My Man Pervez!

How Bush makes foreign policy too personal.

Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush
Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush

Compared to presidents named Bush, Dale Carnegie was a slacker when it came to cementing instant friendships with a crinkly smile and a firm, manly handshake.

Bush Sr., of course, entered the Oval Office with the best international Rolodex since Metternich. By contrast, the inexperienced George W. Bush had to create a global buddy list the old-fashioned way: one world leader at a time. Luckily, this President Bush is blessed with an uncanny knack for dividing the world into white hats and black hats. After his first meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Bush declared, “I looked the man in the eye … I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

The Bush style is to overpersonalize geopolitical complexity, judging an entire country on the basis of whether its leader is tough, reliable, and can enjoy towel-snapping locker-room banter. For the president, the map of the world boasts individual faces rather than a range of pastel-colored shapes. Mexico is best amigo Vicente Fox. Britain is the ever-ingratiating Tony Blair doing his best Margaret Thatcher imitation. And Israel is personified by Ariel Sharon, a general so relentless that Bush can probably imagine him brandishing a rifle at the Alamo.

Bush is indulgent toward his friends, as Sharon can testify, letting them run their little corners of the world largely free from meddlesome American lectures about prudent conduct. But it is the relationship with Pakistani military leader Pervez Musharraf that best illustrates the limitations and dangers of Bush’s habitual cult of personality.

After Sept. 11, any president would have welcomed Pakistan as an indispensable ally. But for Bush, the personal goes hand-in-hand with political necessity. When the two leaders met at the United Nations last November, the American president laid on a charm offensive. Beyond the expected praise for Musharraf as a leader of “courage and vision” in confronting “the evildoers” (remember them?), Bush also revealed that the Pakistani general possesses “an education vision which I find to be enlightened.” At a time when the Northern Alliance was poised to capture Kabul, it is gratifying to picture the general and the Texan talking animatedly about phonics and standardized testing.

Musharraf’s image, both in the press and in the Situation Room at the White House, is that of a reform-minded military leader standing tall as our only bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism. This heroic portrait meshes perfectly with the Bush team’s one-dimensional friend-or-foe worldview. What makes this nuance-free interpretation so persuasive is that no one in the upper reaches of the administration seems to have had much prior firsthand experience with Pakistan. Take Christina Rocca, the near-invisible assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, who won her spurs as a Senate foreign-policy staffer for Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a legislator unlikely to be mistaken for William Fulbright. Rocca, who spent 15 years at the CIA, speaks four languages. Unfortunately, none of them is Urdu, the language of the vernacular Pakistani press.

Now that Musharraf has been anointed as Our Guy, he has virtually unlimited withdrawal rights from the Washington favor bank. (That is, unless Pakistan’s request for tariff protection conflicts with the selfish demands of the domestic textile industry as Franklin Foer recently documented in the New Republic.) When Musharraf arrived in Washington for a mid-February state visit, Bush personally rewarded him with a coveted “Get Out of Democracy Free” card. At their joint White House press conference, Bush gushed over the general’s “vision of a Pakistan as a progressive, modern, and democratic Islamic society.” But when it comes to free elections, Bush believes that friends shouldn’t pester friends for details. Empowered by the president’s bland indifference about any timetable for a return to democracy, Musharraf confided to Pakistani reporters, while in Washington, that he intends to stay in power for at least three years. Even now that the general has mandated an unconstitutional April 30 plebiscite to ratify his one-man rule, the administration doesn’t even bother to ask, “Is that what you mean by a democratic Islamic society?”

With scant curiosity about the internal workings of other nations, Bush is a natural believer in the Great Man theory of history. It is questionable whether the president understands, even now, that Pakistan’s leading democratic parties—OK, they’re corrupt—are secular and pro-Western rather than Islamist. But in fairness, Bush is only latest in a long line of presidents who have been gulled by promise-America-anything foreign leaders.

Remember that the supposedly sophisticated Bill Clinton invaded Haiti to restore that selfless democrat Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. Clinton, like George H.W. Bush before him, was also seduced by corrupt Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his three degrees from Harvard. Even as it was emerging that Salinas was implicated in covering up a political assassination, the Clinton administration was still backing him for president of the World Trade Organization. George Bush Sr. was not blessed with flawless X-ray vision when it came to reading men’s souls either. His long-standing personal ties to Manuel Noriega dated back to his days as CIA director, but all through the 1988 presidential campaign, Bush piously insisted that he never, ever suspected that the Panamanian strongman was involved with any drug stronger than Bufferin.

Hubris helps explain why presidents come to believe that they are capable of reading the truth about their international counterparts after as little as a single meeting. In reality, the shrewder judges of character may be the foreign leaders sitting across the table. Roy Jenkins’ new biography of Winston Churchill recounts a comment the British prime minister made after the war. “No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt,” Churchill said. A similar seduction seems to have taken place when Gen. Musharraf pulled the pashmina over George W. Bush’s believing eyes.