Event Summary: The Direction of U.S. Foreign Policy

November 4, 2004

President George W. Bush may have a new presidential term ahead of him, but he will continue to be dogged by foreign policy challenges left over from his first four years in office, including the war in Iraq, the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a fractured trans-Atlantic relationship.

Experts at the Brookings Institution today suggested that Bush’s approach to foreign policy wouldn’t change significantly over the next four years in large part because of the Administration’s steadfast commitment to a worldview that condones unilateral action.

“There couldn’t be a greater misreading of what to expect in a second term than to think that Bush’s emphasis is going to be on pursuing a different course,” said Senior Fellow Philip H. Gordon, who directs Brookings’ Center on the United States and Europe. “The Bush administration absolutely thinks that they’re on the right track and they will stay on that track.”

Gordon said that Bush’s reelection was not embraced by most Europeans, many of whom have objected to Bush’s preemptive war in Iraq and his withdrawal from several international treaties and organizations. Still, Gordon said that Europeans will have to accept Bush because the United States and Europe still “profoundly need each other and continue to share common interests.”

One of the few Europeans leaders to openly welcome Bush’s reelection was British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has remained a committed ally in the U.S.-led war on terror and a close friend of Bush. Gordon said Blair’s political standing actually might have been bolstered by a Bush loss, which could have removed the “ball and chain” that Bush has hitched around Blair in the eyes of many British citizens, according to Gordon.

The situation that will dominate the president’s agenda over the next four years—as it has the previous two—is Iraq. Brookings Senior Fellow Martin Indyk laid out the options for the Bush administration this way:

“They can try to focus on the stabilization process, get the training in place for security forces, get reconstruction going, bring the Sunnis in, and create a process that would eventually bring on elections and democratization. On the other hand, they could end up pursuing a policy that could generate a strategic collapse, in which case we have a Vietnam scenario, and will be forced to withdraw with our tail between our legs. There are little options between the two.”

Although the administration’s difficulties in Iraq may mirror those during Bush’s first term, Bush could confront new dilemmas in both Iran and North Korea, two countries that flexed their nuclear muscles over the past four years.

With Iran, Indyk said, the administration “needs to bite the bullet here and confront the problem.” Thus far, the administration has largely left the problem of Iran to the Europeans. Indyk said that the Europeans would not take a hard line against Iran, leaving the United States to engage Iranians directly. “It’s not a simple choice,” Indyk said, adding that a pre-emptive strike against Iran is always a possibility, and the mere mention of military action could force Iranians to the negotiating table.

Brookings Senior Fellow Richard C. Bush said that, despite tense and threatening moments between North Korea and the United States over the past four years, North Koreans may actually embrace Bush’s victory.

“Think about it: The Bush administration has put them in a pretty good situation,” Bush said. Bush, who directs Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at Brookings, said “the administration’s rigid approach to six-party talks has divided the United States from our allies and friends.[North Korea] understands that force by the United States is not an option?We’re withdrawing our troops from South Korea. Alienation towards the United States amongst South Koreans is increasing. And all the while North Korea continues to build nuclear weapons without any cost at all?Kerry, on the other hand, may have pushed them to make choices that are difficult for them to make.”

With the health of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in jeopardy, Indyk said that the potential existed for progress on the Middle East road map during Bush’s second term, although it would take strong leadership from the president.

“If the president wants to make peace in the Middle East his legacy, than everybody else will fall into place,” Indyk said. “At one point he made a personal commitment to this?but he has never been willing to translate the personal commitment and the nice rhetoric of speeches into actual direct engagement and making sure that his administration follows through on it.”

In stark contrast to the administrations of the last twenty years, experts agreed that Russia would not figure prominently in Bush’s second term.

“Russia probably didn’t even make the ‘Top Ten List’ of key issues in the last Bush administration,” said Brookings Senior Fellow Fiona Hill. Russian President Vladimir Putin backed Bush’s reelection, even declaring his support publicly before Election Day, in large part due to the hands-off policy adopted by the administration towards Moscow. In many ways, Hill said, Putin has “taken a page out of the Bush playbook by espousing Russia’s right of preemptive action in flashpoint areas.” In fact, many Russian experts believe that broad conservative strokes in both Russia and the United States are helping the two countries grow together, Hill said.

Since much of the panel discussion touched on the reactions of foreign countries to Bush’s reelection, with some panelists even assigning countries into “red” and “blue” categories, Brookings Senior Fellow James B. Steinberg made sure not to leave out Antarctica.

“The prospect of a significant reversal in climate change is low, and the prospects for the continued melting of the ice caps is good,” Steinberg said with a smile. “Therefore, I think it’s safe to say that Antarctica is a blue state.”