Great Powers: America and the World After Bush

Great Powers: America and the World After Bush

by Thomas P.M. Barnett

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From the New York Times bestselling author of The Pentagon's New Map, a bold, trenchant analysis of the post-Bush world

In Great Powers, New York Times bestselling author and prominent political consultant Thomas Barnett provides a tour-de-force analysis of the grand realignments in the post-Bush world-in the spheres of economics


From the New York Times bestselling author of The Pentagon's New Map, a bold, trenchant analysis of the post-Bush world

In Great Powers, New York Times bestselling author and prominent political consultant Thomas Barnett provides a tour-de-force analysis of the grand realignments in the post-Bush world-in the spheres of economics, diplomacy, defense, technology, security, the environment, and more. The "great powers" are no longer just the world's nation- states, but the most powerful and dynamic influences on the global stage, requiring not simply a course correction, but a complete recalibration. Globalization as it exists today was built by America- and now, Barnett says, it's time for America to shape and redefine what comes next.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Barnett (The Pentagon's New Map) offers a comprehensive catalogue of the failings of the Bush administration and a strategic roadmap for American foreign policy in this sweeping text. The author takes a broad approach to the contemporary political landscape, surveying U.S. history from the Revolution through the end of the Cold War and applying lessons from that history to the present. Drawing on a variety of secondary sources and his personal and professional experiences as a national security specialist and consultant, Barnett argues in favor of cooperation with rising powers such as China and India and continued movement in the direction of globalization; he distills his central thesis down to the contention that "America must dramatically realign its own post-9/11 trajectory with that of the world at large." Barnett writes in a conversational style. Despite the text's vast scope, it has a clear, straightforward structure, even featuring a glossary of key terms, and it provides an accessible and engaging foray into global grand strategy. (Feb.)

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Kirkus Reviews
Political consultant Barnett (Blueprint for Action: A World Worth Creating, 2005, etc.) evaluates the Bush administration's failures, offers prescriptions for correcting them and pleads with America not to mess things up now that everything is going our way. His excoriating first chapter limns "The Seven Deadly Sins of Bush-Cheney," starting with Lust (for world primacy). A sensible grand strategy, even for a superpower, must attract more allies than it repulses, he notes, yet the Bush administration broke treaties and advocated preemptive wars, then complained when Russia and China refused to help in Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan. Proceeding with catchy titles, Barnett delivers "A Twelve-Step Recovery Program for American Grand Strategy" in the second chapter. We must begin by admitting our powerlessness over globalization, he writes. We opened that Pandora's box long ago, and it's ridiculous to denounce other nations' cheap labor and protectionist trade policies, because that's how American growth began. Unlike many world-affairs gurus, but in line with Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World (2008), Barnett is an optimist, pointing out that free-market capitalism is now the world's default system, the middle-class is increasing and poverty is diminishing. Attacking Bush's fixation on the "global war on terror" (Sin No. 2: Anger), he stresses that it's merely one of a half-dozen world problems, more easily solved by rising prosperity than military action. Naivete, not anger, led to Bush's painfully unsuccessful efforts to spread democracy. Looking back, Barnett reminds readers that America was a one-party autocracy until the 1820s and that freedom doesn't happen when a government grants itbut when an increasingly assertive, and prosperous, citizenry demand it. China's rise mirrors the American model more than we realize, he contends, and Iraqis won't demand a bill of rights until they have jobs. Stands out for its in-depth analysis, historical acuity and delightfully witty prose. Author events in New York and Washington, D.C.

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Romanian and East German Policies in the Third World
The Pentagon’s New Map
Blueprint for Action


Publishers Since 1838
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Copyright © 2009 by Thomas P. M. Barnett

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Published simultaneously in Canada


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Barnett, Thomas P. M.
Great powers : America and the world after Bush / Thomas P. M. Barnett.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.

eISBN : 978-1-101-01167-6

1. United States—Foreign relations—21st century. 2. United States—Foreign relations—2001- .
3. World politics—1989- . 4. United States—Military policy. 5. Great powers. 6. Strategy.
7. Progressivism (United States politics). 8. United States—Foreign relations—Philosophy.
9. Bush, George W. (George Walker), 1946-—Political and social views.
10. Cheney, Richard B.—Political and social views. I. Title.




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A lonely sail is flashing white
Amidst the blue mist of the sea!
What does it seek in foreign lands?
What did it leave behind at home?


Waves heave, wind whistles,
The mast, it bends and creaks . . .
Alas, it seeks not happiness
Nor happiness does it escape!


Below, a current azure bright,
Above, a golden ray of sun . . .
Rebellious, it seeks out a storm
As if in storms it could find peace!


—MIKHAIL LERMONTOV, “The Sail” (1832)



Lately, we are being told that this is no longer our world. America is in decline, and the rest of the world has caught up to us. Wars may be won, but the peace belongs to others—we just have to get used to it.

And it is true that in the tumultuous times since 9/11 sent our world spinning that much faster, America has searched for a grand strategic vision to animate our spirit and guide our actions, and it has failed. When we should have inspired hope, we have stoked fears, and where we should have built bridges, we have erected walls.

So I won’t tell you the critics are wrong—just that their own vision is too limited. This is still America’s world, and if we have the will to step up to the plate, we can make things right—right now.

America’s journey back to where we once belonged begins with one simple realization: This is a world of our making. Neither accident nor providence, this “flat world” is fundamentally our design—a template of networks spreading, economies integrating, and states uniting. It’s so damn competitive merely because that’s our natural habitat; we don’t know how to make it any other way.

In this world we find no strangers, just younger versions of ourselves, who are prone to all the same sins and manias we once suffered, even as they teach us magnificent new ways to improve our lives and secure our tightly shared future. We must neither fear nor dismiss them, but encourage their pursuit of happiness, and in doing so, we’ll find their main goal is one very familiar to us—the attainment of a middle-class existence.

This looming achievement will put the planet under great duress in coming decades, much as it once did these United States. For this path to remain sustainable, compromises must be made and great technologies found. Some may see only billions of mouths to be fed, but in reality it is billions of minds to be harnessed. The one resource we will never deplete is our collective imagination.

But imagination requires confidence, which both spreads and dissipates with the velocity of a virus. Here America plays a special historical role, not as the only great power—because there are so many great powers at work in this complex world—but as the power with the greatest opportunity either to extend or to sabotage globalization’s stunning advance around the planet.

We are modern globalization’s source code—its DNA. As the world’s oldest and most successful multinational economic and political union, we remain the planet’s most communicable ideology—its most potent insurgency. Those thirteen colonies may have begun—quite implausibly—as the world’s original anti-imperialist league, but our international liberal trade order now encompasses the vast majority of the planet’s population.

If we own up to our past, we can command our future. We can realign ourselves immediately to a world transforming. Some will see great compromise on this path, but it is really great consistency. America’s grand experiment has always balanced the needs of the many against the needs of the few—or the one. Our main challenge today—indeed, our main opportunity—is not those superempowered few seeking to do us harm but those unprecedented many seeking to do us one better.

Yes, we have displayed the temerity to bring the mountain to Mohammed, extending our American System-cum-globalization to the most traditional civilizations still thinly connected to its networks, and we have triggered great friction with the power of that force. But in obsessing over that friction, we have lost all perspective on the forces we have created—the great powers unleashed.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 challenged America to redefine the international security system. It was a challenge that the Bush-Cheney administration took up with a vengeance, sensing in that moment a chance to reposition both the presidency and the United States in terms of leadership—even primacy. In this bold quest, the White House’s sins of omission and commission were many. Recounting the most grievous ones (Chapter 1, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Bush-Cheney”) is essential to America’s successful reengagement with a world left more unnerved by our government’s counterterrorism strategy than it was ever perturbed by actual terrorists. But our recovery doesn’t stop there. Fences need mending and relationships require repair. We’ll cover that gamut in Chapter 2, “A Twelve-Step Recovery Program for American Grand Strategy.”

Before we can go on to explore the handful of major but necessary realignments that lie ahead, a bit of history is in order—specifically, American history. Citizens of this great country need to better understand its seminal role in constructing our current world, an environment that quite frankly too many of us today find frighteningly alien, when it is—pure and simple—the result of a conscious grand strategy pursued from the earliest days of our republic right through Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. And so, in Chapter 3, we’ll speak of great men and great powers and how each shaped the American trajectory and its impact on world history.

Then we come to the hard part: recognizing where and how America lost its way in the years since 9/11. Since we’re talking about a world transforming in a dual sense, both from an American-engineered globalization process (ongoing) and Bush-Cheney’s decision to launch a “global war” (we’ll see where that takes America next), we need to approach this complex issue from a variety of storytelling angles—Rashomon style. So in Chapters 4 through 8, we’ll explore what I have come to realize are the five essential realignments to be made in America’s grand strategy going forward. We’ll start with economics, then expand into diplomacy and security, before branching out further into global networks and all the larger global equations (e.g., our planet’s increasingly fragile environment, heightened spirituality and religious identity, rising immigration rates) that must likewise inform America’s strategic realignment following Bush.1

The next few years will constitute the first true test of globalization. As our globalized system continues processing its worst financial crisis ever, President Barack Obama encounters an international order suffering more deep-seated strain than at any time since the Great Depression. If there was any remaining doubt that the world’s great powers either all swim or all sink together in this interconnected global economy, then this recent contagion has erased it. Globalization is no longer a national choice but a global condition, and at this seminal moment in history it demands from its creator renewed—and renewing—leadership. President Obama’s opportunity to—as he has so often put it—“turn the page” could not be greater, for history rarely offers such made-to-order turning points.

