By Stan Crock When President Bush gives his State of the Union speech on Jan. 20, he's likely to argue that the nation's security, like its economy, has been strengthened on his watch. The reason: the invasion of Iraq. The toppling of Saddam Hussein not only set up a beacon for democracy in a region rife with authoritarian governments but it also sent a warning to nations developing weapons of mass destruction: Knock it off, or face the consequences.
Administration officials believe the boldness of the war against Iraq prompted Iran and Libya to agree to end their nuclear weapons programs and prodded North Korea into pledging to freeze its operations for generating weapons-grade nuclear material.
"COMPLETE ANTI-CLINTON." Bush first laid the policy out in his National Security Strategy, the controversial September, 2002, document that made it clear "we're going to be preeminent," says one Administration official. "There are a number of things we won't accept, and if you do them, you're going to get whacked. It was the complete anti-Clinton. Then you whack a couple of guys. If you're one of the bad guys, I think you take that pretty seriously."
The proof? It's self-evident, says this official, who doesn't always stick to the Administration line. Then he adds: "Just because the White House says it, doesn't mean it's untrue."
I don't know about untrue, but any clear connection between the Iraq invasion and the recent behavior of Libya, Iran, and North Korea is vastly overstated, in my view. Let's look at Libya. It first began talks aimed at improving relations with the U.S. years ago with the Clinton Administration. Pummeled economically by sanctions, Tripoli felt compelled to put the downing of Pan Am flight 103 behind it ASAP.
"PATENTLY SILLY." Admitting involvement and making a financial settlement with the victims' families would go a long way toward ending the sanctions, Libyan strongman Muammar Kaddafi figured. And such a settlement was reached in 2002, long before the Iraq operation. But that wasn't enough to get sanctions lifted, and Kaddafi "wasn't going to give up all that money...and still be subject to sanctions," says James B. Steinberg, former deputy national security adviser in the Clinton Administration. Kaddafi also had to end WMD programs. Thus, suggesting Iraqi Freedom was behind this is "patently silly," Steinberg says.
The Bush Administration is underplaying the role of engagement and diplomacy in foreign policy success. Contrast Iran and North Korea. Iran's decision to come clean on its nukes came out of long, patient negotiations with the Europeans -- and the clear message that improved relations, including trade, with the Euros hinged on Iranian compliance with tough weapons inspections.
No such negotiations have taken place yet between North Korea and the U.S. or even China. And if Team Bush doesn't combine U.S. clout with more skillful engagement and diplomacy, North Korea may feel it needs weapons more than ever. The final outcome could be a North Korea with ever more nukes and nuclear material. The invasion of Iraq has not yet produced a breakthrough on the Eastern front.
HARDER TO WHACK? This isn't to say that what has happened in Iraq was irrelevant. It may have made a difference at the margins. Iran may feel surrounded, with U.S. occupying forces in Iraq as well as some troops in Afghanistan. The Europeans might have put on its full-court diplomatic press for fear that Washington's wild men otherwise would do something reckless. Libya certainly is wary of American power.
On the other hand, these countries could just as easily have calculated that with so many U.S. troops tied down in Iraq and other countries around the globe, the chance of getting whacked any time soon actually is smaller rather than greater.
The Bush Administration must realize, however, that GI camouflage fatigues go hand in hand on the world stage with diplomatic suits. "I don't think this Administration has learned that lesson," says Ivo H. Daalder, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton Administration and now a senior fellow at Brookings. Yes, stronger military might help make the U.S. safer, but a combination of military might and deft diplomacy will make it safer still. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online