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Book Review

Unrealistic hopes and fumbled foreign policy in the Bush administration

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April 12, 2008

'Daydream Believers': Unrealistic hopes and fumbled foreign policy in the Bush administration
By Fred Kaplan
Wiley, 246 pp., $25.95

Author Fred Kaplan offers an insightful analysis of what he sees as the unrealistic hopes at the root of President George W. Bush's problematic foreign policy in the Mideast. As Kaplan sees it, Bush wanted to be a trailblazer who wouldn't be "tied down" by cumbersome alliances or the compromise-riddled diplomacy of his predecessor, Bill Clinton: Bush and his neoconservative advisers, Kaplan writes, believed "that America was so peerlessly strong it could impose its will unilaterally. This may have been their gravest miscalculation."

Kaplan writes that President Bush badly misread the international political climate after the Sept. 11 attacks and thus lost a unique opportunity to build sweeping antiterrorist alliances. Instead, Kaplan says, Bush adopted a swaggering, us-against-the-world tone that alienated potential friends and emboldened enemies. Bush's foreign policies "were based not on a grasp of technology, history, or foreign cultures but rather on fantasy, faith, and a willful indifference toward those affected by their consequences."

Kaplan, a columnist for Slate and a onetime reporter for The Boston Globe, repeatedly cites examples where he says President Bush's fantasies collided with global realities. For example, the president speaks often about bringing democracy to Iraq and how an emerging Iraqi republic will transform the Mideast. Kaplan tells us that democracy in that region, whether in Iraq, Lebanon, or the Palestinian territories, has instead played into the hands of violent groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which have won stunning electoral victories.

Democracy is not the cure for Mideast terrorism, Kaplan writes. Indeed, with anti-Americanism rampant in the region, Islamic groups are using both ballots and bullets to undermine US interests. "These hostile groups," explains Kaplan, "had been strengthened by the advance of democratic processes. Democracy and terrorism are not opposites." And while President Bush might pay lip service to democracy across the region, the United States continues to back autocratic strongmen such as Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak.

Bush came into office wanting to be the anti-Clinton, Kaplan explains. After years of negotiations with the Clinton administration, North Korea had agreed to scale back its nuclear ambitions. President Bush rejected these agreements, preferring the clarity of putting North Korea in his "axis of evil."

The results of Bush's tough policy toward North Korea were horrific, Kaplan writes: "Bush's rhetoric only inflamed their fears, sharpened their suspicions, and hardened their determination" to build a nuclear weapon. And while Bush invaded Iraq citing weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist, he did little about North Korea's development of actual nuclear weapons.

Kaplan also traces the president's stubborn devotion to an anti-ballistic missile system (referred to as "Star Wars" when President Reagan advocated it) that simply doesn't work. Bush soured relations with Russia, unilaterally pulled out of arms treaties, and spent billions of dollars for a fantasy, the author says. Kaplan writes that Bush keeps the faith despite a $100 billion investment in an unworkable ABM system. "To cut back would be to admit that the idea was wrong, that the money spent so far . . . had been a waste. Maybe it would work one day," the author says.

After reading Kaplan's skewering of what he describes as President Bush's ideology-filled and fact-averse foreign policy, readers will be left wondering about several other maybes. Maybe Iraq will become a stable democracy that triggers a region-wide embrace of democracy. Maybe the United States is so strong and so right that it doesn't need allies to limit its global actions. Maybe America's good intentions are enough to make up for what critics see as bullying behavior. Kaplan longs for a return to a less ideology-driven foreign policy, and his arguments are strong.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

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