Review of Richard Haass’s "A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order"

tags: book review, Richard Haass, A World in Disarray

Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution is Paralyzing Democracy and other books. He writes regularly for Jacobin and Consortium News.

When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, experts agreed that the world would soon be a more peaceful and democratic place. But with war raging across the Middle East and showdowns looming from Eastern Europe to Asia, Richard Haass’s A World in Disarray is a primer on how they went wrong.  Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the country’s premier foreign-policy think tank, so he’s in a position to know.  But his book is vague, meandering, and about as penetrating as a strand of overcooked spaghetti.  The only insight it offers is into how alarmingly shallow the US foreign-policy establishment has become.

Haass served as special assistant to President George H.W. Bush during the 1991 Gulf War and then as the State Department’s director of policy planning during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Unfortunately, the only effect has been to lock in a world view that is self-serving and contradictory. He writes that post-invasion Iraq “proved far less ripe for democratic change than had been anticipated by the war’s proponents,” as if people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had any interest in democratizing Iraq in the first place. (They didn't.) He writes that the Iraqi collapse led to the rise of “subnational identities tied to set, tribe, and ethnicity” and that “Sunni anger and humiliation stoked recruiting for both al-Qaeda and subsequently ISIS.” But he doesn’t mention the role of close US allies such as Saudi Arabia in building such forces up.  (By 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was warning that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”)

He criticizes the Obama administration for abandoning Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring because it would be “taken as a sign in Riyadh and elsewhere that the United States could not be expected to back its friends of long standing.” But he doesn’t explain why the US should be friends with such a nightmarish dictatorship.  He notes that in order “not to alienate the Saudis,” the US held its tongue when the kingdom sent troops to crush pro-democracy demonstrations in neighboring Bahrain. But he avoids saying whether this was a good policy or not. 

A World in Disarrayalso criticizes America and its allies for failing to put Libya back on its feet after toppling Muammar Gadhafi but doesn’t mention the role of Qatar, which joined the anti-Gadhafi campaign at Clinton’s behest and then distributed some $400 million in military aid to Salafist rebels so that they could spread havoc from one end of the country to the other.  It accuses Barack Obama of “an act … of omission” for failing to fund anti-Baathist rebels in Syria, when in fact CIA was spending close to a billion dollars per year.  Haass assails the White House for not responding more forcefully when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was accused of using poison gas in August 2013, but neglects to mention that Obama only pulled back when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper informed him that the case against Assad was less than a “slam dunk.” He says that the US should have proceeded regardless with a concerted assault on “important military and political targets over several days involving both aircraft and cruise missiles.” But then he cautions a few pages later that “the rapid collapse of the Assad regime [in 2015] without careful preparation for what would take its place would likely have paved the way for ISIS to establish a caliphate in Damascus, something to be resisted at all costs.” So why would a massive missile barrage not have produced the same disastrous result two years earlier? A World in Disarray doesn’t explain.

Finally, Haass is less than forthcoming about his own role in the great Middle East debacle.  He says of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq: “The road to a transformed Middle East, it was widely believed, ran through Baghdad. I did not share this view, but I had little opportunity to challenge those who did, given the structure of decision making in the George W. Bush administration.” In fact, he had ample opportunity when the New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann called him for an interview just as the war was getting underway. Instead of letting loose with his misgivings, though, he mounted a vigorous defense, accusing the French of “being disingenuous” in objecting to the invasion and declaring that Bush was right to proceed without UN approval.

“This is a way, I believe, quite honestly, of preserving the UN’s potential viability in the future,” he said. “We’ve not destroyed it. We’ve just admitted, though, that it can’t do everything, when the great powers of the day disagree.”

These are the weasel words of someone who had just gotten the nod to become head of the Council on Foreign Relations – which Lemann correctly describes as “one of the foreign-policy world’s plummiest jobs” – and didn’t want to say anything to queer the deal. Estimates of Iraqi war deaths from March 2003 to June 2006 run as high as 600,000, all because the Bush administration thought it had a unilateral right to disregard both the UN and world opinion in general. Judging from A World in Disarray, Haass still hasn’t faced up to the enormity of his mistake.

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