In President Bush’s world, you’re either with the United States or you’re against it. That is the context of Prime Minister Balkenende’s visit to the Oval Office this Wednesday. For rather than the normal give-and-take that occurs when world leaders meet, the visit is being held in order to give Bush an opportunity to thank the Dutch prime minister for his country’s steadfast support of the United States in the war on terror and, especially, for its contributions to securing the peace in Iraq.
For Bush, foreign policy is not only about the pursuit of American interests and power. It is also deeply personal. George Bush’s fight is (or at least once was) with Osama bin Laden. Remember “dead or alive?” It is with Saddam Hussein, the evil dictator who tried to kill his father. It is with Kim Jong-Il, the “pygmy” who Bush “loathes.” And it is with a whole assortment of other evil-doers. These fights are highly personal—and they are to be conducted through force of arms rather than force of argument.
If Bush’s fights are personal, so are his relations with more supportive world leaders. Tony Blair is a friend—and so are the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, President Musharraf of Pakistan, and Vladimir Putin of Russia. Bush’s best friends get an invitation to the ranch in Crawford. Good friends can come visit him at Camp David. And useful friends, like Balkenende, are invited for a meeting in the Oval Office.
In short, Bush relates to other leaders in the world on the basis of this loyalty meter. He has a very clear sense of who is loyal to him personally, as well as to the United States more generally. And nothing has triggered this loyalty meter more consistently than Iraq.
Take the case of Vicente Fox, the President of Mexico. Before Iraq—before the terrorist attacks on the New York and Washington—Fox was one of Bush’s clear favorites. Bush went to Mexico on his first visit abroad as president, and he rewarded Fox by hosting his first state visit for the Mexican leader. On that occasion, Bush told Fox over dinner in the East Room of the White House that Washington’s most important bilateral relationship was that between the United States and Mexico.
That was then. After September 11, 2001, and especially after Mexico refused to back the U.S. effort to secure a UN endorsement of the war against Iraq, relations with Mexico deteriorated precipitously. And Fox moved from the top of the Bush loyalty meter to near the bottom.
Bush’s relations with European leaders are best explained by his loyalty meter. Tony Blair stands right on top. He is not just “a” friend of the United States; he is, in Bush?s words, “my” friend. Blair gets to visit Crawford and Camp David repeatedly for having stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush since September 11, 2001. He’s been Bush’s closest ally in Iraq and has remained so at considerable political cost to himself. That is the kind of loyalty Bush admires and values.
Just below Blair stands Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar. Bush has felt close to Aznar from the beginning, as became clear when he started of his first European trip in June 2001 in Madrid. Aznar, too, supported Bush over Iraq at great political cost, and Bush talks to him almost as frequently as he does with Tony Blair.
Next comes the Polish President, Aleksander Kwasniewski, who in Bush’s eyes is the leader of the “new Europe.” And for good reason. “If it is President Bush’s vision, it is mine,” Kwasniewski said earlier this year. Then he sent 200 Polish Special Forces to fight in Iraq (one of three countries to do so), and now Polish soldiers will be leading a division there to keep the peace. Bush has rewarded Warsaw for its loyalty by visiting Poland twice and hosting Kwasniewski for the second of the three state visits he has so far held.
Then comes Vladimir Putin, a man who Bush early on looked in the eye to see his soul. Putin is celebrated in the Bush White House for having recognized the cold war had finally ended following the terrorist attacks (he was the first to call Bush on September 11), and for his crucial support in Afghanistan. Policy disagreements over Iraq and Iran have barely had an impact on Putin’s high standing on the Bush loyalty meter.
Finally, also scoring high are an assortment of other European leaders, of who Balkenende is one. Like his Danish and Italian counterparts, Balkenende is seen in Washington as a loyal ally of the United States and one who stood by Bush on the issue that mattered most—Iraq.
Notably missing from the list are the leaders of Germany and France, who despite their weight in European affairs, flunked Bush’s loyalty test over Iraq. They are to be ignored, if not actually punished.
While conducting diplomacy on the basis of personal loyalty may be gratifying for Bush, it is not clear what others get out of it. It is all well and good to spend a night in the Texas heat, a cool evening in Camp David, or an hour in the Oval Office with the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, but leaders who have done so usually go home with little more than fond memories. Because for Bush, the visits are their own reward.
To Bush it is self-evident that standing with the United States is the right thing to do. He will not change direction to gain the support of others, nor will he give them something in return for their support. Any leader who thinks that having supported Bush over Iraq, he might be more inclined to support them on issues they care about—be it the International Criminal Court or curbing global warming, to name but two close to Balkenende and most European leaders’ hearts—will be sorely disappointed.