The United States isn’t coming to a bad end but a good beginning—our American System successfully projected upon the world. Our Rome wasn’t built in a day but constructed over many decades of struggle, our governing rules subject to constant revision and improvement. “These truths” may have seemed “self-evident” from the start, but self-actualized they were not. That the same is now true for this globalization-of-our-making should not cause us despair. We have been down this path before, taming both a wilderness and the market forces we later unleashed upon its settled lands. We are simply blessed today by a global economy whose expansion has already surpassed all past hopes and dreams for a connected, superempowered world. So many frontiers, so little time.

Let us begin this journey of integration, not with a vague sense of foreboding but with a firm grasp of the possibilities. America has done a world of good to get humanity to the point where wars are disappearing and networks are proliferating. Where we need to take it next is well within our grasp. As long as we can remember what got us here, trust me, we’ll recognize the shape of things to come.



It is tempting to write off the entire Bush-Cheney administration as one long unilateral deviation from the emerging global norm of multilateral cooperation, perhaps one even so great as to create a counter-norm by which rising great powers go their own way in response. But this view simultaneously gives the administration too little credit and too much blame.

Clearly, 9/11 exposed America’s vulnerabilities in this network age and thus triggered a mad rush of new rules to fill in those gaps. For steering this effort, Bush-Cheney deserve some real credit. Their many new rules said, in effect, “Going forward, this is the new minimum security standard for remaining connected to the global economy—meet it or else!” As the world’s sole superpower and primary defender of our international liberal trade order, the United States needed to put forth that standard, if only to immediately restore some confidence to the international system. Did Bush-Cheney overreach in many of their proposed new rules? You bet. But in our system, we expect the executive branch to overdo it in response to crisis and the judiciary to trim back those excesses slowly over time. As for the international overreach, well, that’s pretty much the subject of this book; suffice it to say that in a “flat world,” great-power balancing can come in many forms, with only the most unimaginative among us expecting it to appear solely as a military buildup.

Having triggered this global counterreaction, we find that our natural instinct now is to return sheepishly to the bosom of the Old Core West, believing that step will restore the fabled alliance and make it once again powerful enough to both continue this long war against violent extremism and meet the rising challenge of Eastern autocracies (read, Russia and China). This would be a double mistake, for Donald Rumsfeld’s much-vilified notion of a “new” and “old” Europe contained an essential truth: Those states that most recently joined our international liberal trade order are logically more willing to defend it. They’re also far more likely to be less democratic, however, given their historical trajectory, than the demographically older and more mature market economies of the West. So when Bush-Cheney made democratization a key pillar of their long-war approach, it effectively put America at odds with many of the New Core great powers (again, Russia and China) that would otherwise naturally be drawn to our military cause.

Thus it makes little sense to toss out Bush-Cheney’s “baby” (the long war) with the “bathwater” (the premature fixation on democratization), for the former connects us logically with today’s new great powers (China, Russia, India) while the latter binds us rather restrictively to last century’s quorum of aging, democratic great powers (Western Europe, Industrialized Asia). So credit Bush-Cheney on their strategic instincts while condemning their execution, but do not, on that basis, suddenly abandon our historic role as globalization’s primary defender. It may be wrong to describe this long struggle as a “global war,” but there remains a global peace (the international liberal trade order) worth preserving.

While some experts believe America should start from scratch in recasting—or merely accepting—some new global order, presumably one that pits “good guys” against “bad” or recognizes the onset of competing “empires,” we need to recognize how the choices we’ve made over the past eight years shifted the global landscape in ways that simply cannot be reversed with a new American president or even new American policies. Our unilateral “bender” forced a number of rising great powers to rise even faster, accelerating their natural trajectory out of the fear that an America unchallenged was an America unhinged. Our improved behavior in the coming months and years will not erase their rise. Indeed, it will probably accelerate it, further narrowing our window for strategic rapprochement (rising powers are not, as a rule, great bargainers).

So like it or not, the Bush-Cheney era has forged a lasting international legacy that cannot be reversed even as it must be redirected. We have inadvertently raised the price of cooperation from those new great powers upon which our future grand strategy must ultimately depend. Bush-Cheney did not kill the Western alliance, but it did leave America with little choice now but to seek new alliance with the rising great powers of our age. The alternative is to retain all our old Cold War enemies (e.g., Russia, China) in addition to all our new post-9/11 foes—an unsustainable pathway.

The Bush-Cheney administration came into power seeking to realign the strategic relationships among the great powers: whipping NATO into shape; putting rising China, India, and Russia in their place; and reasserting American leadership. The irony, of course, is that the now infamous neocons achieved the exact opposite across the board. Russia’s pounding of Georgia in the summer of 2008 gave us a glimpse of that unwelcome future; exercising its own perceived right for unilateral military action following 9/11, America’s modeled behavior inevitably spawns the worst sort of imitation. The chickens have indeed come home to roost.


As many historians have already buried these would-be Caesars, let me now take a moment to praise them before casting seven stones with great deliberation.

A key attribute of America’s sole military superpower status is that by maintaining our conventional Leviathan, we’ve so raised the “barrier to entry” into the market of great-power war that even having nuclear weapons doesn’t really qualify a state anymore. Americans would do well to remember what a huge gift to humanity that force represents. We were told by international affairs “realists” at the Cold War’s end that America would not be allowed to continue owning the world’s largest gun, that other great powers would necessarily balance us symmetrically by creating one of their own. This has not happened and isn’t close to happening anywhere, not even with “rising China,” whose military buildup specifically targets our ability to target their ability to target Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.

Say that fast five times in a row!

My point is this: The continued de facto worldwide moratorium on preparation for straight-up, great-power-on-great-power war is a monumentally positive influence on human history. This is why it is so crucial that we shut down the remaining Sino-American scenarios for potentially direct confrontations (ditto for Russia), because as long as both sides allow their militaries to be shaped by such myopic scenarios, precious resources will be wasted that could be put to better use elsewhere in a complementary fashion.

The Bush administration’s two terms overlapped extensively with the almost eight-year reign of Taipei’s provocatively nationalistic Democratic Progressive Party government of President Chen Shui-bian. To mince no words, the Bush-Cheney team handled the entire situation with great restraint and wisdom. The same can largely be said about handling China’s “rise” in general, including refusing to go off the deep end in response to various missteps and gaffes by Beijing (e.g., the satellite shoot-down test, the occasional spy scandal, refusing U.S. Navy ships safe harbor in a storm, the Tibet/Olympic torch protests). Instead, what we got from a Bush administration that came into power clearly itching for confrontation with China (remember the E-P3 plane incident in April 2001) was a calm, steady hand at the wheel of our bilateral relations, best exemplified by Henry Paulson’s stint as secretary of treasury, Robert Zoellick’s tenure as deputy secretary of state, the successive commands of admirals William Fallon and Timothy Keating at Pacific Command, and Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill’s supremely patient efforts at “cat herding” the six-party talks on North Korea.

The lack of a serious U.S.-China confrontation in the years since 9/11 is the most important dog that did not bark during the Bush-Cheney administration. In the grand sweep of history, this is arguably George W. Bush’s greatest legacy: the encouragement of China to become a legitimate “stakeholder” in global security—Zoellick’s term. This sort of effort at grooming a great power for a greater role in international affairs is a careful balancing act, and the Bush team sounded most of the right notes, from reassuring nervous allies in Asia, to avoiding the temptation of trade retaliation while simultaneously pressuring Beijing for more economic liberalization, to drawing China into the dynamics of great-power negotiation over compelling regional issues like the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. We can always complain that Bush-Cheney didn’t do more to solidify what was the most important bilateral relationship of the twenty-first century, but we cannot fault them for any lasting mistakes, and that alone is quite impressive. Indeed, history will be likely to judge this success as greater than the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq.

To a lesser degree, the same can be said of Bush-Cheney’s handling of Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power in Russia and that country’s re-emergence as a player to be reckoned with in international affairs. Yes, many lament Moscow’s slide toward authoritarianism, decrying the “loss” of democracy that never really existed in the first place, but the key thing to remember in the rise of the so-called “security guys” (siloviki) is that it has eliminated Western—and Eastern—fears of Russia’s imminent collapse and all the security burdens such an event could have foisted upon outside powers. Plus, any careful reading of Russian history will tell you that Moscow’s periodic depressive phases can—and should—last only so long, so a subsequent manic recovery was preordained. But just as important, it was both inevitable and good that Putin’s crowd arrested Russia’s long and pitiful downward spiral as a failed great power, because Moscow’s resurgence forces everybody to bring something closer to their “A” game when we butt heads over Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Real power vacuums are almost never adequately or intelligently filled, so better to let whatever power shifts must come do so at a gradual pace, allowing the targeted parties the time and confidence to play all ambitious external powers off one another. The strategic danger here arises when small states like Georgia (which started the conflict, mind you) are allowed to unilaterally declare war between Russia and the West, but here even we must acknowledge Bush-Cheney’s sensible restraint. Without it, we’d face a plethora of small-state nationalist leaders “auditioning” for the historic role of Archduke Ferdinand—unwitting trigger of World War I. That’s a casting call better skipped.

