Security Studies Program Seminar

Daydream Believers: The Bush Administration and Defense Policy

Fred Kaplan

March 1, 2006


Fred Kaplan wrote his Masters thesis on National Security Council Document 68 (NSC-68), which helped begin the Cold War. That document, from 1950, represented a triumph in a struggle that took place within the Truman administration. Basically there were two sides, one led by George Kennan and one led by Paul Nitze. Nitze won. But both sides had carefully thought out positions, and theirs was a clash of world views.

We do not know much about the decision-making dynamics of the Bush Administration. Maybe 25 years from now the motivations for actions will come out.

But it is clear that the school of thought about foreign policy that triumphed is vague and shallow and in some parts sheer fantasy about how the world works and about what impact military power can have. Everything that is wrong with current policy stems from this dreamland, from ignoring the lessons of history and the principles we learn about politics in places like this – the same principles that Condoleezza Rice learned when she was getting her PhD in international relations.

The dream has four parts.

  1. Democracy and freedom are the default mode of humanity. Everyone living under dictators is waiting to be like us.
  2. American military supremacy creates economic and political supremacy.
  3. Victory in battle automatically brings political success. This violates Clausewitz .   
  4. Through technology like ballistic missile defense, we can escape the dilemmas of the nuclear age. No one talks about missile defense these days, even though we will spend ten billion dollars on missile defense next year.

The idea that democracy is the default mode of humanity has become explicit in Bush's second term. One facet of this is the idea that the nature of international security is not the result of the balance of power between nations, but the character of nations. A related idea is that human rights and democracy bring peace. Jack Snyder and Ed Mansfield argue persuasively that democratic peace does not include democratizing states. States transitioning to democracy are more warlike than any other kind of government.

Bush says it is racist to say that some states are not ready for democracy. This ignores the idea that democracy is social, cultural, and political, that the ground has to be laid with literacy and middle class prosperity.

When Dr. Kaplan was a Moscow correspondent from 1992 to 1995, a lot of smart guys were trying to set up markets. They thought that if they got rid of price controls, efficient markets would just spring up. They did not recognize that markets here are not really that free. They did not understand the infrastructure of government oversight that enables a free market.

Democracy is similar. Everyone was moved by the Iraqi election, but it wound up being an ethnic census. You can argue that elections hardened ethnic identity. Similarly, Iraq might be better off without a constitution until institutions improve.

We do not know if there was a debate in the Bush Administration on these matters. Bush seems to genuinely believe that democracy leads to all these good things. It seems unlikely Cheney and Rumsfeld really believe this. But these myths converge with Cheney's and Rumsfeld beliefs. They are old-fashioned nineteenth century hegemonists. They believe that as the only superpower, whether we call it empire or not, it is our obligation and right to assert ourselves, because we prevent anarchy.

There is something to this. Probably there does have to be some power center. On balance, the United States is probably a force for good in that struggle, but what is often unrecognized is that the United States derived a lot of power and influence in the Cold War because many countries depended on us for protection. There are a lot of centrifugal forces without the structure. We cannot shape the world as much now. There is no fear driving allies into our arms. This is the second part of the dream, the idea that military might translates into political power.

A key reason for the Iraq war, whether it was the main impetus or thought of as a side benefit, was this idea that democratic dominos would fall in the Middle East. The thought was that people nearby would emulate Iraq's flowering success, and tyrannies would crumble. This seems to have been a genuine and sincere belief. And it is an intellectually arguable position. There was a failure to realize that the amount of political benefit we get from military supremacy has declined, and that the benefits we can derive from military power are woefully exaggerated.

The third part of the dream is the idea that battlefield victory necessarily produces political results. This is why we did not have a real phase four plan for Iraq. One month before, it was To Be Announced. There were plans in the other parts of the government, but they had been written out of power centers.

This failure comes in part from the idea of military transformation. The idea, spawned by Andy Marshall and the Office of Net Assessment, has three aspects. First, speed and maneuver can substitute for mass on the battlefield. Second, airpower can replace artillery with centralized command and control and supreme coordination. The two facets mean you can win wars with smaller forces. The third part is more future-oriented. The idea is that long-range forces can eliminate the need for forward basing.

Some of this is expensive, and thus some of transformation has to be budgetary. You have to cut the Cold War platforms – the dinosaurs. This was all in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which was very ambitious.

The campaign in Afghanistan seemed to support the vision of transformation. It violated long established ideas in the Army. Afghanistan encouraged Rumsfeld to override the Army's ideas in Iraq. After three weeks of war, it seemed like he was right, and they were wrong.

What was not understood was that transformation is a battlefield concept, which offers little once the battle ends. It was not envisioned that the security and government apparatus would fall apart without Saddam. A lot of people were hoodwinked by Ahmad Chalabi.

It is worth remembering that the first person in charge of training the new Iraqi security forces was Bernard Kerik. General David Petraeus much improved training. He is now at Fort Leavenworth writing the Army's first field manual on counter-insurgency since the 1960s. This shows that the military is at fault here too. They had not done a field manual on stability in forty years. There was also no serious study for a long time about how wars end.

There were also career aspects to this problem. You never got ahead in the Army doing this stuff. You did not get promoted for civil affairs. This is sort of changing now with last year's directive from Gordon England, Deputy Secretary of Defense, saying that stability operations are now as important a mission for the military as traditional combat operations. But to say it does not make it so.

The recent QDR did not drive home this shift toward stability operations. It did not do much to change things. There are some nice words in there, but the fiscal year 2007 budget that came out to implement it did not follow suit and eliminate Cold War style weapons. The catch in the QDR is the idea that we must prepare for emerging powers, meaning China. Half of the budget is devoted to China, shortchanging commodities that are desperately needed now.

The fourth part of the dream is ballistic missile defense. Jack Ruina explained why it was a bad idea in 1958, and these arguments have been repeated over time. The arguments remain compelling. Two things are driving missile defense. One is hardheadedness. It used to be explicit that missile defense was an ancillary supplement for a disarming first strike, then it became a way to defeat a Chinese attack. Now there is no pretense that the system can shoot down more than one or two missiles. The other reason for missile defense is that it is an attractive dream. How can you argue against an attempt to escape the fundamental dilemma of second half of the 20th century: the knowledge that we can be incinerated in a moment? Like Reagan and Star Wars, George W. Bush really believes in this.

Fred Kaplan writes the “War Stories” column for Slate. He got his PhD from MIT's Political Science Department and was part of the Defense and Arms Control Studies program, which became the Security Studies Program. He was an aide to Congressman Les Aspin, and then worked for the Boston Globe, where he was the national security reporter from 1982-91, the Moscow bureau chief from 1992-95, and the New York bureau chief from 1995-2002. His book, The Wizards of Armageddon, which became his dissertation, is still widely read.


Rapporteur: Ben Friedman

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