The first four years of the Bush administration, the so-called cowboy years, were characterised by assertive leadership, a no-nonsense national security policy and gratuitous rudeness to many of America's allies. Recently, Washington has made a 180-degree turn: the cowboy is gone, the rudeness is gone and with them, it appears, has gone a sound security policy.
The centrepiece of American foreign policy now consists of multilateralism for multilateralism's sake, a triumph of process over progress. From North Korea to Iran, challenges that once had America reaching for its holster are now viewed as opportunities to have another meeting.
North Korea's recent launch of seven missiles and threats to test a long-range missile that can reach the US were a test of Washington's new approach. Japan, well within range of the missiles, chose to offer a resolution in the United Nations Security Council calling for mandatory sanctions on North Korea. State department diplomats, on the other hand, demanded a return to the six-party talks and talked down punitive measures.
Was the state department's diplomacy a success? Hardly. North Korea still refuses to come to the table, China has yet to use its considerable leverage to force Pyongyang to do so and Japan's UN resolution was watered down to little more than a loud complaint.
Oddly satisfied with the six-party talks as a model, the Bush administration has chosen to pursue a similar track with Iran. In the wake of Iran's violation of a 2004 deal with the EU-3 Britain, Germany and France to suspend uranium enrichment and its refusal to heed similar demands from the Security Council, the US opted not to force the issue of sanctions at the UN. Rather, the US and Europe offered Tehran direct US-Iran dialogue, nuclear reactors and a package of economic incentives.
Supposedly lurking behind this offer was a choice between the offer and sanctions, possibly leading to military action. But although it is true that the US has doggedly refused to rule out the military option, repeated capitulations to Tehran have effectively drained the threat of credibility. When Tehran's leaders see Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, telling reporters: "Negotiation is still the best path and negotiation is still open," they read the American emphasis on diplomacy as a sign of weakness, a lack of other options.
A rare exception to the talk-for-talk's-sake norm of recent years is Washington's approach to the Israeli conflict with Hizbollah. But all signs point to a weakening of resolve inside the Bush administration. Earlier this week, trial balloons began floating from Ms Rice's mission to the Middle East: perhaps talks in Rome could bring a call for a peace-making force and a ceasefire. Talks are likely to bring little more than concerted pressure on the US and Israel to back down on the ultimate disarmament of Hizbollah. A ceasefire under any circumstances other than Hizbollah's complete disarmament would be construed as another victory for the terrorist agenda.
Throughout the Middle East, American priorities have lost steam. Mr Bush's signature issue democracy promotion has been thrust aside by resurgent dictators, with few real consequences. Egypt's abrogation of municipal elections and a brutal crackdown on civil rights and press freedoms, for example, brought a threat from the US Congress to cut Egyptian aid but little more than limp language from the administration.
When America is perceived as weak, challengers will not hesitate to take up arms. Can US capitulation to Iran and to North Korea have been far from the minds of extremists in both Hamas and Hizbollah when they chose to escalate conflict in the Middle East? Will al-Qaeda be far behind?
So what accounts for the "kinder, gentler" Bush administration? The fighting in Iraq has certainly wearied both the administration and Congress; it could be that there is little stomach for further confrontation. Or, America's mid-term elections are approaching and the administration does not need a new crisis to worry the voting public. Or perhaps a new foreign policy team at the state department simply prefers a pre-September 11 2001 approach?
No one knows for sure. Without doubt, alienating allies for the sheer pleasure of it offers little reward for the US. Yet embracing allies without achieving results is hardly better. Similarly, plain speaking and diplomacy are almost always preferable to sanctions and war, but only if diplomacy yields a real outcome. The goal in the case of both North Korea and Iran is to end their nuclear weapons and missile programmes. It is not to keep the parties talking while Pyongyang and Tehran continue to develop weapons of mass destruction.
At the end of the day, Mr Bush may revert to his cowboy roots and exert American power to deny our enemies the weapons they long for. But, statecraft is not poker and pretending to have no cards to play can lead to dangerous misjudgments by friends and enemies alike.
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