More than a decade since the 11 September terrorist attacks and the literature surrounding the War on Terror (WOT) has significantly evolved. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks came a flurry of hastily written volumes attempting to answer questions as to why the attacks occurred and who is responsible for them. These were closely trailed by texts speculating on the most effective – and ethical – responses to the attacks and later, particularly with the glaring coalition failures in Iraq, questions emerged related to where US strategy had gone wrong—assuming it had. And, significantly, academia had been blind-sighted and popular media eclipsed its analytical prowess in the attempt to makes sense of the changing international relations environment.

Yet, as the first decade of the 21st century drew to a close, academic treatments of the post-11 September world gained ground as realists, liberal thinkers and constructivists churned out theoretical and empirical explorations of the lead-up to and fighting of the WOT. Such a wide assortment of literature included critiques of the war, strategic orientations developed and deployed by the various actors involved in the conflict, the foreign policy decisions and implications taken by all sides. MacDonald, Nabers and Patman’s (eds) work entitled: The Bush Leadership, The Power of Ideas and the War on Terror falls into this most recent turn and presents a solidly constructivist account of the WOT which includes an assessment of the strategy deployed by the Bush Administration and the specific impact of Bush’s leadership. This work delivers on its initial promise to explain why key ideas in American grand strategy ‘failed to get’ in a world increasingly dissimilar to that in which the ideas first emerged.

    The volume consists of nine chapters from various contributors bookended by an introduction and a conclusion authored by the three editors. The chapters are not sewn together, but rather explore different elements and perspectives of the Bush Administration’s WOT. Some chapters stand alone, while others, such as Houghton’s and Rubin’s, find common ground. The inclusion of David and Richard Ned Lebow’s chapter that traces the US-Mexico relationship since well before the 2001 attacks, and the impact of post-9/11 foreign policy unilateralism on that relationship, serves as a reminder that the WOT produced effects well beyond Afghanistan, Iraq and the wider Middle East, though the lack of any sustained focus on Asia-Pacific limits the book.

The authors successfully link the ideas, grand strategy and leadership of the Bush Administration to the failure of parts of American war plans, particularly with regards to Iraq. MacDonald’s chapter on the (mis)use of WWII analogies by the Bush administration with regards to Iraq is compelling; the clear differences between the Munich Accords and Nazism and Saddam’s Iraq are clearly made. Rubin also touches on the power of ideas and Iraq, though in the context of the American-Iranian relationship. He argues that the concept of ‘rogue state,’ which so enamoured the Bush foreign policy team, blinded them to the obvious strategic congruencies with Iran. The reader is convinced that the constructivist notion that ideas and individual leadership matters a great deal in international politics is valid, though as a more realist-leaning scholar, I could not completely accept that all failures attributed to leadership were not more likely classical geostrategic or geopolitical errors that other great powers have made before.

If there is a weakness in the book it is perhaps Kitchen’s contribution entitled ‘Bush’s Legacy and Obama’s Conception of American Leadership.’ While clearly explaining the impact of both the Clinton and Bush Administrations on US foreign policy, it seems to forgive the Obama Administration’s foreign policy blunders – such as the “reset button” with Russia or the late turn to the Pacific; a region Bush spent much time focused on during his campaign and in the pre-9/11 period of his presidency – while unacademically condemning the Bush Administration for ‘stupidity’ in foreign policy making (p. 146). The volume is tightly written, well-argued and serves as a valuable contribution to the latest wave of scholarship emerging from a WOT that remains, in real terms, a victory unsung.