Sounds of Silence on Foreign Policy

It's time for the Bush team to rethink how the U.S. engages the world. So far, though, it isn't saying anything, and that's not good

By Bruce Nussbaum

As the Republican Convention opens in New York, we already know what vision President Bush will be offering voters on domestic policy -- an Ownership Society of low taxes, more savings, and greater individual responsibility (see BW, 09/06/04, "Selling The Ownership Society"). But the Bush campaign has been strangely quiet on perhaps the most important issue of the day: what foreign policy it will use to engage the world, combat terrorism, and make America safe and prosperous. The silence is unsettling.

What lessons has the Administration learned from the mistakes of Iraq, and how does it plan to change course if it wins a second term? This was the question posed by Representative Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.) in a letter to his constituents announcing his retirement. The 64-year old legislator, a powerful member of the House Intelligence and International Relations Committees, solidly supported President Bush in going to war in Iraq.

But he now believes "that all things being considered, it was a mistake to launch that military action," as he stated in his letter. This admission by Bereuter, a trusted congressional Republican insider, is of the scale and importance of Robert McNamara's admission that the Vietnam War had been a mistake.


  Yet there are no apparent reverberations within the White House, no debate on how to change policy. Bereuter wrote: "I believe that launching the preemptive military action was not justified." But no discussion has emerged from the Bush camp about unilateral preemption, which may have been the most radical foreign policy change in decades.

It could be that in an age of terrorism, America needs a policy of preemption. This requires, however, the kind of intelligence that was absent in Iraq, where weapons of mass destruction were never found. And it needs an intelligence apparatus that the U.S. clearly does not have at the moment.

A policy of preemption also requires closer cooperation from allies in ferreting out terrorist cells before they act. Yet U.S. unilateralism has so offended much of Europe that such help is now jeapordized. Would a second Bush Administration address this and move toward a more multilateral foreign policy? Does the effort to bring the U.N. into Iraq and NATO into Afghanistan represent a tactical shift, or does it portend a fundamental change? No one is saying.


  Bereuter also raised the issue of military doctrine, which underlies every foreign policy. He says the Administration ignored many entreaties by knowledgeable people in Washington to send a much larger military force to Iraq, not only to conquer it but to occupy it. Had the Pentagon sent in twice as many troops, the Sunni resistance in Fallujah would have been crushed early, the looting could have been prevented, and Iraq's slide into anarchy prevented.

The Rumsfeld Doctrine of a smaller, faster force was shoved down the Army's throat with regard to Iraq. The Army is still suffering the consequences in terms of dead and wounded. But would a second Bush Administration shift back to the Powell Doctrine of using massive military might, which would mean sharply expanding the Army at great expense? Again, no comment.

Finally, Bereuter criticized the White House for giving responsibility for postwar Iraq to the Pentagon, not the State Dept. In effect, the Republican congressman raised the issue of nation-building, which may go to the heart of future foreign policy. President Bush came into office vehemently opposed to U.S. nation-building. He wanted none of it in Iraq, which is one reason all the postwar planning done at State was ignored. Such thinking was flawed, but there's no indication that would change in a second term.


  Both Afghanistan and Iraq show that bolstering failed states, extending soft power (building schools, for example), and raising living standards must be part of any long-term anti-terrorism effort. Soft power was part of the U.S. effort in fighting the Cold War. It is needed again. Yet there is no serious discussion about financing new nation-building efforts from the Bush foreign policy camp.

Indeed, instead of retooling in light of the mistakes of Iraq, the Administration shows signs of digging in and holding fast to a unilateral, preemptive course of action. If Bush is reelected, Colin Powell will probably leave the State Dept. and won't be replaced by another moderate within the Cabinet. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who has consistently sided with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is the favorite candidate to replace Powell. Vice-President Dick Cheney will remain. And the reorganization of U.S. military forces into an ever smaller, more lethal force able to win battles but not the war -- or the peace -- will continue.

Unless Bush says something different in his acceptance speech on Thursday at the Republican Convention, we must assume that foreign policy would not change much in a second term. That fear has a growing number of corporate executives moving to distance themselves from the Bush White House. Anti-Americanism is threatening U.S. brands overseas, and it may become tough for European managers to explain to customers and shareholders why they continue to do business with American corporations.

The truth is that it's virtually impossible to have a unilateral foreign policy and live in a global multilateral economy. It's also difficult for many practical executives to see the level of incompetence in foreign policy of late and not be put off. But it isn't difficult to see conservative Corporate America, like House Republican Bereuter, distancing itself from the Bush White House.

Nussbaum is editorial page editor for BusinessWeek

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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