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George Bush & the World


In a speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies this April, Dr. Condoleezza Rice observed that “an earthquake of the magnitude of 9/11 can shift the tectonic plates of international politics.” She went on to say:

The international system has been in flux since the collapse of Soviet power. Now it is possible—indeed probable—that that transition is coming to an end. If that is right, then…this is a period not just of grave danger, but of enormous opportunity…a period akin to 1945 to 1947, when American leadership expanded the number of free and democratic states—Japan and Germany among the great powers—to create a new balance of power that favored freedom.

This is surely an idiosyncratic reading of a period that many associate with the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and with the founding of the United Nations and the launching of the Marshall Plan. What Rice was suggesting by pointing to the US occupation and transformation of two defeated countries she did not say. Since taking office no one in the Bush administration has ever publicly defined the goals of its foreign policy, even though its approach has been consistent throughout.

In the months before September 11 the Bush administration matched its surprisingly ideological domestic programs with what Democrats politely described as a “go-it-alone foreign policy.” Bush officials called a halt to negotiations with North Korea and withdrew from attempts to negotiate peace in the Middle East. They refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and blocked a series of international arms control treaties. Then, while promising to make cuts in US strategic nuclear weapons, they declined to make an agreement with Russia on mutual reductions.

The main feature of the administration’s foreign policy during those months was its decision to deploy national missile defenses. From early June until September 11 the President and his national security advisers spent much of their time lecturing skeptical European, Russian, and Chinese leaders about the threat of a ballistic missile attack from “rogue states” such as North Korea, Iran, or Iraq, and insisting that the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty had to be scrapped. Secretary of State Colin Powell was rarely heard from; and policy seemed to be coming from the Department of Defense.

In the weeks that followed September 11, as Colin Powell put together a series of coalitions to fight the Taliban and to hunt down al-Qaeda across the globe, many commentators on foreign policy said that the Bush administration had made what one Republican called “the philosophical adjustment” to deal with a task that clearly required international cooperation. Others were not so sure.

On October 16 Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to George Bush senior and a close friend of the former president, published an Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post warning that there were already voices declaring that the United States should just go ahead and do what it had to do, without allowing its coalition partners to tie its hands. That approach, he argued, was unrealistic: success in the fight against terrorism would require a broad and willing coalition for an indefinite period. Of course, he wrote, maintaining such a coalition would take a major effort and entail endless frustrations, but it could have benefits far beyond the principal purpose. For example, it could bring the US together with countries such as Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan; it could even help unblock issues that had seemed intractable for generations, such as the Arab–Israeli confrontation.

By February it appeared that the administration had in no way changed its approach, and that Secretary Powell had been sidelined again. In his State of the Union address on January 29 Bush praised President Musharraf of Pakistan but failed to thank any of his other coalition partners. The omission of Russia was particularly striking, for President Putin had taken the opportunity of September 11 to shift Russian policy toward the West and had given the US substantial assistance with the war in Afghanistan. But then in November 2001 Bush, notwithstanding his talk of a new relationship with Russia and his friendship with Vladimir Putin, had announced that the US would withdraw from the ABM Treaty and gave his new friend nothing for his troubles except a halt to US criticism of the behavior of the Russian army in Chechnya.

Also missing from the State of the Union speech was any mention of the Middle East peace plan that Secretary Powell had announced in November. Instead, Bush renewed his rhetorical offensive against North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, this time accusing the “axis of evil” of sponsoring terrorism and developing weapons of mass destruction. In interpreting these remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Powell said that the President did not intend to go to war with North Korea or Iran but that he was set on a “regime change” in Iraq, even though the US “might have to do [it] alone.”

In his State of the Union speech Bush did not mention any positive goals for American foreign policy, and he has mentioned none since. Indeed, apart from some vague talk about the expansion of freedom and democracy, he has never presented any clear idea of the world he would like to see emerging from the “tectonic plate shift” of September 11. He has spoken only of threats, and in recent months, his emphasis on American autonomy and his reliance on military solutions has become even more pronounced. For example:

• In May the administration “unsigned” the treaty negotiated by the Clinton administration establishing the International Criminal Court; it then attempted to destroy the court by threatening to veto UN peace-keeping missions unless the Security Council overrode the treaty and gave Americans on these missions blanket immunity from prosecution. Canada, Mexico, and the European allies all pro-tested so forcefully that the administration agreed to put the matter off for a year.

