The End of Cowboy Diplomacy

Why the Bush Doctrine no longer guides the foreign policy of the Bush Administration

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The dress code at George W. Bush's White House is cuff-linked and starch collared, reflecting the temper of a President with a reputation for no-nonsense, alpha-male decisiveness. That's why the 200 guests gathered at the White House on Independence Day were surprised to learn that Bush had decided to rip up protocol. It was an early 60th-birthday party for the President, attended by former classmates from first grade to Yale, and Bush was in high spirits. He waved to supporters on the South Lawn who had assembled to watch fireworks. They serenaded him with a hurried rendition of Happy Birthday. But instead of the usual starch, he wore a red-and-white Hawaiian shirt for the occasion.

Six years into his presidency, Bush can't be blamed for wanting a change. All the good feeling at the White House on July 4 couldn't hide the fact that he finds himself in a world of hurt. A grinding and unpopular war in Iraq, a growing insurgency in Afghanistan, an impasse over Iran's nuclear ambitions, a brewing war between Israel and the Palestinians--the litany of global crises would test the fortitude of any President, let alone a second-termer with an approval rating mired in Warren Harding territory. And there's no relief in sight. On the very day that Bush celebrated 60, North Korea's regime, already believed to possess material for a clutch of nuclear weapons, test-launched seven missiles, including one designed to reach the U.S. Even more surprising than the test (it failed less than two minutes after launch) was Bush's response to it. Long gone were the zero-tolerance warnings that peppered his speeches four years ago, when he made North Korea a charter member of the "axis of evil" club and declared at West Point that "the only path of safety is the path of action." Instead, Bush pledged to "make sure we work with our friends and allies ... to continue to send a unified message" to Pyongyang. In a press conference following the missile test, he referred to diplomacy half a dozen times.

The shift under way in Bush's foreign policy is bigger and more seismic than a change of wardrobe or a modulation of tone. Bush came to office pledging to focus on domestic issues and pursue a "humble" foreign policy that would avoid the entanglements of the Bill Clinton years. After Sept. 11, however, the Bush team embarked on a different path, outlining a muscular, idealistic and unilateralist vision of American power and how to use it. He aimed to lay the foundation for a grand strategy to fight Islamic terrorists and rogue states by spreading democracy around the world and pre-empting gathering threats before they materialize. And the U.S. wasn't willing to wait for others to help. The approach fit with Bush's personal style, his self-professed proclivity to dispense with the nuances of geopolitics and go with his gut. "The Bush Doctrine is actually being defined by action, as opposed to by words," Bush told Tom Brokaw aboard Air Force One in 2003.

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