February 13, 2003

Of Morons and Multilateralists Daniel

Of Morons and Multilateralists

Daniel Drezner writes that the Bush administration's foreign policy has been far more "multi-lateralist" than it's given credit for. Many would object that this is insincere multilateralism, a cynical use of multilateral institutions as cover for pursuit of a self-interested manipulation and ultimately "winning through intimidation." Drezener puts it more kindly: the Americans see multilateralism as a means to an end, while "for much of Europe and the rest of the world, multilateralism remains an end in itself." There's something in both of these rhetorical spins (though the Bush administration's Machiavellian "use" of multilateral institutions, pace Podhoretz, has been anything but deft.)

Drezner posits an additional reason:

this administration's abject failure at "gardening," a term former Secretary of State George Shultz used to describe the careful cultivation of allies through repeated, routinized consultations. Gardening was a key part of Bush's foreign policy mantra as a candidate, but he has been unable to implement it in office. Allies (except for Tony Blair) routinely carp about being kept out of the loop when the administration makes foreign policy decisions. Without gardening, a poorly-worded utterance--a German Justice minister comparing Bush to Hitler, or a U.S. defense secretary comparing Germany to Cuba--pours salt into deepening transatlantic wounds.

His conclusion: "the Americans could be better gardeners, but our allies must be better enforcers."

Quite right. Yet Drezner leaves out another important factor: those who are inclined to fetishize "multi-lateralism" in the abstract as the be all and end all of a virtuous foreign policy (e.g., most European governments and most of their constituents, the "peace movement," the Berkeley City Council) simply don't like George W. Bush. It's personal, and it's aesthetic. They don't like his manner, his style, his often garbled plain-spokenness. The folksy turns of phrase that have endeared him to at least half of the American electorate (and which all but a fringe of the rest don't find all that off-putting) are utterly alienating to them. They have no trouble believing the worst about a man who conducts himself in such a manner, no trouble imagining that he is the embodiment of all that they fear and loathe. In this psychological world, to raise the suspicion is to confirm it. In Colin Powell they have seen a reflection of their own sensibilities; Rumsfeld is feared, but respected, even accorded a grudging respect as roguish adversary. The Bush personality and sensibility, however, is unfathomable to them, meaningful only through reference to cliches about cowboys, dunces, mentally deficient children, corrupt "oilmen," which can inspire nothing but contempt. The phrase "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists," actually aimed at other rogue states that might be tempted to play both sides in the US vs. al Qaeda struggle, is likewise taken personally in these quarters: first it's the Afghans, then the Iraqis, and then, by God, he's coming for you. When they say "Bush is a moron" they mean it literally, to be sure; but they also mean "Bush is the Boogey Man."

To the extent that this sort of thing is meant sincerely, it reflects a profound lack of seriousness, of course. Mostly, however, the rhetorical excess is, like Bush's dubiously-regarded multilateralism, merely a means to an end. Those who believe that their own interests lie in undermining or obstructing US aims can pursue their goals under the banner of multilateralism without having to bother mentioning their own interests. It's a tale as old as time, or at least as old as politics. The language of multi-lateralism, anti-unilateralism, anti-Bushism, anti-globalization (a bit ironic that last) has more currency, and hence more power, than a former era's references to "running dogs" or "Imperialist butchers" and the like, but they can serve much the same function. The Bush people do this sort of thing as well, in their own way, of course: everybody does it. Yet it would be inaccurate to discount the aesthetic disjunction as merely inconsequential rhetoric. For all its shallowness, it is very real.

Is it the case, then, as some have maintained, that the anti-Americanism so often decried by American pundits is not anti-Americanism as such, but rather nothing more than pure anti-Bushism? That this contingent of Bush detractors would be far more amenable to some of the same policies if they were to be presented by a less aesthetically objectionable spokesmodel? That's probably true to a degree. Yet there is a great deal of bona fide anti-Americanism in the mix as well (some fueled by illogical and self-defeating hatred which cannot admit the possibility that America can do good as well as evil, some by the practical desire to undermine or "check" American power and influence.) And contrary to the claims of many of those making the anti-Bushism argument, the observation reflects rather more poorly upon the "Bush is a moron" camp than it does on Bush himself.

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 13, 2003 12:18 PM | TrackBack