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DLC | Blueprint Magazine | October 7, 2020
Off Course
President Bush's foreign policy is steering America in the wrong direction -- and making us less secure.
By Will Marshall

Table of Contents

President Bush likes to keep things simple. He's boiled his entire re-election campaign down to one basic promise: If you let me keep my job, I'll keep you safe. This, in turn, makes Sen. John Kerry's task clear: He must persuade voters to fire Bush precisely because he has made America less secure, not more.

Bush is trying to frame the choice facing voters in terms of character. Rather than argue his case on the merits, he is trying to contrast his steady leadership on national security with Kerry's alleged waffling on Iraq. It's a clever misdirection play that diverts public attention from the actual results of the bad decisions Bush has so steadfastly made. Kerry, meanwhile, is trying to drive home the point that resolve in the pursuit of failing policies is no virtue. His chief case in point is, of course, the mess Team Bush has made of Iraq.

But while it's tempting for Kerry and the Democrats to make the election a referendum on Iraq, they need to keep their eye on the bigger picture: The greatest strategic challenge facing America today is rallying the civilized world to confront the tide of Islamic extremism that is sowing nihilistic violence around the globe. The historic task for American leadership is to build a broad international coalition, with the trans-Atlantic alliance at its core, against terrorism and the malignant ideology of Osama bin Laden that inspires it. By temperament and doctrine, the Bush administration is ill-suited to rise to this challenge. That is the most compelling argument for a regime change in Washington next year.

To his credit, Kerry has relentlessly challenged the conventional assumption that Republicans are tougher and more competent in managing the nation's security, and that Bush in particular has a realistic strategy for making Americans safer. In this argument, his best ally is objective reality.

The fact is that the administration's mistakes in Iraq are emblematic of flaws in its overall approach to foreign affairs. In Afghanistan, for example, the administration's reluctance to put enough U.S. forces on the ground enabled bin Laden to slip from our grasp and has left warlords effectively in control of broad swaths of the country. While no one doubts Bush's willingness to wield America's military might, the glaring security deficits in Afghanistan and Iraq cast doubt on his ability to use force effectively.

Meanwhile, the administration's failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has dealt a mortal blow to the doctrine of pre-emption, Bush's audacious new blueprint for U.S. national security in the post-9/11 world. It is now clear that we simply don't know enough about what's really happening in rogue states to justify a policy of pre-emptive military attacks on supposed WMD facilities. Yet the doctrine has succeeded in rattling our enemies -- especially charter "Axis of Evil" members like North Korea and Iran -- who have responded not by meekly dismantling their nuclear programs, but by accelerating them.

Although Vice President Dick Cheney continually declares that the conjuncture of terrorism and WMD is the gravest threat facing America, the administration has failed to put an effective check on either North Korea's or Iran's WMD programs. Bush's counterproliferation policies have been paralyzed by internal divisions over whether to confront or engage the two regimes. The administration has failed repeatedly to get our European allies, including Great Britain, to take a tougher stance against Iran. They seem wary of furnishing a pretext for another U.S. military action. This is one example of the stiff diplomatic price we pay for Bush's unilateralism, which has bred an atmosphere of mistrust and resentment between America and Europe.

In fact, it's hard to believe how quickly and thoroughly trans-Atlantic relations have deteriorated on Bush's watch. This is a matter of style as well as substance. The belligerent swagger, the reluctance to listen and engage critics intellectually, the manifest disdain for multilateral diplomacy -- all of these personal traits have abraded European nerves and weakened deeply ingrained habits of deference toward U.S. views. Many of our friends are no longer willing to give us the benefit of the doubt; indeed, some now make a point of withholding cooperation on issues vital to us. Europeans are hardly blameless: French and German leaders especially have cynically exploited anti-American prejudices. But the fact remains that it will be difficult to reforge trans-Atlantic unity as long as Bush remains in the White House.

