Six Months Of Bush Foreign Policy: A Report Card

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Does Not Play Well With Others

President Bush came into office promising to make life easier for America's allies and tougher for its enemies. Instead, he's making life rather difficult for U.S. allies, while its enemies don't appear particularly fazed.

The administration has alienated U.S. allies by creating a perception that Washington isn't much concerned with what anyone else thinks. Worse still, the Bush team has irritated friends in situations where such alienation is avoidable. Kyoto was the obvious example: In the end, the Europeans were willing to negotiate the terms of the treaty to the point of pulling many of its teeth, but President Bush simply walked away. Further, he failed to offer any alternative mechanism for addressing the problem of global warming. For U.S. allies who'd spent a decade negotiating Kyoto with Washington, the Bush position was read as stupendous arrogance. And they responded by going ahead without America.

On missile defense, the administration is sending mixed messages. The White House will consult with allies and erstwhile adversaries, but at the same time insists that it will scrap the current framework of arms control treaties if those allies don't consent to the scheme. That, and the administration's rejection of a slew of smaller agreements on issues ranging from small arms to biological weapons has sent a message that Washington doesn't care much about any rules except its own.

There was a similar reaction from Washington's friends when Bush suspended talks with North Korea, leaving the U.S. alarmingly out of step with its closest allies in the region. (It reportedly took the intervention of Papa Bush to get the President to relent and resume dialogue.)

On the campaign trail, W had trashed the Clinton foreign policy for its failure to lead. But the Bush team can't be said to be leading, either. Six months of Bush has left traditional U.S. allies as well as erstwhile rivals more inclined than ever stand up to Washington, and growing ever more self-confident about doing so. He's not exactly making omelets, but President Bush still seems to be breaking eggs.

Deals Well Under Pressure (With a Little Help from Dad?)

The major foreign policy test of President Bush's first six months was the Hainan spy-plane standoff with China, and he passed with flying colors. The President quickly scaled back his tough talk when the two sides found themselves locked into a crisis that could set them on a collision course, and allowed his aides to fashion face-saving exit that kept the relationship on track. Media speculation had it that Papa Bush and some of his advisers had weighed in gently at the height of the crisis, and if this is so it is to be welcomed — after all, the advice of Bush the Elder helps counter the hawkish instincts of Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld.

On a less dramatic note, the Bush team had on the campaign trail also echoed a free-market orthodoxy against bailing out stricken emerging-market economies, but when Turkey threatened meltdown in the spring, they backed an IMF bailout. Again, this prioritizing of pragmatism over ideology may be encouraging to an international financial community nervously contemplating the state of Brazil and Argentina.

Easily Distracted

Or to put it more kindly, intensely focused on secondary issues. Much of the administration's foreign policy energy has been expended on pitching for missile defense. But for most of the international community (and even the U.S. security establishment), protecting the U.S. mainland against an as-yet hypothetical threat of attack by intercontinental ballistic missiles is not exactly a pressing concern — indeed, it's as if the U.S. has gone off on something of a tangent. Washington will be indulged — what does Putin have to lose by engaging in lengthy negotiations over the scope of the system if the U.S. is going to build it anyway? — but not followed. In the end, nobody's going to try and stop the U.S. from building a high-tech Maginot Line. But we all know what happened to that. And the obsession with NMD doesn't necessarily inspire confidence in the administration's ability to provide leadership on more immediate global economic and political challenges.

Speaks With Two Voices

The palpable differences between Secretary of State Powell on the one hand and Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld on the other are so openly acknowledged now that they're joked about in public by the protagonists. There is nothing unusual or necessarily counterproductive about an administration making its decision on the basis of input from both hawks and doves. But when such disputation is telegraphed to a wired world in real time, it can wreak havoc with U.S. diplomacy. Does the administration regard China as a "strategic competitor"? Depends who you ask. Does the U.S. condemn Israel's track-and-kill policy towards Palestinians accused of terrorism? Again, depends whether you're listening to Cheney or the State Department. And in instances where Washington wants to send a message, this cacophony is not helpful.

Grades by Subject

Missile Defense: B
The aggressive push on missile defense has changed the terms of the international discussion from whether to how the U.S. builds such a system. And that's a signal achievement. Of course the Devil may still reside in the details, as Russia and the Europeans (and Senate Democrats) insist on a treaty-based approach rather than on simply scrapping the 1972 ABM pact that precludes NMD. And out there in the wider world, nobody really shares the Bush administration's enthusiasm or sense of urgency about its deployment.

Middle East: D
When Bush promised on the campaign trail to strengthen support for Israel, rebuild ties with Washington's Arab allies and put new pressure on Saddam Hussein, it was obvious to any Middle East observer that he was writing a hot check. The stronger Washington's support for Israel in the current violence, the more difficult it becomes to rebuild ties with Arab moderates or rally support against Iraq. To be fair, Washington has very little to work with following the collapse of the peace process. But the perception that the Bush administration is staying on the sidelines amid a dangerous deterioration of the Israeli-Palestinian situation has further weakened Washington's standing in the Arab world, and last week it was forced to call off large-scale air strikes against Iraq on the grounds that any positive impact these would have would be neutralized by the Arab hostility they would arouse. Washington has also been unable to sell its "smart sanctions" alternative to the U.N. and the administration's promises to invest more in efforts to overthrow Saddam are on the backburner because none of his neighbors take seriously the ineffective Iraqi opposition bankrolled by Washington. Good thing the oil price has stabilized.

Latin America: B
President Bush gets a B for simply having a Latin America policy, unlike his predecessor, and his efforts to upgrade the relationship with Mexico are to be applauded. But elsewhere, his nomination of veterans of Reagan's contra wars to top positions is unlikely to be well-received, and the floundering drug war — as well as mounting confrontations between U.S.-backed government forces and leftist rebels in Colombia — may soon be demanding urgent attention.

China: B
The positive impact of the Hainan crisis appears to have been forcing the administration to make up its mind on China, and despite the tough talk it appears to be hewing in the direction of engagement. Bush heads there in the fall, and despite apparently intractable differences on issues from human rights to Taiwan, these are unlikely to stop the administration from finding ways to coexist with Beijing.

Russia: C
Bush's enthusiasm for missile defense may be prompting him to elevate Russia beyond its strategic significance. The President treated his first encounter with Putin as a kind of reprise of the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit, telling Americans he had looked into the Russian leader's eyes and "got a pretty good idea of his soul." The comment prompted titters across Europe, not least because Putin came through the ranks of the KGB, an organization that doesn't exactly reward transparency. Still, Putin has been pleasantly surprised by the new administration's attentions, and he's quite happy to milk the diplomatic possibilities presented by the Bush quest for a missile shield.

The Balkans: B
Early slips have been quickly corrected, and the world informed that the U.S. has no plans to leave any time soon. Still, don't expect any muscle-flexing. Reluctant engagement in Balkan peacekeeping could become a policy crisis point, however, if Macedonia blows up. To be fair, once again, this is a quagmire bequeathed by Clinton and Albright.

Global warming: F
Kyoto was a singular defeat for the Bush administration on the international stage. It had hoped that by firmly nixing the treaty, it would force everyone back to the drawing board to negotiate a new approach. Instead, they went ahead and concluded a deal. Instead of leading, the U.S. now finds itself having to respond to the initiatives of others.

George W. can do better, and parental assistance will help improve his grades.