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    Front Page
     Apr 2, 2005
BOOK REVIEW
Unilateralism fails global tests

The Superpower Myth: The Use and Abuse of American Might by Nancy Soderberg

Reviewed by Gary LaMoshi

The 2004 US presidential election is likely to confound historians for years to come over this question: How could Bush win despite the blot of an unnecessary war in Iraq on his record? In her new book The Superpower Myth, Clinton administration foreign-policy expert Nancy Soderberg inadvertently provides a compelling hypothesis.

That's not her reason for writing, though. Formerly No 3 at the US National Security Council and an ambassador to the United Nations, Soderberg aims to compare the foreign policies of the Bill Clinton and George W Bush presidencies. The superpower myth of the book's title reflects Soderberg's analysis of the two administrations' divergent world views.

Soderberg contends that the dominant faction of the first-term Bush foreign-policy team believes that, as the world's only superpower, the United States can act unilaterally and bend the world to its will. These so-called hegemons include Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. They were countered by realists, led by secretary of state Colin Powell. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice abdicated her responsibility to moderate between the two sides, and Bush initially vacillated between the competing views.

Then came the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the balance overwhelmingly shifted to the hegemons, according to Soderberg, though the Afghanistan invasion followed the realist playbook. The invasion of Iraq represented the pinnacle of hegemons' influence but also sowed the seeds of their demise, since that adventure has failed to deliver any of the benefits the hegemons promised.

'Disconnection with reality'
Soderberg skewers the hegemons for their "disconnection with reality". She cites (repeatedly) Wolfowitz's line, "Just because the FBI and CIA have failed to find the linkages [between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda] does not mean they don't exist." During the 2004 campaign, Cheney made the same argument about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

In Soderberg's analysis, the failure to win the peace in Iraq has driven the hegemons into retreat. The Bush administration has been forced to revisit the institutions and allies it rejected before the invasion. It has called back the United Nations, reached out to traditional European allies, and found its policy shaped by events on the ground, rather than policy dictating events.

Soderberg's conclusions remain open to debate. Her own review of Bush's first term indicates that the hegemons' victory after September 11 was less than total. Similarly, rumors of their demise may be greatly exaggerated. Bush's recent selection of vociferous unilateralist John Bolton as ambassador to the UN and Wolfowitz as World Bank president indicates that the hegemons are alive, are well, and still have the president's ear.

Most important, though, Soderberg offers nothing new about the Bush people and their policies. Soderberg, now a vice president at the International Crisis Group think-tank, presents neither exclusive information nor stunning insights into the Bush presidency.

'Tough engagement'
By contrast, Soderberg's insider perspectives on the Clinton administration, comprising about half the book, are quite useful. Soderberg explains Clinton's strategy of "tough engagement", rejecting the extremes of isolationism and imperialism, and recognizing that even the world's only superpower needs allies and international institutions to share burdens and set rules, though in some cases the US might have to act alone.

Soderberg's glimpses into the decision-making process provide key insights. The most telling conclusion from the review is that every administration's grand designs and guiding principles get subsumed by events and circumstances. In short, the world never goes according to any president or foreign-policy guru's plan. It was true for Clinton's team, and is undoubtedly true for their successors.

One surprise is the low grade Soderberg gives Colin Powell for his performance as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - the top US military officer - at the start of Clinton's presidency. Her view may have been colored by Powell's presumed 1996 presidential aspirations. In reality, though, under Clinton, Powell did exactly what Soderberg praised him for doing under Bush - present the president with independent thinking. In both cases, if his view didn't prevail, Powell fell in line behind his boss.

According to Soderberg, Clinton's foreign policy charted new ground for addressing conflicts in non-strategic areas in a post-Cold War context. Chastened by the October 1993 deaths of 18 US Rangers in Somalia while fulfilling a mandate written by the administration of George H W Bush, Clinton's team learned that superpower status didn't guarantee success. But it remained committed to the idea that small conflicts could grow to challenge vital interests and, therefore, were worth solving. In the Balkans and Haiti, the administration found diplomacy backed with force an effective tool for resolving conflicts.

Soderberg doesn't follow that logic to a possible conclusion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Clinton tried mightily to resolve. Clinton hosted the historic 1994 interim agreement and handshake between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and, in 2000, led an unsuccessful full court press for a final accord. Soderberg offers a number of reasons for the failure, but misses the lesson of Bosnia, Haiti and Kosovo: there was no credible threat of force accompanying US diplomacy. In the Balkans, US bombing raids helped persuade Balkan leaders to make peace, but that option wasn't used against Israeli or Palestinian targets.

No land is an island
Even an unrivaled superpower can't solve all of the world's problems or respond to every challenge. In a sobering and disarmingly honest chapter, Soderberg recounts how and why the US and the international community failed to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Her conclusion is that, if the same situation arose tomorrow in another - say Darfur in Sudan - the world would again watch and weep rather than act decisively to end it.

Less welcome is the catalogue of Clinton administration steps in its fight against terrorism, its efforts to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, and its attempts to contain Iraq. These bureaucratic laundry lists seem more intent on deflecting Clinton's critics than providing original insights and information. Here and occasionally elsewhere, such as discussing the dangers of failed states, accounts seem filtered through the prism of subsequent events to defend Clinton and his team.

Warning: Excessive hindsight can be harmful to your legacy. If the Clinton administration really took al-Qaeda as seriously for as long as Soderberg suggests, then why didn't it dedicate the same level of resources and prestige to destroying al-Qaeda that it did to, for example, restoring Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti's presidency? While Aristide's return was a worthy goal - one the Bush administration gleefully undid - the terror treat to the US merited far greater attention.

Overall, The Superpower Myth contextualizes Clinton's foreign policy more successfully than either Bill Clinton or subsequent Democratic presidential candidates have managed. Comparing and contrasting that vision with Bush policies may hold the key to the 2004 election mystery.

The Clinton vision says that the US can't do it alone. It needs to make friends, compromise, and show patience to get its way in the world. The Bush vision says that's ridiculous. Since the US has overwhelming military and economic power, why shouldn't it always get its way? After all, it can - and with this cowboy in the saddle, Bush assures, will, as done in Iraq and Afghanistan - wipe out any country foolish enough to defy it. Crystallizing and comparing these two visions may lack the intellectual heft to support more than a journal article, but the contrast between the views packs enough punch among voters to turn an election.

The Superpower Myth: The Use and Abuse of American Might by Nancy Soderberg. John Wiley & Sons, 2005, Hoboken, New Jersey. ISBN: 0-471-65683-6. Price: US$24.95, 404 pages.

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