Can Bush Afford to Stay the Course?

Rarely has the Mideast been so tense or U.S. relations with Europe more strained. Is Bush prepared to try a new tack? The signs aren't good

By Stan Crock

President George W. Bush will find his plate overflowing with contentious foreign-policy issues in his second term in office. The Iraqi election, scheduled for January, could produce a new government at odds with Washington. Iran is proceeding with a nuclear program, and efforts to thwart what is widely believed to be an Iranian nuclear-weapons program could move to the top of the agenda. And by the spring, the Administration will have to decide whether to get involved in Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.

Indeed, not since Richard M. Nixon in 1972 has a President faced so much turmoil on the world stage after reelection. Notes Rand Beers, national-security adviser to Bush rival John F. Kerry: "Nixon only had Vietnam and dealing with the Soviets."

Iraq, Iran, and Israel offer opportunities, too. If efforts to quell Iraq's current chaos in Fallujah succeed and Iraqis elect a representative, broadly supported government, that stunning achievement would send a message to other hostile regimes in the region. Talks with Iran could produce a new template for dealing with nuclear-club wannabes. And Israel's withdrawal from Gaza settlements, with Yassir Arafat out of the picture, could spark a positive new dynamic in the Israeli-Palestinian standoff.


  To make the most of these chances, a second Bush Administration would be wise to rely more on diplomatic deftness than military might -- a sharp departure from the first term. But there are few signs Bush will change his approach -- even if there are personnel changes in his Cabinet. While there has been talk of a less hawkish second term, "I haven't seen a lot of hard evidence," says one Administration insider.

The full-blown offensive against Iraqi insurgents in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah could set the tone for the second term. "We'll see an aggressive military campaign in Iraq to clean the place up and make sure elections are held in January," predicts Ed Rogers, a Republican consultant with business interests in Iraq.

Eliminating safe havens for terrorists may ultimately be necessary, but military victory could come at a great political cost. Heavy civilian casualties could produce a popular backlash. "Taking over a town is not the hard part," says Kenneth Pollack, a National Security Council Iraq expert in the Clinton Administration. "The hard part is keeping it."

The Bush Administration would like more help from abroad, especially on debt forgiveness and training troops. The President says he has "political capital now" after his victory and intends to spend it at home. But he has capital on the world stage now, too. The Europeans and other allies have no choice but to live with Bush for four more years.


  He faces one immediate challenge: More than a dozen members of the coalition, including Poland, Hungary, Spain, and New Zealand, recently announced that they have withdrawn troops, definitely plan to pull them out, or are mulling doing so.   Why? Though foreign elites fret about estrangement from Washington, the biggest problem for foreign leaders is confronting popular opposition to the invasion -- and limited military resources. "There will be no German troops in Iraq," declares Karsten Voigt, a German Foreign Ministry official.

Dominique Moisi, a scholar at the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, adds that "the French Army is already overstretched," and help from Paris would be limited to training police or civil servants. It may not be merely a matter of resources. "A lot of Europeans are fearful of America as the only superpower," notes Andrew Cooper, managing director of London polling firm Populus.

Even if the Iraqis manage to pull off an election in January -- a date many experts think is optimistic -- it could be a hollow victory for Washington. A new government may try to show it's not a U.S. puppet by becoming far more contentious. It may even ask U.S. forces to leave if it concludes that they are more part of the problem than the solution.


  The options over Iran aren't any more attractive. The U.S. has been sitting back as the Europeans negotiate a deal to hamstring Tehran's alleged plan to build a bomb. France, Britain, and Germany are pushing a trade deal providing more nuclear-fuel supplies in exchange for strict curbs on Iran's nuclear facilities. The Europeans' idea -- which could be applied to other countries -- is that Tehran would have no access to nuclear enrichment, a key element of bomb-making.

Bush isn't standing in the way of such a deal, but his aides expressed doubts the approach will work. Iran reneged on a previous deal with Europe. The fear is that Iran might cut a deal to gain access to commercial nuclear technology, then secretly use that know-how to work on a bomb.

The Bush Administration believes that, at some point, it will end up bringing Iran before the U.N. Security Council, an institution the Bush team derided in its first term, and seek sanctions. But Iran has cards to play, too: Its strong economic ties to Europe and Asia could make U.N. support for sanctions problematical.

Besides, getting the votes would require a diplomatic suppleness the Bush team has rarely shown. Indeed, China may block the International Atomic Energy Agency from referring Iran to the U.N. in the first place. Shiite Tehran certainly seems bent on obtaining a nuclear bomb, either as a matter of Persian pride or as a deterrent in a rough, Sunni-dominated neighborhood. Even if the current talks bear some fruit in the short run, crafting a long-term solution to stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons will be a tough task.


  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict could come off the back burner, too. As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proceeds with his plan to withdraw settlers from the West Bank in a year, Palestinian hardliners may try to attack Israel to make it seem as if they are being pushed out. Sharon no doubt would strike back. Some experts think the U.S. must step in and manage negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel so the Palestinians can take over Gaza peacefully.

But the Administration seems loath to get involved, especially with the Palestinians. "We're helping them already by beating them about the head and shoulders," says a senior Administration official. "The Palestinians have to show more of a desire to organize themselves." That will take time after Arafat's passing -- time the U.S. may not have.

Washington has a chance to test the good faith of Europe, Iran, the Palestinians, and Israel. But even reasonable proposals could fall on deaf ears. These are tough challenges, and the most troubling aspect so far is that the Bush Administration may not even try to innovate or change its strategies for the next four years.

Crock covers national security and diplomacy from the Washington bureau of BusinessWeek.

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