Muddling Through

American officials, lawmakers, and pundits have been analyzing – over-analyzing is probably the right term – U.S. President George W. Bush’s new National Security Strategy (NSS), leading one to conclude that the document that was issued last week has major significance in terms of gaining insights into what kind of approach to world affairs the Bush administration will be pursuing in the last three years of its term.

In a way, it is not surprising that the pundits have been trying to deconstruct the 2006 NSS in order to gain possible insights into the Bushies’ foreign policy. Have President Bush and his national security team adopted a more “realistic” orientation? Will the United States attack Iran’s nuclear facilities? Will there be more of an effort to apply a multilateral strategy in dealing with international crises? Is China now being regarded as a “threat” by the Americans?

It is very much the same way that the Cold War-era “Kremlinologists” pored over public documents issued by Moscow so as to figure out what the Kremlin bosses were really thinking. The reason for that is that the ideologues who guided Soviet foreign policy focused a lot of their energy on propaganda, not unlike the neoconservatives who have been behind U.S. diplomacy since 9/11 and have confined their public discussion of America’s role in the world to bombastic and shallow propaganda about exporting “democracy” to the Middle East and elsewhere.

Hence the need to try reading “between the lines” of addresses and policy papers by U.S. officials to find out what Washington is “really” planning to do in, say, Iran or China, since no one seriously assumes that President Bush and his aides “really” believe in their utopian, global, freedom-is-on-the-march visions.

The problem is that parts of the long-overdue NSS sound very much like propaganda marching orders for U.S. diplomats and military personnel, a kind that recalls the “Why We Fight” documentaries of World War II.

It lays out a robust view of America’s power and an assertive view of its responsibility to bring change around the world, and underscores in a very thematic way Mr. Bush’s desire to make the spread of democracy the fundamental underpinning of U.S. foreign policy, as he expressed in his Second Inaugural Address last year.

In fact, the opening words of the new document are lifted from that speech and proclaim that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

And when it comes to the most controversial elements in Mr. Bush’s strategy, the new document does not provide any news. Indeed, it reaffirms the doctrine of “preemptive” war against terrorists and hostile states with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, which is exactly the same doctrine that was enunciated in the 2002 NSS document and which has been applied with disastrous results in the war in Iraq.

After the 2002 NSS was published, observers noted that the new strategy of preemption shifted U.S. foreign policy away from decades of deterrence and containment toward a more aggressive stance of attacking enemies before they attack the U.S.

But in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the general consensus among foreign policy analysts in Washington was that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq fatally undermined an essential assumption of the strategy of preemption – that intelligence about an enemy’s capabilities and intentions can be sufficient to justify preventive war.

Against the backdrop of the mess in Iraq, the conventional wisdom among policy wonks in Washington has been that under the leadership of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the Bush administration has abandoned its more unilateralist foreign policy and its schemes to oust unsavory regimes around the world, and moved in the direction of more realism in dealing with world affairs.

Pundits have been proclaiming in the op-ed pages of leading newspapers and on television news shows that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have been losing their influence and that Dr. Rice and her team of “realists” are now in charge of foreign policy in Washington.

And, indeed, the expectation in Washington was that the revised version of the NSS would offer fresh thoughts about the preemption policy and send new signals about the Bush administration’s modified strategy.

Instead, the 2006 NSS insists that the preemption policy “remains the same,” defending it as necessary for a country in the “early years of a long struggle” akin to the Cold War. “If necessary, however, under long-standing principles of self-defense, we do not rule out use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack,” the document continues.

“When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize.” In that context, the new document seemed to imply that the Bush administration was planning to apply its preemptive doctrine once again, but this time against Iran.

“We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran,” the 2006 NSS says. It recommits to efforts with European allies to pressure Tehran to give up any aspirations of nuclear weapons, but then adds ominously that “this diplomatic effort must succeed if confrontation is to be avoided.”

Interestingly enough, the document with its threatening language directed against Tehran, including the implication that Washington is considering launching a preventive war against Iran, was issued in the same week that reports from the Middle East indicated that American and Iranian officials would be meeting soon to discuss their common concerns in Iraq and find ways to stabilize that country.

So what is going on here? On the one hand the Americans are sending signals that they are planning to use military force against Iran, while on the other they are expressing their willingness to open a diplomatic dialogue with the Iranians. How can one square the reiteration of a preemptive policy toward Iran with the taking of a step toward détente with it?

And while we are discussing inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy, how can we explain the attempts by Washington to win the diplomatic support of Beijing and Moscow for punitive measures against Iran at the United Nations Security Council as a way of forcing the Iranians to end their nuclear military program, while at the same time, Dr. Rice is trying to enlist Australia and Japan to form an alliance aimed at containing China and is also condemning Russia for its failure to measure up to U.S. democratic principles?

But inconsistencies in foreign policy exist only when one assumes that the government in question is committed to a set of consistent foreign policy principles, like the kind that the pundits have been searching for in the 2006 NSS.

But my reading of what is going on in Washington is that when it comes to foreign policy (or for that matter, trade policy), the Bush administration is now basically just muddling through. It does not have a coherent policy on how to get out of Iraq, how to resolve the Iranian and North Korean nuclear crises, how to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or how to deal with China and Russia.

So the Bush administration gives a green light to the Europeans and the Russians to negotiate with the Iranians, while at the same time it is pushing for sanctions against Tehran. It calls for regime change in Tehran while helping to bring to power the pro-Iranian Shi’ite clerics in Baghdad.

It announces an ambitious program to “export democracy” to Iran, but then it also agrees to negotiate with the Iranians on Iraq. And it certainly applies double standards when it comes to the issue of nuclear proliferation in Iran, India, and Israel.

If you accept the notion that the modus operandi of the Bush administration’s foreign policy is muddling through, that it really does not have a “National Security Strategy,” all the “inconsistencies” suddenly make a lot of sense.

For some, it might sound like bad news. Perhaps we should regard it as good news if we recall that the only time that the Bush administration was not muddling through was when it decided to invade Iraq. It thought that it knew what it was doing. Now it finally recognizes that it does not. And that’s progress.

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.