Bush’s Foreign-Policy Strategy: Is the Revolution Over?

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
James M. Lindsay

October 14, 2005

Throughout his first term in office, George W. Bush broke with traditional American foreign-policy practices and challenged the norms of international relations. He walked away from treaties his predecessors had signed. He questioned the utility of the United Nations and other international institutions. And he was quick to resort to military force, going so far as launching a preventive war against Iraq.

Foreign policy in Bush’s second term looks kinder and gentler. The president has visited Europe four times this year in a bid “to remind people that the world is better off, America is better off, Europe is better off, when we work together.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured the Senate during her confirmation hearings that “the time for diplomacy is now.”

And in dealing with nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea—Iraq’s companions on the president’s “axis of evil” list—Bush has opted for negotiations over the use of force. That is a far cry from the Washington buzz earlier this year that military action against Iran might soon be in the offing.

It is tempting to conclude that the administration has changed course because it rethought its assumptions about the way the world works. But the differences in the second term have less to do with personal epiphanies than with confronting the consequences of decisions made during the first term.

Abroad, the president has discovered that other countries are pushing back at what they see as an arrogant and overbearing America. At home, the man who prides himself on spending his “political capital” finds he has overdrawn his bank account, with an increasing number of Americans questioning not only the war in Iraq, but also his domestic leadership post-Katrina. That has left the president with little room to maneuver on foreign policy.

The administration might get a boost if large numbers of Sunnis do the unexpected and join with Shiites and Kurds to approve a new Iraqi constitution this weekend. But any sense of triumph is likely to be short-lived; Iraqis remain deeply divided over the fundamental questions of how power and resources will be shared, so the insurgency that has already claimed so many Iraqi and American lives is bound to continue unabated.

The truth is that the Bush revolution that reached its apex with the U.S. invasion of Iraq almost surely also ended there.

Launching Revolution

The Bush revolution in foreign policy, at its core, was about unleashing America’s unrivaled power to shape the world in its favor. The president and his advisers saw themselves correcting earlier failures to make the most of the primacy the United States gained with the Cold War’s end.

The urge to flex America’s muscles rested on several beliefs: America’s power was enough to make our country secure. International institutions were vehicles that Lilliputians used to tie down the American Gulliver, not tools for amplifying American influence. And, last, the United States was a uniquely just Great Power, so the reassertion of American authority would be welcomed, not resisted.

The administration’s decision to scuttle the Kyoto Protocol and other international agreements upon first coming to office reflected those theories. But Iraq is where those beliefs would get their biggest test.

Even when it became obvious that most of the world—angered by our dismissiveness of their interests and concerns—wouldn’t follow us into Iraq, the president pushed on in the belief that his opponents would eventually rally to his side. And if they did not, he reasoned, it wouldn’t matter. “At some point, we may be the only ones left,” the president told then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. “That’s OK with me. We are America.”

In the End, Isolation

By the start of Bush’s second term, America did, in many ways, stand alone. In France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, fewer than half of those polled viewed the United States favorably. And in much of the Muslim world, Osama bin Laden was viewed far more favorably than Bush.

The most visible manifestation of American isolation came in Iraq, where a deadly insurgency frustrated Washington’s political and military aims. Many of the countries that participated in the occupation have brought their troops home, and no Arab country has been willing to send an ambassador to Baghdad. What’s more, the war turned a country with tenuous links to global terrorism into a training ground for a new generation of jihadists.

The costs have been great—85 percent of the foreign troops (and 90 percent of those who have died) are American, as is 95 percent of foreign aid flowing into Iraq. The U.S. Army is over-stretched, and the National Guard and reserves may be at the breaking point. Not only were there not enough National Guard soldiers in the South when Katrina struck, but much of the equipment of those who remained had been shipped to Iraq.

Nothing underscores our isolation in Iraq more than the absence of any foreign involvement in trying to broker a peace. Arab and Muslim governments have largely stood by as Iraq has been torn asunder. The United Nations has played an important role in helping to conduct elections but otherwise has remained absent from the country since its headquarters there were bombed more than two years ago. And, outside of Great Britain, none of America’s allies has offered significant help.