While Bush-Cheney achieved only modest results in global trade policy, locking in several important bilateral free-trade agreements, they also steered the nation through plenty of rough waters without ever succumbing to congressional or popular pressures for trade protectionism. Moreover, the Bush White House made a good fight of trying to reduce America’s disastrously unfair agricultural subsidies as part of the World Trade Organization’s Doha Development Round negotiations, a stance that looks increasingly ridiculous—in addition to immoral—with global agricultural prices rising so high. If we factor in Bush’s dramatic increase of funding for global HIV prevention, as well as his creation of the innovative Millennium Challenge Corporation to encourage developing economies toward foreign direct investment-threshold status, then it’s fair to say that, outside of its failed reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, this administration has displayed real strategic imagination regarding development issues. In this regard, I would also consider Bush-Cheney’s long-standing opposition to the Kyoto Treaty on global warming to have had a beneficial effect. How so? It delayed its effective ratification until such time as the world came to realize the sheer folly of excluding rising China and India from its ranks of the constrained.

Finally, I still admire George W. Bush’s display of audacity and hope in launching his Big Bang strategy upon the Persian Gulf. There’s no question in my mind that, no matter the weak rationales offered (or the slick sales job), Saddam Hussein was a horrific dictator whose time had come. That Bush-Cheney were able to pin that tail on the 9/11 donkey didn’t bother me in the least, for democracies such as our own always have to make it personal before we can launch a war of choice. That Iraq became a cause célèbre for the region’s radical jihadists likewise caused me no regret, because no matter what we did following 9/11, al Qaeda would have located some justifying cause somewhere in our actions. So if a center of gravity was to be had, better it be located over there than over here, and better that it involved our professional warriors instead of our untrained civilians. Most shocking perhaps, even the cynical realist in me has to admit that while an Iraq postwar done right would have had a revolutionary effect on the region, an Iraq postwar done wrong has had much the same effect—namely, making it impossible for the region to ever go back to what it once was. By locking America into real, long-term ownership of strategic security in the Gulf, Bush-Cheney transformed our dedication to maintaining an open door to that region’s energy into a commitment to bodyguard globalization’s ongoing transformation of those traditional societies.

To some, that historical process will always smack of “globalization at the barrel of a gun,” but to me, the genuine realist recognizes the fact that whenever globalization creeps in, it is always the most ambitious and most talented that step forward to cut their own deals (like the Kurds in Iraq), triggering social tumult and ethnic divisions and even political fragmentation as a result. As I will argue later on, globalization will remap the Gap (my term for globalization’s poorly integrated regions), forcing new political configurations that repair the many wrong divisions left behind by Europe’s colonial cartographers. This wave of disintegrating integration is beyond anyone’s control at this point, for it is fueled by the demands for a better life of 3 billion-plus new capitalists around our planet—arguably the greatest collective power the world will endure across this century. Simply put, these once-and-future consumers will not be denied, only placated. So what George W. Bush’s Big Bang amounted to was an attempt, however unconscious, to step in front of that historical tsunami and ride it toward lasting political change for the better. In the end, I believe history will vindicate Bush’s audacity in this regard, however poor his follow-up execution proved to be. As Fareed Zakaria notes in his book The Post-American World, what is stunning to anyone visiting the Middle East today is not how much Iraq has destabilized the region but how stable and thriving the region is despite Iraq’s violence.

Bush-Cheney also deserve plenty of credit for leaving Iraq far more stable at the end of their second term compared with where it stood in 2005-6. The call on the surge wasn’t easy but needed to be made. Harder still was sticking with that tough choice during the initial ramp-up in U.S. casualties. While the surge was years late in coming and wasn’t accompanied by a similar diplomatic surge (as called for by the Iraq Study Group), it did finally reduce the overall violence, meaning Bush-Cheney’s strategic patience—always a question mark for U.S. administrations—clearly paid off.

History will inevitably record that it was better for America to have made this strategic commitment than any other great power, and better for us to force this fight with the radical Salafi jihadists now before some eventual success on their part fostered a mad dash among economically vulnerable external great powers to salvage the situation. Needing to be “cruel to be kind, in the right measure” is an occupational hazard of owning the world’s largest gun. Bush-Cheney understood that, even if their many cardinal sins condemned their immediate efforts in this long war against violent extremists.


Lust, Leading to the Quest for Primacy

The Bush administration’s allegedly secret plan for world domination was nothing more than a 1992 Pentagon policy white paper produced by then Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz. In this document, known as the Defense Planning Guidance, or DPG, Wolfowitz and his aide, Lewis Libby, issued a rather full-throated policy version of the “reconstitution” pillar already in vogue in force-structure planning circles (“force structure” referring to the mix of troops and hardware in the force). The reconstitution argument stated that the U.S. military must retain sufficient industrial base capacity (e.g., infrastructure and factories capable of generating large, Cold War-style platforms such as long-range bombers, aircraft carriers, tanks), along with a reasonably—and gradually—downsized existing force (a process known informally as the “Powell downward glidepath,” for then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell), to hedge against the possible resurgence of a post-Soviet Russian threat. Wolfowitz’s articulated grand strategy, immediately dubbed the Wolfowitz Doctrine, argued for a long-term lock-in against any possible emergent superpower-like military threat, to include the use of preemptive war and unilateralism when required.

At the time, I can tell you, few in the national security community took the secret planning guidance to be anything more than a Cold Warrior’s fantasy of making permanent what Charles Krauthammer had described as America’s “unipolar moment” of the early 1990s. If anything, the conventional wisdom stuck to the realists’ track of assuming a balancing function was inevitable, and since Japan’s “rising sun” served as that era’s favorite bogeyman inside the community (sad, I know), the DPG’s focus on military balancing struck many as painfully unimaginative in its assumption that the only counter to America’s dominance would be symmetrically mounted by future adversaries—in other words, they would build a military force like ours and confront us primarily on that basis. In truth, most farsighted defense analysts found the notion of maintaining America’s geopolitical primacy through military domination rather orthogonal to the real tasks at hand: managing a messy world, which at that time was experiencing a historic tide of civil strife and ethnic violence, stemming largely from the Soviet bloc’s collapse. In sum, Wolfowitz’s vision struck us as oddly detached from global affairs, even mildly isolationist.

But the primacy argument did fit well with what became the Powell Doctrine of limiting America’s involvement in messy, long-term interventions. In effect, it offered the “then” corollary to the Powell Doctrine’s “if” assertion: If we avoided Vietnam-like quagmires, then we’d be better able to keep our powder dry and our technology high for the looming near-peer competitor to come. When Wolfowitz and Libby returned to power with the Bush-Cheney administration in 2001, the preferred near-peer target of the Wolfowitz Doctrine was clearly China. But after 9/11 forced a strategic redirect toward Southwest Asia, Wolfowitz’s previously voiced concerns (going back to his “Team B” days as a critic of détente in the mid-seventies) about a great power targeting the Persian Gulf for domination found fresh impetus in the administration’s declaration of a “global war on terror.” When Bush-Cheney proposed a policy of preemptive war as part of the mix, for all practical purposes declaring Iraq the next front in a sequential conflict, it appeared to many observers at the time—both inside (I was working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense) and outside of government—that the Wolfowitz Doctrine had met its historic moment.

Once revealed in its apparent ambition in the 2002-3 run-up to the Iraq invasion, the Wolfowitz-cum-Bush Doctrine, when linked to the administration’s early tendency toward treaty breaking and go-it-alone-ism in international bodies, raised fears, both at home and abroad, that Bush-Cheney were exploiting the long war against violent extremism to further an agenda of America’s global military hegemony. The Bush White House did plenty to exacerbate that concern when, in late 2001, it announced that it would withdraw the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty concluded with the Soviet Union in 1972, the first time ever that America had disavowed a major arms agreement. While claiming this was necessary to deal with mounting missile threats from regional rogues like Iran and North Korea, many arms experts considered the need for ballistic missile defense against such powers to be a poor excuse for withdrawing from the treaty. Why? Deterring such attack from smaller powers is seen as a relatively straightforward affair, and if the fear is that such rogues will transfer nuclear technology to terrorist groups, then the notion of terrorists delivering such an attack using medium-range or long-range missiles seems far-fetched. A better route would be to smuggle such a device into the United States for later detonation—perhaps inside one of the many bales of marijuana that so regularly traverse our less-than-secure borders.

