Now that George W. Bush has won the reelection victory that eluded his father, will we see a different American foreign policy? Many political pundits think so. They believe that the president’s preoccupation with his legacy will lead him to soften his hard charging ways. They will be disappointed.
Talk of how legacy concerns prompt presidents to pursue kinder and gentler policies invariably invokes the example of Ronald Reagan. That fervent Cold War warrior went nose-to-nose with the Soviets during his first term and then embraced far-reaching arms control agreements with them in his second.
This historical analogy leaves out an important fact, however. It was not Reagan who moved toward Moscow’s position but Mikhail Gorbachev who moved toward his. We see few signs that other countries, and especially America’s traditional allies, have begun to embrace Bush’s worldview. If anything, they are moving in the other direction. No sooner was the election over, then countries like Hungary announced they would withdraw their troops from Iraq in the face of public pressure.
The legacy talk also fundamentally misunderstands Bush the man. He was thinking about his legacy even before he took office. As he insisted in his 1999 campaign autobiography, A Charge to Keep, he had no intention of becoming president so he could tinker at the margins of policy. He promised to take bold and decisive action. He made good on his word during his first term.
Last week’s election results did not turn Bush timid. Quite the contrary. As he told reporters on Thursday, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style.”
A man who assumed he had a mandate in 2000 even though he lost the popular vote could only see his reelection as vindicating his leadership. He won 51 percent of the vote, making him the first candidate since 1988 to win an outright majority of votes. Republicans increased their majorities in both houses of Congress.
Meanwhile, Democrats are in disarray. Stunned by their loss, their main constituencies will likely convene a circular firing squad as they bicker over who is to blame for Bush’s victory.
The main obstacle Bush faces, then, in acting on his policy preferences will not come from inside the United States. It will come from abroad. Most important, will Bush be able to bridge the gap between what he wants to do and what he can achieve? He will begin his second term facing several difficult foreign policy challenges that lack simple solutions.
The most immediate challenge stems from the decision he made in his first term to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Despite lofty rhetoric about bringing democracy to the Iraqi people, the American-led occupation is in trouble and the White House is now hostage to fortune. It has pledged to hold an election in Iraq by January 31, 2005. If the election has to be postponed, or if it triggers widespread violence, the administration will face a crisis. It is a crisis that could deplete Bush’s political capital, as Lyndon Johnson discovered in Vietnam.
Bush also faces the question of how to stop the continuing nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. The divisions within the administration over whether to engage Teheran and Pyongyang or to stick to a hard line will persist. Those who favor engagement argue that the time is right to explore a diplomatic solution. Meanwhile, hardliners insist that with the prospect of a more accommodating Kerry administration gone, Iran and North Korea will now bend to American will.
One issue not likely to be high on Bush’s agenda is repairing relations with Europe. Washington may well modulate its diplomatic tone. Many White House officials acknowledge that continuing to lob insults across the Atlantic is hardly wise given that they want European allies to take on greater responsibilities in helping to reconstruct Iraq.
But a change in tone should not be mistaken for a willingness to pursue policies more to Europe’s liking. When asked at Thursday’s press what he would do to repair America’s image problem abroad, Bush stopped far short of offering up policy changes. “I will reach out to others,” he said, “and explain why I make the decisions I make.”
Bush’s ability to pursue his foreign policy preferences will inevitably be affected by economic events. Should the U.S. economy plunge into recession, say, because the historically high U.S. current accounts deficit becomes unsustainable or because oil prices spike to $100 per barrel, he could quickly find himself with no political capital to spend on foreign affairs.
But in the absence of such developments, American foreign policy during the second Bush term will be “more of the same.” Of course, John Kerry meant that phrase as criticism. For George W. Bush, though, it is a badge of honor—and a good description of the foreign policy he intends to pursue.
[The U.S. seeks] to portray Iran as a criminal enterprise, not just as another bad country but as a rogue state that is engaged in horrible crimes across the region.... We are moving from a position of accommodation to one of confrontation across multiple fronts.
There’s a very strong tendency in U.S. foreign policy to acknowledge and to congratulate for holding elections, even when those elections take place in a pretty unfair context.