Bruno Carvalho is a graduate student in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. He previously served 6 years with the U.S. Army.
April 1, 2017 — Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era
By Michael Mandelbaum
Oxford University Press, 2016
485 pp. $29.95
Reviewed by Bruno Carvalho
Reactionary, expansive, naive: these are the themes that Michael Mandelbaum alludes to most often in his extensive look at U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Mandelbaum examines foreign policy from the end of the George H.W. Bush Presidency through the Barack Obama administration, highlighting the mix of wishful thinking and lack of focus that prevailed as the United States found itself unchecked on the global stage following the decline and eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Mandelbaum assesses several notable foreign policy failures: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion and the bungled rapprochement with Russia; the failure to instill democracy in China; Bill Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia; and the mixed record on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and U.S. attempts at nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mandelbaum paints a picture of a foreign policy apparatus beset by lack of interest and political cohesion, demotion in importance to domestic policy, and a repeated failure to understand key aspects of the societies in which the United States chose to intervene.
Mandelbaum’s early chapters highlight key points that set the stage for the later portions of the book: the U.S. insistence on imposing its ideals on other nations, a lack of a clear post–Cold War goal in regard to foreign policy, and the absence of a counterweight to oppose U.S. ambitions overseas. The United States was caught unaware by the relative freedom to act in which it found itself; Mandelbaum refers to this when he mentions that “historically, where their foreign policies are concerned sovereign states inhabit the realm of necessity; they do what they must to survive. The United States after the Cold War, by contrast, dwelled in the difficult-to-reach kingdom of choice.” With a policy apparatus built mainly to deter and dissuade the Soviet Union, the United States emerged from the Cold War determined to spread its core ideals of democracy and the free-market system. At the same time, Mandelbaum notes how the United States, having “won” the Cold War, switched its priorities to a domestic focus, with its domestic political class also losing the cohesion that the need to counter the Soviet Union had fortified.
Mandelbaum’s strength lies in demonstrating the results of a less focused foreign policy, with goals driven by niche wants and domestic popularity rather than actual strategic needs or interests. A case in point is his description of the Clinton administration’s Somalia intervention in 1993, which details how a humanitarian mission descended into mission creep that resulted in U.S. casualties. The resulting fallout would then set the stage for future American interventions to be casualty averse and beholden to politicians focused on domestic needs and approval ratings.
This pattern of shallow interventions would be repeated in both Haiti and the Balkans, as the United States attempted to export its political and democratic ideals into societies with little capacity for change. Mandelbaum draws excellent comparisons with the U.S. occupations in both Germany and Japan, describing how their prewar national identities and civil structures were instrumental in their postwar success. In contrast, when American policymakers intervened in Haiti and Bosnia, they encountered kinship-based societies with little record of accountable, impersonal institutions or rule of law, facts that were repeatedly ignored.
Mandelbaum adequately addresses actions prior to 9/11, but the book takes an interesting shift when he pivots to discussing post-9/11 foreign policy. These chapters are truly the highlight of the book, as the author delves into the minutiae of the American response. Pointing out how 9/11 reprioritized foreign policy for U.S. policymakers, Mandelbaum describes the shifting perception of terrorism from being a crime to being an act of combat as al Qaeda focused its methods on mass slaughter. This change set the stage for other U.S. actions of the time, such as the increasing use of targeted drone strikes, the extralegal rendition of suspected terrorists, the use of torture, and the National Security Agency’s domestic collection programs—all done in the name of fighting terrorism. Pointing out that in hindsight, the lack of attacks after 9/11 means that the terrorist threat may have been overblown, Mandelbaum frames this change as the United States returning to acting on its interests instead of its ideals. The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 is described the same way; in acting on its interests to root out al Qaeda and capture Osama Bin Laden, the United States failed to give Afghanistan’s government the tools it would need to succeed later, setting the stage for the corruption of the Hamid Karzai regime.
Mandelbaum’s description of the Iraq War and the continuous failure of U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process further highlights his overall theme of U.S. foreign policy shortcomings. Briefly describing Iraq’s history as a nation with kinship- and tribal-based societies, he lambasts the U.S. expectation that such a fractious country would embrace American-style democracy and freedom. The author details how the United States, in its attempts at post-invasion order, simply replaced Iraq’s Sunnis with its Shia population in the ruling structure, setting the stage for a sectarian government, reprisals, and the eventual start of Iraq’s brutal insurgency and civil war. Mandelbaum describes the Iraqi mission as one doomed to fail from the start—a “struggle between American will and the laws of gravity of the region.” The U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is similarly described as an attempt to force dissimilar cultures to accept American concepts of negotiation, acceptance, and rule of law.
The thread that ties together Mission Failure is the repeating theme of disinterested, unfocused, and mismanaged foreign policy after the end of the Cold War. Describing an American public and government apparatus eager to return to domestic needs, Mandelbaum paints a picture of conflicts defined by ideology and not interests; of interventions run according to fickle domestic popularity; and, perhaps most damaging, of underresourced and mismanaged missions, from Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In his closing chapter, Mandelbaum describes a “restoration” of historic power politics and declares the end of the post–Cold War period of U.S. preeminence in world affairs. Ironically, Mandelbaum describes this return to form as an opening for the United States to revert to its interest-based roots—a conclusion that may assure students of history but leaves us wondering, who will fill that vacuum? JFQ