BUSH AND UNILATERALISM….A BOGUS CHARGE?….I got an email the other day telling me I should lighten up on Bush: judge him by his deeds, not his words, it said. Today, Dan Drezner says essentially the same thing:

In its first six months, the administration committed the cardinal sin of assuming that it should reflexively oppose any policy initiative supported by the Clinton administration. No doubt, this led to some process-oriented mistakes, such as pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol. However, both domestic and foreign critics need to get over their first impression on this score.

There is something to this: in the high-profile case of Iraq, Bush eventually chose to work through the UN and so far has taken no unilateral military action. However, there’s more to it, and Drezner tackles that too:

A few weeks ago, a high-ranking White House official gave a talk on homeland security at a University of Chicago workshop on security….The talk didn’t go well. The presenter’s cocksure demeanor and refusal to recognize the valid questions from the audience led me — an administration supporter — to find the administration’s arrogance insufferable. It’s this arrogance, this refusal to even consider the value of alternative viewpoints, that causes so many within the chattering classes to label it tone-deaf.

This boils down to the following criticism: this administration doesn’t take the time to listen carefully to an alternative position and then delineate in full why that position is wrong — it just says so at the outset. In diplomacy, such things matter.

Yes, these things do matter, but for more than just for rhetorical reasons:

  • The administration is full of people who know very well what the conventions of diplomacy are. The fact that they choose to deliberately ignore them suggests that they also have contempt for the underlying multilateral processes themselves.

  • Drezner suggests that there’s a good reason for the arrogance: they really know what they’re doing. But I thought that “trust me, I’m from the government” was a conservative joke, not a liberal one?

  • There’s a big difference between truly working with allies and simply threatening them if they don’t go along. Sure, most of them will go along eventually. After all, what choice do they have? But this bears the same relationship to “consultation” that assault does to negotiation.

Words matter, as conservatives are so fond of telling us, and when Bush warns the UN that if it doesn’t back us in Iraq we will do the job ourselves, his message could hardly be clearer or more unilateral. Intentions are often revealed simply through emphasis, and the Bush administration has consistently emphasized military action and talked very little about what happens after the tanks have done their job. In Iraq, the aftermath of war is far more important than the war itself, and the fact that Bush seemingly doesn’t care much about it is extremely troubling.

We should be putting as much energy into seeking and reducing the root causes of terrorism as we are into destroying the proximate causes. Unfortunately, that seems to violate some sacred conservative principle that I’m not privy to, and we are all going to pay the price for this. Like a medieval doctor making a problem worse because he doesn’t understand anything about physiology, we will flail around the globe fighting fires, but the problem itself will never go away. That is a high price to pay for the temporary warm feeling we get when we give those effete Europeans the rhetorical finger and tell them to get the hell out of the way and let the Americans solve all the world’s problems.