U.S. vs Them Book Cover


This is a book about a mystery.

It started not long after the September 11 attacks, when George W. Bush redefined the war on terrorism. From a targeted effort to prosecute al Qaeda and its sponsors, the president broadened the war’s scope to include rogue states seeking chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. During his January 2002 State of the Union address—in which he famously dubbed Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an “axis of evil”—the president stated, “By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.” Bush repeatedly reaffirmed this priority—in a speech at West Point that June, when he said, “The gravest danger to freedom lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology,” and later that year, in the National Security Strategy, which said, “[I]n an age where the enemies of civilization openly and actively seek the world’s most destructive technologies, the United States cannot remain idle while dangers gather.”

Many Americans welcomed these statements of resolve, as did I—to an extent. Admittedly, they were broad, but I believed they contained a more specific message. I assumed that, despite his rhetoric about “weapons of mass destruction” and “rogue regimes,” the president was chiefly concerned about nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists. (And, in fact, the president did later acknowledge that nuclear terrorism was his greatest concern.) I made that assumption because nuclear weapons can do far more damage than either chemical or biological ones. It takes a great many chemical weapons to hurt a large number of people, and although a potent biological agent could kill thousands, it is also extremely difficult to culture a virulent disease and deliver it effectively. Moreover, germ weapons can be fought with preventive steps, vaccines, and even cures. Nuclear weapons, by contrast, can be fairly simple devices, technologically speaking, and even a small atomic bomb can instantly wipe out a large section of a city, killing hundreds of thousands and causing trillions of dollars in damage.

This was a prospect more sobering than even the smoking ruin of Ground Zero. After September 11, one rabbi said that the only way to truly comprehend the devastation of that day was to take one death you had personally mourned and imagine reliving it thousands of times. Well, imagine reliving the destruction of that September morning many times over. Or imagine the chaos following Hurricane Katrina multiplied a thousandfold. What’s more, consider the steps the government took domestically after the 9/11 attacks—concerning homeland security, civil liberties, immigration—and magnify them to nearly authoritarian levels. Civilization—even American civilization—is a fragile thing. A nuclear 9/11 could be a catastrophe so great as to render the postattack United States unrecognizable—politically, economically, sociologically, and psychologically. In that sense, a nuclear terrorist attack is an existential threat—the only immediate one we face.

In ostensibly pursuing the specter of nuclear-armed terrorists, the Bush administration was aggressive. Quickly choosing to focus on Iraq, it rejected the tools of diplomacy. It went only grudgingly to plead its case before the United Nations and then mocked the competence of weapons inspectors, questioned the utility of the Security Council, and brushed off the concerns of allies. Repeatedly, the president insisted that no other country could be given control over our national security. Time after time, he asserted that we could not wait for a threat to manifest before acting—that we must not let the smoking gun become a mushroom cloud. Soon, impatient to remove Saddam Hussein from power, he ordered the invasion of Iraq.

Witnessing the speed of this process, the dismissal of the international community, and the emphasis on force as the prime tool of U.S. foreign policy, national security analysts agreed that something major was taking place. But what exactly was that something? To many, the administration seemed to have broken with decades of foreign policy precedent. Lacking a frame of reference, some called it a “revolution.”

Anthropologists of the Bush administration soon developed a lexicon to describe its behavior. They first classified the Bush team as unilateralist—that is, they noted that it preferred to act alone, unconstrained by treaties, institutions, or partners. This, they said, contrasted sharply with a bipartisan Cold War foreign policy based on alliances such as NATO; the grand Gulf War coalition of George H. W. Bush; and Bill Clinton’s emphasis on globalization. Its unilateralism was accompanied by a particular form of arrogance and self-righteousness, a sense that American intentions must never be questioned. And it was backed by a militarism that not only elevated preventive strikes to the level of a publicly declared national security doctrine, but suggested that force was the administration’s preferred modus operandi—not its option of last resort. Once it became clear that Iraq had neither weapons of mass destruction nor meaningful links to al Qaeda, critics accused the administration of being deceitful as well.

Each of these adjectives provided some insight into the administration. But, however accurate these pejoratives, each was largely descriptive, not explanatory. That is, calling the Iraq war a unilateral, military adventure justified by cherry-picked intelligence may be an accurate assessment, but it does not tell us why the Bush administration pursued such a war. Why was the administration inclined toward unilateralism, militarism, and deceit?

That was the mystery—a mystery made infinitely more puzzling by the fact that, on more than one occasion, the administration behaved in precisely the opposite fashion. For example, as the White House was warning of Iraq-generated mushroom clouds, as it was rewriting military doctrine to emphasize preventive war, as it was embracing unilateralism and brushing off allies like fleas, it was simultaneously downplaying nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran. In late 2002, as North Korea tore the covers off its previously mothballed nuclear program, the Bush administration insisted the situation was not a crisis. In fact, it explicitly foreswore military strikes, even though Bill Clinton—not renowned in conservative circles for his martial seriousness—had considered the same North Korean actions a casus belli. Bush, in contrast, argued not only that North Korea’s nuclear program must be stopped diplomatically, but that it must be halted by multilateral diplomacy led by another country (China). When Iran revealed at about the same time that it had a secret uranium-enrichment program, Bush officials maintained that the UN Security Council should resolve the problem. Which is to say, the administration went from being unilateral, militaristic, and assertive to being multilateral, pacifistic, and resigned.

What was going on? This was supposedly a clear-headed, decisive administration, led by a straight-shooting Texan who stated over and over again, “When the American president says something, he better mean what he says.” But when it came to the single greatest existential threat to the United States of America, Bush seemed to mean very little of what he had said.

To be sure, there were differences between the situations in Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—differences that the administration insisted required individual approaches. The most salient difference, however, was that Iraq was the one member of the axis of evil without a nuclear program. Even if you assumed the very worst about Iraq’s atomic capabilities before the invasion, the worst still wasn’t as bad as what was publicly verifiable about North Korea and Iran at the same time. The Iraq war, then, was not undertaken to guarantee America’s nuclear security.

Other administration initiatives gave the lie to Bush’s counterproliferation rhetoric even more compellingly. After 9/11, for example, the administration tried to cut funding for a program that secured loose fissile material in the former Soviet Union, one of the richest potential sources for a terrorist trying to build an atomic bomb. In addition, it set about dismantling the decades-old web of nonproliferation treaties and norms, going so far as to declare that U.S. nuclear weapons should have not only a deterrent role but a tactical military one—and that it hoped to build new warheads for use on the battlefield. Then, in 2005, the administration promised to ship nuclear technology to India, thus enabling it to build more nuclear weapons, a development that was certain, in turn, to motivate Pakistan, an unstable state with a not-insubstantial al Qaeda presence, to do the same.

What sort of counterproliferation effort was this? At times, watching the Bush administration was like trying to understand quantum mechanics, where light could be both a wave and a particle, causality ceased to apply, and the same starting variables could produce wildly different outcomes. Frustrated by such uncertainty, Albert Einstein had once complained that God does not play dice with the universe, but that’s precisely what George W. Bush seemed to be doing with U.S. foreign policy. And by 2007—with Iraq in flames, North Korea testing nuclear weapons, and Iran starting to enrich uranium— it had become a game he was losing, badly.

But George W. Bush was not playing dice with U.S. foreign policy. There was no “revolution.” The mystery was not intractable. His foreign policy was simply conservative.

If describing Bush’s foreign policy as “conservative” seems self-evident and explaining it that way seems tautological, that is only because conservative heritage is poorly understood. “Conservative,” used in its historical sense, has a far richer meaning than “hawkish” or “hard-line.” For decades, it was by no means equivalent to “Republican.” And although the term is used today by a variety of people to describe a variety of attitudes and positions—from libertarianism to authoritarianism—the fact is that conservatism has a distinct lineage in American intellectual history, albeit one with a bewildering number of offspring and a trinity of great-uncles rather than a single forefather.

Most observers looking to explain the administration’s behavior in terms of an ideology that accounts for unilateralist, militarist, propagandist behavior have turned to neoconservatism. Neoconservatives originally comprised a group of fervently anti-Soviet liberals who in the 1970s grew increasingly uncomfortable with the Democratic Party and ultimately abandoned it for President Ronald Reagan. After the Cold War, these neoconservatives became obsessed with a sort of American messianism involving the proactive spread of democracy. There are, or were, many neoconservatives in the Bush administration, and clearly they had an impact, particularly on the decision to invade Iraq, an action they hoped would help liberalize the Middle East. But their policies alone cannot fully account for its behavior. Most Bush officials, including many who are often labeled neoconservative—Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Bolton, for example—have little connection to neoconservatism. They are simply standard-issue conservatives, whose ideological genealogy can be traced to the mid-1950s, when economic libertarians, religious traditionalists, and militant anticommunists united to oppose a bipartisan coalition that supported New Deal policies at home and containment of the Soviet Union abroad.

In foreign policy, “conservative” describes a distinct attitude in which the world is conceived in terms of “us versus them” or “good versus evil,” with the United States assuming the role of a righteous protagonist facing a monolithic enemy. It is often an explicitly religious vision, with frequent allusions not only to good and evil, but also to God, Satan, and Armageddon. If virtually all American officials during the Cold War were anticommunist, this religious worldview made conservative anticommunism particularly potent and uncompromising. Characterizing the Soviet Union as an earthly manifestation of evil, rather than simply as an antagonistic nation-state, convinced conservatives that Moscow could not be reasoned with. The forces of good could not—and should not want to—coexist with the forces of evil. Conservative anticommunists rejected the bipartisan policy of containment, dismissed negotiation with the Soviet Union as appeasement, and even insisted that a nuclear war was winnable. George W. Bush is the direct descendant—indeed, the ultimate product—of this movement.

Admittedly, modern conservatives—that is, post–World War II conservatives—are not the first to cast American foreign policy in a moral framework. America itself was conceived in oppositional terms: It was the New World, as distinct from the Old World of Europe. It was to be a “New Israel,” in which settlers who had a covenant with God would be the vanguard of political and religious liberty on earth. Even as this explicitly religious narrative gave way to a more secular version in which the forces of liberty fought the forces of tyranny, America’s inherent Manichaeanism—its tendency to see the world in dualistic terms—remained operative for concrete as well as abstract reasons. After all, the new America was in fact surrounded by enemies—unfriendly Native Americans and competing European imperialists. The colonists had to rely on themselves for protection, and neutrality was the safest means of avoiding European conflicts. These foundational influences—an exceptionalism comprising both a moralism and a nationalism—represent enduring traditions in U.S. foreign policy.

What, then, distinguishes contemporary conservatism? Why is it useful to explain Bush’s foreign policy as conservative rather than simply as American? The answer is that the fundamental traditions of American foreign policy can be combined in a variety of ways, with a variety of strengths. Think back a moment to high school chemistry: Atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. An atom of oxygen is not made of different basic stuff than an atom of lead, but they have entirely different properties. It is the number and arrangement of those building blocks that makes an element harmless, or useful, or dangerous. What is more, certain elements may be helpful in certain circumstances and harmful in others. Uranium, for example, can be used in both medical research (that is, to cure disease) and in nuclear weapons (to murder millions of people). So it is with the building blocks of a foreign policy and its suitability for a particular situation.