The Bush administration’s 2006 decision to push for the construction of missile defense sites in Eastern Europe (a deal later secured immediately following Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia), allegedly to protect the region from Iran’s missiles, only confirmed more suspicions among the missile defense program’s many vociferous critics that Bush-Cheney were indeed seeking a clear-cut strategic advantage not merely against regional rogues but against potential great-power competitors like Russia, which has consistently and vehemently contested missile defense, and China, which has long complained over a similar Bush-Cheney joint military program with Japan to protect that nation—allegedly—from North Korean missiles alone. In effect, both Moscow and Beijing suspect the Bush administration is trying to erect close-in strategic missile defense capabilities against their own nuclear arsenals, raising the unholy specter of America trying to eliminate its vulnerability not just to terrorist strikes but to the very logic of mutually assured destruction itself, thus calling into question the entire stability of nuclear deterrence as a strategic bulwark against great-power war. It is this kind of behavior that got us Russia threatening to target our missile defense sites and China staging a showy shoot-down of its own satellite—clear signaling that neither state will let America permanently tilt the correlation of strategic forces in its favor. Can we achieve such a permanent tilt in this manner? Not really. But quite frankly, that only makes our behavior seem all the more provocative—as in, What else do the Americans have up their sleeves?

Here’s how we tie this sin back to failures in America’s grand strategy since 9/11: In its continued if fanciful lust for geopolitical primacy, Bush-Cheney had created an untenable long-term burden. Not merely content to add our new enemies in this long war against violent extremism, Bush-Cheney chose to keep our old Cold War targets (Russia, China) on our strategic radar screen, not only denying us effective partnership with these rising powers but also encouraging their strategies of obstructionism. Oddly enough, after all this strategic disingenuousness, the Bush administration was confounded by Russia’s and China’s reluctance to crack down hard on either Iran or North Korea regarding their nuclear programs!

To remain “fit,” in the parlance of American strategist Colonel John Boyd, our nation’s grand strategy needs to attract more allies than it repulses. Bush-Cheney’s none-too-subtle lust for primacy effectively sabotaged that fundamental goal by stating to the world that America wants to have its cake (the long war) and eat it too (global primacy). That approach simply won’t fly in the age of globalization: America can’t take on both its friction (a terror-based global insurgency) and its force (rising great powers). For if we do, we’ll lose the one thing that truly allows us to play military Leviathan on behalf of globalization’s Functioning Core: the ability to access regional crises with our forces without having that act alone constitute an additional crisis. Think about that for a moment, because it’s an amazing writ that America should not trash in some quixotic bid to impede—or worse, repeat—history.

Anger, Leading to the Demonization of Enemies

America was naturally in an angry mood after 9/11, and the do-whatever-it-takes-to-protect-us atmosphere that prevailed during those days fed into the Bush administration’s own take-no-prisoners-and-offer-no-compromises style of ruling from the Republican base. This internalized anger (“They hate us, so why not hate them back?”) saps our virtue in ways almost too numerous to count.

First, it forces us to focus on bad outcomes to be prevented rather than good ones to be promoted, because in our demonizing of enemies we set the bar on good outcomes far too high. Now, it’s not only that democracy must prevail (and fast, mister!) but that secular democracy must prevail, otherwise we’re offering our enemies at best a partial victory in any vaguely Islamist government we let come to power and at worst a political back door for future radicalization. We presume that they must be adapted to our form of government and not our government adapted to their ways! In my mind, America should be dedicated to the goal of encouraging secular democracy around the world, but committed to forcing its appearance nowhere. Democracy is a dish best served cold.

And when we obsess over the friction (political radicalization), we tend to underestimate, as well as make too little effort to facilitate, globalization’s larger forces (e.g., the Middle East’s growing financial connectivity with the global economy), preferring to economically isolate our enemies rather than let others—obviously less trustworthy than ourselves for wanting trade and investment connectivity in the first place—step into that void, generating potential political leverage down the road. So if Iran is a member of the “axis of evil,” then any economic connectivity with Iran sought by Russia, India, and China is also inherently evil—no matter what their trade requirements may be (like India and China having their energy demand double in the next generation). What does that get us downstream? A demonized Iran with its finger on the bomb and the only leverage we possess is secondhand, through actors we’ve long chided for such connectivity in the first place. In short, we need to place more faith in markets and realize that there are many possible paths to political pluralism (especially in a Middle Eastern regime where political leaders are actually voted out of office on a regular basis).

The demonization of enemies lends itself to the hyping of victories, like toppling Saddam’s regime while letting the first few months of the postwar reconstruction pass unnoticed in the celebration, or our subsequent fixation on Saddam’s capture and trial while the insurgency blossomed into a full-fledged civil war. It also leads us down the path of emotional investment in our enemies’ propaganda, allowing them to drive our responses to their latest “outrage.” It encourages such outrages because our enemies justifiably feel empowered by them, like al-Zarqawi’s many atrocities in Iraq or Ahmadinejad’s calculated inflammatory rhetoric. Cede these “demons” enough of your anger and they’ll get to time your missile strikes at their convenience while you play the part of Pavlov’s jerk. And when we match such fiery rhetoric? Well, that gets you statements like “dead or alive” and “axis of evil,” and those declarations often come back to haunt you when the time for deal-making arrives—as it always does.

Globalization is all about connectivity, and connectivity comes as a result of deals made—not broken. When Bush-Cheney indulged our demonizing tendencies (doesn’t America always go to war against evil?), we at once gave them frightening writ to walk away from past deals that might limit our ability to battle evil (like the ABM Treaty) and to turn down whatever new offers came down the pike from the evildoers themselves (like Iran’s early offers to help us against both the Taliban and Saddam, its two worst regional enemies at the time). Over time, that attitude not only limits our potential pool of allies but raises the price for co-opting current foes as well. Demonization also encourages our general intransigence against socializing any one problem, because in seeking to spread the pain we must inevitably deal with actors we consider evil, like Iran on the question of postwar Iraq. Thus demonization denies our ability to regionalize what must be regionalized and globalize what must be globalized, because when you take on evil, you simply don’t want to risk your enemy escaping through the deal-making of others. Extend that more broadly and you can see why, although Bush often liked to compare himself to Harry Truman, he made no attempts to match that president’s record for establishing new international organizations in response to a dramatically changed security environment and the prospect of persistent conflict with a global foe.

The most mindless form of demonization across the Bush-Cheney years was the White House’s tendency to conflate radical Shia entities with radical Sunni ones, as if distinguishing between the two had no tactical value. The hubris on that one was simply too monumental to calculate, but alas, several of Bush’s neocons (most notably, Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith) had, in their youth, so internalized the historical lessons of Germany’s Nazi period that Shia Iran and Sunni al Qaeda were casually lumped together in the same demonic stew of “Islamofascism.” The nonnegotiability of such charges was arguably the prime reason why Bush-Cheney never yielded to the many calls for some sort of regional security dialogue on Iraq, preferring the bilateral, shuttle-style diplomacy that kept America’s talking points on the evening news but relegated our secretaries of state to playing a manipulative version of “telephone” as they hopped from capital to capital. Yes, this process kept us in control, but it also kept us tied down in a diplomatic quagmire of our own making.

Bush-Cheney’s demonization of our enemies also yielded the bitter fruit of intense anti-Americanism not merely throughout the Middle East but to a frightening degree throughout the world. In the summer of 2007 I traveled to Australia to speak at a regional meeting of the World Economic Forum populated primarily by senior officials of the Australian government. Figuring I couldn’t find, even at this late date, a more congenial audience for my message of how to fix America’s institutional approaches to the long war, I nonetheless ran into more anti-American sentiment there than I have subsequently met, several times, in the Middle East! What that told me was this: It’s one thing to disappoint those whom you’ve often disappointed, but quite another to disappoint your closest friends.

But we did worse than disappoint our closest friends; we tainted them with our own shame through the atrocities that we, in our confident righteousness, committed against the demons of our naming. By giving in to the demands of so many pundits and strategists that we “see our enemies for who they are,” the Bush administration created the Manichaean atmosphere that encouraged the torture of prisoners in facilities like Abu Ghraib, thus turbocharging the region’s already profound instinct to assume that America’s “evil” knows no bounds and thus deserves no boundaries in reply. This is where indulging our anger creates deadly friction for our troops. In Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas Ricks’s masterful account of America’s difficult occupation of Iraq, there are two quotes from U.S. military personnel that sum up this danger. The first comes from a young Marine who, upon seeing the first news descriptions of the scandal, complained to his general that “some assholes have just lost the war for us.” James Mattis, that Marine general, would state a year later that “when you lose the moral high ground, you lose it all.”

Greed, Leading to the Concentration of War Powers

The Bush administration’s connections with the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam administration of Gerald Ford were many, but the two most important ones were Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom served in that White House as chief of staff, with Rumsfeld later running the Pentagon for the first time. As Charlie Savage notes in his 2008 book Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy, their timing was “terrible,” for they had reached the pinnacle of executive power “just as those powers had come under fierce assault.” In subsequent years, Cheney would describe the Ford administration as a “low point” of presidential power, and once he had his chance to correct what he characterized as the “unwise compromises” that had weakened the presidency, he set about in 2001 to reverse this longtime “erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job.” What ensued was an unprecedented power grab by the White House, under the excuse that America is not just a nation at war but a nation at war for its very survival.

