America's Moment to Alter History's Course

By Richard N. Haass

PublicAffairs. 242 pp. $25

Last fall, looking at the relentlessly grim news from Iraq, a Republican hawk confessed privately to a moment of doubt. If America's intervention in Iraq failed, he mused, then the United States would have to reexamine its entire approach to the world -- an approach heavily reliant upon military power. Every option would be on the table, from isolationism to dependence upon a strengthened United Nations.

What might an alternative U.S. national-security strategy look like? In his new book, The Opportunity, Richard N. Haass, a defector from the ranks of the Bush administration, offers a flawed attempt at an answer. Haass suggests a new strategy of "integration," in which the United States leads the international community, a few other great powers happily follow, and they all smoothly collaborate to manage the affairs of the world.

Now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Haass served for a time as a top assistant to former secretary of state Colin Powell. In the early 1990s, during George H.W. Bush's presidency, he was National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft's top aide for the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm. His views, while restrained and respectful, amount to an elite-level dissent from the Bush administration's direction since 2001. "The United States cannot ultimately succeed in the world by relying upon military force," he writes.

Haass's dissent is sharpest on Iraq, a war of choice that he warns has sucked up energy and high-level time from such tasks as marginalizing al Qaeda and securing loose nuclear weapons in Russia. On Iraq, he writes, the Bush administration concluded wrongly "that the status quo was intolerable and that preventive war was a necessary course of action." Haass discards such discredited rationales as Iraq's nonexistent working relationship with al Qaeda and cogently pinpoints the problem with trying to justify the war by pointing to Baathist Iraq's undisputed brutality. That argument raised the question: Why invade now? The "moment for a massive humanitarian intervention was in 1988," Haass writes, "when [Saddam Hussein] used chemical munitions against the Kurds."

The Iraq section is clear and well-argued. But Haass devotes most of his book to his own strategy for dealing with the world, and here his effort is less successful. Indeed, The Opportunity is interesting not so much for what it says (the book reads like a secretary of state's speech without the opening joke) as for the ways in which it illustrates the contrasting assumptions about the world that underlie today's debates about American foreign policy.

The wing of the Republican Party that emerged on top in 2001 viewed the United States as a benign force seeking to cope with a malign world. Starting in the Cold War, neoconservatives had made a habit of warning that the United States faced some looming danger (a "window of vulnerability," as Ronald Reagan put it) and needed to move quickly and forcefully against the threat of the moment. Following al Qaeda's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accepted this neoconservative line of thinking, at least as applied to the Middle East.

Overseas, of course, precisely the reverse view emerged: In the aftermath of the Iraq War and the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the United States has often been portrayed in Europe and the Middle East as itself a malign force disturbing an otherwise benign planet.

Haass's outlook is much rosier. He tends to assume that the world is largely benign and that the United States is, too. "For the first time in modern history," he writes, "the major powers of the day -- currently, the United States, Europe, China, Russia, Japan, possibly India -- are not engaged in a classic struggle for domination at each other's expense." The "recent intense disagreements over Iraq and other issues notwithstanding," he adds, "international acceptance or at least tolerance of American power and purpose remains sufficiently high that other powers are not inclined as a matter of reflex to resist what the United States does around the world." As a foreign policy "realist," he believes that nations operate as rational actors, each one calculating its own interests. He does not ignore the dangers of terrorism or of the spread of nuclear weapons; indeed, he devotes roughly a quarter of his book to these subjects. Yet in both instances, his solution is the same as for other foreign-policy problems: The world's major powers should work together to take care of things.

The book makes it all sound easy. It offers a foreign policy that suits the detached mind-set of corporate headquarters, investment banks and think tanks. In Haass's tranquil world, nationalist or religious fervor isn't too problematic, autocrats don't do crazy things, elected leaders don't worry about being voted out of office, and the principal ideology is a belief in free trade. He proposes that the United States spend more on overseas development assistance and take on the ambitious task of reforming the educational systems of the Middle East, without asking whether the American people will be willing to support such things at a time when their pensions and health insurance are increasingly in jeopardy.

To see the limits of Haass's approach, consider his prescriptions for the two main countries in East Asia. First, Haass argues that the United States should support the rise of China and avoid conflict with it. He also argues that the United States shouldn't be too pushy about questions such as human rights or democracy in China. Turning to Japan, Haass argues plausibly that the world should encourage the development of "a more active, even assertive Japan" because the dangers of renewed Japanese militarism are minimal. Japan, he says, should be allowed to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

But by treating China and Japan separately, and both only in relation to the United States, Haass passes over the real problem. In the past two decades, with Marxist doctrine fading fast, China's communist leadership has sought to identify itself with nationalism as a guiding ideology -- and denouncing Japan is one reliable way of stoking Chinese nationalism. The Chinese regime permitted anti-Japanese riots in several cities this spring. China doesn't want a more assertive Japan, and it seems determined to deny Japan a seat on the Security Council. So is China supposed to relent on this issue, or is Japan?

Although Haass favors more U.S. cooperation with other countries, his proposed strategy of "integration" specifically rejects the idea that the United States should rely upon the United Nations. (During the 1990s, he notes, the Security Council failed to support timely military intervention to stop massive atrocities in Rwanda and Kosovo.) Instead, he invokes a curious historical precedent: He thinks the world's leading powers should join together today the way the great powers of Europe teamed up to manage the affairs of that continent at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The United States, China, Russia, Japan, India and (in some form) Europe might run the world in a similar fashion today, he suggests. By using this model, Haass is defining himself as a Republican realist in the tradition of Henry Kissinger, whose book A World Restored is the best-known history of this 19th-century balance-of-power diplomacy.

The question left hanging is whether countries and diplomats can operate today the way they did nearly two centuries ago. Could Talleyrand, Metternich and their counterparts at the Congress of Vienna have carried out their secretive balance-of-power diplomacy in a world of CNN, Fox News and al-Jazeera?

For that matter, are other nations as disposed to follow U.S. leadership as they were in, say, 1991, at the end of Desert Storm? Over the following decade, Washington's old Cold War partners began to drift away from the United States, and the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq profoundly deepened the alienation. Haass's book is intended to be future-leaning, but ultimately it seems stuck in the ideas and patterns of the past. *

James Mann is author in residence at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is "Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet."