The End of Cowboy Diplomacy

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

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There is another cost, and that is the drain of brainpower and psychic energy in the Administration, from the President on down. Governments habitually overestimate what they can achieve and underestimate how much of their working day they have to spend on the really tricky issue at hand. Bush's aides say he and they can multitask--"We can walk and chew gum at the same time," says one--but the ceaseless need to make a bad situation passable is a drag on the entire enterprise. "If Iraq gets better, everything gets better," a White House official says. "If Iraq doesn't get better, there's no hope."


If the grind of the war in Iraq has undermined one plank of the Bush Doctrine--pre-emption--the complexity of global politics has caused the U.S. to struggle in its goal to spread democracy as a defense against terrorism. Some democracy activists give Bush credit for giving a jump start to limited reforms in closed Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia. But the White House was premature, at best, in its hopes for dramatic change. In Egypt, which the Administration has praised in the past for opening its political process, the government of Hosni Mubarak has launched a renewed crackdown against its political opponents. Lebanon, another onetime success story championed by Bush, has witnessed an unraveling of the coalition of parties that led to Syria's withdrawal from the country last spring.

Among ordinary Muslims, outrage at the bloodshed in Iraq and the excesses of the Administration's campaign against al-Qaeda--in particular, reported abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay prisons--has strengthened the appeal of Islamists opposed to the West. As a result, elections are producing governments more hospitable to extremism, not less. Exhibit A was the election of Hamas, a group the U.S. and Europe classify as a terrorist organization, to run the Palestinian Authority. In response to Hamas' victory, the U.S. has led an international ban on aid to the democratically elected Palestinian government.

That reflects a broader dimming of the Administration's commitment to the ideals of its once proactive freedom agenda. Despite occasional jawboning, the U.S. has put only token pressure on Russia and China to improve their records on civil liberties and human rights, which have grown worse on Bush's watch. A senior Administration official tells TIME that the White House wants to set up new systems that will use efforts at democracy building as a condition for foreign aid and as a criterion for judging the work of U.S. ambassadors. But some officials inside the White House admit that the Administration's attention appears sporadic, limited to calling for elections but then failing to follow through on the tougher, more costly and less glamorous work of building institutions that can sustain democracies. Michael O'Hanlon, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, says, "The Administration's top-down approach of assuming that elections will solve problems has been too simplistic. You also need educational institutions and economic development."


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