Here’s where we begin to see the interplay of these deadly sins. The lust for primacy requires a strong United States helmed by a supremely empowered president able to forgo reliance on allies unwilling to go all the way. Such a concentration of power is only possible under conditions of war, and not just any war, but one of survival, meaning our enemies can be cast as the most extreme forms of evil. Once these dynamics are set in motion, the president’s greed for power should be encouraged to the greatest extent possible, taking advantage of the nation’s unleashed anger, for who knows when such conditions will once again arise in a long war against violent extremists? Cast in such a light, none of these acts are perceived by their instigators as cardinal sins but rather as cardinal virtues blessed by historical circumstance: We are doing what’s right and what’s good at the only moment when such deeds are permissible. Little wonder this administration remained in constant political campaign mode throughout its first term.

Of course, all revolutions are justified in this manner by men who perceive their historical vision to be clearer than that of all others in their time. This is how America was born and, on regular occasion, this is how America is renewed. But the greater danger is equally clear. In the pursuit of a critical mass of authority to render great change, these wielders of great power often lose their ability to listen to the criticism of the masses. Their focus on the one danger blinds them to all others—again, especially when the justification is national survival. For once that mantra is invoked, all discipline goes out the window and excess becomes the order of the day. Worse, those who argue for such a free hand in the short run, ostensibly to preserve it over the long run, are often forced to extend the sense of emergency ad infinitum in a vain attempt to codify its use for those times when emergencies are not easily declared. Since such writ is typically retracted during normal times, those who wish to preserve it inevitably turn to secrecy—that killer of transparency. And once that happens, the vicious cycle is set.

Secrets beget secrets, leaving less and less of the leader’s grand strategy transparent to the public, which is increasingly left to its own imagination to fill in the blanks. Over time, after being force-fed slogans that do not inform and explanations whose “truthiness” is subject to easy parody, the public becomes divided between believers and unbelievers, with rationality both despised and in short supply. There is no surer sign of this regression than when “infotainers”—especially comedians—conduct the most gratifying public discourse on current events, for when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are among the most trusted names in broadcast news, America has lost its moral center of gravity and conspiracy theorists rank equally with serious grand strategists in the collective public mind. The result? Even what little grand strategy is actually articulated by the secretive leadership is instinctively dismissed by half the population, making it dead on arrival. As for the rest of the world? Forget about it!

Where this aggressive approach has damaged America’s global leadership most has been in the area of international law—specifically, the Bush administration’s treatment of suspected terrorists. Here again, Bush-Cheney tried to have their cake (insisting America is at war) and eat it too (declaring our enemies to be “unlawful combatants” and therefore undeserving of international legal protections historically afforded prisoners of war). Meanwhile, the condemnations have continuously rolled in from all corners of the globe regarding a host of questionable American practices either pioneered or resurrected by the Bush administration: the suspension of habeas corpus; the holding of ghost detainees who disappeared into the paperwork; the ordering of “extraordinary renditions,” by which suspects are deposited with allies who have long histories of torture; and the extraction of confessions by methods right out of the Spanish Inquisition (as well as U.S. military counterinsurgency operations in the Philippines more than a century ago). Thus, in far too many ways, the Bush administration purposefully kept America mired in its post-9/11, Jack Bauer phase of busting heads and torturing bad guys to get the truth. Until we move beyond that us-against-the-world mindset, we’ll never achieve the us-plus-the-world cooperation—much less competency—to effectively police our common enemies. Our anger never quite sated means that our grand strategy’s higher aspirations will never be fully stated by leaders more interested in preserving their power than in defeating our enemies.

Pride, Leading to Avoidable Postwar Failures

Already in print are numerous highly praised journalistic accounts of how the Bush administration systematically thwarted attempts throughout the U.S. government to plan adequately for the postwar occupation of Iraq, even going so far as to ignore—and in a few key instances squelch—the plethora of warnings from across the national security establishment of what would inevitably follow (e.g., looting, insurgency, ethnic cleansing, the attraction of jihadists from abroad, soft partition). In his 2008 political memoir, the much-vilified Douglas Feith makes a convincing case for a more nuanced diagnosis: The Bush administration’s interagency process, by law managed through the National Security Council in the person of the president’s national security adviser (then Condoleezza Rice), was dysfunctional in the extreme, largely because of Rice’s personal management style. Having learned the role as a prized protégée of national security adviser Brent Scowcroft during the earlier presidency of George H. W. Bush, Rice had a strong preference for preventing State- Defense policy clashes from reaching the president, and this was the main problem (Scowcroft had managed the NSC in this manner out of deference to the senior Bush’s distaste for such open conflict during the Reagan administration). By purposefully crafting policy compromises that combined clearly contradictory stances, Rice often presented to President Bush, for his approval, “decisions” so middling in content and so muddled in potential execution that all the major players seated at the policy table were able to walk away from these exercises convinced they could go their own bureaucratic way.

The result, at least to anyone familiar with the turf-conscious workings of executive branch departments, was painfully predictable: a near-total lack of interagency coordination among departments whose competing agendas often worked—sometimes stunningly so—at cross-purposes to one another. The main beneficiary of such confusion, even as implied by Feith’s often self-serving account, would appear to have been Vice President Cheney’s office, which, by all accounts, did play an unprecedented, behind-the-scenes role in quietly shooting down policies (and policymakers) it did not approve of (more on that point later) and orchestrated much of the administration’s—in the words of former press secretary Scott McClellan—“truth shading” sales job to Congress and the American public on the decision to invade Iraq (a show of propaganda force later matched by the Pentagon’s clever marshaling of retired flag officers for mass media appearances in which they blessed the administration’s apparent progress in stabilizing Iraq in the early postwar months).

Tragically, virtually all of what subsequently transpired in Iraq was preventable, because policymakers and experts had significant recent historical experience from which to draw, as did the military in charge. Besides our previous experience in Iraq itself (the temporary occupation of Kurdish Iraq and the humanitarian operations there following Desert Storm), there were similar nation-building and postconflict relief efforts in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. It was therefore inexcusable that anyone involved in planning and executing Saddam’s toppling should have been under the delusion that our responsibility ended with mere liberation.

Some, like onetime neoconservative Francis Fukuyama, excuse the neocons’ false assumptions of a “cakewalk” on their bad reading of history, specifically the ease with which Eastern Europe threw off Soviet-style tyranny at the end of the Cold War. Other examples cited as influencing their thinking include Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982 (where liberators were indeed welcomed by local Shia with flowers), Kurdish and Shia resistance to Saddam’s rule following the first Gulf war, and the ease with which the Taliban were ejected from Afghanistan as a result of our coordinated efforts with Northern Alliance forces. Then there is the deeply conflicted role of the Iraqi expatriates who were more than willing to see our decisive victory followed up by an incoherent occupation, because it fit with their own particular plans for Kurdish separatism, Shia domination, and dreams of personal rule. Nor should we be surprised that the most prominent Shia “external,” Ahmed Chalabi, was in cahoots with Tehran, feeding them intelligence and acting as their influencer in our decision-making. To expect Iran not to have a postwar plan for their next-door neighbor was idealistic in the extreme. Our real shame should come in realizing, however, that Tehran’s plans were more comprehensive and realistic than our own.

While stipulating all these causes, I don’t believe, in the end, that Bush-Cheney or the neocons were under any serious illusions about how hard the occupation would be. They simply chose to ignore the responsibility for the reasons already cited: America’s primacy must be preserved, presidential prerogatives must be protected, and any accommodation of evil must be avoided at all costs. As Thomas Ricks observes, “What Bush did was tear down the goalposts at halftime in the game.” So no, Bush-Cheney would not be submitting their Big Bang strategy for UN approval, nor would they share control of the occupation with other great powers. The White House would deny effective interagency cooperation between Defense and State by favoring the former’s penchant for “overwhelming force” (the Powell Doctrine) at the expense of the latter’s argument for overwhelming responsibility (Colin Powell again, this time with his “Pottery Barn rule,” which says, “If you break it, you own it”). Simply put, it’s not a quagmire if you refuse responsibility. More cynically, it’s not Vietnam if your ultimate goal was to exploit our failures in postwar Iraq as a springboard to follow-on war with Iran—arguably the Cheney “doctrine” all along.

Here’s where the administration’s assumptions reached dizzying heights: The war would be waged so decisively by our “transformed,” high-tech force that reconstruction would be simplified to the point of handing over the reins of power to Chalabi and the “externals” in a political “shock therapy” married to an economic equivalent by which rapid-fire flows of foreign direct investment, in addition to jump-started oil revenue, would rescue the Iraqi economy from its decades of abuse (e.g., war, state control) and neglect (isolation, sanctions). Unlike the “incompetent” Clinton administration, Bush-Cheney would not be reduced to consulting opinion polls, placating allies, or submitting itself to a long-term babysitting job, for all of those “gives” represented failure—failure to lead decisively.

