Dear Dubya

FP asks one of America's most seasoned former diplomats to rate Bush's foreign policy.

Dear Mr. President:

Since you and Secretary of State Colin Powell have not shown a great deal of interest in providing the United States and the world with a reasonably comprehensive statement on foreign policy that transcends the issue of counterterrorism, allow me to offer some help. First of all, after a somewhat rocky start, your achievements on the foreign policy front have been quite impressive post–September 11: You have made the world take seriously what the United States says, a capability seriously impaired in the Clinton administration. For example, very few now believe the United States is unwilling to pursue its international goals at the cost of the short-term political pain caused by military casualties.

You have successfully reoriented foreign and defense policy to homeland defense, focusing on counterterrorism and keeping weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands. You have persuaded most of the world that the best way to pursue those ends is preemptively, not defensively, and that time is of the essence.

An important subset of this effort is that you have largely changed the nature of the debate in the United States on Iraq — from whether the United States should destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein to how. Many countries, or at least their policymaking elites, are likely to come around to this point of view, although that cannot be taken for granted.

For the most part, you have bolstered "great power" relations. Looking into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soul may have helped, but over the past 16 months U.S.-Russian relations have changed dramatically due to Russia’s weakness and its recognition of America’s strength and your determination. As a result, the United States has been able to change the debate on nato expansion, national missile defense (whatever its merits), and reductions in nuclear weapons stockpiles, not to mention open up new avenues for dealing with its conflicting interests in the Persian Gulf. U.S.-Japanese relations have become even closer. After a shaky beginning, you have established a better relationship with China, although that is due more to China’s economic needs than the quality of your statecraft. You have also succeeded in turning Western leadership in the Balkans over to the European Union (EU), although that may come back to haunt you.

Taken together, your successes have significantly boosted both international and domestic confidence in the U.S. government and the U.S. military and created a "simplistic" and clear dichotomy for viewing the actions of nations: Countries are either for or against terrorism.

But as you have repeatedly stressed, the war against terrorism is far from over. Much can still go wrong, in the United States or in places like Afghanistan and the Middle East. U.S. policy cannot simply be bounded by your now-famous "axis of evil" phrase, however awful those three states may be. You must now build on your underrecognized achievements, especially in areas beyond internal defense. Here are a few thoughts to consider for the years ahead:

Counterterrorism will not succeed without some form of nation building (or whatever you want to call it). The problem goes well beyond Afghanistan. The United States is militarily involved in too many weak states, such as in Central Asia, to simply walk away from these countries when it no longer needs them militarily. Nor should Americans think that this responsibility can be handed off to friends or allies. In particular, Americans need to understand that peacekeeping in difficult places like Afghanistan cannot be done without the United States. By the same token, the United States does not have to turn every weak state into a permanent dependency. But it must be prepared to engage and help countries, particularly ones like Pakistan, a weak but very important state. The United States will need a strategy and some criteria on how best to proceed. And remember, the mother of nation building may be coming up: a Saddamless Iraq. It may not be costly because Iraq has oil, but keeping together such a disparate state will not be a cakewalk.

Crises put on the back burner have a nasty habit of boiling over. You tried with the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, and it didn’t work. The Middle East peace process has turned out to be a permanent necessity that requires daily high-level diplomatic attention, a good American institutional mechanism for managing it, and a balancing of short-term needs with a strategic approach. The isolation of North Korea is not likely to lead to much progress in your professed aims of stopping North Korean missile exports to the Middle East or Pyongyang’s development of longer-range missiles. Nor will it do much to buttress the U.S. alliance with Seoul. Even the worsening dispute between Greece and Turkey over the island of Cyprus may lead to a train wreck between Turkey and the EU if the United States simply allows events to take their course — which could prove disastrous for alliance cooperation.

You don’t have to save the world, but you shouldn’t insult it. The United States’ attitude toward global poverty and health threats such as HIV/AIDS has become intolerable. The United States needs to move vigorously, drop some big dollars, and figure out how better to use such funds. Your proposal to increase U.S. aid by 50 percent (to $15 billion) by 2006 is a step forward, but it is paltry compared with the enormous amount budgeted to meet questionable requirements for three new types of fighter aircraft. Spending this money wisely will not only help in the fight against terrorism and a host of other ills, but it will also provide the political benefits of being a global leader instead of a global laggard. Moreover, by devoting major intellectual capital to reinforcing the world’s financial architecture, the United States will not only help to avert crises like those in Argentina and Turkey but will also strengthen the global consensus in favor of economic integration.

Finally, put your speechwriters on a short leash. Words matter. Treating friends and allies well calls for more than just warm personal courtesies. It is imperative that Americans be careful in their public disagreements over problems of mutual concern, such as global warming and international criminality. You must also not use foreign policy issues too often as a sop to your right wing. Failure in this area can and will come back to haunt you in unexpected ways.

Always willing to be of service,

Mort Abramowitz

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