The surprise attack of September 11 brought about, in the eyes of many learned observers, a radical shift in American national security policy. Since World War II and up until the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a policy of containment and deterrence. During the 1990s, in the wake of the collapse, there was a feeling that democracy and capitalism would eventually triumph everywhere; the Clinton administration reasoned that the US "only needed to engage and the rest of the world would enlarge the process."
In response the 9/11 attack the Bush administration formulated a new strategy, outlined in the national security speech at West Point on June 1, 2002. This speech called for a new strategy which looked like a departure from American tradition. The key elements of this new strategy were preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony. In the beginning, it was little noticed; however, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, people began to examine this strategy more closely.
Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis, in this short and well-written little book, argues that this was not a new policy, in fact it had deep roots in American history that go back to the earliest days of the republic. Gaddis demonstrates that after the British attack on Washington DC during the War of 1812, the then secretary of state, John Quincy Adams asserted the same three principles. Preemption was the rationale for Andrew Jackson's invasion of Florida, the "failed state" of its day being a haven for marauding Seminoles, runaway slaves and profiteering pirates. With the diminishing authority of the Spanish in Latin America, the US sought to restrict the influence of other European powers in the Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine was a unilateralist declaration even though the US did not have the means to enforce it without the backing of the British navy. And in the end, the policy of John Quincy Adams was to be the predominant power in the Western Hemisphere, or at least on the North American continent - a hegemon in all but name.
Preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony was indeed a US strategy up until World War II. The US was seeking merely to assure its security by keeping the European powers out of the hemisphere. Most Americans believed it was a mistake to seek an oversees empire as the brief foray into the Phillipines proved in the early part of the 20th century.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt was forced the build alliances with the Soviet Union and other great powers in order to defeat Germany and Japan. It was thus necessary to forgo preemption and unilateralism in deference to the alliance. During and after World War II, the US took the lead in building multilateralism institutions - a multilateral system that not only ensured American hegemony, but made it desirable at the same time. Forgoing preemption gave the US the moral high ground, which it maintained until the invasion of Iraq.
The Bush administration's invasion of Iraq had all the elements of a grand strategy: preemption, unilateralsim - when multilateralism failed - and American hegemony. There was also an innovation to this strategy: there would be an active promotion of democracy in the Middle East. This idea swayed many liberals to the cause, including members of the media and the academic community.
The problems with this strategy became apparent after the invasion. They are too numerous to go into and obvious to anyone following the news. The mistakes made during the occupation leaves the Bush Doctine with only a few remaining supporters. The failure to enlist the great powers, not to mention many of the smaller powers, destroyed our status as a benign hegemon and jepardizes our moral high ground.
Gaddis does an excellent job of explaining the grand strategy and showing that it has precedents in history, better than Bush or anyone in his administration. However, he does not show that this strategy is justified, morally or legally, and he does not seem to fully appreciate that many of our friends and allies find this strategy frightening and repugnant. They do not call us arrogant for nothing.
Nevertheless, the jury is still out. Immediately after the invasion, it looked as though one regime after another would fall in the region, along the lines of the dominoes of Eastern Europe. At the present writing, with the Iraqi elections approaching, a decent outcome seems remote and a civil war possible. Yet, there are stirrings of hope and change elsewhere in the Middle East, such as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The upheaval in Iraq is also creating debate that did not exist before in Egypt and the Gulf States. The pendulum may again swing the other way and the grand strategy may be working inspite of itself.