State of Confusion

President Bush has adopted one strategy for dealing with Libya and North Korea, but he outlined a different one toward Iran in his State of the Union address on Monday. It’s time for some coherence in American foreign policy.

President Bush's last state of the union replaces unrealistic democratic dogmatism with strategic and ideological confusion. This is especially evident in his statement about Iran.

Once upon a time, Bush held that it made no sense to expect or ask a rogue regime to change its behavior; such regimes could not be trusted. What was instead needed, he argued, was to make them into democracies-which do not wage war on one another. But as it turned out, such regime change is extremely difficult to come by. So the president is now willing to support oppressive regimes-as long as they give up their weapons of mass destruction and cease supporting terrorism. Merely a 180 degree turnabout.

This new tack, the one president Clinton followed in dealing with North Korea, has been very successfully applied in Libya. Tripoli stopped financing and arming terrorists and allowed the United States to dismantle-not just inspect-its WMD programs. But the country has made very little progress in terms of increased respect for human rights and opening up the political process. After some confusion and ambivalence, the Bush administration nevertheless removed Libya from the list of terrorist nations, lifted sanctions and basically welcomed it into the community of nations (although Washington continues to promote democratization by the use of nonlethal means). In dealing with the Libyans, the Bush administration adopted a pragmatism that valued stopping terrorism and rolling back WMDs over everything else-including promoting domestic political reform and democratization.

At this stage, the Bush administration is trying to make a similar deal with North Korea. If Pyongyang is truly willing to dismantle its nuclear military program, the Bush administration and its allies and partners are promising credits, fuel and other goods which would shore up the regime.

When it comes to Iran, however, the president is trying to have it both ways. Yesterday in the State of the Union, he asked the regime to both change its behavior ("come clean about your nuclear intentions," "cease your support for terror abroad") and engage in regime change ("stop your oppression at home") if it wanted to be readmitted to the "community of nations."

The mullahs have indicated on several occasions that they are willing to give up their nuclear ambitions if the United States signs a nonaggression treaty and otherwise shows that it will not seek to overthrow the government of Iran (again) by the use of force. By making liberalization of the regime-which to the mullahs means giving up power and all that they believe in-one of the prerequisites for allowing Iran to join the community of nations, Bush is torpedoing his own initiative. It shows what happens when you retreat from your old ideological position but have no clear overview of where you are headed.


Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Security First: for a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy (Yale University Press, 2007).