapons of mass destruction ? Why did Bush and his cabinet lay down principles and rules that served chiefly to upset and sharpen the insecurities of other nations, including some of U.S. allies?

The book is an interesting and thought-provoking story and expose of recent American foreign policy; how it has been made and mishandled. Huge opportunities were left in the wake of September 11, 2011. In seizing the moment, Bush’s people could and should have set about stabilizing the most serious sources of instability to the world.

Bush’s “axis of evil” remark in his 2002 state of the union address, damaged the prospects of repairing a bilateral relationship with Iran. With the momentum of urgency released by 9/11, the case should have been easier to make with an administration whose senior officials had opposed talks with North Korea, knowing that negotiation was Washington’s more plausible option. The post-9/11 world was prepared to help (especially in the context of weapons of mass destruction). But Bush and his advisers weakened efforts to discourage and curb the proliferation of threatening weapons.

Regime change has been the administration’s mantra – the Bush administration had the feeling that bad behavior could not be altered by traditional methods, only by regime change. Moreover, there was distrust in arms control and dislike in written agreements. US popular opinion is that regime change is seldom an answer. It would be dangerously irresponsible to consider supplanting a country’s regime in the absence of a clear and present danger to American security.

Washington’s insistence on having a free hand – that is, the right to act pre-emptively, created agitation in many capitals. The doctrine, with its stress on massive military power, justifies preventive war waged without allies and without U.N. sanctions. According to Bush, deterrence and containment, until then the foundation of U.S. strategy, had lost relevance. Instead, the United States identified and destroyed terrorist threats using pre-emptive force. The name of G.W. Bush was in effect affixed to a doctrine that was proposed and rejected out of hand during his father’s tenure. “Anticipatory self-defense” was the phrase that Rumsfeld had used for it. The notion of regime change is the other side of the coin. Students of politics are aware that this approach was not new. Earlier, it was known as the Monroe doctrine.

In practice, such a doctrine harbours many risks. No matter how capable the performance of the intelligence agencies, surprises are probably unavoidable. Moreover, it could lead to unanticipated consequences never thought of, if for example, a country like India declared that it reserved the right to launch a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan just as the United States had done against Iraq.

Many opponents of Bush’s policies and his open views feel that he and members of his entourage had, at least since 9/11 and possibly before, wanted to wage war starting with Iraq. And as it was said by many, “the challenge posed by Afghanistan lay in making a state out of bare bones and an intimidating collection of unruly tribes”. History shows that these so called unruly tribes had always given a tough time to invaders and it was never easy to overpower them by force.

It does not appear to be ‘Imperial America’ but rather a state completely perplexed. The book contains some interesting remarks about President George Bush and his senior aides. “Bush knows very little about the world, let alone foreign affairs, and is said to be all but devoid of curiosity about what he does not know.”

Perceptions and misperceptions about the American attitude on regime change are still there. The risks of going to war with Iraq were much clearer than the administration’s declared reasons for waging one. Neither democracy nor peace were in sight. And even today, the “war on terror” continues aimlessly, namelessly on.

The writer is a former director NIPA, a political analyst, a public policy expert and an author.

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