Axis of Incompetence

If the administration's foreign-policy apparat (minus the increasingly isolated Colin Powell) were placed under one roof -- Rice, Rumsfeld, and Reich; Perle, Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Bush -- what watchword would be inscribed over the door? No, not "Abandon all hope, ye who enter." There are any number of supplicants who should not abandon hope -- Latin American putschsters, China's Leninist social Darwinists, the Colombian paramilitary, Ariel Sharon, even al-Qaeda terrorists scrambling over mountaintops with no U.S soldiers around to impede them. If not Dante, then, the inscription could be provided by another immortal. Casey Stengel, whose term in purgatory managing the '62 Mets prompted the deathless line that fits the Bush gang to a tee, said, "Can't anybody here play this game?"

Apparently not. In record time, the Bush administration's foreign policy has become a cosmic shambles -- its interventions increasingly ineffectual and counterproductive; its refusals to intervene only making bad situations worse; its unilateralism undone by the impossibility, even for the world's superpower, of going it alone; its Manichaeism unsustainable in the face of complex, not to mention simple, realities; and its president's pronouncements good for the life span of a gnat.

Herewith, just a few instances in which our government has charged uphill and back down again:

The Middle East: Initially this was the one problem area on which all groups within the administration concurred: The United States should stay out of the growing Israeli-Palestinian conflict; there was nothing it could do. A more stunningly self-fulfilling prophecy is hard to recall. In recent weeks, the Mideast has become the one problem area in which administration disagreements produce self-negating positions on an hourly basis. The very day the United States supports a United Nations resolution demanding Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank, the president defends Israel's "right of self defense." As Powell trundles from Sharon to Yasir Arafat to promote de-escalation, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld back Sharon's offensive and the poor president, beset by conflicting counsel, is left spinning like a top. Powell's trip enters the history books as the U.S. diplomatic mission most completely undermined by its own government. The manifest need for the United States to impose itself (and some allied forces) between Israel and Palestine is lost in the shuffle.

Afghanistan: After campaigning for more than a year as the Anti-Clinton, George W. Bush has been compelled to embrace two fundamental Clintonian policies. First -- for the better -- he has reluctantly concluded that nation building is the responsibility of a great power after all, particularly because, in its absence, Afghanistan might quickly revert to a state of semi-anarchy in which terrorists could resume their pre September 11 activities. Second -- for worse -- after all the rhetorical bravado that the Bush presidency would never pull a punch in a military action, the administration decided to fight the same kind of high-tech, no-ground-troops, low-casualty war that Clinton waged, successfully if belatedly, in the Kosovo war. What ultimately worked in that case, however, was bound to fizzle in a war where success was measured by our capture of Osama bin Laden, dead or alive. With most U.S. intelligence analysts agreeing that bin Laden slipped through our surrogates' lines at Tora Bora (our surrogates being the local chapter of Rent-A-Warrior) while U.S. soldiers were kept far from harm, Bush's mighty vow -- not just to get bin Laden but to wage the appropriate war -- looks mighty hollow.

Latin America: From the moment that Bush gave the Latin American desk at the State Department to Otto Reich, one of the architects of the Iran-contra idiocy, the Venezuelan coup may have been a fait accompli (though clearly less accompli than its architects had thought). Whatever winks, nods, and secret handshakes may have preceded the coup, it's plain that the administration did nothing to stop it. (And it was hardly a secret: A number of hours before it began, The Financial Times ran a front-page story headlined, "Chavez on the Brink as Military Looks Set to Act."). Worse, the White House welcomed the coup with all speed and no apparent deliberation. Latin American presidents, meeting in Costa Rica, jointly condemned the coup just as White House spokesman Ari Fleischer hailed it. In a mind-boggling display of worst-case unilateralism, the administration had neglected to consult any of them before issuing its praise. But this was of a piece with such kindred hemispheric confidence-building measures as our speeding the collapse of the Argentine economy and failing to deliver on the immigration reform so crucial to Mexico. For good measure, the administration remains bent on further militarizing the drug war in Colombia, although (or because) much of that aid ends up diverted to the army and its paramilitary adjuncts for their war on guerrillas, union activists, and peasants in areas of uncertain loyalties.

