Very little of what has happened in American foreign policy since September 11, 2001, has been in any way determined by underlying domestic pressures or constraints, much less by the character of American political culture. The extraordinary circumstances of the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks gave President Bush great leeway to act. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Americans felt righteous anger, extreme puzzlement that anyone should seek to do them that degree of harm and a kind of surprised pride in the unity that was expressed by the millions of American flags that suddenly appeared everywhere (above all in that center of liberal America, New York City). The country would have allowed itself to be led in any of several directions and was prepared to accept substantial risks. What it asked in return was that the leadership be effective, as indeed it was through the Afghan war and the fall of the Taliban.
The Bush Administration used its popular mandate and took substantial risks, but to solve another long-standing problem only tangentially related to the al-Qaeda threat--Iraq. In the process it squandered the overwhelming public support it had received after September 11; foreign policy has once again become a partisan and polarizing issue. At the same time, it alienated most of its close allies, who have since been busily engaged in "soft balancing" against U.S. influence.
There were other directions the Bush Administration could have followed instead. It could have created an alliance of democracies to fight the illiberal currents coming out of the Middle East. It could have revived the economic sanctions regime and gotten arms inspectors back into Iraq without going to war. It could have made a go at a new international regime to slow down proliferation. The American public was not demanding any particular course of action after the fall of the Taliban, least of all a second long and costly war. There is no diplomatic version of predestination here: The Bush Administration has made its choices freely, and now everyone is living with the consequences.
Among those consequences are not only soft balancing against U.S. power, but a significant global rise in anti-Americanism. There are any number of structural reasons for anti-Americanism today, mainly having to do with the sheer size and reach of American power. The United States with a flick of its wrist can overturn a regime 8,000 miles away, while non-Americans are unable to exert reciprocal influence. This any president would have to contend with. But the Bush Administration has made things much worse for itself through a series of stylistic and diplomatic mistakes that one would have thought so experienced a foreign policy team could have avoided....