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|Bush's 'foreign policy stuff'|
|04/27/02 at 21:38:35|
Bush struggles with 'foreign policy stuff'
On a range of international issues, the president's record is decidedly mixed, reports Simon Tisdall
Friday April 26, 2002
President George Bush and his secretary of state, Colin Powell, have hit back hard at critics of US foreign policy in the past week, delineating the administration's guiding principles and objectives and listing its successes.
The counter-offensive was rendered necessary by a sudden upsurge in public concern within the US about Mr Bush's handling of some key events. This concern centred on Israel's flat defiance of the president's personal order that it end its military occupation of West Bank cities; on the extent of US government complicity in the failed Venezuelan coup; growing uncertainty over Iraq policy; and on the dawning realisation that all may not be going as well in Afghanistan as the administration claims.
Mr Bush and his advisers have become accustomed to criticism of their policies from abroad. But open divisions within Republican ranks over Israel and increasingly confident Democratic opposition in Congress after months of post-September 11 bipartisanship is a relatively new phenomenon.
In an aggressive, back-to-basics speech in Lexington, Virginia, Mr Bush restated and revived some established themes. Back on the agenda again, for instance, was the "axis of evil" that he first revealed to a startled world last January. He did not single out Iraq, Iran and North Korea by name this time. But when he described the "mad ambitions" of a "small number of outlaw regimes" that possess nuclear weapons, he was presumably not referring to Britain or France.
Mr Bush repeated his hegemoniacal mantra that, in the battle against global terrorism, "nations must choose - they are with us, or they're with the terrorists". He claimed for his policy a high moral purpose, aimed at bolstering "the dignity and value of every individual" in what, under American guidance, would become "a better world". And he warned that the US would readily resort to military means to "defeat the threats against our country and the civilised world" - without identifying the "uncivilised" bits.
There was a time, not so long ago, when this sort of language from an American political leader would be discounted abroad as mere demagoguery, aimed perhaps at winning an election.
The problem nowadays, the world has learned, is that Mr Bush really believes this stuff. It may be simplistic, superficial nonsense; it may be harmful to international stability and mature dialogue between nations; it may indeed be counter-productive, having the effect of alienating and alarming friendly countries and antagonising potential enemies. To non-American ears, it certainly sounds arrogant and foolish in the extreme. But it has become the "Bush doctrine" and as such, it is official US policy, and everybody has to deal with it.
Speaking to a Congressional committee this week, Mr Powell offered a slightly more sophisticated mission statement for US foreign policy. But only slightly. "Over the past year, the broader tapestry of our foreign policy has become clear," Mr Powell said. "It is to encourage the spread of democracy and market economies; to lift up countries that want to be part of that expansion; and to bring more governments to the understanding that the power of the individual is the power that counts - and when evil appears to threaten this progress, America will confront that evil, call it what it is, and defeat it."
And just in case anybody had any illusions about the raw US power to follow through on such words, Mr Powell went on to request a foreign operations budget for the State Department of $16.1bn for fiscal 2003 plus another $5bn specifically for the "war on terror". That of course is in addition to the proposed $48bn annual increase in Pentagon military funding.
Europeans and others can and do sneer at these Bush administration pronouncements. Ordinary Americans, mistaking such criticism for a more generalised anti-Americanism, sneer back with jibes of their own about appeasement, weakness and lack of moral fibre.
But such exchanges are not particularly informative for either party. The only question about Mr Bush's foreign policy that ultimately matters is whether it actually works. And by this measure, Mr Bush's record so far is decidedly mixed. Take some of the top issues of the day:
1. Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida, and the hunt for the September 11 conspirators
Osama bin Laden remains at large, to the best of anybody's knowledge. The US admits he most likely escaped its Tora Bora offensive last winter. As matters stand, he has lived to fight another day. The al-Qaida networks have been degraded, not destroyed. But they will take a long time to recover - and the feared "second wave" terrorist attacks have not materialised.
After initial success in uprooting the Taliban, things are getting increasingly messy. Most of the promised international aid has not materialised, the interim administration of Hamid Karzai is shaky and beset by enemies and warlordism, ethnic rivalry is resurgent, and the allies are divided about the role and remit of the international stabilisation force. The return of the exiled king was a bust. Meanwhile, hostile fundamentalist elements are regrouping in Pakistan.
3. The Arab-Israeli conflict
Mr Bush has been forced to reverse his hands-off policy over the past 12 months. But when Mr Powell finally got personally involved this month and the US stopped being polite and started issuing orders, nobody took much notice. Things are now far worse than when the much-reviled Clinton left office and it is unclear how the US can restore its leverage and lost credibility and help revive the peace process.
Mr Bush has spent much of his presidency ratcheting up the pressure on Saddam Hussein, raising expectations of a new war to overthrow the Baghdad tyrant. This has caused tremendous, unresolved strains with US allies in Europe and the Arab world. But it is gradually becoming clear, even to Mr Bush, that the US cannot act on this policy this year - and maybe never. Even if he were to disregard international opinion, the US is not able to fight a successful Iraqi war by itself without incurring immense damage, not least in terms of its economic interests and its energy supply. Mr Bush is reduced to talking tough and looking ineffectual.
Mr Bush has done well to cultivate a good working relationship with Vladimir Putin. One fruit of this will be deep, mutually advantageous cuts in the two countries' strategic nuclear arsenals. Another will be a big expansion of Nato and a closer relationship between the alliance and Moscow. This in turn has helped clear the way for improved US relationships with the oil and gas-rich countries of the Caspian and central Asia. He has also got his way over national missile defence - a plus in Republican eyes, a minus in the opinion of many others.
Mr Bush has gained a partly undeserved international reputation for indifference, or antagonism, to international organisations. He suffered black marks for scuppering the Kyoto climate change treaty, abrogating the anti-ballistic missile treaty, and - in the eyes of his critics - undermining the biological and chemical weapons conventions and efforts to agree international curbs on small arms. On the other hand, he has increased bilateral US foreign aid, continues US funding of numerous multilateral organisations, and has patched things up with the UN.
Mr Bush reportedly told a close acquaintance recently that while he liked his job as president, he found "this foreign policy stuff a little frustrating". Perhaps he should stop looking at things in such stark terms, try a bit harder to grasp the nuances, and talk a little less loudly. Nobody is in any doubt about the reach of American power. What is in serious doubt is the depth of Bush's understanding.
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