The president has consistently talked a good game when it comes to democracy promotion, stopping weapons proliferation and other important goals, but his actions have just as consistently fallen short. Inaction is defensible -- because there is always a good case to be made for caution in international affairs. But why then has his rhetoric been so incautious? The combination leads to the suspicion that there is no underlying strategy, merely a disconnect between what the White House speechwriters churn out and what the rest of the government actually does.
To judge by the president's speech last week at West Point, the gap isn't diminishing in his final days in office. He gave a belligerent address that echoed his statements from the immediate post-9/11 period. Once again we heard stirring words:
"We resolved that we would not wait to be attacked again, and so we went on the offense against the terrorists overseas so we never had to face them here at home. ... We understood, as I said here at West Point in 2002, 'if we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long' -- so we have made clear that governments that sponsor terror are as guilty as the terrorists -- and will be held to account. ... We're pressing nations around the world -- including our friends -- to trust their people with greater freedom of speech, and worship, and assembly."
Such pledges had a real impact in the years immediately after 9/11 when they seemed to be backed up with action. Those were the halcyon days when the Taliban and the Baathists were being overthrown, Libya was giving up its weapons of mass destruction program, Syria was pulling out of Lebanon and (if you believe the National Intelligence Estimate) Iran was suspending its development of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, in more recent years, the U.S. and its allies have been losing ground to such adversaries as Iran, North Korea, Syria, Russia, Venezuela, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. There are multiple explanations for these dispiriting developments, but surely a large part of the problem is the failure of the Bush administration to live up to President Bush's words.
"We went on the offense against the terrorists overseas"? True, except when they happened to be living in places like Iran and Syria. For all of his talk about holding governments that sponsor terrorism to account, Bush has done little to punish these malefactors.
Iran, listed by the State Department as the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, is the most egregious case. Its proxies have killed American soldiers in Iraq, democrats in Lebanon and Jews in Israel and other countries. Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that Iran has already processed 630 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, making it possible for the mullahs to acquire a working bomb in 2009. That makes a mockery of Bush's pledge in his 2002 State of the Union address that the U.S. "will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
Unlike Iran, Pakistan is not listed as an official state sponsor of terrorism, but it might well be if its nearly powerless civilian government were not deemed an American ally. The Mumbai attacks underscore the fact that major elements of the Pakistani state provide protection, and perhaps even arms and training, to jihadist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. Pakistan has also been an egregious proliferator of nuclear technology. A considerable suspension of disbelief is necessary to think that the A.Q. Khan nuclear technology ring operated without the knowledge of senior officials.
What has been Bush's response? He has rewarded Islamabad with an estimated $10 billion in aid since 2001. The most successful American policy has been the use of armed Predators to pick off individual terrorists, but this has not prevented jihadist groups in Pakistan from growing larger and more brazen.
Bush has tried to get a bit tougher with Iran, but American attempts to couple sanctions with diplomacy conducted by our European allies have not produced discernible progress. Likewise In North Korea, where Bush did an about-face, going from criticizing the 1994 Agreed Framework to essentially reenacting it. Alas, that did not prevent Pyongyang from announcing in September that it was restarting its Yongbyon reactor. Talks with North Korea broke down altogether last week.
The "freedom agenda" has suffered as much as Bush's anti-proliferation efforts. His claims to be "pressing nations around the world" on reform will come as news to dissidents like Ayman Nour, who had the temerity to run against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's 2005 presidential election and has been rotting in jail ever since, even as the U.S. continues to give Mubarak $2 billion a year in aid.
Democrats are feeling equally abandoned in such countries as Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. The U.S. was barely heard from last month when the Syrian government sentenced a dozen human-rights activists to long terms in prison.
Even in Lebanon, once judged a Bush success, Syria has been working successfully to reassert its influence at the expense of the pro-democracy movement. Hezbollah went on a rampage in May 2008, leading to an agreement negotiated with American support that gives it virtual veto power over the government.
Bush deserves credit for standing up for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. But even the president appears to be frustrated by his failure to do more.
At a democracy conference in Prague in June 2007, Bush told Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim: "You're not the only dissident. I too am a dissident in Washington. Bureaucracy in the United States does not help change."
Seldom has a president offered a more mortifying admission of his own futility. Yet Bush has not felt the need to ratchet down his promises to bring them into closer alignment with what his own administration has been able to achieve. The resulting disconnect between words and actions has created a credibility gap that Barack Obama will have to address as president.
Max Boot is a contributing editor to Opinion, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of "War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today."