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Why America is terrible at making the world a better place

Review of "Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era" by Michael Mandelbaum

A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment is dropped off for a mission with the Afghan police near Jalalabad in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan on December 20, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/

MISSION FAILURE: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era

By Michael Mandelbaum

Oxford University Press. 485 pp. $29.95

Twenty years ago, Michael Mandelbaum wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs with a memorable title: “Foreign Policy as Social Work.” The Clinton administration, he charged, was busy spending blood and treasure trying to instill American values in places of peripheral importance — you know, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti — rather than going about the business of protecting vital U.S. interests where it really mattered. Extending free trade, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, those are the tasks of American foreign policy. Not all this Mother Teresa stuff.

Mandelbaum, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, must have decided that people didn’t pay enough attention, because he is back with “Mission Failure,” a book-length version of roughly the same idea. Except now the critique extends far beyond the Clinton years. U.S. foreign policy throughout the entire post-Cold War era — whether under Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama — has been an exercise in idealistic do-gooderism, aimed at transforming the internal arrangements of other countries, improving them, rescuing them, attempting to make them more like us.

And, if his book title didn’t give it away, “these missions had a common feature,” Mandelbaum concludes. “They all failed.”

A multitude of initiatives, operations, proposals, even wars all fit this vision. When Bill Clinton tried (and failed) to link trade privileges to China’s record on human rights, “compelling change . . . in China’s internal governance became official American policy,” Mandelbaum writes. The Asian financial crises of the late 1990s spawned an effort to remake the economic systems of South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia, with Washington and the International Monetary Fund at the helm. U.S. economic and political engagement with post-Soviet Russia seemed to yield an early shift toward democracy and free markets, followed by a descent into Vladi­mir Putin’s kleptocracy.

Even America’s post-9/11 fight against terrorism — initially waged “on the basis of interests, not ideals,” Mandelbaum notes — soon morphed into an exercise in state-building. Although Bush won office rejecting the practice, his administration soon found itself establishing and nurturing what proved to be the inept and corrupt government of Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai. In Mandelbaum’s view, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did not propel a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy, as so many have come to believe, but rather deepened the transformational impulses that had emerged during the Clinton years. After the initial mirage of success in Afghanistan, and prompted by the fear of what Saddam Hussein might do with those illusory weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration launched an invasion of Iraq that ended up far less necessity than choice. Values and interests again intermingled, and Bush’s eagerness to create a new democracy in the heart of the Middle East — a demonstration effect for the rest of the region — led to a massive effort to reinvent Iraq.

[How to anticipate unthinkable terrorist attacks? Hire oddballs to think of them.]

The shortcomings of Washington’s post-invasion policies in Iraq are well-known, and Mandelbaum does not hold back, even laying the subsequent rise of the Islamic State on Bush’s shoulders. “ISIS could never have come into possession of the parts of Iraq and Syria it controlled, indeed, it might well not have come into existence at all,” he writes, “if the United States had not deposed the Baathist government of Iraq and installed a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.”

Where does this urge to remake distant lands come from? “Americans . . . have always believed that they have a vocation to improve the world and have always wished to carry it out by helping others become more like themselves,” Mandelbaum contends. “The enormous power with which their country emerged from the Cold War gave them an unprecedented opportunity to attempt to do just that.” And in an unavoidable moment of self-satisfaction, the author describes America’s new position like this: “Liberated from concerns about security, it could turn foreign policy into social work.” (Wink, wink: No need to check out the footnote there — you know the source.)

Sure, it’s different in each case. Clinton was less zealous than Bush, for instance; Mandelbaum suggests that the 42nd president was personally less keen on political transformations in places like Somalia and Kosovo than on patching up the latest headline-grabbing hot spot and moving on. And Obama attempted to rebuild Afghanistan almost despite himself; he embraced state-building and counterinsurgency early in his tenure, only to disentangle himself as soon as he could.

Indeed, just when the exceptions to Mandelbaum’s thesis start to feel disproving rather than confirming, the author informs us that the era of foreign policy as social work is over, thanks to nuclear ambitions in North Korea and Iran, China’s desire to reassert dominance in East Asia and the Kremlin’s military adventurism. Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine “put an end to the unprecedentedly peaceful post-Cold War era and restored the old routines of rivalry, insecurity, and war to international relations and American foreign policy,” Mandelbaum writes. As such, he argues, the U.S. push to expand NATO eastward — royally pissing off Putin — ranks as “the most consequential American foreign policy of the post-Cold War years.” I see the point, but think he might be trying a little too hard. (I’ll play it safe and stick with the second Iraq war.)

[Review of “Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America" by Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney]

Although “Mission Failure” focuses on the blind spots of successive American administrations, the responsibility for the “failure” does not fall solely on the U.S. side. Mandelbaum repeatedly blames the cultures of the countries America sought to remake for their inability to absorb Western institutions. For instance, ties of kinship made the rule of law difficult to implant in Afghan soil, with corruption “built into the country’s tribal culture,” Mandelbaum writes. After Hussein was toppled in Baghdad, “America’s failure stemmed ultimately not from what the Americans did or did not do in Iraq but from who and what the Iraqis were.” Bush’s freedom agenda in the Middle East failed in part because he was “trying to bring democracy to a region that had been vaccinated against it.” Russia could not fully embrace free markets and democracy because of the “patrimonialism” embedded in its society. The root cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “Palestinian political culture.” Like that, everywhere.

Mandelbaum sees how such sentiments could be construed as “ethnocentric bordering on racist,” but he makes no apology, because he thinks they were proved right. He includes religion in his criticism, too. “Islam itself, which exercised as much influence in the Middle East as any religion did elsewhere in the world, inhibited the growth of democracy,” he writes. “Because it lacks the separation of the sacred and the secular that is integral to Christianity, strictly speaking religious law applies everywhere, leaving no room for the lawmaking by elected officials that democracy features.” This is why Washington should have shunned the role of architect of new societies in the post-Cold War world, Mandelbaum concludes; better to be a “gardener” who can help “create and maintain the conditions in which nation building would occur if local circumstances made this possible.”

You don’t have to proffer accusations of ethnocentrism or Islamophobia to find such cultural arguments dissatisfying. Such essentialist portrayals are irrefutable to the point of uselessness. When culture explains everything, it explains nothing, too.

“Mission Failure” displays deep knowledge of the past two decades’ major national security debates, and Mandelbaum has the authority to offer smart, definitive pronouncements. (“If the government’s imagination had failed it before September 11, afterward its imagination ran wild,” he writes, a perfect distillation of the pre- and post-9/11 worlds.) And he understands the motivations of national security officials, who want to “make foreign policy achievements that their contemporaries would admire and that posterity would celebrate.” He writes that of Clinton-era officials, but he could be describing any of them, ever. “They wanted . . . to build a monument to themselves.”

But the peanut gallery of the foreign policy establishment has its monuments, too. In that world, nothing beats declaring a new era, killing off an old one or naming a new strategy (sorry, a new grand strategy). Mandelbaum appears still enthralled by his 1996 thesis and won’t let it go. Even when it doesn’t quite fit. Or when the line between values and interests is blurry. Or when the gymnastics required for conceptual consistency become too elaborate.

In foreign policy, there are failures of imagination everywhere.

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