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America’s foreign policymakers would never fail to take into account the concerns of other nations—yet this is the perception that is held by many politicians in Europe and the Middle East. The revolt of the French in all matters pertaining to Iraq can only be understood as a protest against the intransigence of U.S. foreign policy and its insensitivity to the views and concerns of other governments. This act of protest and similar ones in the U.N. are primarily the result of the mixed signals given by the members of President George W. Bush’s cabinet.
This disconnect between reality and perception can be traced to the way the various arms of government have been managed. Though President Bush has been consistent in his speeches, the Department of Defense and the State Department have often failed to agree upon key issues of policy—or have been so ambiguous as to seem contradictory. At one point, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced on NBC that the administration was “working for a peaceful resolution in Iraq” only two days after Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld stated on CNN that the regime change was and had been “government policy for a long time.” Under circumstances like these, presidential damage control has often been lacking, with Bush seldom clarifying these differences or taking center stage until the damage has been done.
The problem arises from the redefinition of the roles of Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense under the Bush administration. In previous administrations the Secretary of State has negotiated the path set by the President, divining a clear path through diplomatic entanglement. The Secretary of Defense, on the other hand, has quietly plotted for worst case scenarios, taking the fore only when all else had failed—much as Rumsfeld had when he was the 13th and not the 21st Secretary of Defense. Under the Bush administration these two roles have been reversed. As a result, since Sept. 11, it has been Rumsfeld who has not only divined the course but in many cases preempted the President in making policy.
Over a summer when Powell surveyed the ground in Afghanistan and tried to calm the Middle East, Rumsfeld was already rattling the saber at Iraq. In an Oct. 24 interview on CNN, Rumsfeld pushed the regime change line in Iraq, offering no guarantee that the U.S. would back down even if Saddam Hussein were to completely disarm and comply with all U.N. regulations.
More particularly damaging was that the President had explicitly not ruled out restraint in the case of Iraq. While Rumsfeld tried to defend his position in an interview with the American Forces Press Service by saying that regime change had been policy since the Clinton administration, Bush was insisting that war with Iraq was a worst case scenario.
And though Colin Powell has been at the forefront of current developments in the U.N., the last year has left no doubt in the eyes of many nations that his purpose is to appease and remunerate, not negotiate. Rumsfeld’s peculiar prominence was crystallized when CNN interviewer Jim Clancy told the Secretary of Defense that people around the world “probably know you better than they do George W. Bush.” The President now seems less executive and more regent than he has ever been before—an acute problem for his reputation abroad given the low esteem in which his intellect is held by the foreign press.
The Bush administration will be judged by its acts and not its words in such times and its actions have probably forfeited its chance to save itself. It is extremely doubtful that Bush can achieve any foreign policy objectives multilaterally due to the inconsistency of his administration—at once calling for both talks and military action even as troops line up along the border. It is difficult for the international community to take his petitions to negotiate as anything but an ultimatum to legitimate his actions for the benefit of all.
Unilateralism looks little better. Without the legitimacy bestowed by international support a war in Iraq could lead to more extremism in Middle Eastern nations, many of which are already tinderboxes of bad governance and extremism. U.S. attempts to form a stable government in Iraq would be opposed by militants from all sides, making the country a pawn in the showdown between western liberalism and Islamic extremism—hardly a desirable fate for the Iraqi people.
For the Bush government the only answer can be to lick its wounds and withdraw. It may be optimistic to think that the world will forgive Bush if he replaces Rumsfeld with a better-disciplined Secretary of Defense. However, it is an absolute certainty that other nations will forgive the American people if they lead regime change by example.
Alex B.H. Turnbull ’05 is an environmental studies and public policy concentrator in Quincy House.
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