How to account for such thoroughgoing disarray? First, it's clear that Bush's foreign policy is shaped chiefly by ideologues whose perspectives both reinforce each other's and inform the president's keep-it-simple weltanschauung. Powell's is increasingly a dissenting voice, and, with few allies, all he has to bolster his case are the facts on the ground. In this White House, that's usually not enough.

The assumptions behind the various tendencies that make up Bush's foreign policy are many, but not all that varied. Contemporary conservatives of virtually every stripe tend to see this jumbled world as starkly divided into two opposing camps, much as their conservative forebears had subsumed all conflicts under the clash of East and West. From Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, conservatives tried to squeeze all the world's disorders into this template, which periodically led them (their nation in tow) to charge into one cul-de-sac after another -- to the greater good of very few. But they weren't wrong about the existence of those two camps, or that one was fundamentally evil. (And, as they never acknowledged, the other occasionally and ambiguously so.)

Bush has tried to sustain those clear demarcations that informed (or misinformed ) his father's and grandfather's generations. Confronting al-Qaeda after 9-11, that was easy, and he justly had his nation's (and much of the world's) support. But dividing up the world between the friends of terror and the friends of man has proved trickier. There are friends of terror in the oil bidness; are they friend or foe? There are friends of freedom and democracy in Western Europe, welfare-loving cosmopolitans who increasingly hate our guts; what are they?

Among those sustaining and shaping Bush's perspective are Cold War nostalgists such as Reich, whom Bush has stashed away throughout the State and Defense departments. There are Hobbesian tough guys (a strain John B. Judis identified in his column "The Real Foreign-Policy Debate," TAP, May 6, 2002) such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who put their trust not in the shared values or common interests of nations, but solely in our own armed might -- the geopolitical counterparts of the survivalist who's stored his food and water and means to defend it with his gun. (The administration's contempt for treaties, international standards, and compacts is of a piece with the survivalist's contempt for the sheriff and the judge.) There are Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, both nostalgists and survivalists. No Hans Morganthau realists, no Woodrow Wilson idealists need apply in this administration; they are either too entangled in the world as it is or too committed to its betterment.

Finally, not enough attention has been paid to the foreign policy milieu of Bush himself -- the specific political, cultural, and generational cohorts he both personifies and leads. In fact the dominant wing of the Republican Party -- the Southern and more particularly Texas wing -- has its own distinct approach to the wider world, if not to modernity itself. Bush shares that approach with fellow Texans Dick Armey -- the House majority leader, who's boasted of never having traveled to Europe -- and House Whip Tom DeLay, who's lately taken to voicing his misgivings about the Enlightenment. The president, we all know, is not simply incurious about the world but clearly reluctant to see it: He took all of one European trip in the 48 years before he became governor. What he did know of the world was that its values were far (and getting farther) from the cultural traditionalism and laissez-faire capitalism he knew and liked. Sure, his father and his father's guys -- James Baker above all -- were comfortable in that wider world. Early on, though, he must have grasped that that kind of cosmopolitanism (however limited) was beyond him. So he went the other way and found a new right-wing generation happy to accompany him. Bush, Armey, DeLay, Trent Lott, Dennis Hastert -- they're provincials and proud of it. They revel in a parochialism that would have made even Reagan (who, after all, came from Hollywood) a bit uneasy. When the world is not to their liking, they despise and dismiss it.

Bush not only revives the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American tradition of shunning foreign entitlements, then; he takes it to a new level. At the heart of the administration's foreign policy is something both old and disquietingly new: simple xenophobia.

For the world's only superpower, this is passing strange, not to mention completely dysfunctional. The administration's willful insularity subverts many of America's forays into strange (and familiar) lands. Worse, at a time when the need for concerted global action -- to address economic inequality, environmental degradation, and climate change, to list only the most basic crises -- could not be clearer, America's abdication has become the primary obstacle to doing the planet's business. Thanks to the president's unilateralism uber-alles-approach, the Kyoto Treaty and the International Criminal Court have been crippled at birth.

The Bush administration's reluctant interventions and hasty withdrawals, its start-and-stop initiatives, and its shock at complexity are all of a piece with its fundamental xenophobia. A more sustainable global order is stillborn, as the superpower sulks in its tent.

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