War Stories

New Doctrine Same as the Old Doctrine

Reports of the death of “cowboy democracy” are greatly exaggerated.

Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo with George Bush

Are we really witnessing a “seismic” shift in the Bush administration’s foreign policy—”the end of cowboy diplomacy” and the substitution of “patience” for “pre-emption”? Such is the claim of two articles this week: the cover story of Time and a news analysis in the New York Times. Both pieces infer too much significance from the moderating tone in Bush’s rhetoric—and not enough from the fact that his actual policies have barely changed.

Yes, Bush talks more about diplomacy than he did in his first term (though he always paid it lip service, even while discussing Iraq in the run-up to the invasion, long after he’d secretly decided to go to war). But where is the actual diplomacy? Where are the results—or even any serious efforts to achieve results? Where is the real, as opposed to the rhetorical, seismic shift?

The Time story found Bush’s temperate response to North Korea’s Fourth of July missile tests “even more surprising than the tests” themselves:

Under the old Bush Doctrine, defiance by a dictator like Kim Jong Il would have merited threats of punitive U.S. action—or at least a tongue lashing. Instead, the Administration has mainly been talking up multilateralism and downplaying Pyongyang’s provocation.

The Times analysis agreed. Bush “finds himself in an unaccustomed position: urging patience.”

But, in fact, there was nothing new, much less surprising. Bush did denounce North Korea as a member of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union Address; he has colorfully (and accurately) disparaged Kim Jong-il, the country’s dictator, before and since. But he never issued “threats of punitive U.S. action,” not even at the end of ‘02, when Kim crossed a truly serious “red line” by abrogating the Non-Proliferation Treaty, kicking international inspectors out of his nuclear reactor, and reprocessing his once-locked fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium.

Bush took no action three and a half years ago for the same reason that he took no action after the missile test: The Joint Chiefs of Staff told him there were no good military options; they didn’t know where all the nuclear targets were, and North Korea could retaliate by launching chemical rockets at South Korea and Japan.

As for “talking up multilateralism,” that’s not new either, and, when it comes to North Korea, it doesn’t mean as much as the reporters seem to think. Yes, Bush is urging the reconvening of the “six-party talks”—a Beijing forum at which the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and the two Koreas—discuss Pyongyang’s nuclear program. But the first round of those talks took place in August 2003, back when the Bush Doctrine was riding high, before Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state and supposedly pushed the president onto diplomatic avenues.

The thing is, Bush never took the six-party talks seriously. Every time they crept toward progress, Vice President Dick Cheney took care to tug at his envoy’s leash. When the envoy was finally permitted to meet face to face with North Korean diplomats, he was given strict orders not to offer terms of negotiation. He could talk—just not about anything meaningful.

To laud Bush now for “talking up multilateralism” is to ignore the real point—that he still refuses to engage North Korea in direct, one-on-one negotiations, though everyone involved has urged him to do so because, they all realize, that’s the only way progress can be made. He refuses because he doesn’t want progress to be made, or at least not that way. He still believes that it’s better to defeat evil than to negotiate with it—and so it is, but he hasn’t yet accepted that he has no alternative to negotiating with this particular evil. Again, there’s been no seismic shift.

The same is true with Iran. Yes, Bush finally endorsed, then joined, the talks that Britain, France, and Germany had initiated with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program. But he hasn’t put anything serious on the table.

With both Iran and North Korea, diplomacy may be futile; the leaders of both countries might simply want a pocketful of nukes, regardless of any American president’s overture. (My own view is that this is probably true of the Iranians but that the North Koreans want a deal.) Whatever the merits of diplomacy, it is simply untrue—or at least it has not been demonstrated—that Bush is suddenly hot on its trail.

The Time story states that Bush has been forced to “rethink” his doctrine, and it suggests that he has adopted a new modesty in the process. “Until recently,” the story reads, “Bush failed to acknowledge how much Iraq has eroded U.S. credibility or show that he takes seriously the criticisms lodged against his policies by the U.S.’s allies.” Until recently? Since when has he acknowledged this at all?

The Times analysis states the matter more accurately: “Mr. Bush is discovering the limits of his own pre-emption doctrine.” Yes, he’s bumping into its limits, not rethinking or overhauling it.

Whatever’s happened to the “old doctrine,” the Time story does pose a question that’s on the mark: “Can the U.S. find a new one to take its place?”

This is what’s really going on. Bush and his team have slowly discovered that their prescriptions for changing the world—regime change, preventive war, and spreading democracy by force if necessary—aren’t working and aren’t going over with the world. But they don’t know what to do about it; they don’t know how to go about their business differently. Bush is drifting, not changing.

Time quotes a “presidential adviser” as saying, “There’s a move, even by Cheney, toward the Kissingerian approach of focusing entirely on vital interests. It’s a more focused foreign policy that is driven by realism and less by ideology.”

This is preposterous. Where is the shuttle diplomacy? Where are the beginnings of a regional conference to stabilize Iraq? Where is the slightest nod toward talks—serious talks—aimed at keeping Iran and North Korea from joining the club of nuclear nations? These are “vital interests.” Where is the “focusing” and the “realism” to attain them? When the administration starts behaving in a way that suggests it’s asked these questions, then we can start to talk about a “seismic” shift in foreign policy. Until then, there’s only the rumble of hot air.