Global opinion surveys show that America's standing has plummeted around the world, not just in Europe. Given our wealth and power, a certain amount of envy and resentment is inevitable. But the Bush administration has utterly failed to grasp the strategic necessity of reassuring others about the way America uses its enormous power. Now, instead of seeing the United States as a beacon of liberty, too many see it as an arrogant bully pursuing its own selfish interests.

America's diminished moral stature makes it harder to persuade others to join in a long-term strategy of economic and political reform in the greater Middle East, which is essential to break the nexus between misgovernment and extremism. Bush lately has called for spreading freedom in the Muslim world as the antidote to bin Ladenism. It's the right message for the long haul, but Bush is the wrong messenger. He is viewed not as a disinterested tribune of democracy, but as an advocate of unbridled American power and nationalist assertion. The administration's willingness to subordinate human rights and democracy to oil and other interests in our relations with autocratic regimes in Central Asia, in Saudi Arabia, and, increasingly, in Russia, has not helped.

There's little doubt that America's heavy dependence on Middle Eastern oil constrains our freedom of action in dealing with the region's governments. Yet, rather than accelerate the country's shift from petro-dependence to "clean energy" sources and technologies, the Bush White House has thrown the throttle into reverse. Having made their careers in the oil patch, it's not surprising that Bush and Cheney would emphasize more domestic production, including drilling the Alaskan wilderness. But the country has only 3 percent of the world's known oil reserves, so the "drain America first" approach does nothing to reduce the leverage that Persian Gulf countries and other oil-rich states exercise over American policy.

While energy independence is a far-off goal, Kerry at least understands that reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is an urgent strategic, economic, and environmental imperative for the United States.

Kerry also knows that to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world, the United States must show a renewed commitment to a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The Bush administration, however, seems to have subcontracted U.S. policy to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This has undercut America's image as an honest broker and provided a propaganda windfall to radicals whose fondest wish is to foment a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. To be sure, Sharon's proposal to close settlements and withdraw from the Gaza Strip is potentially a creative step toward peace -- if it is part of a larger plan that also encompasses the other critical disputes between the two sides.

But peace will not come through unilateral fiat by Israel. To revive a two-way dialogue, we need dynamic U.S. leadership by a president willing to commit his time, energy, and prestige to finding responsible Palestinian partners and nudging both sides toward a peace deal. This is the hard, often frustrating, work of leadership through diplomacy, and, as Kerry has pointed out, Bush has shown absolutely no aptitude for it.

Finally, Kerry and the Democrats should draw public attention to the many ways the Bush administration has undermined America's global economic leadership. By plunging the United States back into budget deficits and doubling the nation's debt over the next decade, Bush has drained our government of the resources we need to wage an effective war on bin Ladenism, much less attend to pressing domestic needs.

Under the Bush administration, progress toward constructing a rulesbased world trading system has also slowed to a crawl. The White House's embrace of a budget-busting increase in agriculture subsidies has contributed to the impasse in the Doha Round of World Trade Organization talks. The Free Trade Area of the Americas initiative -- touted early by the White House as a top priority -- is going nowhere. And, evidently indifferent to the economic stagnation that plagues the greater Middle East, Bush has failed to push aggressively for trade initiatives that would open markets there and give Muslim countries a chance to grow.

Meanwhile, the need to finance America's exploding budget deficits has made us more dependent than ever on foreign lenders. In a sign of sagging confidence in the U.S. economy, foreign investment in the United States last year fell below $30 billion, which is not much more than Ireland received. At home, lagging export growth and a record-shattering trade deficit have aggravated fears that global trade itself is a threat to the economic security of average working families.

Almost any way one looks at the past four years, the reputation Bush enjoys as a visionary and effective steward of our national security is unearned. In part, his reputation stems from the fact that he was president on Sept. 12, 2001, and in part it stems from the Republicans' longstanding advantage on questions of national security. Is Bush steadfast? Yes, but what good is a steady hand on the wheel if the ship is steaming toward the rocks?

The record is clear: Bush has charted an unsafe and unsound course for America in the world. For that reason alone, the voters should order him off the bridge and call for a new captain.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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