Push It to the Max

Push It to the Max

“American Maximalism” by Stephen Sestanovich, in The National Interest (Spring 2005), 1615 L St., N.W., Ste. 1230, Washington, D.C. 20036.

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2m 53sec

You’ve seen the cartoons: President George W. Bush has a six-shooter and a 10-gallon hat, and he’s off on yet another boneheaded adventure. Instead of building consensus and playing by the rules, the critics wail, Washington ignores its traditional allies, defines its struggles with its adversaries in all-or-nothing terms, and stubbornly pursues its own far-reaching goals. Yes, that’s the Bush administration’s approach—but it’s no dramatic departure from recent U.S. practice, says Sestanovich, a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University and U.S. ambassador-at-large for the states of the former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration’s second term. And the approach of the last few decades has consistently worked.

Sestanovich writes: “Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all repeatedly ignored the dissents (and domestic political difficulties) of allies, rejected compromise with adversaries, negotiated insincerely, changed the rules, rocked the boat, moved the goal posts and even planned inadequately to deal with the consequences if their policies went wrong.”

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration’s insistence on deploying intermediate-range missiles in Europe unless the Soviets abandoned their own missiles disturbed many allied leaders and provoked mass demonstrations in Europe. When U.S. negotiator Paul Nitze explored a compromise with the Soviets, President Ronald Reagan refused to hear of it, and his administration didn’t even bother to inform the allies of the possibility. The outcome: a U.S.-Soviet treaty in 1987 based on the “non-negotiable” zero option. After Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev lost power, he said that the confrontation with Reagan had been instrumental in turning Soviet foreign policy around.

Under President George H. W. Bush, the United States “placed itself in direct opposition to almost all its own allies, as well as the Soviet Union,” on the question of German reunification. “As in the early 1980s, the United States alone had real confidence that it could control the process of change—that it could stimulate an international upheaval and come out better off. . . . The United States steered the process to a positive result by exploiting its partners’ disarray, by setting a pace that kept them off balance, and even by deceiving them.”

Likewise the Clinton administration: After first bowing to European objections to strong action by NATO to halt the mass killings in the Balkans, it decided to stop listening to allied views, to do more than merely “contain” the genocide, and to use military force if necessary. The result was the breakthrough Dayton agreement in 1995 and the ambitious effort to create a single Bosnian state. Later, the administration used the same strategy in confronting Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic over Kosovo. Despiteallied calls for a bombing pause and a German threat to block any full-scale ground invasion, the administration won a peace accord, then went on to insist on “regime change.”

Finding a lot of precedents for President George W. Bush’s tough-mindedness is not the same thing as saying his policies are sound, Sestanovich observes. But the continuity makes more urgent the question of why Bush’s “maximalist” foreign policies have stirred up so much more opposition than his predecessors’ did. “It will not be much of a legacy to be the president who, after decades of success, gave maximalism a bad name.”

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