Bush’s ‘Seinfeld’ strategy

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“In recent times US grand strategy has been guided by a new kind of doctrine, named after not its author but its exemplar: the Costanza doctrine”, writes Michael Fullilove, director of the global issues programme at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.

“This doctrine”, argues Mr Fullilove, “recalls the classic episode of the TV comedy Seinfeld, “The Opposite”, in which George Costanza temporarily improves his fortunes by rejecting all the principles according to which he has lived his life and doing the opposite of what his training indicates he should do.”

Mr Fullilove believes that the Iraq policy pursued by the Bush administration satisfies the Costanza criterion because it is the opposite of every foreign policy the world has ever met.

“The Costanza doctrine is all about hope“, he writes, “but when it comes to making your way, in New York or the world, experience is the better guide.”

FT.com readers were invited to post their questions on Bush the Costanza doctrine to Mr Fullilove. He answers appear below.


Q: Isn’t it more accurate to equate the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy to the Seinfeld episode (The Pez Dispenser) where George Costanza needed a hand in his relationship with women? George Bush thought an easy win in Iraq would give the US the upper hand with North Korea and Iran. Instead, the failures in Iraq have left the US, like George Costanza, with no hand at all.
Ray Betzner, Philadelphia, US

Michael Fullilove: There’s no question that for the ultra-conservatives even more than the neo-conservatives, one of the attractions of the Iraq war was the demonstration effect it would supposedly have. The idea was that nasty regimes (especially in the Middle East) only understand strength, and a quick victory in Iraq would make it easier for Washington to secure its interests elsewhere.

In fact, the effect has been the opposite. The blood and treasure spent by America totals over 3,200 troops killed, almost 25,000 wounded, and over $400bn. Most analysts believe the eventual financial cost of the war will be between $1,000bn and $2,000bn, but the cost to US prestige and influence is even greater. Five years ago all the talk in the corridors of foreign and defence ministries around the world (not to mention the Arab street) was about US strength; now, too often, it’s about US weakness. So yes, George Bush must feel like he has no hand at all.


Q: The current US policy on Iraq has certainly beggared belief. Truth is stranger than fiction. Before Gerorge W. Bush took office, I suspect no non-neo-con could have imagined what was going to happen in Iraq. How much substantive change in strategy has there been since Seinfeld’s - I mean Rumsfeld’s - departure?
Jonathan Lewis, London, UK

Michael Fullilove: There has been a major shift in US strategy, but it predated Donald Rumsfeld’s departure. I argued at the time of the 2004 presidential election that Bush foreign policy had, in fact, already moderated. The first sign of this change was probably the 2003-2004 rapprochement between Washington and Tripoli, widely seen at the time as the fruit of the neo-con vine but which actually demonstrated that Bush’s dream of cascading Middle Eastern regimes was over. Since then, diplomacy has been the comeback concept.

Washington worked with Paris to get the Syrians out of Lebanon, and it joined forces with Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo and Seoul in order to reach agreement with North Korea, a member of the axis of evil. Its Security Council diplomacy on Iran has been notably more consultative than its approach on Iraq. Bush’s rhetoric has not always softened in line with the reality of his policy but the general policy direction has been clear.

This shift has been accompanied by movements in the Washington influence game. Since 2004 the State Department has retaken all of the policy territory previously annexed by the Pentagon. Most of the formerly dominant neo-cons and ultra-cons have been stripped out of the policy-making process and now find themselves in the private sector, in international organisations, or in gaol. Even before Rumsfeld’s resignation, he had been replaced by Condoleezza Rice as the Administration’s most prominent international spokesperson.

I don’t believe this development took place because Bush changed his mind on the Costanza Doctrine. Rather, the failure of foreign policy adventurism in his first term has limited his freedom to move in his second term. He has also been struck down by the ‘second term curse’ which has hit so many recent US presidents: Truman had the Korean War; Johnson was emasculated by Vietnam; Nixon resigned over Watergate; Reagan suffered Iran-Contra; Clinton encountered Monica Lewinsky. Bush’s sorrows have come not as single spies but in battalions: Iraq, Hurricane Katrina; the botched nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court; the domestic spying drama; the indictment of Tom DeLay and the convictions of Jack Abramoff and Lewis Libby; the US attorneys saga; and on and on. All this has leached away the president’s support and political prestige, decimated his party in the mid-terms and turned Americans off the idea of robust action in the international sphere, at least under the current administration.


