The conventional wisdom holds that while George W. Bush may be politically vulnerable when it comes to domestic policy, his approach to foreign affairs and national defense has been flawless and immune to criticism. It's time to puncture this media-created balloon and point out that when it comes to matters diplomatic, the emperor has no clothes. The truth is Bush the Younger has gotten far too much credit for his performance as a foreign-policy president.
Take his original bête noire, Osama bin Laden, a.k.a. the man who never was. Following the 9/11 attack, the one Bush didn't foresee but Bill Clinton was supposed to have prevented, the president announced, to great fanfare, his intention to track bin Laden to the ends of the Earth, more particularly to Afghanistan. He then repeated it again and again (get ready, we're coming) over several weeks' time, allowing al Qaeda ample opportunity to prepare an exit strategy.
When the attack on the Taliban finally began, it was no stealthy surgical strike, but a heavy-handed, often indiscriminate air bombardment that killed nearly as many innocent civilians as terrorists and Afghan fighters. Meanwhile, the man wanted "dead or alive" escaped with two-thirds of his top operatives, mostly because a high-level decision was made not to risk the vaunted US military in mountainous guerrilla warfare along the Pakistani border; instead, ill-trained and poorly motivated surrogate forces were employed to little effect.
The Bush response to this turn of events was to proclaim Afghanistan a success (despite its subsequent descent into anarchy) and move on to other venues. If bin Laden couldn't be killed or captured, he could at least be ignored, and his name stricken from the lips of administration spokesmen. Unable to deal effectively with the perpetrator of 9/11, whose whereabouts remain unknown, the Bush foreign-policy team determined to shift focus to the eradication of "state-sponsored terrorism," a problem conjured up principally to justify a military hit list of governments Washington neoconservatives dislike for one reason or another. Nation states, in contrast to free-floating terrorist organizations, possess the singular virtue of location; we know where they are.
The reorientation showed George W. Bush at his worst. Substituting tough talk and belligerent threats for thoughtful statecraft and a subtle world view, the commander in chief -- he evidently prefers that title -- created instant crises where none had existed. The "axis-of-evil" speech, which ignored the truism that words have consequences, was the diplomatic equivalent of a small boy at the zoo rattling the gorilla's cage. North Korea, whose unstable leadership requires little prompting to awaken its paranoia, immediately went off the deep end. Iran, a country inching its way toward democracy, had its Muslim fundamentalist power structure reinforced and its modernist elements undermined. But our hubristic chief executive couldn't let sleeping dogs lie.
The vilification of Iraq, especially singled out for Bush's rants, revealed a president prone to allow emotions and subjective feelings to dangerously cloud his judgement and drive his foreign policy. A whole host of issues -- misplaced revenge for 9/11, suspicion of terrorist connections, the economics of oil, making the Middle East safe for Israel, reviving the US stock market -- were behind the Iraq offensive, but what immediately pushed us to war was George W. Bush's individual antipathy toward Saddam Hussein. The president continually asserted that he had "lost patience" with Saddam, as though impatience were a statesmanlike virtue. Personal pique growing out of the Bush family's inconclusive 1991 confrontation with the Iraqi dictator became the prime motivation for plunging the Arab world into potential catastrophe.
So what has the Bush foreign policy gotten us? Terrorism remains an undeterred threat. The American military, engaged in multiple conflicts, is overcommitted around the globe and stretched to the limits of its capacity. The defense budget, already larger than those of the next dozen countries combined, is escalating beyond sight, crowding out other needed spending. Still to be calculated are the inevitable postwar expenses arising from our various foreign adventures. The price tag for conquering and then rebuilding Iraq alone has been estimated at anywhere from $75 to $750 billion, and American occupation forces are expected to be there for years to come.
The economic downside associated with establishing and administering an American raj, complete with colonial armies of occupation, nevertheless pales next to the damage already done to the US reputation in the world and our relationships with longtime allies. As the president warned, countries are either "with us or against us," and a significant portion of the civilized world has apparently chosen the latter -- or had that choice forced upon it. France and Germany, the political and economic linchpins of the European continent with 142 million people, have been labeled "Old Europe" and dismissed as irrelevant; they weren't for invading Iraq, so they're now enemies and honorary members of the evil axis.
Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and company prefer to talk to "New Europe," especially the small, politically fragile, and economically marginal states of the former Soviet bloc, which owe us their international recognition, their seats in NATO and (indirectly) their independence. Not the least of the reasons New Europe backs Bush and his hegemonic ambitions is the American foreign-aid money and investment it and reluctant non-European supporters of the Iraq war, such as Turkey, depend on for economic viability. In truth, the "coalition of the willing" is very much a coalition of the bribed.
Dollar diplomacy is no stable basis for a successful foreign policy in the long run. Neither is crass political ideology, but the right-wing warriors of the Bush administration don't see it that way. Their coalition of the willing is also a coalition of the conservative. To a large extent, the governments that have lined up to endorse the president's imperial design, including his war on Iraq, are politically right of center. Spain, Italy, Australia, and Israel, aside from Great Britain the strongest Bush allies, are all ruled by extreme conservatives. And in Britain, Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair has moved so far right as to be almost in the Tory camp. Yet, ordinary world citizens, especially in Europe, were overwhelmingly against war in Iraq and are increasingly anti-American. A US foreign policy that, according to every overseas opinion poll, alienates 70% to 80% of all Europeans and countless millions worldwide is more than flawed; it is a disaster for this country.
The cause of that alienation is not hard to determine. At the core of the Bush posture in foreign affairs is the crude, bellicose notion of preemptive unilateralism, or (to put it more simply) hitting first and asking questions later. Figuratively speaking, George W. Bush not only wants to carry Theodore Roosevelt's "big stick," he wants to wander about aggressively looking for someone to whack. That may be acceptable behavior for a Mafia don, but for a US president, it's strategically dangerous, diplomatically counterproductive, and (yes) fundamentally un-American.
O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.