Did the Bush administration, in its extreme pride, have any difficulty locating military leadership that met its biases? Absolutely not. As I stated earlier, previewing Ricks’s analysis, our post-Vietnam generation leadership took great pride in fielding a “first-half team,” believing the “second half” lay beyond their logical purview. So Rumsfeld was right when he responded to complaining troops in Kuwait one afternoon in late 2004 that “you go to war with the Army you have” and not “the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” The army we took to Iraq was the army that the Army itself had wanted to use there, the one it had been buying and building for the previous thirty years, ignoring the mountain of operational experience accumulated since Vietnam. Colin Powell might have switched sides to the State Department, but his ethos lived on in his beloved military: We do war. We don’t do windows. Tell me which smoking holes you want and which bodies need snatching, and then tell me when I get to go home.

To say then that Bush-Cheney and the neocons abandoned the principles of realism is incorrect. They stuck to the narrow principles all right, but in their pride they vastly expanded the acceptable parameters: They would wage war with little responsibility for the peace, for their true goals (primacy and prerogative) brooked no such obligation.

Envy, Leading to the Misguided Redirect on Iran

Americans, in their natural state of ideological skepticism, love to debase our victories—military or otherwise—with the observation “We may have fought X, but Y won the war.” So America fought the Nazis only to have the Soviets win World War II. We fought the Soviets only to have the Taliban win Afghanistan. Most recently, we toppled Saddam only to have the Iranians win Iraq. To some, these realizations say, “Be careful with whom you align,” but to me they say, “Co-opt whom you must to win wars, but be realistic about what comes next.”

The Bush administration was supremely unrealistic about what came next in the Persian Gulf following our takedown of Saddam. As Vali Nasr argues in his brilliant 2006 book, The Shia Revival, what came next was completely predictable. When Bush-Cheney created the first Arab Shiite state in Iraq, they naturally unleashed a pent-up demand among the region’s long-suppressed Shia for more political power, in turn re-elevating Shiite Iran back to the role of regional kingpin, a position it had not truly enjoyed since the earliest days of the Islamic revolution there. Naturally, the Bush administration seemed aghast at this turn of events. Expecting some Iraqi version of Thomas Jefferson-cum-Ahmed Chalabi, instead we got Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a Nelson Mandela-like figure for Iraqi Shia whose veto power over every political solution we proposed was substantial. Born in Iran, Sistani speaks Arabic with a pronounced Persian accent, which naturally stokes fears of undue Iranian influence. But in truth, Tehran’s mullahs have more to fear from Sistani’s “quietism” philosophy, or the notion that religion is best practiced when it is removed from politics. Over time, a Shia-dominated Iraq that nonetheless grants significant autonomy to its Sunni minorities in the west and north (the non-Arab Kurds) could well play Poland to Iran’s Russia—that is, it could serve as the cultural conduit for liberalizing norms.

But that scenario requires that the United States acquiesce to the inescapable logic of Iran becoming a major sponsor of Iraq’s recovery, or at least that of its Shiite portion. Much as Turkey has—despite its separatist fears—quietly eased itself into becoming the external sponsor of the Kurdish region’s economic boom (with $10 billion in foreign direct investment), and spunky Jordan aspires to the same for the western Sunni provinces, Iran is the logical regional integrator of Shia Iraq, and thus the main beneficiary of its liberation from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Given America’s long-standing fixation on Iran’s nuclear program, as well as Tehran’s vigorous support for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, that simply was not an outcome that the Bush administration, in its envy of Iran’s improved regional fortunes, could accept.

No, there was never any doubt among Western regional experts that Iran would benefit from America’s decisions to topple both the Taliban and Saddam, its two neighboring enemies. But what truly amazes me to this day is that the Bush administration somehow managed to get nothing in return from Tehran for these favors, refusing from the start to acknowledge, much less offer compensation for, Iran’s repeated offers of substantive cooperation. Imagine if Franklin Roosevelt had managed our World War II relationship with the Soviet Union in the same manner, when we had bigger fights to wage on Russia’s eastern and western borders? Instead of co-opting Iran in these two conflicts, Bush-Cheney chose to continue containing Iran in deference to the wishes of our regional allies, the Saudis and the Israelis, who likewise feared Iran’s further rise.

And so, just as Bush’s Big Bang strategy was yielding significant fruit all over the region a couple of years into our occupation of Iraq (e.g., the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and Syria’s withdrawal, local elections in Saudi Arabia, early signs of a political thaw in Egypt, the first-ever free elections in Palestine), the White House began its slow but steady drum-beat on possible military strikes against Iran. Just when Bush-Cheney had their wish, and it seemed as though the region’s entire chessboard was in play, the administration redirected its entire strategy toward isolating Iran and rolling back its regional influence. By refusing direct bilateral talks until Tehran yielded—unconditionally—on its pursuit of the bomb, Bush-Cheney signaled Iran that it would continue targeting the country for regime change until the Iranians acquired a nuclear deterrent. Talk about a Catch-22! In effect, Bush-Cheney played the role of the cop who orders the suspect to drop his weapon while giving every indication that he plans to fire his own. After all, America’s military had just dispatched two neighboring “suspects,” so how could we then, in all good conscience, claim to be surprised by Tehran’s reach for the bomb?

Consider this more forceful analogy: I walk up to three guys sitting on a park bench and shoot the guy on the right through the forehead. Next I double-tap the one on the left. In the meantime, the fellow in the middle frantically fumbles for his handgun. My question for you is: Is this guy irrational? Or did I make this decision for him?

As for Iran’s assumption that getting the bomb will keep it safe from a U.S. invasion designed to topple the regime? Well, on that score the mullahs have only six-plus-decades-and-counting of world history that says they’re exactly correct. So again, who’s being irrational here? Who’s being unrealistic? Which side has lost control of its emotions?

Here’s the inescapable ground truth: America’s choices up to now have led to a region-wide Shia revival that has greatly empowered Iran, which as a result must be accommodated on some level if we’re going to stabilize both Iraq and Afghanistan. If we, in our strategic impatience, cannot stand Iran’s short-term gains, then we have no business attempting to transform the region. Grand strategy is not about what you can pull off by the end of your administration; it’s about how you systematically improve the global security environment for the next administration. By chasing the dream of America’s primacy while denying Iran’s regional version, Bush-Cheney stalled their own grand strategy of reshaping the Middle East. In the end, Tehran’s mullahs get everything Stalin achieved after World War II: the bomb plus hegemonic influence over half the region. What did we get? Too many American soldiers unnecessarily killed.

Sloth, Leading to the U.S. Military Finally Asserting Command

This strategic sin emanated naturally from the first five: The quest for primacy meant Bush-Cheney entered into the occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq with far too few allies and thus far too few troops. Their conflation of various enemies disallowed the effective regionalization of the solution after their arrogance in war translated into botched postwar execution. When things got bad enough, they located an effective scapegoat in Iran and began a painfully transparent countdown to war, to which Tehran responded by preemptively launching an “all-proxy” war in the region in the late summer of 2006, siccing its minions (Hezbollah, Hamas) against our own (Israel), all the while ratcheting up its mischief in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, as our body count grew higher and the institutional pain in both the Army and the Marine Corps grew too great for their leaders to bear, the Bush administration finally acquiesced and essentially outsourced the Iraq occupation to the generals with the decision to launch the surge in early 2007. What was Bush’s war to begin now became General David Petraeus’s war to end. For a presidency devoted to expanding its prerogatives, it was a stunning abdication of power engineered behind the scenes, according to Bob Woodward in The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008, by retired Army four-star general Jack Keane, Petraeus’s longtime mentor. After Petraeus’s historic testimony before Congress in September 2007, Keane told him privately, “What you have is beyond what any other leader has”—an ability to shape public opinion on the war even more than the President of the United States.

With Rumsfeld cashiered by the 2006 midterm elections and the Iraq Study Group begging for some regional political dialogue, our military was finally given the go-ahead to embrace a non-kinetically focused and therefore lengthy counterinsurgency strategy of empowering the locals to police their own. This change took many forms, the most important one being that our troops increased their community visibility by getting out of their big, isolating bases and effectively living among the people, like cops on the beat. Coming at the time of the Anbar “awakening,” the surge created an immediate breathing space that the Bush administration made little effort to exploit through regional diplomacy, thus effectively acquiescing to Iraq’s soft partition into four spheres: Kurdish, Sunni, Shia, and the capital city of Baghdad. With the Kurds essentially autonomous from day one (really, since we started the northern No-Fly Zone more than a decade earlier) and the Sunni tribes effectively “flipped” through a combination of our bribes and their being fed up with al Qaeda’s brutality, General Petraeus turned next to quelling intra-Shiite conflict and slowly pacifying a Baghdad already “cleansed” in ethnic terms (hint: the Shia won), while continuing to prosecute al Qaeda’s lingering presence in the Sunni north.

