DOMESTIC MEANS, FOREIGN GOALS….I’m currently reading The Survivor, John Harris’s account of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Toward the end of the book he describes the “serious splits” among NATO allies at a war council during the Kosovo conflict, and how Clinton handled them:
Remarkably, Clinton was enjoying these crosscurrents. He was again liberated by his central insight into foreign policy: It was just like domestic politics, but in a different forum. As leaders descended on Washington, Clinton was working them as if he was trying to pass an education bill in the Arkansas legislature.
If this insight is correct, what does it say about George Bush’s approach to foreign policy? Coincidentally, Jon Chait suggested the answer in his column last week:
Bush’s [domestic] political successes all have three main elements in common….The first is massive partisan discipline…. Element No. 2 is massive giveaways to well-organized lobbies…. The third element is ? how should I put it? ? lying.
….Alas, none of these tools work as well in Baghdad as they do in Washington. Promising to build a bridge in Muqtada Sadr’s district or funnel cash to his campaign is unlikely to mollify the Shiite strongman. Iraqi democracy, in its primitive state, has yet to develop the equivalent of K Street.
When it comes to crafting policies that are good, rather than policies that merely seem good to an inattentive public, the Bush administration turns out to be awful. You can insist that 125,000 troops are enough to reconstruct Iraq, just as you can insist that $400 billion is enough to pay for the Medicare bill. The difference is, the effects of higher federal debt can be obscured for a long time. But when Iraqi reconstruction has essentially halted, some two-thirds of the population lacks employment and terrorists and other armed thugs are roaming freely throughout Iraqi cities, lies can get you only so far.
I think this is fundamentally correct. Clinton, partly by nature and partly because he had to deal with a Republican Congress during most of his term, instinctively understood that America’s foreign policy goals are best accomplished via persuasion and compromise. Bush, partly by nature and partly because he has no domestic opposition to speak of, instinctively believes that successful foreign policy is best accomplished via hectoring and stubbornness.
He is learning, to his sorrow, that he’s wrong.