Varieties of global dominance strategy: "the results somehow always turn out to be war""
John Mearsheimer's article Imperial by DesignThe National Interest 12/16/2010 (Jan-Feb 2011 issue) was written before the outbreak of the Arab democratic revolution and before the start of the Libya War. But the Libya War has given in a new and more immediate relevance in understanding the similarities and differences between the Cheney-Bush and Obama foreign policies. The basic strategy common to Democratic and Republican administrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago has been one that Mearsheimer calls "global dominance":
The root cause of America's troubles is that it adopted a flawed grand strategy after the Cold War. From the Clinton administration on, the United States rejected all these other avenues, instead pursuing global dominance, or what might alternatively be called global hegemony, which was not just doomed to fail, but likely to backfire in dangerous ways if it relied too heavily on military force to achieve its ambitious agenda.
Global dominance has two broad objectives: maintaining American primacy, which means making sure that the United States remains the most powerful state in the international system; and spreading democracy across the globe, in effect, making the world over in America's image. The underlying belief is that new liberal democracies will be peacefully inclined and pro-American, so the more the better. Of course, this means that Washington must care a lot about every country's politics. With global dominance, no serious attempt is made to prioritize U.S. interests, because they are virtually limitless. [my emphasis in bold]
Note that Mearsheimer's criticism falls outside what our punditocracy and the leaders of both parties currently consider mainstream opinion, because it argues that that our foreign policy suffers from fundamental flaws that both Democrats and Republicans perpetuate.
This does not mean there are no distinctions to be made between the parties on foreign policy or no ways to make judgments about events taking place within that strategic framework. On the contrary, Mearsheimer distinguish between partisan variations on the global dominance strategy, the Democrats preferring a liberal imperialist version and the Republicans a neoconservative version (though I would characterize the Republicans' approach more as neocon-militarist to account for the fact that Dick Cheney's particular variance is more unilateralist militarism without the democratic garnish the neocons prefer). Mearsheimer writes:
On one side are the neoconservatives, who believe that the United States can rely heavily on armed force to dominate and transform the globe, and that it can usually act unilaterally because American power is so great. Indeed, they tend to be openly contemptuous of Washington’s traditional allies as well as international institutions, which they view as forums where the Lilliputians tie down Gulliver. Neoconservatives see spreading democracy as a relatively easy task. For them, the key to success is removing the reigning tyrant; once that is done, there is little need to engage in protracted nation building.
On the other side are the liberal imperialists, who are certainly willing to use the American military to do social engineering. But they are less confident than the neoconservatives about what can be achieved with force alone. Therefore, liberal imperialists believe that running the world requires the United States to work closely with allies and international institutions. Although they think that democracy has widespread appeal, liberal imperialists are usually less sanguine than the neoconservatives about the ease of exporting it to other states. As we set off to remake the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall, these principles of global dominance set the agenda. [my emphasis]
David Rieff in Just Like Bush: What's the difference between Obama's Libyan war and neoconservatism?The New Republic 04/01/2011 describes the fundamental agreement between the neocon/Cheneyists and the liberal imperialist strategists this way: "Both sides think it is America's duty to reshape the world into a more democratic place. And no matter which side's narrative is in the ascendant, the results somehow always turn out to be war."
In a sense, what some are hailing as the Obama Doctrine on so-called humanitarian intervention seems like nothing so much as fusion of the liberal interventionism of the 1990s, during the period that stretched from Bosnia through Kosovo to Sierra Leone, and the neoconservative interventionism of the Bush era. Indeed, despite what liberal interventionist supporters of President Obama and of the Libyan war have claimed, there was little in the president's speech that, stripped of some of its religious cloaking, could not have come out of the mouth of George W. Bush, above all the Bush of the "democracy exporting/wars fought in the name of values" Second Inaugural in 2005. Liberal interventionists indignantly deny this of course, claiming that they believe in multilateralism whereas neoconservatives do not, and that they believe in soft power, or, in Secretary of State Clinton's formulation, smart power, whereas neoconservatives are fixated on hard power.
The problem with this is that the liberal interventionists' idea of multilateralism is one in which other nations join America's efforts. "The world works best when America leads" is the way the late Richard Holbrooke liked to put it, which neatly encapsulates the liberal hawks' view that they can have U.S. hegemony and multilateralism, which a more skeptical observer might be tempted to call hegemony without tears. But most of this is institutional sleight of hand. These interventions happen if the United States will provide the muscle and don't if it will not. That is how defenders of the Libyan war — up to an[d] including the president — can pretend that the fact that formally there is indeed a coalition, and that the United States has technically ceded the lead role in the operation to NATO (again, as if NATO was not a U.S.-dominated institution), makes such an intervention a horse of an entirely different color from those initiated by the horrid neocons, and never mind that, on this logic, in strictly institutional terms, the Soviets could have called the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 a Warsaw Pact operation. [my emphasis]
Aaron David Miller also looks at policy continuities between the neocon/unilateralist Cheney-Bush Administration and Obama's liberal interventionist one in Is Obama Really George W. Bush?Huffington Post 04/04/2011. Here's how he frames his perspective:
There are fundamental differences to be sure: the president's tendencies to engage; to work multilaterally; to be contrite about American power; to see the world not as black or white, but in gray, the color of diplomacy. But on key issues--Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, Arab-Israeli peacemaking--there's also great continuity. And in one of the greatest potential ironies of all, Obama could be heading for Bush 43 redux on getting rid of Gaddafi.
Miller looks at some of the problems confronting the US in the Libya War in Obama's 21st-Century War Foreign Policy 04/05/2011. In either variety of global strategy, there are limits to American power that make the global dominance strategy, in Mearsheimer's words, "doomed to fail" in the longer run (after often in the shorter-run). Miller writes:
Welcome to Libya, Mr. President. You've got your very own 21st-century war, where the goals are as diffuse as the means at your disposal to accomplish them. Having chosen to double down in Afghanistan, you now own two of them -- Afghanistan and Libya. To get out of the former, your military advisors [sic] argued, you first had to get in deeper. And you chose to do so.
In Libya, another war of choice, you are now confronted with many of the same contradictions, impossible choices, and hard decisions that these other conflicts pose. Yes, Libya isn't Iraq or Afghanistan; it may well be a good war fought for sound moral and humanitarian purposes -- but it's also a complicated war. To put it mildly, like the other two conflicts, getting in may be a lot easier than getting out, despite all rhetoric to the contrary. [my emphasis]
That's a basic rule of war that our political culture has, in practice, largely lost side of: it's a hell of a lot easier to get into a war than to get out of one.