Bad Advice Shapes Policy and Poor Image of U.S.

Originally posted: June 30, 2006

Greencastle, Ind. – In 1898, when America endeavored to capture the Philippines and establish its first colony abroad, President William McKinley explained it was necessary to “educate the Filipinos, uplift them and Christianize them as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.”

Like President Bush, McKinley evidently was acting on bad intelligence. None of his advisers explained to the president that his fervor to Christianize was unnecessary. Under Spanish domination for many years, most of the islanders already were devout, practicing Catholics. Later, McKinley admitted, “I could not have told you where those darned islands were within 2,000 miles.”

Veteran foreign correspondent Steven Kinzer recounts that early American venture in his new book, “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.” He describes our country’s efforts to thwart independence movements or overthrow governments in Cuba, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Iran, South Vietnam, Chile, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq. Kinzer’s main point is that more often than not we have left things in worse shape than we found them. Chileans, for example, were not made to suffer the freely elected, socialist government of Salvador Allende. With American covert initiatives, Allende was overthrown, only to be followed by 15 years of death squads, torture and dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

With America’s penchant for electing governors to the Oval Office, we tend to get presidents with limited experience in foreign affairs. Certainly the two best trained among modern presidents were those who served eight-year apprenticeships as vice presidents, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.

In his 1972 Time “Man of the Year” interview, President Nixon opined that the only time in history there have been extended periods of peace is when there has been a balance of power. “It is when one nation becomes infinitely more powerful in relation to its potential competitor that the danger of war arises.”

That seems to be pretty close to the problem as described by Ron Suskind in another new book about American foreign policy, “The 1 percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11.”

As Suskind describes it, some believe America cannot be the world’s only superpower if it does not forcefully demonstrate its power. Thus the war in Iraq was necessary to make an example of Saddam, “to make a demonstration model to guide the behavior of anyone with the temerity to acquire destructive weapons or, in any way, flout the authority of the U.S.”

It was probably not possible to know what kind of foreign policy framework

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas brought with him to the White House. One might expect that he would have read his father’s farewell address where the first President Bush laid out guidelines for America’s involvement in military action in the post-Cold War world. It is necessary to act with the maximal possible support of the world community, the first Bush said. It also is necessary to have a clear and achievable mission and criteria no less realistic for withdrawing U.S. forces once the mission is complete.

Sadly, there is no evidence that these principles guided our mission in Iraq.

Suskind’s description of the inner workings of the Bush White House is hauntingly reminiscent of McKinley. Critical briefing materials go only to Cheney, who tells the president what he needs to know. Bush is depicted as incurious or uninformed, failing to read the basic paperwork, making up his mind based on “instinct” or his “gut.”

As I read this, I was reminded of an interview I did in 2000 in preparation for a television documentary looking ahead at what a George W. Bush presidency might be like. University of Texas professor Bruce Buchanan, who followed the Bush governorship very carefully, put it this way: The problem is not that Bush can’t find good advisers. He can and has. The problem is that he shows no real interest in policy, not even in reading the briefing books on complex issues. The problem, then, is that he won’t be able to recognize bad advice when he gets it.

Bush’s bad foreign policy advice came from the neoconservative network of Cheney, Rumsfeld and others who long ago had made up their minds about Saddam and Iraq, and helped Bush make up his. However, the lesson they so aggressively taught the world about America’s superpower supremacy is exactly opposite of what they intended.

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