The Heart of the Bush Doctrine: The Middle East

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George Bush has grand visions of a truly global war on terrorism, in which the United States joins an alliance of far-flung countries, swooping down on the world's bandits. Bush aides have even begun calling it the "Bush Doctrine." Countries will be lined up, the thinking goes, in the good or bad column — depending on whether they are with this president in the war on terrorism or against him.

But crises around the world have a way of tripping up grand presidential visions. For the Bush doctrine, that political pothole comes in the form of Middle East violence. "The broad sweeping pledges made by the President have bumped into reality," GOP Congressman Henry Hyde, who chairs the House International Relations Committee, tells me. "There are so many smoldering fires out there that may require substantial attention at any time," such as Iraq, Kashmir and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "All of these, plus some we haven't even thought of, hold some enormous danger and could command our military resources at any time. And so to talk in terms of the globe, when it comes to ferreting out terrorism, is to bite off more than can be chewed or certainly digested."

This is hardly an unusual situation; U.S. foreign policy is often driven by unpredictable events. Presidents must frame their doctrines to deal with those events — and Bush is still framing. And he's quickly discovering that the success of his doctrine, or any foreign policy initiative for that matter, will hinge on how he handles the Middle East. "The Middle East is wrapped around the axle of every vehicle we are driving," says Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I can't think of any part of the world that doesn't have a Middle East dynamic to it."

Bush deserves credit for putting a foreign policy framework together quickly but "he's still developing the housing," says Hagel. "It's still imprecise. He has a way to go before you can say we have a Bush foreign policy." Sept. 11 forced the President to quickly cobble together a doctrine, with fighting terrorism as its core. "But I don't think you can build a foreign policy on that alone," Hagel continues. Terrorism is a driving force, but Bush's foreign policy should be "bigger than that."

His foreign policy will have to deal with the root causes of terrorism, such as poverty in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, Islamic fundamentalism and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Military might is no longer the sole arbiter; economic, diplomatic and multilateral tools now must be used to a greater degree. But the bottom line remains constant: Bush won't succeed in most major foreign policy initiatives "until there's progress made in the Middle East," Hagel concludes. "That hangs over everything like a dark cloud."

Other senior members of Congress, who've seen presidential doctrines come and go, agree. The Middle East complicates Bush's doctrine "a lot," says Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "It complicates significantly the actions we take or contemplate taking, particularly with regard to Iraq. The last thing we need is Saddam Hussein concluding that if we were to move on him he will direct the few Scud missiles he has with biological and chemical weapons at Israel and start a general Middle East war."

Broad threats in your foreign policy — like the recent leaks from the White House of rogue nations that could be targeted with nuclear weapons — can also complicate a doctrine. Says Hyde: "To threaten dire consequences for any country harboring terrorists is a rallying cry for the faithful, but it can bump into reality and be a lot harder to execute." "That's why it's so important that the President choose his words carefully," says Hagel. "When you talk about using nuclear weapons, that's a new dynamic that most presidents don't talk as openly about. It opens the President up to a lot of criticism and questioning about his foreign policy. He might needlessly be buying himself some trouble."