That’s the CliffsNotes version of the timeline. What’s important for this discussion is how long it took the Bush administration to realize the folly of their grand strategic design. Transforming the Middle East was always going to be about connecting it to the world at large, but by demanding virtually unilateral control over the focal points of Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush-Cheney ended up isolating America in both the Persian Gulf and Central Asia more than any potential rivals—including the Iranians. What that forced our military to do was to fight both wars under the worst possible strategic conditions: progressively denuded of allies and increasingly beset by spoilers on all sides, we had simply no military solution to these inherently political problems. A “clear-and-hold” military strategy meant little if the follow-up consisted of sparse aid and virtually no economic reconstruction, two processes that would reach inflection point only if and when solutions were regionalized—admitting that neighboring powers would essentially drive economic integration leading to sustainable political relationships. So yes, Iran wins. So do Turkey and Jordan. Beyond them, so do China and Russia and India. Admit those “losses” and whatever breathing space your counterinsurgency strategy may create will eventually bear some fruit. Deny them and all you accomplish is to delay future civil wars, at the end of which we’ll still see the same “winners” collect their “earnings” while we contemplate our deeply sunk costs.

Inevitably as a result of the Bush administration’s poor strategic choices, our Army and Marine Corps were forced to climb a steep operational learning curve. Fortunately, the military’s tipping point roughly corresponded to the bankrupting of Bush-Cheney’s political capital across the summer of 2005 through the fall of 2006, or basically from the debacle of the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina until the Republicans lost both houses of Congress in the midterm elections. So while the Bush White House busied itself in redirecting its strategic attention from Iraq to Iran, the Army and Marines were studiously processing the lessons learned from returning military leaders, exemplified by then Major General David Petraeus’s return to command the Army’s primary “schoolhouse,” the Command and General Staff College in Leavenworth, Kansas, and then Major General James Mattis’s return to helm the Marine Corps’s primary schoolhouse, the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico, Virginia. Together, these two “monks of war,” as I dubbed them in an Esquire profile, oversaw the creation of the first-ever dual-designated Army-Marine Corps field manual on counterinsurgency operations, published formally in December 2006.

Contrary to the public perception that the new counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine represents our military’s adjustment to the grand strategic vision put forth by Bush-Cheney, it’s the exact opposite that’s true. For as Sarah Sewall, a Harvard human rights expert who collaborated in the COIN’s construction, states, “The field manual implicitly asks Americans to define their aims in the world and accept the compromises they require. COIN will not effectively support a revolutionary grand strategy. Counterinsurgency favors peace over justice. Revolution destabilizes the status quo in the name of justice. They are fundamentally at odds.” This is where the rubber of America’s grand strategy meets the road of globalization’s advance: We can respond to its friction (violent global insurgency) and we can facilitate its force (the integration of emerging economies), but what we cannot do is mandate their combined solution according to our preferred model (liberal democracy). In accepting the benefits of peace over justice, we accept a multiplicity of political outcomes: Sometimes our models will win, and sometimes other models will prevail. Either America submits to the dominant dynamics of this era’s aggressively expansive globalization, or we risk derailing the process as a whole. Or to put it another way, if we’re willing to go slow on the politics (multiparty democracy) while getting our way on the economics (expanding world middle class), we’ll eventually achieve the primacy of our ideals (pursuit of happiness). So America needs to ask itself: Is it more important to make globalization truly global, while retaining great-power peace and defeating whatever antiglobalization insurgencies may appear in the decades ahead? Or do we tether our support for globalization’s advance to the up-front demand that the world first resemble us politically?

If you favor the former route, then our military’s transformation via Afghanistan and Iraq has not been in vain. Judging by the new “COIN of the realm,” our military leaders have finally figured out what Abraham Lincoln once described as the “terrible math” involved in winning long wars such as this one.

But if you favor the latter route, then you have been doubly misled by Bush-Cheney’s attempted grand strategy of the last seven years.

Gluttony, Leading to Strategic Overhang Cynically Foisted upon the Next President

Gluttony is perhaps the most self-conscious of sins, because your transgressions become undeniably apparent both to yourself and to others. So it is with grand strategies, where the usual descriptor is “imperial overreach,” a phrase that has been bandied about by realist-school academics since the Soviet Union’s collapse raised the possibility of its corollary among American strategists.

First, let us examine some facts. U.S. defense spending as a percentage of national GDP is smaller than it’s ever been since World War II, falling steadily downward from its high of just over one-third in 1945, dropping to the Korean War figure of 11.7 percent, to Vietnam’s 9.8 percent, to the Reagan buildup’s 6.0 percent, to the first Gulf war’s 4.6 percent, to our current mark hovering in the 4.3-4.4 percent range. Yes, the American military has spread itself out today to more nations than ever in terms of overseas bases and facilities, but in terms of what most Americans recognize as major bases, there our global footprint remains limited to about thirty or so foreign states. In effect, the hundreds of smaller facilities that now connect our forces to several dozen more nations worldwide reflect the same sort of in-neighborhood networking that Petraeus’s COIN strategy implemented in Iraq: Professional working relationships are established with local militaries, which in turn allow our small training and liaison units to set up small facilities inside their existing bases. If you use America’s military to engage the world primarily in local capacity building, that’s what the footprint looks like. Finally, consider this measure of individual burden: In 1968, at the peak of the Vietnam War, approximately one out of every 200 American citizens was in uniform, serving abroad. Today, that burden has dropped to roughly one out of every 800 Americans.

Having said all that, we can see that there are clear limits to how much we can employ U.S. forces abroad in de facto combat zones at high rates of rotation—in other words, keeping them there longer or sending them back there faster and thus more frequently. In a professional military that’s at once older, more educated, more married, and more burdened with children than your dad’s military once was, “quality-of-life” issues reign paramount for overall service readiness, meaning the capacity to suddenly gear oneself up for a new combat mission. As such, there is a level of effort, or maximum capacity, that our armed forces can sustain for any one period of time. When sizable numbers are involved in two lengthy interventions like Afghanistan and Iraq, our military is essentially tied down on a near-global basis. That means that, at best, we could muster two or three smaller contingency responses elsewhere around the planet, and could respond to a significant combat scenario at first only primarily with naval and Air Force assets. Simply put, America cannot place large numbers of boots on the ground anywhere right now, and to do so with any speed would be monumentally difficult.

So if we’re going to fault Bush-Cheney on grand strategic terms, we’d need to divide our criticism between the following two points: the opportunity costs involved and the strategic overhang created. The former refers to crises not responded to during the time frame of our combined Afghanistan-Iraq deployments. This is a tricky thing to measure, because, by many experts’ definitions, most of the world’s so-called crises are not truly international security crises if the United States military doesn’t show up. Instead, they’re “hot spots,” failed states, chronic wars, “disturbing developments,” and the like. Genocide is, of course, a special category, which is why great powers argue so interminably about when to actually employ the term. Sudan’s Darfur crisis arguably falls into this always disputed category: bad enough to get a few African Union, UN, and even NATO advisers and would-be peacekeepers to show up, but not sufficiently important for a decisive military response by America. Here’s a simple rule of thumb: If nobody’s shooting except for the bad guys, it’s not a real crisis, because if you want the good guys to shoot back, that happens only when the Americans show up. I’ll skip boring you with a long list of actual events, like Darfur, where American forces could have made a difference. The simple reality is, the Bush administration chose Afghanistan and Iraq, ceding the rest of the planet—or less hyperbolically stated, the rest of what I call the Non-Integrated Gap—to the tender mercies of whoever bothers to show up when the shooting starts.

If opportunity costs are an inherently slippery way of measuring the strategic sin of gluttony, then downstream overhang is less so, and by that I mean—in effect—how long it would take successive administrations to “burn off” the “weight” of long-pursued interventions with deeply sunk costs. How long have Bush-Cheney tied down U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq so as to make impossible any serious redirect to other regions in the event of a crisis truly perceived as such by Washington? Possible examples would be a major intervention into collapsing North Korea, the always available Iran scenario, the possibility of China’s invasion of Taiwan, and Russia’s next adventure. Most immediately, a major intervention into northwest Pakistan commands significant attention. Given that all of these scenarios are brewing at something above room temperature right now, we can approximate our strategic overhang by sensing how “soft power” oriented—or diplomatic—America’s attempts have been to manage these situations under Bush-Cheney. In that regard, I would have to say that all but the Iranian situation elicited rather accommodating stances by the United States: China’s Taiwan-focused military buildup saw us chastising Chen Shu-bian’s Taipei for dangerous provocations; North Korea’s testing of a nuclear device was rewarded by our offering to negotiate a peace treaty to end the Korean War; Pervez Musharraf’s temporary use of emergency rule in Pakistan won him an influx of military support against the Taliban threat in his northwest terrorities; Putin’s crackdown in Georgia won Mikheil Saakashvili humanitarian aid and little else; and, as for Iran . . . well, it seems well on its way to ruling out regime change by generating a sloppy, asymmetrical form of near-nuclear deterrence—namely, given our current tie-down, America can’t stop Tehran from getting nuclear unless we go nuclear first, as conventional air strikes against Iran’s deep underground facilities would accomplish a delay but not a firm denial of what seems inevitable now.

