Imperial Blunder, not Design

John Mearsheimer's National Interest piece titled, "Imperial by Design," has been getting a bit of attention, although less than I assumed it would judging from the attractiveness of its thesis in war-weary times. Although I agree in principle with the prescription, I found the diagnosis poorly argued. Mearsheimer declares that the U.S. has pursued a grand strategy of global dominance since the end of the Cold War, culminating in the Bush administration's decision to remake the Middle East in its own image. He argues instead for a strategy of offshore balancing intended to economize American power and resources without abandoning the world through an isolationist retreat.

As I said, I agree with the conclusion. The biggest problem Mearsheimer faces is making the facts fit his historical analysis. He claims that the Clinton administration was "bent on ruling the world," only to admit in the very same sentence that it "employed military force reluctantly and prudently." Put another way, the Clinton administration continued the immediate post-Cold War policy of restraint wisely formulated by the George H.W. Bush administration. And it did so while struggling, with limited success, to resolve the thorny problem of how to use U.S. military force to promote, rather than undermine, an as-yet fluid and undefined global order. That global order was certainly characterized by unilateral American dominance, but that was due to the outcome of history, rather than design. Indeed, the Clinton administration, as Mearsheimer acknowledges, managed to resist the hubris, widespread at the time, that the U.S. might somehow manage to freeze history in place by unleashing, rather than husbanding, its unprecedented relative power.

With regard to the George W. Bush administration's catastrophic policies, Mearsheimer commits the opposite error, conflating a misguided faith in war as an instrument of foreign policy with imperial design. Indeed, the fact that the Bush administration failed to formulate even the shadow of a plan for the occupation -- that is, the sine qua non of imperial design -- of post-war Iraq belies Mearsheimer's thesis. Was the Bush administration intoxicated by the hubris of overwhelming power? Yes. Was it blinded to the perilous consequences of a "reluctant sheriff" turned vengeful vigilante? Again, yes.

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