Behind Bush's Back
By Michael Hirsh
Issues 2005 - George W. Bush did get one big thing right in the post-9/11 era. His campaign to spread democracy and freedom to a part of the world that the great transformations of the 20th century had bypassed—the Middle East—was in the honored tradition of American global leadership going back to Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. It's just that Bush seemed to get so much else wrong in his first term. Part of the problem—in addition to the trumped-up evidence against Iraq—was his tone, many people said. Even some supporters cringed at the insults the U.S. president kept firing off, quite gratuitously, at the rest of the world, each of them a shot in his own foot.
Combined with his trademark smirk and strut—reminiscent of "a sullen, pouting, oblivious and overmuscled teenager," as Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis put it—and what many abroad saw as a scary blend of simple-mindedness and certainty, Bush went over like a Visigoth at a garden party. And, not surprisingly, when the president sought to lead the world into a transformational war in Iraq, he looked over his shoulder and found almost no one behind him. Where were they? They were hanging back with those arch-kibitzers, the French. Bush's main leadership challenge had been to isolate the bad guys, the Islamist terrorists. After 9/11 he had a golden opportunity to bring the free world together in the face of a common threat. Instead, Bush managed to isolate America. He's still paying the price.
Being the only superpower, it turns out, does not automatically confer leadership status on presidents. Today they actually have to earn it. This is the great lesson we have learned since the cold war. It is also the main lesson that Bush needs to absorb from his first-term foibles. In many ways it was easier for America to lead the free world during World War II and the cold war, simply because the alternatives (the Axis powers, the Soviet Union) were always so much worse. Now the bar is higher. Strength must be married to subtlety.
Bush is no fool, despite what many in the world may think (just ask John Kerry). When Bush stepped out on the world stage for the first time as a second-term president-elect, he seemed ready to try out a whole new tone. America and Europe, Bush said in November, were together the "pillars of the free world." (Did Bush now mean "old Europe," too?) He also announced plans for a Kerry-esque trip to confer with European leaders. His November remarks were not off the cuff; the president came equipped with a fresh set of talking points meant to convey a new sensitivity to the demands of diplomacy, his aides say.
But does he mean it? The early signs are that Bush's shift remains rather shallow. In the first weeks after his re-election, Bush effectively launched a purge of every U.S. agency and official that, in his first term, questioned his approach to the war on terror, or raised doubts about the manufactured evidence against Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had not so privately resisted the segue in 2002 from Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, was not asked to stay on, though he was willing to do so. (Bush, despite speaking a new rhetoric of activism on the Mideast, then promptly sent Powell on a lame-duck mission to the region. When news of his resignation got out, the secretary's plans to talk with both Palestinians and Iranians were rendered all but useless.) And Bush apparently directed his new CIA chief, Porter Goss, to rid the agency of some of those who had disagreed with the White House. Months of inquiries that point to the need for independent intelligence analysis may be going unheeded.
Nor has Bush shown much responsibility for many of the first-term policies that, along with his tone, have turned smoldering anti-Americanism into a roaring conflagration. Take the Abu Ghraib scandal. While still maintaining the fiction that the interrogation abuses were merely the work of a few rogue MPs, Bush promoted one of the authors of the now infamous legal memos that prove such abuses emanated from White House policy. The man who once called the Geneva Conventions obsolete, Alberto Gonzales, will now become America's new attorney general, the highest law-enforcement official in the land.
Still, after four years of lost opportunities, even Bush's armor-plated unilateralists are beginning to feel badly dented. In private conversations, some officials no longer just complain about what they didn't get in troops or aid, as if alliances were merely a matter of barter. They now admit that far more was lost in the first term: an entire atmosphere of cooperation. Some neocons have even begun to notice that the legitimacy conferred on Bush by the U.S. electorate—and America's dominant military—has nothing to do with the legitimacy America needs to earn as a global leader.
They also know that, even in the best scenario, Iraq will remain a millstone around Bush's neck until Jan. 20, 2009. The strains on the U.S. military and budget, and the new-order-of-magnitude difficulties of launching military strikes in hot spots like Iran and North Korea, have made the threshold for going to war much, much higher. That leaves diplomacy.
Perhaps the biggest test case for the administration's second-term direction will come over Iran. Here there are two clear and opposite avenues available, and what we will soon learn about the leanings of Condoleezza Rice, Powell's replacement and Bush's alter ego on foreign policy, will be crucial. Powell and his departing deputy, Richard Armitage, had actively sought to open quiet talks directly with Tehran, and to offer carrots. The problem: unlike Rice, they didn't have the ear of the president. Rice has the stature to persuade Bush to sign onto the European approach of muddling through, negotiating periodic agreements with Tehran and pushing for ever more probing inspections. Or she can side with hard-liners like Under Secretary of State John Bolton who insist that Tehran intends to build a nuclear weapon no matter what—despite the evidence that there is a genuine debate about the issue inside Iran—and who will continue to push for "regime change."
Another sure sign that the Bush team is worried about the failures of U.S. leadership is that some have begun to fret about China's success at diplomacy. Indeed, China hasn't been shy about exploiting the atmosphere of doubt and fear that now prevails in the vacuum of failed American leadership. Beijing has reached out to Europe and Russia, and Brussels has responded by hinting it might lift its arms embargo against China (unilaterally, by the way). Tellingly, Europe and China have also begun to integrate their space systems—an especially worrisome sign for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who covets the high ground of space. In Asia, too, because of the American preoccupation with terror, says Brookings Institution scholar Bates Gill, "there is a subtle shift going on. Many of America's allies are getting a little nervous." Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, in the run-up to the first-ever military exercises between Australia and China last fall, said bluntly that Americans could not expect his country to simply line up behind them over a conflict with China.
To reclaim America's prestige, the Bush team must show new flexibility on strategic questions as well as tactics. That means having the maturity to rethink their own priorities by acknowledging key issues of importance to their friends. Take global warming. At a Washington dinner recently, a former prime minister of a major West European nation was upset to hear that Bush's list of second-term priorities did not include climate change, despite all the first-term bad blood over the issue. "You would win more cooperation on your issues if you would listen to what ours are," the P.M. said sternly.
Mostly, however, nothing succeeds like success. And success requires diligence—and adjusting course when errors are made. Woodrow Wilson is today seen as one of the major transformational presidents in history. But Wilson's failure to secure America's entry into the League of Nations left him open to the same kind of charges made against Bush today, that his shrill moralism was unmatched by real commitment. At Versailles, Lloyd George wrote in a pique afterward: "The Americans appeared to assume responsibility for the sole guardianship of the Ten Commandments and for the Sermon on the Mount; yet when it came to a practical question of assistance and responsibility, they absolutely refused to accept it." Ultimately, a generation later, under FDR and Truman, Wilson's original vision was vindicated. Through patient work and learning from previous failures, America did accept responsibility for the global system. It is long past time for George W. Bush to put his head down, learn from his mistakes and recognize that global leadership is about more than power. It is about leadership.