Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Doctrine undone

Five years and twenty-seven days. From birth to death, the life span of a Doctrine.

The Bush Doctrine was born on September 11, 2001 and died on October 8, 2006. Rest in Peace.

History will judge the damage that was done to our nation in the intervening years through our determined unilateralism, our righteous castigation of any nation not heeling to our lead, and our arrogation unto ourselves of the right to interpret international law.

Perhaps, as Dick Cheney suggests, history will judge he and the President as visionaries, who unique among the leaders of the western nations understood the threats of our time and stood their ground. Or perhaps this will be judged as an era when America’s most cherished principles were not lived out in our politics, and when the American people failed the American purpose.

The irony of the Bush Doctrine, however, is not that it sidestepped democratic principles even as it claimed to build democracy in the world, but rather that for all of its unapologetic assertion of military power––of the using America’s might to rid the world of the terrorist scourge––it was a strategic failure. If the televised images New Orleans after Katrina pulled back the curtain and exposed the domestic failures and indifference of the administration, North Korea’s dramatic entry into the elite club of nuclear nations gave the lie to all of the muscular rhetoric that has characterized the Administration’s foreign policy.

Since its designation as a Charter Member of the Axis of Evil, North Korea has sat in the cross-hairs of American strategic rhetoric. The President, commander-in-chief of a massive military machine and possessed of a proven willingness to pull the trigger, set forth his strategic doctrine in no uncertain terms: It was unacceptable for North Korea to continue with its nuclear program and it would be intolerable for North Korea to become a nuclear power.

For his part, faced with the prospect of becoming the next Axis power to be crushed in the name of the Bush Doctrine, Kim Jong Il pushed his nuclear program forward. Then, last week––undoubtedly emboldened the President’s diminished political support and seeing the American military straining at the combined demands of the wars already on its plate––Kim pushed all of his chips into the center of the table and called the President’s bluff.

Surely, it was a moment for which the administration had prepared. Surely, after years of beating the drums of regime change, they understood that developing a nuclear capacity was the sole deterrent to American power for regimes under threat. Surely, after years of forswearing direct negotiations with North Korea as a high-stakes strategy to force concessions, the Bush administration had a Plan B in mind in the event that Kim declined to blink.

Surely not, as it turned out. Within one week of the nuclear detonation, the Bush Doctrine unraveled before the world. Faced with a real weapon of mass destruction, held by an unstable regime starved for cash and with a proven willingness to proliferate, there were no calls for a new coalition of the willing. The Secretary of State did not travel to the capitals of power in Paris, London, Berlin or Moscow, or to the front-line capitals in Seoul, Tokyo or Peking as Plan B was put in place. There was no Plan B. Instead, President Bush stood before the world and did what those Democratic leaders his supporters so despise might do: he took the military option off the table and hailed United Nations sanctions as the appropriate response to North Korea’s formal arrival as a nuclear power.

Within one week, the unacceptable was accepted, and the intolerable became tolerated. Within one week the Bush Doctrine of forward defense, preemptive war and aggressive unilateralism was replaced with what can at best be described as a new commitment to Containment, the oldest of doctrines of the nuclear world. One week and one bomb later, the President’s once-strident Neoconservatism gave way. Now, the President praised the United Nations and the value of collective action. He lauded the importance of tough diplomacy. He eschewed suggestions of a military response. And he embraced sanctions.

After all of the threats, after all of the posturing, after all of the swaggering cowboy rhetoric, the question was called, and the American response was…. Sanctions.

The rhetorical urges that were part and parcel of the Bush Doctrine die hard, however. Two days after the North Korean test, Condi Rice was at it again. Visibly angry as she stood before the gathered media, Rice conceded that the United States did not intend to attack North Korea, but insisted that they now faced “international condemnation and international sanctions unlike anything that they have faced before.” She then turned her verbal rapier toward Russia and China, insisting on what they must now do in the face of North Korea’s intransigence.

But Rice was flailing. The days of unilateralism are over, but her rhetoric has not yet adjusted to the new reality. The reality is what it has always been. Russian and China, like North Korea––and every other state for that matter––will pursue the path that they believe serves their own self-interest. The sooner she stops talking and starts listening, the sooner a new strategic doctrine can emerge that might enable American leadership to once again have meaning in the world.

What we are left with is worse than just a failed strategic doctrine, for today the world is a far more dangerous place. Just as the credibility and capacity of America’s military as a deterrent force in the world has been degraded by the war in Iraq, America’s credibility and capacity to lead in the world has been diminished by five years of hectoring and self-righteous leadership. Iran, on the one hand, looms as a far greater threat than North Korea to our strategic interests, and they well understand that the bankruptcy of the Bush Doctrine leaves them with far greater latitude to pursue their own nuclear and regional ambitions. Al Qaeda and the Sunni Jihadists, on the other, continue to benefit from the images televised across the Islamic world of American troops at war in a Muslim land.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world, beginning with our allies and extending to those such as Russia and China, whose support is critical to our political and economic future, must be waiting with great interest and anticipation to see how our national leadership responds in what may be an historic opportunity. Will we embrace the opportunity to reach out and rebuild our alliances? Will we show some of the humility in the world that Candidate George Bush suggested six long years ago? Will we return to our isolationist tendencies and withdraw from the world? Or will our President push ahead, his rhetoric intact, his spirit undaunted, but as an emperor unclothed before the world?

Unfortunately, this President has not proven to have great insight into when things are not going well, and deplores admissions of failure. But there is hope. Jim Baker has begun to assert himself into the national scene, and in the weeks following the November election we may yet see the elders of the Bush clan finally wake up, before the New World Order that the President’s father proclaimed not so very long ago is completely undone by the messianic and misguided ambitions of his son.

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