Assessing the Bush Administration's Foreign Policy

My comments are intended to provide a mid-term assessment of the Bush Administration's foreign policy.

My comments are intended to provide a mid-term assessment of the Bush Administration's foreign policy.  On the one hand, we are told by some that George W. Bush is a warmonger bent on abandoning the international system of rules and institutions built up with the help of successive American presidents - Republican and Democrat.  Others argue that President Bush has drawn a necessary line in the sand between America and a dangerous coalition of stateless terrorists and rogue nations armed with or seeking access to weapons of mass destruction.

The first thing to be said about this debate is that, at present, it is an elite debate.  Second, it is not really a partisan debate.  This is, in part, because there are Democrats like Jim Woolsey among the most hardline of the hawks.  It is also because the Democratic Party - which controls neither branch of government - at present has no coherent voice on foreign policy.

But, most of all, it is because Democrats had eight years to deal with the challenges posed by Al-Qaeda and proliferating weapons of mass destruction and largely failed.

In the 1990s, the U.S. gained power and lost influence. Power does not always translate into influence - the ability to get others to make decisions favorable to U.S. interests.  In the 1990s, India and Pakistan joined the nuclear club and, we now know, North Korea was cheating on its nuclear commitments.  UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq were collapsing, and, by the end of the 1990s, pressures were growing to release Saddam from restraints imposed on him after the Gulf War. And a Saudi fanatic by the name of Osama Bin Laden engineered a series of attacks on American interests - without effective U.S. response. Recall the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the Al-Qaeda attacks on our embassies in Nairobi , and Dar Es Salaam in 1998 and on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000.  In many important respects, America was less secure after eight years of Bill Clinton than before.

The real debate, therefore, over Bush's foreign policy is not with discredited Clintonites or between divided Democratic Party presidential candidates, but within the Republican Party in the Congress and in the Executive Branch.  There are very deep fissures within the party between those who believe that the United States can best pursue its global interests with others, within institutional constraints, and those, who argue that our overwhelming power means we can strike out essentially on our own.  It is to that debate that I now turn.

The underlining assumptions behind administration pronouncements is that, in this new age, we cannot rely on deterrence to protect us - we cannot "contain" the new evil the way we contained the Soviet Union .  Let me suggest what is not entirely new about these statements and what may be quite new.

Unilateralism and pre-emption are not new; bypassing the United Nations is not new.  Bush '41 ousted President Noriega in Panama unilaterally.  Bill Clinton attacked Serbia without UN approval or support.

However, there are important changes that go beyond the administration's focus on rogue states and weapons of mass destruction. First, we are seeing a fundamental geographic reorientation of American foreign policy from Europe to the Middle East and South Asia .  This reorientation began, of course, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, but has accelerated dramatically with the U.S. military buildup in the region post-9/11.  Almost under the radar, U.S. armed forces are now present, on the ground, from Kyrgyzstan to Djibouti .

Second, this administration, and particularly the Secretary of Defense, has a different view of wartime coalitions. Secretary Rumsfeld talks about the mission defining the coalition-not the reverse.  He does not want to be restrained by coalition partners but rather wants to put together "coalitions of the willing" to accomplish specific goals.

We know that the Bush Administration can wage war well - what we don't know, as yet, whether it can do peace well. Can George W. Bush translate power into influence?  The early evidence is not good.

Israelis and Palestinians kill each other with abandon without American interference.  North Korea marches toward nuclear weapons while we argue among ourselves about who will sit at the negotiating table.  Today, in country after country, majorities fear American power more than they fear anything else.  Virtually every alliance the United States has is in shambles, as leaders adjust their policies to accommodate massive popular distrust of America . The tremendous global goodwill generated by 9/11 has been flushed away by Bush Administration rhetoric and actions.

For example, in 2000, 52 percent of Turks had a favorable view of the United States .  By 2002 this had fallen to 30 percent and, before the Iraq War, had dropped to 12 percent or lower.  This precipitous decline in Turkish popular support for the United States could have had terrible consequences for U.S. goals in Iraq if we had needed the 4th Infantry Division that was supposed to have entered Northern Iraq through Turkey (but had to be re-routed because of the negative vote in the Turkish parliament).  

Our failures in international public diplomacy translated into failure to build a UN- supported coalition against Saddam. The Financial Times of London had it right,  "The measure of this diplomatic fiasco is that a perfectly arguable case about one of the most despicable dictators of modern times was so mishandled that international public opinion came to worry more about the misuse of U.S. power than about Saddam Hussein."

How can one best explain this dichotomy between an administration that conducts war with such dramatic effectiveness, and yet seems incapable of effective coalition building, alliance maintenance, and peace making?