While our friends in Europe, Asia and elsewhere recognize that the situation in Iraq is grave, all too many of them do not mind that Washington is paying a stiff price for its hubris.

While our friends in Europe, Asia and elsewhere recognize that the situation in Iraq is grave, all too many of them do not mind that Washington is paying a stiff price for its hubris.

But the costs of war go beyond Iraq, and now have undermined Bush’s strategy for remaking the world. Consider Iran and North Korea.

When asked after Saddam Hussein was toppled what Iran should think, one top administration official said, “Take a number.” There hasn’t been much talk about using force recently. Instead, the president traveled to Europe earlier this year to express his full support for a European effort to negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear aspirations. He even indicated that Washington would welcome an agreement and reward Iran with economic concessions.

As for North Korea, Bush early on dismissed its leader as a “pygmy” with whom Washington could do no business. America’s Asian allies, however, urged Washington to join multilateral talks involving both Koreas and their key neighbors. These talks went nowhere during the first two years—not least because the administration refused to negotiate. That changed last month, when U.S. negotiators compromised on key points to come up with a set of principles not all that different from the kind of agreement top officials had long disparaged.

Many credit Rice and her new staff at the State Department for changing the administration’s foreign policy, and especially for the deal with North Korea. It is true that she has helped State regain influence it lost under Powell. But the general orientation of Bush’s national-security team changed little from the first term to the second. Rice is to the right of Powell. And no one suggests that Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney or, most important, Bush, has changed his worldview.

The president’s nomination in March of John Bolton, who has been critical of the United Nations, to be U.N. ambassador is just one piece of evidence that Bush is not retreating from his view of America’s role in the world.

That means it’s at least as likely that the administration’s recent moves on North Korea and Iran are not intended to repudiate what it tried to accomplish during the previous four years, but a way of deflecting criticism and buying time. Veteran Washington hands know that changing the tone of a policy often can salvage its substance.

The North Korean agreement, for example, has blunted charges in Asia that Washington was not working hard enough to find a solution to the crisis. Meanwhile, White House officials can continue to hope that North Korea’s mercurial leader will soon torpedo the deal and thereby isolate himself diplomatically. Indeed, the day after the agreement was announced, Pyongyang disputed what Washington said it had agreed to do.

Similar calculations seem to be guiding recent administration moves toward Tehran. The concessions the White House made to Europe on Iran were modest. What it got in return was something it had long sought: a European pledge to refer Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council if Tehran continues to pursue weapons activities.

With the administration unwilling to give up on its policy goals unless it is forced to, the question is whether something, or someone, will.

Lack of Support

When the final assessment of the Bush presidency is written, it may well be said that the Bush revolution in foreign policy was brought to a halt by two women—Cindy (Sheehan) and Katrina. Perhaps galvanized by Sheehan’s protest in August, more than half the American public now believes that the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq. Moreover, in an ominous sign for the White House, approval for Bush’s handling of the campaign against terrorism has dipped below 50 percent for the first time.

The administration’s clumsy response to Hurricane Katrina has only compounded its political problems. The president’s job approval rating now stands at a new low of 38 percent, an unusually low number for an incumbent early in his second term.

This, clearly, is not the time for grand foreign-policy initiatives of the kind that marked Bush’s first term. Then, Bush could flex America’s muscles overseas and ignore reactions in allied capitals because the American people were squarely behind him. Now they are wondering where his policies are taking them.

Still, we also are unlikely to see the president pursue the more cooperative, ally-friendly foreign policy that his critics would prefer. That would require the kind of investment of time and effort in detailed negotiations—as well as a willingness to compromise—that he has not been willing to undertake.

Rather than a new foreign policy, we are likely to see less foreign policy. A president embattled at home and abroad will concentrate on those few things he must do to protect his legacy—like extracting America from Iraq and rebuilding the Gulf Coast—rather than on the many things he might like to do.