The End of Cowboy Diplomacy

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

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To accomplish those goals of democracy building, you need help. The biggest illusion of the Bush Doctrine was the idea that the U.S. could carry out a strategy as ambitious as reshaping the Middle East and changing unfriendly regimes without a degree of international legitimacy and cooperation to back it up. Though the Administration sought broad international assistance in Afghanistan, it largely shunned it in Iraq. As a result, while NATO forces are now relieving U.S. troops of some of the combat burden for fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, Americans continue to fight and die alone (with some backup from Iraqi troops) against the Sunni insurgents in western Iraq.

The practical costs of the last plank of the Bush Doctrine--unilateralism--may have finally persuaded the Administration to jettison that too. This move is being led by Rice, who is emerging as Bush's most visible and intimate adviser. "The President is more willing to listen to arguments in favor of utilizing diplomacy as a tool to fight radical Islam when it comes from her, because he trusts her totally," says a presidential adviser. Rice appears to have won some internal arguments--such as getting Bush to offer conditional direct talks to Iran and calling for the closure of Gitmo--but she has yet to pull off any major diplomatic breakthrough that could burnish the Bush legacy. And neoconservative allies of Bush blast Rice for pursuing diplomacy for its own sake. "When you are bereft of options, you pursue process and call it progress," says Danielle Pletka, a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.

Since joining multilateral talks over Iran and North Korea, the U.S. has failed to persuade Russia and China, who wield veto power in the U.N. Security Council, to agree to specific sanctions against either Tehran or Pyongyang. The gap between the U.S.'s priorities and the rest of the world's stretches beyond those two challenges. The war on terrorism has provided a neat ideological framework for U.S foreign policy in the Bush years, but it has distracted the attention of the U.S. from developments in other areas--Asia, Russia and its former satellites, and Latin America--where new international systems are being built without the U.S. as their builder. For most outside the U.S., the threat of suicide bombings is a less pressing concern than issues like health care, education, job security and the environment. The longer the U.S. bases its foreign policy around the single-minded pursuit of Islamic terrorists, the less influence it is likely to have.

Can the Bush Administration recover all it has lost? Much depends on the temper and commitment of the President himself. "He can juggle all the balls and still let his hair down," says Charlie Younger, an orthopedic surgeon from Midland, Texas, and longtime friend, who spent three nights at the White House this month. "He's an eternal optimist."

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