Skip to content
Attacks redefine Bush foreign policy
What a difference a war makes.
When George W. Bush was inaugurated last year, he was widely seen as a neophyte in world affairs. During the campaign, he'd been caught short on the names of foreign leaders. He came to office with limited foreign travel, much of it on vacations. And little of his father's long diplomatic experience -- at the United Nations, the CIA, in China and during his own presidency -- seemed to have rubbed off. The younger Bush required extensive briefing before his first official trips within the Americas and to Europe.
Yet a year later, Bush's presidency has been shaped most distinctly by his bold foreign policy. It already looks to be the nucleus of his legacy. It wasn't by choice, of course. Bush set out to be a domestic president whose top priorities were to cut taxes and reform education. But Sept. 11 forced his hand -- and transformed his presidency and approach to the world.
"Before Sept. 11, the Bush administration disdained foreign intervention, was distrustful of working with other countries to achieve international outcomes, was disengaging from international treaties, did not support nation-building and did not believe in bailing out financially troubled emerging markets," said Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.
"It had tense relations with China and Russia, considered Mexico its best friend and viewed Pakistan as a pariah. But after 9/11, all of those things were reversed. In essence, the Bush administration has had two foreign policies -- one before 9/11 and one after."
The difference is striking. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's early travels defined the initial agenda: a Mideast trip to push streamlined sanctions on Iraq; a Balkan tour to prevent yet another regional war in Macedonia; an African trek to focus attention on the AIDS pandemic; a summit of the Americas in Canada to promote regional trade and unity.
The initial tone of Bush's foreign policy also contrasted sharply with the schmoozing outreach of the Clinton era. Bush's "America first" philosophy often came across as defiantly go-it-alone. And to many, even allies, it signaled selective disengagement from the world.
For critics, the code word was "unilateralism" -- making decisions without worrying much about other countries' reactions. Richard Haass, director of policy planning at the State Department, countered by calling it "multilateralism a la carte."
Either way, the new tenor of Bush's foreign policy was evident on key issues: The White House initially said it wanted to pull U.S. troops out of the Balkans; it shied from serious intervention in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; it held big powers China and Russia at arm's length.
The administration also had some early collisions. It irked allies by balking at the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. It triggered new anger from China by pledging to defend Taiwan at whatever cost. It set off alarm bells worldwide by revealing its intention to withdraw from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty.
"Before Sept. 11, the Bush administration pursued a very dangerous set of policies without any sense of the consequences around the world for its unilateral approach," said James Steinberg, former deputy national security advisor in the Clinton administration. "They were on a very troubling course."
Then four U.S. passenger planes were converted into weapons of mass destruction in attacks that left an entire nation in mourning -- and feeling threatened.
The Bush administration, with singular determination and energy, responded by engaging with the world to launch a global campaign against terrorism.
The balance sheet for Bush's first year is, as a result, heavily weighted by conduct over the last four months. And, although still far from over, the Afghan campaign to rout the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network has won Bush unprecedented popularity from the public and praise from potential critics.
Bush record lauded by former Clinton aides
"The Bush administration has done a very good job up to now in Afghanistan," said Madeleine Albright, secretary of State under President Clinton.
Added Steinberg: "The administration has handled the war extremely well, not only in operations on the ground but in effectively rallying public and international support."
Part of the administration's success is the product of a policy flip-flop. To freeze terrorist assets and track down cells in dozens of countries, the administration had to reverse course in its dealings with other nations.
The Sept. 11 attacks were "a wake-up call about the utility of multilateralism or coalitions," said Terry Diebel of National Defense University in Washington. "When Republicans think about multilateralism, they think principally of its constraining aspects. But in these circumstances, it makes it possible to do things that you otherwise couldn't do. And to their credit, they adjusted."
Bush may not deserve all the credit for the success, others say. In contrast to the Clinton years, the public appetite for action made a war possible, popular and even necessary for the first time in a decade -- since 1991's Operation Desert Storm against Iraq.
"The great shift [between the two administrations] was not that the weenies were gone and replaced by men with hair on their chest. It was Sept. 11," said Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies. "The country is now willing to pay more."
By its own reckoning, the Bush administration has scored other successes in its first year: Relations with Russia have been transformed; ties have deepened with Pakistan and India, without a tilt in either direction for the first time in decades; Northern Ireland is back on the peace track.
The White House struck an agreement with Moscow to slash nuclear warheads by two-thirds. And with minimum protest from Russia, it abrogated the ABM treaty and is plowing ahead with tests for a missile defense system.
"That's not an inconsiderable list," said a senior administration official.
Critics counter that some key gains were a byproduct of the global mood change after Sept. 11.
"They have used the successful prosecution of the war to put through controversial parts of their agenda," Mandelbaum said.
Policymakers admit to some frustrations
Bush's top policymakers concede that their first year also ended with discouraging negatives.
The labored Mideast peace process, seemingly close to resolution a year ago, now appears further away from success than at any time since the Palestinians and Israelis signed peace accords in 1993.
A recession has slowed growth in 80% of world markets. And despite a new round of trade talks that began two months ago, there are still powerful forces -- including European allies -- opposed to taking further steps to open markets.
Policymakers admit frustration on other fronts, from China to transnational issues such as acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
The administration's dealings with the Chinese got off to a rocky start due to the showdown over a U.S. spy plane. Relations began to mend with Bush's visit to China in October, but both sides remain wary.
"It's still a relationship not well defined," said the senior administration official. "There's a strong debate in both capitals about the nature of the relationship."
After Powell's African trip, the AIDS pandemic was accepted as a foreign policy problem worthy of attention by the administration. But so far, it is being "managed, not solved," the official added.
What began as a promising set of initiatives with Mexico seems to be forgotten or abandoned. And there's little new overall policy on Latin America.
Several other issues have been left hanging.
"On the environment, it's a catastrophe. They promised to come up with an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol and they haven't," said Steinberg, now director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Beyond specifics, many U.S. analysts are concerned about a long-term vision for foreign policy, which they charge is still lacking.
"The president shouldn't be congratulated for popularity of 90% because he is not taking many of the essential steps needed in the long run," said Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank.
The military campaign in Afghanistan was a "no-brainer," he added, that dealt with a specific problem but not the trend behind it.
"This is a time not only for strong inspirational leadership but also for a new architecture of world politics. We're now moving into new territory, and I'm not sure the administration has an appreciation of the complexities or hard choices that have to be made. I haven't seen any of that thinking so far," Simes said.
As it begins its second year, the Bush administration faces three broad questions: Which of its first-year policies will prevail in 2002? Will the administration be able to convert the Afghan victory into the beginnings of a stable postwar order for both that region and the world? And will the president divert sufficient attention from the war on terrorism to address the growing list of the world's other woes?
New Year's predictions are mixed.
Some see the glass half empty. "The Clinton-Gore foreign policy had a sense of global destination, with the United States intending to arrive there with others," said Leon Fuerth, former national security advisor to Vice President Al Gore, now at George Washington University. "There is no such sense with this administration."
Others see the glass half full. Naim, the editor of Foreign Policy, said rather than viewing the two foreign policies of 2001 as contradictory, he saw the evolution as a sign of flexibility and adaptability.
"'We could have had a group of staunch ideologues that in the face of 9/11 could have continued to espouse the views they offered in the campaign," he said. "Instead, they were willing to shed their electoral promises and platforms and react in a pragmatic, measured way that has proven to be very effective."