The End of the Cowboy Era

The era of “Cowboy Diplomacy” is over, writes Time magazine.

The Bush Doctrine – “The world’s worst regimes will not be allowed to acquire the world’s worst weapons” – is being defied by Iran’s Ahmadinejad and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il, with impunity.

The White House seems to have lost interest in its democracy crusade, after free elections advanced the prospects of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas on the West Bank. In Ukraine, the victors of the Orange Revolution have made a mess of things, and the pro-Putin forces are making a comeback

Neither the Afghan war, in its fifth year, nor the Iraq war, in its fourth, goes well. U.S. casualties are not falling, while the death toll among Afghans and Iraqis mounts toward levels where they may have to be described as not simply insurgencies, but civil wars.

America is a spectator in the Palestinian conflict, wringing its hands, but backing Israel as she seeks to starve to death a Hamas that came to power in elections Bush himself sponsored.

What has happened? What has rendered impotent the robust cowboy diplomacy of George W. Bush, a policy of preemptive strikes and preventive wars, of crusades for global democracy and ridding the world of tyrants, a policy declared in his “axis-of-evil” address and Second Inaugural?

Answer: Bush has run up against the limits of power. Strong as our military may be, it is but one-tenth of the size of the U.S forces that conquered Germany and Japan. U.S. air and missile power, and U.S. special forces guiding warlord armies, can knock over a Taliban regime, with few losses. U.S. armored divisions, backed by unrivaled air and missile power, can roll over an Iraqi army and unhorse an Iraqi regime.

But building a nation is another matter. As the French learned in the Ruhr in 1923, “you cannot dig coal with bayonets,” Americans are discovering you cannot build a democratic nation on Islamic soil in Texas-sized nations like Iraq and Afghanistan without a massive, long-term occupation, if a slice of the population looks upon the regime you support as a sock puppet of American imperialism.

Why has Bush decided diplomacy is the better part of valor in dealing with Iran and North Korea? Consider the alternative.

Pyongyang is a formidable power with a million-man army and 11,000 artillery pieces on the DMZ. Iran is three times as populous and four times the size of Iraq. Should Bush attack either, he could end his term with U.S. forces fighting three major wars.

But if the military option carries too many risks, multilateral diplomacy appears to offer little hope. China and Russia will veto any tough UN sanctions on Iran or North Korea. They have no desire to pull America’s chestnuts out of the fire. Is the United States, then, “the pitiful, helpless giant” Nixon warned we could become?

By no means. Though the neocon bombast about our being “the unipolar power,” the “indispensable nation,” “the benevolent global hegemon” was always fatuous, America remains the first military, economic, cultural, and political force on the planet. We are simply not omnipotent – indeed, far from it, as always

What is needed is fresh thought on foreign policy now that Cowboy Diplomacy is being abandoned by Bush. We are at what Walter Lippmann called a “plastic moment,” when a new foreign policy can be imposed to meet a changed world. And the place to begin is by returning to basics. What are the vital interests of the United States, and who threatens them?

On the terrorism front, the president has done well. Since 9/11, 701,000 Americans have been murdered, but not one due to a terrorist attack. While we need to be vigilant, there is no need to frighten ourselves to death over terrorism. We are all going to die, but few of us by terrorist attack.

As we cannot ensure Iran and North Korea are free of nukes without invading, and we are not going to invade, we should put both on notice, as we did Moscow in the missile crisis, that if any WMD used in an attack on the United States is traced to either, a full retaliatory response will follow. But if they wish such relations as we had with China and Russia in the late Cold War, they are on offer.

Then, we should pull our troops out of Korea, where they are hostages in harm’s way. If the South wishes to appease the North, let them run the risks and assume the consequences.

As one reviews the ledgers of his foreign policy, Bush seems to have alienated or antagonized just about everyone on earth, with precious little to compensate us for our war losses. And if we are about to jettison his cowboy diplomacy, perhaps it is time to look again at the successful policies Bush and the neocons dismissed and deplore. For, unlike theirs, these policies never failed America.

What are they? The anti-interventionism of the Founding Fathers from Washington to Wilson, and the conservative policy of containment and deterrence pursued by Eisenhower and Reagan.

Both deserve a hearing in the politics of 2008 – one that neither McCain nor Hillary will give them.

Author: Patrick J. Buchanan

Patrick Buchanan is the author of Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary War."