Bush's Sybil-Like Foreign Policy

President Bush aircraft carrier CBS

Sybil Dorsett claimed to have 16 personalities. How many foreign policy personalities inhabit George W. Bush's body? This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

For a relative newcomer on the international scene, and for a man averse to grand theorizing, George W. Bush sure has cycled through a lot of foreign policy doctrines. Bush, it seems, has as many uber-foreign policies as he had rationales for invading Iraq. And so he has the same credibility problem. Will the real Bush foreign policy please stand up?

Bush has summoned different foreign policy philosophies for different roles he has played -- candidate, warrior and occupier. Insisting on consistency and theoretical tidiness in the real world might be too much too ask, but Bush is still delivering too little.

Candidate Bush's foreign policy gave the nation no inkling of what President Bush's foreign policies would be. And President Bush's two great foreign policy doctrines - pre-emption and democratization - are at war with each other and cannot peacefully co-exist.

Let's review:

The Candidate: No Nation-Building

Foreign policy wasn't a big driver in the Bush campaign. The most noticed and remembered foreign policy moment came in the second presidential debate when Bush repeatedly criticized Clinton's "nation-building" adventures in Haiti, Somalia and the Balkans:

"And so I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war. I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow the dictator when it's in our best interests."

So overthrowing bad dictators is cool and nation-building is not. The problem is, Bush's America is now building a nation in Iraq. Further, the president declared that one key reason we tossed out Saddam (bad dictator) was to bring democracy to Iraq and the region -- nation-building, that is.

So a program of nation-building from President Bush is the last thing we were led to expect from Candidate Bush -- especially nation-building prefaced by full-scare war and imposed on a population that showed no signs that it wanted to liberate itself. In the same debate, Bush declared, in classic Bush syntax, "I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations." And further:

"Let me comment on that. I'm not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it's got to be. We can help. And maybe it's just our difference in government, the way we view government. I want to empower the people. I want to help people help themselves, not have government tell people what to do. I just don't think it's the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way, so should you. I think we can help."

Somehow, a massive land and air invasion of a country strikes me as a pretty straightforward way of saying "this is the way it's got to be."

The above passage also illustrates how systematically Bush brought the language of "compassionate conservatism" in his geopolitics. He was the dove in the campaign, not your father's Republican warmonger. He criticized, subtly, the Clinton regime for being too militarily promiscuous. And he promised to be kinder and gentler and wanted other nations to see the U.S. this way: "It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us. And it's -- our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that's why we have to be humble."

Again, President Bush's doctrine of pre-emption would have been very hard to extrapolate from his campaign rhetoric. But then, the events of September 11, 2001 were not foreseen either.

The Warrior: The Doctrine of Pre-emption

This is the big Bush Doctrine. But the words behind it are far less important than the actions they sought to legitimize-- two pre-emptive wars, one waged on Afghanistan, one on Iraq. Strong statements by any measure.

President Bush began to formally articulate what has become known as the doctrine of pre-emption in a graduation address at West Point on June 1, 2002:
"For much of the last century, America's defense relied on the Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment. In some cases, those strategies still apply. But new threats also require new thinking…

… the war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.

…And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives."

The doctrine was officially sanctioned in an unclassified version of The National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction that declared, "The United States will continue to make it clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force -- including through resort to all our options -- to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies."

Translation: if the U.S. believes there is a potential threat to it's interests and security, it has a declared policy of taking pre-emptive, unilateral, overwhelming military action.

It is this doctrine that leads both fans and critics of the president to declare him a radical and no conservative. It is this doctrine that cannot coherently exist in a world where international institutions like the United Nations can play even a small constructive role and where the most important "pre-emptions" can have the added legitimacy of being multilateral.

The Occupier: The Doctrine of Democratization

As the perils of full war gave way to the perils of occupation, or something close to it, the utility of the pre-emption doctrine disappeared and a new justification was needed for the continued deaths of Americans in Iraq. This next doctrinal incarnation was unveiled in a speech at the National Endowment for Democracy on November 6, 2003:

"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo.

Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results… The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country."

Is this a real doctrine or lip service pure and simple? Will Bush push the pseudo-friendly regimes in Saudi Arabia? Is there a game plan for Syria and Iran?

President Bush obviously cannot expect his Middle Eastern democracy crusade to be taken seriously until he renounces the "no nation-building" doctrine of Candidate Bush.

And he cannot expect to have much international support or even minimal credibility for this latest doctrine while pre-emption doctrine is reigns supreme over it. Political theorist Benjamin R. Barber recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush can pursue an inspirational foreign policy founded on democratization that will transform how the U.S. spends money, cooperates with others and forges alliances. Or he can persist in following a failed doctrine of preventive war aimed at defeating terrorism, whatever costs such a campaign may exact from democratic ideals at home and abroad. But he cannot pursue both."

Soon President Bush will again be Candidate Bush, if he isn't already. What new doctrines await?

Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.

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By Dick Meyer
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