• That same month Bush signed a strategic arms treaty with Putin; but the treaty states merely that the two sides will reduce their active forces to a level of 2,200 warheads by 2012, at which point the treaty will lapse. Administration officials recognize that Russia’s huge stocks of poorly secured nuclear weapons and fissile materials could find their way to rogue states or terrorists; so could unemployed Russian experts willing to give assistance in making chemical and biological weapons. Yet the administration thus far has made no new effort to deal with any of these threats, and the treaty has merely added to the possible dangers, for it contains no provision for the destruction of launchers and no verification procedures that would allow the US to monitor what happens to the 4,000 decommissioned Russian warheads. It also permits either side to withdraw from the treaty on three months’ notice.1

• American troops continue to search for al-Qaeda units in Afghanistan, yet the administration still refuses to allow an international force to help secure the countryside outside Kabul. As a result, the Kabul government cannot extend its authority, reconstruction efforts cannot go forward, and many parts of the country have reverted to the warlordism from which the Taliban and al-Qaeda emerged during the 1990s.

• In a speech on June 1 Bush announced a new doctrine of preemptive warfare. As leaks from the Pentagon later revealed, US military commanders were at his request preparing detailed plans for an attack on Iraq involving up to 250,000 American troops. On June 24 Bush, after making and breaking a promise to intervene in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, essentially withdrew the US from the Middle East “peace process” for an indefinite period by calling upon the Palestinians to reject Arafat and build a working democracy before he gave them any assistance. Apparently he had decided to let Sharon deal with the Palestinians while he went ahead with an attempt to bring down Saddam Hussein.

The Bush administration has clearly broken with the internationalist premises that have been accepted by every other administration since World War II—with the exception of Reagan’s first. The lack of debate over foreign policy since September 11 has obscured the rift, but to recall Bush senior’s approach to foreign policy is to see just how radical the change is—and to raise the question of how it came about only eight years later.

A conservative and a “realist” who was much influenced by the approach of Kissinger and Nixon, especially in their dealings with China and the Soviet Union, George Bush senior was slow to grasp the revolutionary nature of Gorbachev’s reforms and the importance of conflicts within states, such as those in Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. But he was a confirmed multilateralist, who believed in respecting international law. An experienced diplomat, he did much to persuade Gorbachev, Thatcher, and Mitterrand to agree to the reunification of Germany within NATO. He created the Gulf War coalition and organized the 1992 peace conference in Madrid that brought the Israelis and the Palestinians together for the first time. He believed in prudence and caution. During the revolutions in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union he took care not to provoke a backlash from conservatives in Moscow. Still, he took one considerable risk. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, he and his advisers, Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker III, with the active support of Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, managed the greatest disarmament effort in history, deactivating thousands of nuclear weapons.

The contrast between the approaches of Bush senior and Bush junior is all the more remarkable since many of those who served in national security posts in the first Bush administration now serve in the second. But the differences between father and son correspond to the differences between the Republican Party of Eisenhower and Nixon and the more ideologically coherent Republican Party that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, its strength in the South and the Southwest. The new party was well represented in the Reagan administration; it was less well represented in that of Bush senior; but it was under Bush senior that its post– cold war foreign policy began to take shape.


When I talked with him a few months ago, Brent Scowcroft pointed to a more specific reason for the difference between the foreign policies of father and son. Asked about the ideological conflict between Powell and others in the administration, he said, “That’s as much an accident of personalities as anything else.” He added, “We used to have strong arguments and many differences of perspective, but they were all kept inside the administration. The President decided, and that was it. So it’s partly a question of how conflict is handled. It’s more public now.”

Scowcroft, in his polite way, was saying that Bush junior, who came to the presidency without any knowledge of foreign affairs, could not make decisions or manage dissent as his more knowledgeable and experienced father had. He was also talking about another accident of personalities. In A World Transformed, the memoir that he and Bush senior published in 1998, Scowcroft makes it clear that while all Bush senior’s top advisers had different perspectives, the fundamental division lay between Defense Secretary Richard Cheney and everyone else. By his account, and by those of others in the administration, Cheney never trusted Gorbachev. In 1989 Cheney maintained that Gorbachev’s reforms were largely cosmetic and that, rather than engage with the Soviet leader, the US should stand firm and keep up cold war pressures. In September 1991 Cheney argued that the administration should take measures to speed the breakup of the Soviet Union—even at the risk of encouraging violence and incurring long-term Russian hostility. He opposed the idea, which originated with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell, that the US should withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe and South Korea. As a part of the preparations for the Gulf War he asked Powell for a study on how small nuclear weapons might be used against Iraqi troops in the desert.

  1. 1

    See the article in these pages by Steven Weinberg, “The Growing Nuclear Danger,” The New York Review, July 18, 2002.

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