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Commentary: If You're Not With Us...


Recently, some foreign diplomats have concluded that if he wins a second term, George W. Bush might hang up his Lone Ranger mask and turn in his silver bullet. After three years of clashing with international organizations on arms control, global treaties, and the charge into Iraq, he has at times seemed to soften the "with us or against us" rhetoric that sets teeth on edge in foreign capitals. After hanging tough in talks over North Korea's nuclear program, the Administration is now dangling inducements. In Iraq, the White House asked the U.N. to play a major role in crafting the new political process, and the U.S. has begun awarding contracts to companies from countries that opposed the war. It has all led to predictions of a kinder, gentler policy. "If Bush is reelected, his second term will have to be more realistic, more moderate," says Dominique Moisi, a top adviser to the French Institute of International Relations.

Don't bet your foie gras on it. Administration insiders say that, despite any shifts on his national security team, the President is determined to take a proactive role in the war on global terror. That means he would keep up the pressure on rogue states -- and on allies that aren't equally aggressive in fighting terrorism. Experts call the small shifts on Iraq and North Korea tactical, not a strategic U-turn. And if, as expected, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell steps down, his successor may lack both his stature and pragmatic bent.

Liberated from reelection concerns, Bush would be freer to be Bush -- a plain-spoken leader who believes that September 11 thrust the U.S. into a new era where traditional concerns about sovereignty and international consensus gave way to the overriding need to strike America's enemies before they acquire lethal weapons. "You can't afford to let threats gather," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who could succeed Powell, told BusinessWeek on Aug. 30.

This worldview reflects the thinking of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. But it's likely to prevail even if Rummy decamps and is replaced by a moderate, such as Navy Secretary Gordon R. England. The policy drivers are Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, who would still be calling the shots. "I don't detect any questioning of the basics" on Bush's part, says one Republican foreign-policy mandarin. "It's unlikely a second term would be fundamentally different from the first."

Ripples of Discontent

Still, certain realities may force at least some changes in a Bush Act II. No Administration can endure a setback such as the Iraq occupation -- a costly affair that has left Iraqi radicals in charge of major cities -- without consequences. At a minimum, the mess has forced the Bushies to ask for more Allied help on issues ranging from rebuilding to a U.N. blessing for the new political structure. The massive cost of the war -- some $124 billion budgeted so far -- is draining the Treasury and threatening GOP initiatives from tax cuts to Social Security reform. U.S. armed forces are stretched thin, limiting their ability to operate elsewhere. Finally, there are the suppressed ripples of discontent among traditional GOPers, who abhor nation-building.

One possible change: The neoconservatives determined to mold new democracies around the world could lose considerable clout. Former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard N. Perle already has left his advisory post. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, a key architect of Iraq policy, could depart. So might Defense Under Secretary for Policy Douglas J. Feith; a staffer in his office is in hot water over an alleged leak to Israel.

What's more, even if Bush can start to extricate the U.S. from Iraq by 2006, the challenges for the President's assertive policy just get tougher. Iran and North Korea, the other members of Bush's Axis of Evil, aren't the hollow military targets Iraq was. "Options for military force are relatively limited" with those nations, says Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, a GOP national security specialist.

As the turmoil in Iraq shows, military force often isn't enough to achieve policy goals. The Bush team acknowledges that and insists that it values diplomacy. But the Iraq intervention has alienated many allies. A Harris Poll in June found approval for the Administration averaging just 7% in both Iraq coalition partners such as Britain and Italy and war foes France and Germany. "The second Bush Administration could well face much more serious problems than the first," says Geoffrey Kemp, a GOP foreign policy expert at the Washington-based Nixon Center.

With hostage-taking sapping the will of some Iraq coalition partners, the Administration's best hope is a gradual U.S. troop pullout that begins late next year. Growing support for a freely elected Iraqi government could weaken insurgents' arguments that the regime is an American puppet. "The military is trying to provide a secure environment," says Rice. "But it's the political struggle that matters."

The next major flash point looks to be Iran, which Washington charges is intent on pursuing a nuclear program. Iran has stronger economic ties to the outside world than Iraq, as well as a more formidable military. That makes the likelihood of a U.S. strike against Iran's nuclear facilities low. So despite the risks that economic sanctions could backfire, some U.S. officials hope tough ones could slowly erode support for the unpopular Tehran theocracy.

Ambivalent Allies

That would require cooperation from European allies, who are willing to help -- to a point. They postponed a trade pact with Iran and backed condemnation of Tehran by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But they're not ready to follow the U.S. in threatening to strangle the country economically unless Tehran disarms. "It's not an economy that's on its knees," notes Steven Everts, a researcher at the Center for European Reform in London. The Europeans might support targeted sanctions on the oil and gas industry and tourism. But Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage told BusinessWeek on Sept. 1 that the U.N. Security Council has little enthusiasm for sanctions. He wonders whether anything can stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. "The dream of being a player on a large stage is in the breast of most Iranians," he says.

Things also look dicey on the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. plan to draw China and other regional powers into talks to pressure North Korea on nuclear arms has yielded few tangible results. And a U.S. offer of incentives to Pyongyang is falling flat.

Experts fear the threat of U.S. military action could bolster strongman Kim Jong Il's insistence on maintaining nuclear capability. "Dismantlement of [the] nuclear program would seriously undermine his power base," says Kim Sung Han of Seoul's Institute of Foreign Affairs & National Security. Bush will have to rely on China, which has kept Pyongyang afloat, to squeeze the regime. While China doesn't want a nuclear Korean Peninsula, it doesn't relish a wave of refugees, either. There's evidence, U.S. officials say, of increasing Chinese dismay with the North, so Beijing could come through.

Given the reality of a world of stateless threats and proliferating weapons, such messy situations are inevitable. But the Bush crew's hot rhetoric -- and the headlong rush into Iraq -- haven't made resolving them any easier. For every Libya, which renounced its weapons program, there's an Iran or North Korea, dictatorships made more paranoid by the fear that someone really is after them.

Strengthening alliances and persuading adversaries that they don't have a bull's-eye on their back may be one way to emerge from this box. Even the President's admirers among Europe's nascent democracies suggest that he may want to lower the temperature. "Bush has to be more careful and tactful in what he says," says Istvan Szent-Ivanyi, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament.

The evidence so far, though, is that Bush will try to hang tough, even as he is forced to make some policy adjustments on the margins. That won't set many hearts aflutter in Paris, Berlin, Moscow, or Beijing. But it is a key to understanding where U.S. foreign policy would actually go -- as opposed to where some would like it to go -- should Bush win reelection.

By Stan Crock


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