Bush the Bumbler

The real trouble with the president’s foreign policy.

Process is lost on him

There are three ways to criticize the Bush administration’s approach to foreign policy. The first way is both simple and simple-minded: Bush is the evil creature of corporate interests, pursuing militarized disputes merely to reward his cronies. Adherents to this line suspect there may be something to the conspiracy theory that Bush knew something about the Sept. 11 attacks before they took place. Most serious people—with the possible exception of Howard Dean —reject this line of argumentation out of hand.

The second kind of criticism is more substantive. It holds that the costs of Bush’s pre-emption doctrine—weakened international legitimacy, fraying alliances, increased global public hostility to the United States—are greater than the benefits. Click on any Democratic candidate’s Web site (including Dean’s) and you’ll find a version of this criticism. It will be with us at least until November 2004.

A third criticism has slowly emerged over the past six months. It agrees with the logic of Bush’s grand strategy, but questions whether the policy implementation has been up to snuff. This line of argumentation has less to do with substance and more to do with process. To sum it up, Bush’s management of foreign policy has been too detached for his own good. The president would proudly admit that he’s not a detail guy, preferring to enunciate firm principles and let his subordinates hash out the specifics. However, this disengagement has encouraged bureaucratic rivalries to fester, diverting the attention of officials from the actual substance of foreign policy.

Evidence abounds in support of this process critique. In the past three months every magazine save Car & Driver has performed an autopsy on the prewar planning for the postwar occupation. All of these stories describe fierce conflicts between Defense and State leading to an embargo of information between the two bureaucracies. Even though State Department experts foresaw problems with the Iraqi electricity grid and looting, military planners brushed off or ignored their warnings. The cold war between administration officials and the intelligence community is another example of this problem. At its core, the issue with Bush’s “16 little words” in his 2003 State of the Union address was really a debate about who got what intelligence memo when and whether it was actually read.

The latest process screw-up was last week’s decision to bar allies outside the coalition of the willing in Iraq from receiving reconstruction contracts. The Defense Department memo in question was badly worded and badly timed. Claiming that the policy was “necessary for the protection of the essential security interests of the United States” made it seem like the administration trusted Egypt and Saudi Arabia more than Germany or Canada. Releasing the memo the day before Bush was to call the leaders of France, Germany, and Russia to discuss forgiving Iraq’s prewar debt was none too bright. White House officials admitted to the New York Times that they were “surprised by both the timing and the blunt wording” of the memo.

One can make similar criticisms of the larger war on terror. In the past week, the General Accounting Office blasted the administration for failing to crack down on terrorist financing. The report observed that the Treasury and Justice departments have failed to coordinate efforts to curtail terrorist trafficking in precious stones, even though they pledged to do so last year. A story in this week’s U.S. News & World Report calls into doubt whether the military has really gotten its act together in coping with new security threats. One official familiar with the problem pointed out the process difficulties: “It’s not that al-Qaeda has ways of hitting us we can’t understand. It’s that they operate in ways we weren’t structured to deal with.”

Process criticisms have begun to appear more frequently in the mainstream media. What’s interesting about these critiques is that they come primarily from Bush sympathizers. Prominent Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Charles Grassley have voiced concerns about the proper management of key foreign policy priorities. Writing about the contract screw-up, William Kristol and Robert Kagan were blunt: “[I]nstead of being smart, clever, or magnanimous, the Bush Administration has done a dumb thing.” George Will described the decision as “a tantrum tarted up as foreign policy.”  In his Sunday column, Tom Friedman lamented: “I fear we have a president who is setting the broad guidelines, above a squabbling bureaucracy and a divided alliance—and no one is cracking heads.”

Max Boot—a staunch neoconservative—presented a damning version of this critique in the Los Angeles Times op-ed page:

George W. Bush did install the Dream Team: Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice. But lately they’ve been performing more like a squad of out-of-shape weekend players than a lineup of NBA superstars. … Watching one blunder after another, I can’t help but wonder: Can’t anybody here play this game?

In many ways, Bush’s supporters have devised a more powerful critique than anything Bush’s opponents have come up with. Their complaints point to mismanagement and incompetence, never words one wants associated with foreign policy. Given the high stakes that the administration is playing for in Iraq and the war on terror, Bush’s process failures make him far more vulnerable on national security issues than one might imagine.