On that scale, then, it would seem that our current strategic overhang led the Bush administration, in its last years, to sue for peace everywhere except Afghanistan and Iraq. Will the situation get any better anytime soon for our incoming president? Unlikely. Even with a strategic withdrawal from one or both situations, the institutional “healing time” involved for the Army and Marines will be substantial, and it’s extremely unlikely that any president would endure that loss of strategic face without respecting that requirement. As for another scenario forcing such an immediate shift, there I think you’d have to consult the Bush-Cheney second-term record, cited in the preceding paragraph, to recognize just how hard that would be. Does this overhang prevent the sort of air-delivered strikes so favored by the Clinton administration over the 1990s? Absolutely not. You name the country and America’s airpower could deliver a major-league hurt within days, if not hours. The problem is, of course, that in most plausible scenarios there’s little to actually target, meaning we end up lobbing a few cruise missiles and calling it a day—or more to the point, a 24-hour news cycle. But as Clinton was routinely derided throughout his years for employing such “pinprick” responses, don’t expect that tactic to scratch too many strategic itches in the years ahead.

Here we finally get to the meat of the matter: By consuming so much of America’s military force during these seven long years of nonstop, high-tempo, high-rotation action, the Bush administration basically condemned its successor to what will probably be an additional seven lean years of military operations. Whether it’s simply winding down Afghanistan and/or Iraq and “replenishing the force,” or shifting dollars from operations and maintenance funds to cover a plethora of Cold War “programs of record” (weapons systems and major platforms) that the Bush administration has refused to scale back (even as it gobbled up relatively huge—as in $100 billion plus—supplemental defense spending bills every year since 2001), the next administration has been handed a veritable train wreck in terms of future budgetary crises. Something will have to give. If that “something” is not an improved situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, then you can pretty much forget about any significant U.S. military interventions anywhere else. But even if it is, we’re still probably looking at four to eight very lean years (and if you’ve already spotted the corollary in federal budget deficit spending, then go to the head of the class!).

What does that mean for the next president? It means ingenuity and inventiveness will be at a premium, because our incoming president’s grand strategy is necessarily one of realigning America’s trajectory to that of a world being transformed by the simultaneous rise of numerous great powers.

There will be no more swimming against the tide.



Now that we know the sins, there must be penance. If not for Bush and Cheney, then it must come for America.

Here, I’ll describe the basic steps we Americans need to take to regain some control over our destiny and realign our as yet unstated grand strategy to a world transforming at incredible speed. And taking these steps isn’t merely about our reasserting our virtue. Because there’s even more at stake than our salvation. A world that rapidly doubles its middle-class ranks in a generation’s time is either going to become very content or very conflicted, and no nation can do more to ensure either outcome than America.

For the past eight years, America has remained somewhat trapped in angry isolation, cherishing its fears and nurturing its resentments. But we need to stop looking for security at the bottom of the bottle labeled “Shoot First” unilateralism, because we will never find it there, certainly not in this world of rising connectivity and interdependency. We instinctively reached for that empowering brew after 9/11, and our state of strategic intoxication since then has left a trail of tears—among our warriors and their families, among the recipients of our violent outbreaks, among a world’s population that suspects—and hopes—that we’re capable of so much more self-control. It has also isolated us from the society of fellow states and caused us to doubt our exceptional role in world history. No one on this planet who wants a better tomorrow welcomes this sad state of affairs.

We need to recognize our past mistakes and strengths if we’re going to recapture some grand strategic momentum and once again start paddling faster than globalization’s surging current. There is a new world still out there, awaiting some great nation’s discovery and description. It’s a world in which globalization has been made truly global, according to a system of rules that’s both fair and self-sustaining but most of all is empowering to the middle, to individuals, and to the self-made. That is a world of unlimited creativity, energy, and ingenuity, and we as its dominant species need to get there fast.

The world desperately wants America back. In the best tradition of self-help programs, here are the twelve steps to get back to where we once belonged.


Today’s globalization is the Pandora’s Box we opened long ago; it’s past the point where we—or really anybody—can claim to be in charge. If globalization comes with rules but not a ruler, then it is those rules we must collectively manage better, not just in their constant extension to new territories and domains, but also in their constant improvement and progressive deconflicting.

We Americans survey the hypercompetitive global landscape with its cheap labor and trade protectionism, and we call these practices “un-American,” when of course they’re the most American things in the world—in their good time. So how do we keep ourselves competitive in this globalization of our making, realizing we’re playing against “younger” versions of ourselves in many instances? And how do we simultaneously muster the will and the resources to play the vital role of bodyguard that we have long assumed in friction-filled locales distant from our shores?

We do what any general contractor does: We hire out the lower-end jobs to the most competent, entry-level providers and we keep the top-of-the-pyramid work for ourselves. We stop trying to pretend we can do it all by ourselves and thus get to call all the shots. We admit that the rising complexity of all this connectivity means we’re but one seat at a very large table of rule-proposers and rule-deciders. But it’s a key seat because our node is the terminus for a lot of consumption in this global economy and the starting point for a lot of innovation. Remember that as we move ahead: In a global economy, demand determines power far more than supply. We’re also first among equals because our financial networks process risk with speed and daring (i.e., the booms) and a brutal honesty (read, the busts) that’s the envy of the world. (Yeah, I said it.)

What we absolutely should not do is what our nativist instincts tell us to do: throw up walls. Every generation of immigrants that’s ever come to America has quickly tried to slam the door shut behind it. Every generation of industry titans that’s ever conquered America’s markets has demanded shelter from the storms of global competition. Every well-established religion wants its faith and community protected from the dilution and damnation that come from too much intermingling with a desperate, grubby world. As Theodore Roosevelt would have surely argued, it’s been our democratic rejection of exclusionary thinking and complete lack of inbreeding that have kept America strong—culturally, technologically, politically, militarily, you name it.

So we Americans need to embrace Thomas Friedman’s “hot, flat, and crowded” global future for what it really is: a chance to evolve into something even better, and then take everything we’ve learned along the way and sell it around the planet at suitably discounted prices. That includes our best rules for managing all this complexity, because those rules not only will constitute the new definition of security in the twenty-first century, but also will remain one of America’s best exports and a principal means for shaping international order.

There’s much left for us to do in building out this American System on a global scale, so grab your tool of choice and let’s get started.


Modern American political history, meaning since the start of the twentieth century, has veered from periods of great partisanship to periods of great compromise.

The period of extreme partisanship that we’ve just lived through is not new; we endured something quite like it from Teddy Roosevelt right through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, an age dominated by partisan armies, commanding majorities, and a high degree of party discipline. The resulting political environment nonetheless saw huge bursts of legislative creativity, especially with TR, with Woodrow Wilson, and early in FDR’s presidency. As Ronald Brownstein notes in The Second Civil War, the country was “deeply divided but not closely divided” in those first decades of modern America. When one side won, it won big, and thus ruled “big.” As the country moved deeper into the Great Depression, however, it entered into a bipartisan age that stressed negotiation and compromise, by Brownstein’s measure the longest such period in American history. In an age of great conflict and harsh ideological choices, America “was closely but not deeply divided”: Everyone basically wanted the same general outcomes, and so cross-party dominance, so to speak, was the order of the day. That age of bargaining yielded, starting with the Kennedy administration, to an atmosphere of greater partisanship due to the controversies of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the subsequent rise of the “Reagan Republicans.” Our current period of hyperpartisanship can be said to have arrived when the GOP finally won control of the House of Representatives in 1994, after four decades of minority status. Since that time we’ve seen party discipline reach stunning heights in a Boomer-dominated political landscape that finds America both deeply and closely divided, meaning Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much, but neither commands a serious majority. This era came to an end with the election of 2008.

In my opinion, the Boomer generation represents one of the weakest cohorts of politicians America has ever produced. Like most revolutionary generations, the Boomers were frustrated by the lack of the political change they effected in their youth, so the bulk of their talent and ambition thereupon went into the private sector. This dynamic is common to many revolutionary generations throughout history: Thwarted on the political front, they turn to the far less restricted domains of business and technology in an attempt to change their world from another angle. The result is typically a huge burst of creativity and entrepreneurship. We saw this in Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848, in the United States following the Civil War, and in today’s China after Tiananmen Square. The serious talent simply skips a political process it considers “low” and “demeaning” and instead chooses the real “business” of social and economic progress, believing that “what’s good for my company/industry is good for my country!” If I were to compare the Boomers as a political generation to one from America’s past, it would be to the last quarter of the nineteenth century, or roughly from 1870 to 1900. The reason why that comparison will strike so many of you as obscure is that most Americans can’t name any presidents or prominent politicians from that age, but know well the industrial and financial titans such as Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. Decades from now the key names most Americans will remember from our age will be Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Rupert Murdoch (yes, he’s a Yank now, too), while virtually all our politicians will slip into well-deserved obscurity.

Meet the Author

Thomas P. M. Barnett is a senior adviser to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Central Command, Special Operations Command, the Joint Staff and the Joint Forces Command. He formerly served as a senior strategic researcher and professor at the U.S. Naval War College and as Assistant for Strategic Futures in the OSD's Office of Force Transformation. He is a founding partner of the New Rule Sets Project LLC, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and Esquire, where he is now a contributing editor.

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