American officials, lawmakers, and pundits have
been analyzing – over-analyzing is probably the right term – U.S.
President George W. Bush's new National
Security Strategy (NSS), leading one to conclude that the document that
was issued last week has major significance in terms of gaining insights into
what kind of approach to world affairs the Bush administration will be pursuing
in the last three years of its term.
In a way, it is not surprising that the pundits have been trying to deconstruct
the 2006 NSS in order to gain possible insights into the Bushies' foreign policy.
Have President Bush and his national security team adopted a more "realistic"
orientation? Will the United States attack Iran's nuclear facilities? Will there
be more of an effort to apply a multilateral strategy in dealing with international
crises? Is China now being regarded as a "threat" by the Americans?
It is very much the same way that the Cold War-era "Kremlinologists"
pored over public documents issued by Moscow so as to figure out what the Kremlin
bosses were really thinking. The reason for that is that the ideologues who
guided Soviet foreign policy focused a lot of their energy on propaganda, not
unlike the neoconservatives who have been behind U.S. diplomacy since 9/11 and
have confined their public discussion of America's role in the world to bombastic
and shallow propaganda about exporting "democracy" to the Middle East
Hence the need to try reading "between the lines" of addresses and
policy papers by U.S. officials to find out what Washington is "really"
planning to do in, say, Iran or China, since no one seriously assumes that President
Bush and his aides "really" believe in their utopian, global, freedom-is-on-the-march
The problem is that parts of the long-overdue NSS sound very much like propaganda
marching orders for U.S. diplomats and military personnel, a kind that recalls
the "Why We Fight" documentaries of World War II.
It lays out a robust view of America's power and an assertive view of its responsibility
to bring change around the world, and underscores in a very thematic way Mr.
Bush's desire to make the spread of democracy the fundamental underpinning of
U.S. foreign policy, as he expressed in his Second Inaugural Address last year.
In fact, the opening words of the new document are lifted from that speech
and proclaim that "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support
democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the
ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
And when it comes to the most controversial elements in Mr. Bush's strategy,
the new document does not provide any news. Indeed, it reaffirms the doctrine
of "preemptive" war against terrorists and hostile states with chemical,
biological, or nuclear weapons, which is exactly the same doctrine that was
enunciated in the 2002 NSS document and which has been applied with disastrous
results in the war in Iraq.
After the 2002 NSS was published, observers noted that the new strategy of
preemption shifted U.S. foreign policy away from decades of deterrence and containment
toward a more aggressive stance of attacking enemies before they attack the
But in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the general consensus among foreign
policy analysts in Washington was that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction
(WMD) in Iraq fatally undermined an essential assumption of the strategy of
preemption – that intelligence about an enemy's capabilities and intentions
can be sufficient to justify preventive war.
Against the backdrop of the mess in Iraq, the conventional wisdom among policy
wonks in Washington has been that under the leadership of Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice the Bush administration has abandoned its more unilateralist
foreign policy and its schemes to oust unsavory regimes around the world, and
moved in the direction of more realism in dealing with world affairs.
Pundits have been proclaiming in the op-ed pages of leading newspapers and
on television news shows that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld have been losing their influence and that Dr. Rice and her team
of "realists" are now in charge of foreign policy in Washington.
And, indeed, the expectation in Washington was that the revised version of
the NSS would offer fresh thoughts about the preemption policy and send new
signals about the Bush administration's modified strategy.
Instead, the 2006 NSS insists that the preemption policy "remains the
same," defending it as necessary for a country in the "early years
of a long struggle" akin to the Cold War. "If necessary, however,
under long-standing principles of self-defense, we do not rule out use of force
before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of
the enemy's attack," the document continues.
"When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating,
we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize." In that
context, the new document seemed to imply that the Bush administration was planning
to apply its preemptive doctrine once again, but this time against Iran.
"We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran,"
the 2006 NSS says. It recommits to efforts with European allies to pressure
Tehran to give up any aspirations of nuclear weapons, but then adds ominously
that "this diplomatic effort must succeed if confrontation is to be avoided."
Interestingly enough, the document with its threatening language directed against
Tehran, including the implication that Washington is considering launching a
preventive war against Iran, was issued in the same week that reports from the
Middle East indicated that American and Iranian officials would be meeting soon
to discuss their common concerns in Iraq and find ways to stabilize that country.
So what is going on here? On the one hand the Americans are sending signals
that they are planning to use military force against Iran, while on the other
they are expressing their willingness to open a diplomatic dialogue with the
Iranians. How can one square the reiteration of a preemptive policy toward
Iran with the taking of a step toward détente with it?
And while we are discussing inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy, how can
we explain the attempts by Washington to win the diplomatic support of Beijing
and Moscow for punitive measures against Iran at the United Nations Security
Council as a way of forcing the Iranians to end their nuclear military program,
while at the same time, Dr. Rice is trying to enlist Australia and Japan to
form an alliance aimed at containing China and is also condemning Russia for
its failure to measure up to U.S. democratic principles?
But inconsistencies in foreign policy exist only when one assumes that the
government in question is committed to a set of consistent foreign policy principles,
like the kind that the pundits have been searching for in the 2006 NSS.
But my reading of what is going on in Washington is that when it comes to foreign
policy (or for that matter, trade policy), the Bush administration is now basically
just muddling through. It does not have a coherent policy on how to get out
of Iraq, how to resolve the Iranian and North Korean nuclear crises, how to
revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or how to deal with China and
So the Bush administration gives a green light to the Europeans and the Russians
to negotiate with the Iranians, while at the same time it is pushing for sanctions
against Tehran. It calls for regime change in Tehran while helping to bring
to power the pro-Iranian Shi'ite clerics in Baghdad.
It announces an ambitious program to "export democracy" to Iran, but
then it also agrees to negotiate with the Iranians on Iraq. And it certainly
applies double standards when it comes to the issue of nuclear proliferation
in Iran, India, and Israel.
If you accept the notion that the modus operandi of the Bush administration's
foreign policy is muddling through, that it really does not have a "National
Security Strategy," all the "inconsistencies" suddenly make a
lot of sense.
For some, it might sound like bad news. Perhaps we should regard it as good
news if we recall that the only time that the Bush administration was not muddling
through was when it decided to invade Iraq. It thought that it knew what it
was doing. Now it finally recognizes that it does not. And that's progress.
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