By the mid-twentieth century, the American exceptionalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had become untenable. The threat from the Axis powers, the horrors of World War II, and the essential contribution of the United States to victory made it clear that American security was now bound up with the security of others. The development of nuclear weapons in the 1940s was the final blow, rendering the old moralist and nationalist conception of foreign policy irrelevant—or worse, dangerous. Cold War conservatism, initiated as a response to the perceived excesses of liberalism at home and the dangers of communism abroad, combined exceptionalist ideas into a particularly extreme form at a particularly fraught time. Whatever its benefits in the Republic’s first century, the belief that the world was divided into us and them, good and evil— indeed, us versus them, good versus evil—was a terribly inappropriate one for the U.S.-Soviet conflict. For one thing, it did not accurately describe the world, for as we later learned, communism was not monolithic, the Soviets could be negotiated with, and containment was possible. Most important, nuclear weapons had rendered traditional forms of military competition obsolete. Instead, international security required reaching some sort of modus vivendi with the enemy so that the world did not suddenly end in nuclear holocaust. Conservatives were not only ill suited to this task; they rejected its very premise.

The first half of this book is devoted to showing how, at the precise time when we needed to engage our enemies and to deemphasize military confrontation, conservatives promoted the opposite tack, deriding containment as appeasement, rejecting mutual assured destruction, and preparing to fight and win a nuclear war. The Cold War ended peacefully not because Ronald Reagan “won” it, but because Reagan, having taken the superpowers to the brink of nuclear war in his first term, stepped back in his second and reopened arms control negotiations, cooperating with a Soviet leader who, fortunately, had decided the USSR needed fundamental reform.

For better or worse, American security has only become more dependent on cooperation since the September 11 attacks. Although today a global thermonuclear war is unlikely, staying the threat of nuclear terrorism will require an intense degree of international coordination and, yes, negotiation with the evil empires of the post–Cold War world—states like Iran and North Korea. We simply cannot adequately protect ourselves by ourselves.

The Bush administration has rejected this conclusion precisely because it is conservative. Its insistence on seeing the world in Manichaean terms has led it, like its Cold War forebears, to refuse coexistence with evil regimes, to emphasize military solutions to problems, to shun diplomacy as “appeasement,” to scorn international institutions as unwelcome checks on American power, and even to view truth as relative. From its selection of Iraq as a primary target to its fumbling of the North Korean and Iranian crises, to its renewed emphasis on the utility of our own nuclear weapons, to its inexplicable apathy toward safeguarding loose nuclear material, to its willingness to sell nuclear technology to India, the administration has exacerbated the threat we face from nuclear terrorism. Its one inarguable success—the abolition of the Libyan nuclear program—was achieved only because it violated the very principles that have guided the rest of its policies.

The solution to the mystery, then, lies in ideology, and the second half of the book examines the Bush administration’s paradoxical behavior through the lens of conservatism. It quickly becomes clear that protecting ourselves from nuclear terrorism demands that we abandon a binary, oppositional view of the world. The Bush administration may be almost over, but conservatism is not. Republicanism was once distinct from conservatism, but they have become increasingly synonymous. The disaster of the Iraq war has apparently forced something of a reconsideration—the Bush administration has lately dabbled in talks with Iran and signed a deal with North Korea (alienating, it should be noted, many conservatives)—but one need only listen to the campaign rhetoric of the Republican presidential candidates to realize that the good-versus-evil worldview is now firmly entrenched in the GOP. Although the Bush administration is almost certain to leave office with abysmally low approval ratings, the American people’s susceptibility to a conservative conception of U.S. foreign policy will remain high because, culturally, exceptionalism is part of our heritage and because, psychologically, humans are hardwired to think tribally in times of danger.

Ideological conflicts are, by nature, fought at the conceptual level, often deteriorating into a cacophony of isms that obscure more than they clarify. Post-9/11 debates about foreign policy, in which neoconservatism (and any number of proffered alternatives) has received so much attention, have been no different. By contrast, debates over nuclear policy are usually narrowly focused, and its practitioners conceive of problems in programmatic terms—another weapon system, another arms treaty. Even during the Cold War, when debates about deterrence reached an almost theological level of abstraction, nuclear issues occupied their own niche, away from debates about human nature and our role in the world. Perhaps that is why we now find ourselves in grave nuclear danger with little idea of what to do next, given that the only way to overcome the danger is to understand the role that ideology played in cultivating it. We need to map how ideas have had consequences. Then—and only then—can we solve the mystery of the Bush administration and of national security in a transnational world.