Cornered in square one

After years of proclaiming that it understood international politics better than its predecessors, the Bush administration is now trying to undo the damage its first seven years have wrought -- trying, in effect, to take U.S. foreign policy back to where it was before President Bush was sworn in.

But the world is a very different place today, and much less advantageous to the United States. Square one, administration officials are finding, is no longer really square one.

In 2001, the administration declared a revolution in the practice and substance of U.S. foreign policy. It ridiculed liberal internationalist ideals of multilateral cooperation. It opposed using U.S. military power dressed up as “nation-building.” It wrote off global warming as Al Gore’s obsession, and it said it wouldn’t get bogged down, as its predecessors had, in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Then after 9/11, the administration went even further, developing a radical new doctrine for the preemptive use of military force. The war on terrorism became its defining issue -- indeed its supreme purpose superseding all else, strategically as well as morally.

Today, the world looks very different. And in trying to reverse the damage done during its first seven years -- including an overstretched military and a loss of global prestige and influence -- the administration, ironically, has quietly adopted many of the policies it once scorned.

At the end of his term, President Clinton was successfully working to preserve the benefits and correct the flaws in the 1994 Agreed Framework that aimed to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. After taking office in 2001, the Bush administration wrote off this progress and instead placed North Korea into the “axis of evil.” It then halfheartedly went along with the six-party talks, initiated in 2003 and hosted by China, on the security issues raised by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.Meanwhile, North Korea built more warheads, declared itself a nuclear power in 2005 and conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006.

With the problem worsening, the administration finally loosened the negotiating strictures, and a major agreement with North Korea was reached in early 2007. Although the pact has only been partly implemented and compliance is spotty, it was enough for Bush, who called Kim Jong Il a “tyrant” and “Pygmy” in 2003, to write the North Korean leader a personal “Dear Mr. Chairman” letter last month, reiterating the U.S. commitment to security guarantees for Pyongyang and other benefits if it lived up to the deal.

All well and good. But it’s a North Korea policy not that different from Clinton’s -- exchanging nuclear disarmament for economic and energy assistance with a goal of diplomatic normalization. Except now North Korea has a larger (and tested) nuclear arsenal to be dealt with.

In the Middle East, the Bush administration backed off the traditional U.S. role of peace broker between Arabs and Israelis. “The road to Jerusalem,” it explained, “runs through Baghdad.” In other words, ousting Saddam Hussein was the key to unlocking a Palestinian-Israeli deal. Yet even after Hussein’s fall, U.S. peace efforts amounted to little more than drive-by diplomacy, a trip here and a speech there but no sustained campaign to secure a settlement in the decades-old conflict.

Then late last year, at the peace conference in Annapolis, Md., the U.S. revived its role as Mideast peace broker. Last week, Bush even flew to the region and met with the principals to get the process off the ground. But the obstacles to a settlement seem greater now than when Bush took office. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is weak and fragmented. Hamas controls Gaza. The Israeli public feels less secure and more encircled by hostile foes in large part because of the war in Iraq. And seven years of West Bank settlements have further radicalized Palestinian youth.

In Iraq, the success attributed to the surge led by Gen. David H. Petraeus has returned the country to levels of violence no worse than in 2004. Whether the progress in security can be sustained is fundamentally a political issue, and one for which the prospects remain poor. The Iraqi government has not passed major legislation for sharing oil revenue, reversing the extremes of de-Baathification or revising election laws -- all benchmarks considered crucial to fostering trust and some reconciliation among the country’s religious and ethnic groups.

But the idea that Iraq would be the leading edge of democratization of Arab countries in the Mideast is seldom heard anymore. And while the situation is completely different from what it was in 2000 -- Hussein is gone, there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in the country and there is a democratically elected government -- success in Iraq in 2008 is defined, for all intents and purposes, as containment: no weapons of mass destruction, no terrorist havens and no spillover of internal violence into other countries. That’s a policy a lot like Clinton’s.

The big winner of the Iraq war has been Iran, whose influence in the region has multiplied, particularly in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza. After 9/11, and again in 2003, the Bush administration effectively rebuffed potential opportunities to improve relations with Iran when the Iranians hinted at a willingness to bargain.And it joined the European Union-led talks on Iran’s nuclear program late in the game. Throughout, U.S. rhetoric toward Iran, also branded a member of the axis of evil, became increasingly bellicose, with threats of military action if Iran continued to pursue nuclear weapons.

The end result of all this? Well, it turns out that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003, according to a recent National Intelligence Estimate, though the country is continuing its nuclear fuel enrichment program. So the goal now is to constrain Iran’s nuclear program and limit its reach in the region while waiting for political change inside the country to alter the terms of the game in our favor. If U.S. policy succeeds in 2008, the outcome will look remarkably like it did in 2000, when a change of leadership in Iran led to U.S. overtures for better relations.

But the next president will not be starting from an international position similar to the one Bush inherited no matter how successful the administration is in undoing the damage of its failed policies. A once internationally weak and democratizing Russia has become an autocratic and provocative petro-state. China’s economy is more than twice the size of what it was in 2000, and its global influence has correspondingly risen. And a new generation of jihadists, no less committed to violence, is eager to continue the anti-America campaign.

The GOP candidates who would build on Bush’s old approach to foreign policy clearly don’t get how the world has changed. But neither do Democrats who stress reversing what Bush has done. No one should feel vindicated by the Bush administration’s reversals, because defining the future of U.S. foreign policy in terms of the past would be as big a mistake for the next president as it was for Bush.

When you are a great power, a lost decade does not simply leave you back where you started. It leaves you far behind. Our presidential candidates had better plan to do more than simply reboot the system and start over, as though the clock had stopped in January 2001.

Steven Weber is professor of political science and director of the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley. Bruce W. Jentleson is professor of public policy studies and political science at Duke University.