Interesting Times: The complex cowboy

Arab reformers are already missing Bush's moral clarity.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
In its current cover story, Time magazine trumpets "The End of Cowboy Diplomacy." President George Bush himself seemed to admit as much when he said that he would avoid talking about getting enemies "dead or alive" because "in certain parts of the world, it was misinterpreted." As North Korea fueled and then shot off a missile whose sole purpose is to reach the United States, the US not only did not preemptively destroy the missile on the launch pad - as even two Clinton-era defense officials publicly advocated - but spoke only of the need to return North Korea to six-power talks. In some quarters, the told-you-sos, and the glee, are flowing freely. The rogue Bush administration has been duly tamed, and has bowed to the wisdom of multilateralism and realism. The Bush Doctrine, to the relief of the media and policy elites who fought it tooth and nail, can be declared dead even while Bush himself remains in office. Before we can write off Bush or his doctrine, however, it must be clarified what exactly has been done away with. In its article, Time argues: "The biggest illusion of the Bush Doctrine was the idea that the US could carry out a strategy as ambitious as reshaping the Middle East... without a degree of international legitimacy and cooperation to back it up." The essence of "cowboy diplomacy," then, is not its language but its swashbuckling unilateralism. But was Bush's former damn-the-torpedoes approach really the essence of his doctrine? To say so is to confuse means and ends. The revolution Bush wrought was not about tactics but strategy. IN 2002, in his first State of the Union address after 9/11, Bush declared: "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." This goal remains the essence of his doctrine. Though the pursuit of freedom and democracy are ends in themselves, they are also defined as means to achieving the overarching goal of preventing America and the world from being threatened by nuclearized rogue states. As Bush explained in his 2005 Inaugural Address, "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one... we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation... now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time." Amid all their crowing over a chastened Bush, his critics have to answer some questions. Do they agree or disagree that terrorist states must be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons? Do they see a connection between 9/11 and the West's tolerance of a sea of dictatorships in the Middle East? What is the relationship between promoting freedom and defeating the jihadis who have declared war on the West? If the old label for Bush was "cowboy," the new watchword is "complex." Speaking to journalists just before this weekend's G8 summit, Bush said: "The world is complex... I've always felt like it's best to work with friends and allies to solve the problems." "Complexity" has become a substitute for its mirror image, moral clarity. IN THEORY, Bush has now become the "good cop" to his own "bad cop," and will now somehow pursue his initial goals more effectively. If dropping the "cowboy" talk and a bit of patience is the price for obtaining Russian and Chinese backing for draconian UN Security Council sanctions against Iran, it would seem to be a price worth paying. But will that be the result? At the end of the day, the goal must not be consensus, but results. Either the UN Security Council will impose sanctions punishing enough to force Iran to abandon nukes and terror, or it won't. And if the sanctions approach is not vigorously tried - or if it fails - military action to achieve the same aims either will be taken, or it won't. These are not questions of style or diplomacy, but of the will of the international community. Now that Bush has changed his tone and approach, the critics who urged him to do so have a responsibility to say whether they support his more fundamental goals of disarming rogues and spreading democracy; and if they don't, what their alternative is. These critics may prefer "complexity" to moral clarity, but Arab reformers are already lamenting the latter's departure. "In another two years, the Arab governments will be able to breathe a sigh of relief," says an editorial posted on a new Arabic reformist Web site, "They understand that most American politicians are no longer zealous about spreading democracy, and... [that helping Arabs] establish democracy is a waste of money, time, and effort - since Arab soil produces only Islamists or dictatorial regimes." The reformists, the editorial argues, reject this dichotomy, believing that "in the wake of September 11, a historic opportunity for change has emerged - an opportunity that must not be missed, like the first opportunity in the early 19th century..." (translations by BUSH'S CRITICS, then, have a choice. They can throw out the democracy baby with the "cowboy diplomacy" bathwater. Or they can urge the Bush administration to become truer to its own rhetoric and redouble its support for democracy and human rights in the Muslim world. Ironically, with regard to Iran, Bush seems to have all but forgotten his own solution to such threats: popular regime change. He speaks vaguely of freedom for Iranians in some distant future, and may be increasing funding for dissident radio broadcasts, but he has never taken the basic step of meeting and appearing with Iranian human rights activists in the White House. Bush, of all people, should understand that what scares that megalomaniacal regime most is not sanctions, but international support for its own people's desperate desire to be rid of a quarter-century of mullocracy. Complexity may be in, but I miss moral clarity.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11