Q: Among Seinfeld characters, maybe Bush’s foreign policy is more reminiscent of Elaine’s boyfriend David Puddy than of George Costanza? In the episode you referred to, the reason George decides to do the opposite of what his instincts tell him to do is that he thinks his instincts are faulty - so faulty that they’ve made him a failure. Like David Puddy, though, Bush hardly seems to doubt himself. In fact, while most people see his foreign policy as counter-intuitive, he acts confident that it is divinely ordained - just as Christians have often said that the wisdom of God looks like foolishness to the secular world. And Bush’s religious beliefs are a lot like Puddy’s.

In a Seinfeld episode called The Burning, Elaine discovers that Puddy considers himself an evangelical Christian, and the joke seems to be on Puddy rather than Christianity. At best Puddy is pretty theologically clumsy, and more likely he just co-opts evangelicalism.
Mason Marshall, Nashville, US

Michael Fullilove: Bush may well have some Puddyesque characteristics. However speaking of his administration as a whole – and the experts in universities and think tanks who counsel them – I think the Costanza parallel is more instructive. Friends of mine in government in Washington, London and Canberra have remarked to me about the unreality in the air during the period 2002-2004, as experienced policy-makers shunted aside views they had held for years (and to which they have since returned). There are many reasons why the Costanza doctrine attracted so many followers at the time; one of them is that no-one likes betting against American power.


Q: I think your ’opposite’ theory is well proven when comparing the senior Bush’s reasons for not toppling Saddam in the first Gulf war with the junior’s decision to proceed in Iraq. In his memoirs George H. W. Bush gave three reasons:

1) He would have exceeded the UN mandate to expel Saddam from Kuwait and the grand coalition, carefully forged against Saddam, may have fallen apart (realising importance of international consensus and legitimacy)

2) He didn’t want to create a military vacuum by emasculating Iraq (understanding the Middle East power game)

3) He did not have an occupation plan (understanding the implications of national sectarian divide).

Senior, heavily criticised in his time, was vindicated by the son doing the opposite and failing. Do you agree?

Michael Fullilove: It would have been easier for George H. W. Bush to make a case for the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 1991, because Saddam had clearly violated the norms of international society by invading Kuwait. Twelve years later, by contrast, it seemed to many non-Americans that it was Washington launching the war of choice in defiance of the international community. Having said that, I think you’re right that many of the troubles associated with the current occupation would have been visited on an earlier occupation, too, so George H. W. Bush’s decision was probably prudent.

Your question also brings to mind the different attitudes father and son have exhibited toward the UN. George H. W. Bush’s approach was very much within the twentieth century US foreign policy tradition of projecting influence through international organisations as well as allied nations. In his first term, anyway, George W. Bush’s approach was not.


Q: It seems to me that Bush is more of a principled contrarian guided my the zealous pursuit of a self-ordained world view. Conversely, the character of George Constanza is an opportunist who relishes fleeting moments of glory in the course of accidental changes of fortune.
Andy Jobst, Washington, DC, US

Michael Fullilove: Sure, George Bush is not actually George Costanza. Bush is straightforward and intuitive; Costanza is tortured and indecisive. When they make decisions, Bush sees their simplicity; Costanza revels in their complexity. Bush trusts his own judgment; Costanza trusts no-one less than himself.

As a young man, Bush was by all accounts a towel-snapping frat boy – the kind of guy, perhaps, who might have hassled Costanza at high school. The two have little in common – except that for several years George Bush and his administration chose to adopt Costanzan methodology by doing ‘the opposite’ of everything their foreign policy training told them they should do.


Q: I’m not sure Bush’s policy has been the opposite of every foreign policy in the world. The fact that Britain, Australia and a bunch of others supported him suggests that he wasn’t alone! But to answer your questions, has Bush been successful - no! Having said that, the rest of the world is not a shining example either, is it? Sudan, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka are brilliant examples of international ineptitude. What would the Costanza principle suggest in these cases?
Vijay Raman, London, UK

Michael Fullilove: There’s more than enough self-interest to go around! Washington’s sins in Iraq have hidden the frailties of other great powers’ strategies on questions such as Darfur.

