Overstatement is the bane of scholarship about government. When political scientists study history, they want to do more than simply record and understand what happened: They aim to discover rules of behavior, based on the belief that political science is actually science.
In the 19th century, various theorists claimed to have discovered history’s key. Karl Marx famously said it was class conflict. Others said it was race. These ideas threw some useful light on history, but they were oversold. In the 20th century, the realpolitik school of foreign affairs stressed that nations act to increase their military and economic power. That’s a valuable insight as far as it goes, but the “realists” often overstate their case by belittling the role of ideology in world affairs. Likewise, the generally correct observation that democratic nations tend not to fight wars against one another is often embellished by democratic-peace theorists into a categorical proposition that such nations never clash.
Now, along comes an eminent foreign policy scholar, Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University, with a thesis about how nation-building missions became America’s chief post-Cold War foreign activity, despite failure after failure. As a generalization, there’s much merit in the thesis. But the author carries it too far.
Mr. Mandelbaum’s book, “Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era” is, first, a story—a well-told, lucid, thoughtful survey of world affairs. I take issue with points throughout, but any student of the last quarter century would be well served to read this volume.
The book is also an argument—and that’s where it overreaches. The years 1991 to 2014, according to Mr. Mandelbaum’s thesis, were distinct from any previous period in American history. Before that odd era, he asserts, U.S. foreign policy focused on the nation’s security, not on transforming other countries’ domestic arrangements. After the Cold War ended, however, he describes U.S. foreign policy as a series of humanitarian or democratizing missions, disconnected from security considerations. That applies not only to the intervention in Somalia that began under George H.W. Bush, but also to Bill Clinton’s military actions in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, and to George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mr. Mandelbaum rightly notes that U.S. attempts to foster democracy and free markets abroad were an important part of American foreign policy after the Cold War. And such attempts, time and again, fell short of their ambitious goals. He spurs readers to ask why societies are so hard to transform and when, if ever, the promotion of a moral value becomes a national interest. All of that is laudatory.
But he descends into overstatement. Transformative missions did not become a major feature of U.S. policy only after 1991. Consider how hard Americans worked, for example, to remake South Vietnam in the 1960s (not to mention the axis powers’ reconstruction after World War II).
It’s wrong to state that Mr. Clinton’s Bosnia intervention “aimed not at protecting American interests.” U.S. officials, according to Mr. Mandelbaum’s own account, worried that an important American strategic interest—European stability—was endangered by the “Serb aggression against a legally established and politically legitimate country.”
Nor is it accurate to reduce George W. Bush’s Iraq war to no more than an attempt at nation-building. “Kurdistan aside,” Mr. Mandelbaum writes, “the United States did not achieve any of its goals in Iraq.” Again, the argument to the contrary can be found in his own book: “The protection of human rights and the construction of democracy did not…drive the Bush administration’s decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein.” What drove it, the author accurately explains, was the threat Saddam posed to U.S. interests as an anti-American supporter of terrorism who aspired to nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. America’s chief goal in Iraq was to remove that threat, and in that Mr. Bush succeeded. Mr. Mandelbaum properly notes that Iraq wasn’t transformed into Denmark—his exemplar of stable, prosperous democracy—but he claims too much by asserting that Mr. Bush achieved none of his goals.
Mr. Mandelbaum’s chief criticism is that U.S. officials after the Cold War continually tried to democratize other societies without appreciating how difficult (or impossible) the task is. When it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, he criticizes from a different angle. Peace will remain impossible, he says, unless Palestinian society undergoes an “internal transformation” and ceases to be violent, corrupt and ideologically adamant against Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East.
U.S. policy makers have ignored this reality, he writes. They believe it is “both urgent and feasible for Israel to trade land for peace with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.” As Mr. Mandelbaum sees it, such faith has “congealed into an orthodoxy that the American foreign policy elite embraced.” He lauds George W. Bush for rejecting that orthodoxy, but notes that Condoleezza Rice, his secretary of state, embraced it. So has Barack Obama, flouting history by declaring that Israel’s West Bank settlements are a key obstacle to peace. The conflict, Mr. Mandelbaum rightly points out, started even before Israel’s founding in 1948, not in 1967, when it captured the West Bank.
His chapter on U.S. efforts to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the book’s most contrarian and most incisive. Referring to the period since the 1993 Oslo Accords, Mr. Mandelbaum argues that “properly understood, the peace process . . . was a mission of transformation.” Unlike in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti or the Balkans, however, the U.S. government “did not understand—or would not admit to itself—that transformation was what was required and thus never seriously attempted it.” His point is not that Palestinian political reform would be easy, or even possible. It’s that without a radical, yes, transformation in Palestinian political culture, there’s no prospect for peace.