The Empire Strikes Out

Pish posh. Sure, there would be some differences between what the two camps would do, both in style (a lot) and substance (a little). But the similarities would be far more pronounced because Bush and Kerry’s current positions on major issues just aren’t that far apart–and because whoever is elected will have relatively little room for maneuver.

The last few years have constituted a grand experiment, a test of what would happen if Washington threw out the standard foreign-policy playbook and just winged it. The results are now in, and they ratify most of the conventional wisdom that the Bush administration initially rejected. And although Bush and his lieutenants will never say as much publicly, and may not even admit it to themselves in private, their recent behavior shows that at some level they understand the point and don’t want to be burned again.

The much-touted “Bush doctrine” is a dead letter, with each of its three pillars–preemption, regime change, and clear division between those “with us” and “with the terrorists”–now discredited and abandoned. What the administration meant by preemption, of course, was really preventive war, a concept whose poor reputation has been reinforced by the failure to find WMDs in Iraq together with the high costs and mixed results of the bungled occupation. True preemption–striking out first against an enemy whose own blow is imminent or already on the way–is still an option for American policymakers, as it always has been, but it will be adopted only in the extraordinarily rare case where there is strong, timely, and actionable intelligence that such a threat actually exists.

The second pillar, regime change, was based on the idea that problems abroad stem from the nature of certain foreign governments and can be fully solved only by replacing them with something better. Today, that remains what it was during the Cold War: a worthwhile goal unmatched by a practical strategy for achieving it. The administration’s proudest boast regarding the collateral benefits of the Iraq war, for example, is that the invasion cowed Libya into giving up its nuclear ambitions. But even if one overlooks the fact that Libya was already moving in that direction and allows the claim, the case still qualifies as a victory for traditional coercive diplomacy rather than any novel or highly principled approach to international politics. What changed was neither the Libyan ruler nor the odious nature of his regime, but simply one important aspect of his behavior. The Bush administration was right to cut the deal, but the whole episode reflects a rejection of its stated principles rather than a triumph for them.

And as for dividing the world between friends and foes, the Bush team–like all its predecessors–has found itself stuck dealing regularly with those inconvenient cases in the middle. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are both crucial contributors to the problems the United States faces in the greater Middle East and crucial allies in combating them. China is both an authoritarian rising power and a major U.S. trading partner which is gradually liberalizing. Europe can be both a royal pain and a vital source of support. The Bush administration has learned the hard way that the world is full of gray areas and that an inability to “do nuance” is not an asset but a liability.

None of this was shocking news, since it represents nothing more than what is, or should be, taught in Diplomacy and National Security 101. But for some reason the Bush team needed remedial education, and by and large it took. Administration officials now rarely chatter blithely about transforming the world, and when they do, the words are safely unencumbered by substance. They no longer speak contemptuously of “Old Europe” or the United Nations, and even ask both for help on occasion. And they no longer muse about which nations might be next on the target list, disappointing their most fervent neoconservative supporters as often as they please them.

Some of these changes have been driven by politics at home, with the administration deciding that its electoral prospects depended at least partly on reassuring swing voters of its sobriety and competence. But most of the shifts have occurred because reality proved less tractable than administration ideologues guessed, and traditional approaches to foreign policy sounder. That is why the most likely scenario for a Bush second term is not a return to the vigor and recklessness of 2001-2003, but a continuation of the de facto muted realism the administration has displayed in 2004.

September 11 has set a floor on isolationism below which American foreign policy will not sink, and Iraq a ceiling on adventurism above which it will not rise. A Kerry administration would thus probably stay the course on most matters, while benefiting from not having to disguise its policies in order to avoid charges of inconsistency and from foreign satisfaction at the Bush administration’s departure.

Style does matter, and so similar substance delivered in a less abrasive manner would yield somewhat better results. But the major problems the United States faces have no easy solutions, and other countries will not be eager to sacrifice their own blood and treasure just to help reduce our existing burdens. Iraq is unlikely to stabilize itself quickly no matter who occupies the White House; Iran and North Korea are unlikely to abandon their nuclear programs, or Israelis and Palestinians their mutual enmity, if a Democrat is elected. Enough damage has been done to America’s image and reputation, moreover, that in foreign affairs as in fiscal matters the hangover from the current administration’s signature policies will linger for several years, constricting choices regardless of the election result.