For example, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Beijing provides political protection in the UN Security Council to Khartoum in return for preferential access to oil. The Chinese have pursued their narrowly drawn interest in energy security with an uncompromising resolve that would be described as amoral belligerence were it attempted by the US. With the world’s attentions directed toward American overreach, China and others have largely escaped scrutiny on such difficult issues. However that is likely to change.

As I suggested in response to an earlier question, the Costanza Doctrine has declined in salience in Washington and elsewhere since 2004. Notwithstanding occasional Costanzaesque actions, the Bush Administration has recalibrated its foreign policy towards a more orthodox, pragmatic position. Increasingly, then, more light will fall on other great powers, who will be held to higher standards – as they should be.


Q: At this point in time the most important question to answer is not anything about Seinfeld Strategy but what we Americans can do to extract ourselves from our current dilemma. Two years of the same mess makers is just too long as they have the power to create more havoc than can be cleaned up even if the Mississippi river could be diverted through our foreign policy stables.
Dilbert Dogbert, California, US

Michael Fullilove: It is usually unrepentant Iraq hawks who reply to criticism of the decision to go to war in this way. We need to focus on the future, they say; namely, what to do with Iraq now that it’s broken. I disagree: the merits of the initial decision still matter. Unless we rigorously audit our past actions, we won’t know whether our analytical infrastructure is up to the task the next time we’re confronted by a system-shaking international decision – say, on Iran.


Q: Can the presidents have their cake and eat it? A small scale attack by the US on Iran would boost Ahmadinejad’s flagging popularity providing a diversion from economic issues and allow him to rally the people around him as he takes on the Great Satan. A quick, decisive and limited air campaign would demonstrate Bush’s resolve, improve the morale of the military and take everyone’s mind off the quagmire which is Iraq. Do you think both presidents can orchestrate it? And will Bush risk the escalation?
Donal Cullen, Dublin, Ireland

Michael Fullilove: A situation of crisis does seem to assist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his struggle for advantage with regime pragmatists in Tehran. But I would be surprised if Bush – in his current post-Costanza phase – were to initiate air strikes against Iran. Certainly, a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten US interests in the region. However it is not clear that air strikes would deal a serious blow to a well dispersed and well defended nuclear program, and such an action would create serious risks for America’s reputation, for the international economy, and for the situation in Iraq. If Bush ordered such an attack, he would most likely have to do so against the advice of both his secretary of state and his secretary of defence and over the opposition of the US Congress and the American public.


Q: You may style the current administration’s policy as a triumph of hope over experience. I would suggest that indicates your having fallen into the same trap as Bush. His errors stem largely from his total inability to see things from the others’ perspective. For instance, to understand why US soldiers were not to be greeted as liberators, he needed only to ponder how the residents of New Orleans would have reacted to Venezuelan military intervention post Katrina. Only in the west could the idea Americanisation of Iraq, or any other country for that matter, be described as a triumph of “hope”.
Dafydd Taylor, UK

Michael Fullilove: I agree that the administration underestimated the hold that nationalism retains over the human imagination. But I disagree with your implication that the world is united in its anti-Americanism. Yes, many people envy America its success; some clearly hate the place. But I suspect that most people around the world admire America’s energy, its democracy and its optimism.

President Bush squandered this natural advantage by pursuing policies, such as the use of coercion and extraordinary rendition, that seem to run counter to America’s nature, and by making it seem that he didn’t much care what the rest of the world thought. This creates an opportunity, however, for his successor to earn serious international goodwill by returning America to its previous path.


Q: Would you also agree that Bush follows another Costanza doctrine in which he claims It’s not really a lie if you believe it?
Kori C. Oztekin, Izmir, Turkey

Michael Fullilove: There is probably no limit to the applicability of various Seinfeld lines to international politics. However I think I’ll confine my comparisons to “The Opposite” so as not to give the impression that I’m an obsessive television viewer.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Michael Fullilove: America’s ‘Seinfeld’ strategy in Iraq

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