Something profound has changed in American foreign policy since George Bush’s re-election last November – we’re seeing the return of a pre-9/11 preoccupation with Great Power politics and rogue states. This change is all the more remarkable since Bush won re-election mainly because he convinced a majority of Americans that he, unlike John Kerry, understood the terrorist threat and therefore would keep America safe.
Bush, no doubt, still believes this. But his foreign policy today no longer reflects the central preoccupation with terrorism that it once had. To a remarkable extent, talk of the global war on terror has all but disappeared from the president’s vocabulary in recent months. In the six months before the November elections, Bush used the phrase "war on terror" or its equivalent three times as often has he has done since. Indeed, he used the phrase less often these last six months than in the 30 days immediately prior to the elections.
Why this change? Part of the reason, surely, is that the war on terror was central to Bush’s re-election effort. "We can go to the country confidently on this issue," Karl Rove told the GOP months after the September 11 attacks, "because Americans trust the Republican Party to do a better job of keeping our communities and families safe." And it worked.
But politics provides only part of the explanation. Bush looks and talks like someone who thinks that victory in the war on terror is close at hand. One reason for his confidence is that in recent months, there has apparently been a marked decrease in the number of terrorist threats against domestic targets.
Another reason for confidence is that Bush believes his strategy of taking the war to the enemy has proven effective. The invasion of Afghanistan "severely diminished" the al Qaeda network, Bush told a primetime press conference last Thursday. "We are slowly but surely dismantling that organization." That success was followed by the war in Iraq, which Bush long has called the "central front" in the war on terror. With January’s popular elections and the installation of a new Iraqi government just last week, Bush now feels that the terrorists are on the run – and that victory is assured.
Not that Bush is right about this. He’s not. Terrorists have hardly been defeated and, if anything, the botched invasion of Iraq has done wonders for their cause. But that’s not Bush’s view, which is what ultimately matters in setting the course of American foreign policy.
Believing that terrorism has been all but beaten, the focus of Bush’s foreign policy has returned to the pre-9/11 issues of Great Power politics, rogue states, and disdaining nation building. The effort has been spearheaded by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has emerged as the undisputed leader of the new foreign policy team.
Rice has used her first trips abroad both to cement relations with old allies and to put key powers on notice that their global engagement will have to be on America’s terms. She accused Vladimir Putin’s Russia of holding to a "19th century" worldview for expressing concern about strengthened U.S. relations with Russia’s democratic neighbors. And her March trip to Asia was unmistakable in its intent to contain China through strengthened alliances with Japan and India, and support for Taiwan.
Also back on the agenda are the madmen-and-missile threat that so dominated Bush’s 2000 campaign and first months in office. Of course, the North Korean and Iranian threats were present as well after 9/11, but then the worry was about the nexus between tyrants, terrorists, and technologies of mass destructions.
That nexus is strikingly absent from the administration’s current statements, which instead focus on the nuclear missile threat North Korea and Iran pose to U.S. and allied territory. And the answer to that threat is the same as it was before terrorists attacked America – the deployment of national missile defenses.
Disdain for nation building, finally, has also made a comeback. For a few months, Bush supported a strong nation building effort in Iraq, but he has clearly given up on the effort. Responsibility for the future of Iraq now lies firmly in the hands of the Iraqis. America’s role is to train Iraqi security forces quickly so that U.S. troops can leave. The rest will be up to the Iraqis.
One major difference remains between the current foreign policy and its pre-9/11 variant – Bush’s newfound rhetoric in support of democracy, freedom, and liberty. Yet, for all the soaring rhetoric about freedom being on the march, the reality of Bush’s actions is more telling. Last March the administration decided to sell F16s to Pakistan, even though Islamabad is under direct military rule and has been the principle source of nuclear technology for North Korea, Iran, Libya, and who-knows-who-else. And just last week, Bush embraced the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and then walked hand-in-hand with him among the blue bonnets of his Crawford ranch, reminding the world that Bush may talk the democracy talk but has yet to force his autocratic allies to walk the democracy walk.
Stripped of its rhetoric, Bush’s foreign policy today is no different from the policy he pursued when he first entered office. The problem, then and now, is that this a foreign policy geared more to the world that was then the world that is. In a world of globalized threats ranging from terrorism and weapons proliferation to the spread of infectious diseases and failing states, a foreign policy focused solely on balancing Great Powers and building missile defenses is likely to be caught unawares by new dangers. Was not that, after all, the lesson of September 11, 2001?
Ivo H. Daalder is special adviser on national security at the Center for American Progress.