Magazine

A Time For Realism And Reaching Out


Judging from President Bush's campaign rhetoric over the past several months, you might think the occupation of Iraq has been a smashing success. He talked of "freedom on the march" and, when asked if any mistakes had marred his first term, couldn't cite one beyond personnel choices. Vice-President Dick Cheney, too, made a point at every campaign stop of extolling the Administration's record in Iraq, recently calling it a "remarkable success story."

But the reality on the ground told a different tale: one of daily car bombings, massacres of Iraqi police, executions of innocent hostages by terrorist groups, and a situation made worse, in part, by American errors and misjudgments in the immediate aftermath of the invasion and during the months that followed. Now, with the election over, the Bush Administration will have to put aside the rosy rhetoric of the campaign and deal with those hard realities.

More than that, the Administration must face other daunting foreign policy challenges. Nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea loom large. The Arab-Israeli conflict needs careful ministering. And Bush must mend fences with deeply suspicious allies. In sum, the foreign policy team will start the Bush Administration's second term with its work cut out for it. But that also means an opportunity to pause, take stock of its mistakes, and adjust. Many hard lessons have been learned as the conflict has deepened over the past 18 months. Here's a look at what they could mean for U.S. foreign policy:

RETHINK IRAQ Sunny campaign rhetoric aside, the mess in that nation has already forced the Bush team to moderate its grand vision of spreading democracy and modern markets to the broader Islamic world. Both the earlier idealism of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and the blustery can-do pragmatism of Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have been humbled. From now on success will be measured simply by managing to bring some level of stability to Iraq. Says the Brookings Institution's Michael E. O'Hanlon, who tracks Iraqi reconstruction: "I think the Administration has become a lot more realistic recently."

Indeed, Washington is increasingly moving toward far more modest goals than it once held. Rather than setting the stage for democracy and free-market capitalism to flourish, it is currently focused on clearing out insurgents in Fallujah and other Sunni rebel strongholds. That in itself will be no easy task, but it would at least enable the country to hold an election -- if not by January, then sometime in 2005. Afterward, the Administration hopes to ensure that a sufficient number of Iraqi security personnel receive the training they need to keep a lid on the insurgency. With that much in place, the troops could start coming home, perhaps starting by 2006.

REVIVE THE POWELL DOCTRINE Put another way, it is time to shelve the discredited Rumsfeld Doctrine. Rumsfeld's vision of shrinking the number of troops involved in the invasion and moving toward lighter, more mobile brigades has turned out to be deeply flawed: The lightning-swift toppling of the Hussein regime quickly gave way to military backsliding and social chaos as too few U.S. troops were on hand in the aftermath of the war to secure the country. Now the Administration is reversing course. Washington plans to expand the overall size of the U.S. Army and is holding on to more heavy tanks and is buying the heavily armored vehicles that are proving to be critical to saving soldiers' lives.

RELAUNCH MIDDLE EAST PEACE TALKS Right or wrong, many Islamic countries and their citizens link the Iraq war to what they perceive as America's anti-Muslim policies and one-sided support for Israel. As Israel prepares to withdraw from Gaza, experts say it is critical that the U.S. refocus its diplomatic energies on brokering talks between Israel and the Palestinians. And with PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat ailing, boosting the risk of violence as various factions vie for influence in a power vacuum, Washington has a unique chance to try to build backing for moderates and energize talks.

For starters, the U.S. could begin to engage again by working with Israel and the Palestinians on security arrangements for Israel's pullout. If Bush fails to seize the opportunity, a bloody denouement in Gaza seems inevitable: Palestinian hard-liners are expected to intensify anti-Israeli attacks to make it seem as if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is retreating. That could prompt the Israeli leader to hit back in what could become a spasm of violence. "He is going to get out of Gaza," says Dennis Ross, a former Middle East peace negotiator now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But he isn't going to let Israel be humiliated."

REACH OUT TO ALLIES Sure, the U.S. is a mighty superpower, but that power has its limits. The Bush team has proven its natural distaste for working closely with international organizations and allies that may disagree with its policies. But Iraq demonstrates that not even wealthy Washington can go it alone. That's why Bush Team, Part II is likely to sound out Western European allies on decisions in Iraq and elsewhere. The U.N. will also play a role. As difficulties in Iraq mounted, the Bush Administration had little choice but to turn to it: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful cleric, wouldn't cooperate with election plans until the U.N. entered the picture. Beyond Iraq, the war on terror will require global cooperation on intelligence, financial tracking, and law enforcement.

REENGAGE AROUND THE GLOBE Given the threat of nuclear proliferation, the narrow focus on Iraq has cost the U.S. dearly. Taking a backseat to China, South Korea, and Japan in the Six Party talks over North Korea's nuclear program enabled Pyongyang to reprocess spent fuel rods and possibly make several bombs. Moreover, three European countries have begun discussions with Iran about its nuclear program. In the process, Tehran has forged ahead with the development of nuclear capabilities. In neither case has the U.S. taken the lead in putting forth a serious, detailed proposal that could be the basis for negotiation.

Washington says it wants a diplomatic resolution, gripes an Administration insider, but refuses to negotiate. Will that change in a second Bush term? The answer is unclear. The White House has promised to take Tehran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. To succeed in that effort would take intense diplomatic efforts.

The problem for the Bush Administration, though, is that diplomacy on nuclear proliferation may be too late in the case of Iran. That country, like Pakistan and India before it, may never be persuaded to give up its nuclear program. "Iran, I think, is a tougher nut than North Korea," says Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage.

Can the next Bush team make these crucial foreign policy corrections? That's a tough call. Many within the Administration are resisting change, to say nothing of the fact that Bush and Cheney themselves are the ultimate hard-liners. Yet a big overhaul for the foreign policy team may be on the way. If Rumsfeld leaves, that could help bring change.

A second term is not about re-election but about the history books. His first four years have given George Bush plenty to ponder. Whether he can adapt policy to the realities of Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and the Middle East is the issue. One way or the other, Bush will leave behind a legacy. His ability to learn from the past will determine how posterity will treat it.

By Stan Crock, with Lee Walczak, in Washington; Laura Cohn in London; Carol Matlack in Paris; and Jack Ewing in Frankfurt


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