A FOREIGN POLICY TAILSPIN
When I think about President George W. bush and his foreign policy I think of that old joke about the passenger who has never flown in an airplane before. When the first engine gives out he is assured by an announcement that there is no danger, and that arrival will be delayed by only half an hour. He is unworried by the second engine failure because he is told it means only a two-hour delay. When the announcement comes that the third engine has quit, and that arrival will be delayed for four hours, he turns to the passenger sitting next to him and says: "If the fourth engine fails, we'll be up here all day."
I thought of this watching Bush's press conference last week, when he seemed to realize that all was not well; but that he was still in denial about the severity of the problem.
I was reminded of this while reading Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, who wrote that "turbulence" was a word Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used repeatedly in his interview with her, "and not, say, loss of altitude or even critical engine failure."
To continue the metaphor, the engine of trying to keep North Korea out of the nuclear club fell off the wing last week. Bush and Rice plaintively say that the Clinton administration tried talking directly to North Korea, but it didn't work.
It is true that the North Koreans found ways to cheat when the United States was talking to them, and it may be that North Korea could not have been persuaded to give up nuclear ambitions no matter what - especially after being threatened by Bush's axis of evil speech. But the die was cast early in the president's first administration when Vice president Dick Cheney sabotaged then Secretary of State Colin Powell's efforts to keep a policy of engagement going.
It was right to bring North Korea's neighbors in on an effort to influence the regime, but the "we-don't-talk-to-evil" (at least not directly) doctrine, could not have failed more completely. Nor could have the limits of American power been more clearly demonstrated.
The Iraqi engine has not only failed, but it is on fire and threatens to burn up the entire foreign policy airframe. Documenting how incompetent and wrong-headed America's Iraq policy has been has become a cottage industry. Bush, who at first banned the word "insurgency" from cabinet meetings, still does not admit that civil war is underway.
The truth of the matter is that Iraq has so stretched the American Army, and the British Army, too, that there aren't any more soldiers to send. The truth of the matter is that it is too late for Iraq. The original goal of a democratic, Israel-friendly, base-providing, oil-guaranteeing, Middle East-transforming Iraq is past redeeming. The best that can be hoped for now is an exit that will be the least damaging to the stability of the region.
The administration's own intelligence services are saying, as Donald Rumsfeld once feared, that the more we do in Iraq "the behinder we get." Oh yes, the intelligence estimate said that if jihadists could be defeated decisively in Iraq they might get discouraged. But how likely is that when Iraq is falling apart before our eyes? As Britain's top soldier, General Richard Dannatt, said last week, the presence of foreign troops "exacerbates the security problems."
The engine of trying to contain and limit Iranian power is sputtering badly as that country continues down the road toward nuclear weapons. The administration's green light to Israel to do anything it wants to grind down the Palestinians, reversing 30 years of U.S. policy, as Powell pointed out, has caused structural damage to America's efforts toward a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
What to do? Maybe, as James Baker and Kofi Annan have suggested, start talking to evil. Ronald Reagan wasn't adverse to direct talks with the Evil Empire Soviets, and Richard Nixon sat down with Mao. Both were greater dangers to the United States than Iran and North Korea.
Pundits have pointed out that a definition of madness is to continue doing the same thing hoping for a different result.
Bush seemed to realize this when he hinted at redefining "stay the course." He said that his attitude was "don't do what you're doing if it's not working. Change." But then he drifted back into promising that we will be up here all day.