By FRANK RICH
AS American foreign policy lies in ruins from Pyongyang to Baghdad to Beirut, its epitaph is already being written in Washington. Last week’s Time cover, “The End of Cowboy Diplomacy,” lays out the conventional wisdom: the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war, upended by chaos in Iraq and the nuclear intransigence of North Korea and Iran, is now officially kaput. In its stead, a sadder but more patient White House, under the sway of Condi Rice, is embracing the fine art of multilateral diplomacy and dumping the “bring ’em on” gun-slinging that got the world into this jam.
The only flaw in this narrative — a big one — is that it understates the administration’s failure by assuming that President Bush actually had a grand, if misguided, vision in the first place. Would that this were so. But in truth this presidency never had a vision for the world. It instead had an idée fixe about one country, Iraq, and in pursuit of that obsession recklessly harnessed American power to gut-driven improvisation and P.R. strategies, not doctrine. This has not changed, even now.
Only if we remember that the core values of this White House are marketing and political expediency, not principle and substance, can we fully grasp its past errors and, more important, decipher the endgame to come. The Bush era has not been defined by big government or small government but by virtual government. Its enduring shrine will be a hollow Department of Homeland Security that finds more potential terrorist targets in Indiana than in New York.
Like his father, George W. Bush always disdained the vision thing. He rode into office on the heels of a boom, preaching minimalist ambitions reminiscent of the 1920’s boom Republicanism of Harding and Coolidge. Mr. Bush’s most fervent missions were to cut taxes, pass a placebo patients’ bill of rights and institute the education program he sold as No Child Left Behind. His agenda was largely exhausted by the time of his fateful Crawford vacation in August 2001, so he talked vaguely of immigration reform and announced a stem-cell research “compromise.” But he failed to seriously lead on either issue, both of which remain subjects of toxic debate today. To appear busy once he returned to Washington after Labor Day, he cooked up a typically alliterative “program” called Communities of Character, a grab bag of “values” initiatives inspired by polling data. That was forgotten after the Qaeda attacks. But the day that changed everything didn’t change the fundamental character of the Bush presidency. The so-called doctrine of pre-emption, a repackaging of the long-held Cheney-Rumsfeld post-cold-war mantra of unilateralism, was just another gaudy float in the propaganda parade ginned up to take America to war against a country that did not attack us on 9/11. As the president’s chief of staff then, Andrew Card, famously said of the Iraq war just after Labor Day 2002, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” The Bush doctrine was rolled out officially two weeks later, just days after the administration’s brass had fanned out en masse on the Sunday-morning talk shows to warn that Saddam’s smoking gun would soon come in the form of a mushroom cloud.
The Bush doctrine was a doctrine in name only, a sales strategy contrived to dress up the single mission of regime change in Iraq with philosophical grandiosity worthy of F.D.R. There was never any serious intention of militarily pre-empting either Iran or North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions were as naked then as they are now, or of striking the countries that unlike Iraq were major enablers of Islamic terrorism. Axis of Evil was merely a clever brand name from the same sloganeering folks who gave us “compassionate conservatism” and “a uniter, not a divider” — so clever that the wife of a presidential speechwriter, David Frum, sent e-mails around Washington boasting that her husband was the “Axis of Evil” author. (Actually, only “axis” was his.)
Since then, the administration has fiddled in Iraq while Islamic radicalism has burned brighter and the rest of the Axis of Evil, not to mention Afghanistan and the Middle East, have grown into just the gathering threat that Saddam was not. And there’s still no policy. As Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution writes on his foreign-affairs blog, Mr. Bush isn’t pursuing diplomacy in his post-cowboy phase so much as “a foreign policy of empty gestures” consisting of “strong words here; a soothing telephone call and hasty meetings there.” The ambition is not to control events but “to kick the proverbial can down the road — far enough so the next president can deal with it.” There is no plan for victory in Iraq, only a wish and a prayer that the apocalypse won’t arrive before Mr. Bush retires to his ranch.
But for all the administration’s setbacks, its core belief in P.R. remains unshaken. Or at least its faith in domestic P.R. (It has never cared about the destruction of America’s image abroad by our countenance of torture.) That marketing imperative, not policy, was once again the driving vision behind the latest Iraq offensive: the joint selling of the killing of Zarqawi, the formation of the new Maliki government, the surprise presidential trip to the Green Zone and the rollout of Operation Together Forward to secure Baghdad more than three years after its liberation from Saddam.
Operation Together Forward is just the latest model of the Axis of Evil gimmick. In his Rose Garden press conference last month, Mr. Bush promised that this juggernaut of crack Iraqi troops and American minders would “increase the number of checkpoints, enforce a curfew and implement a strict weapons ban across the Iraqi capital.” It’s been predictably downhill ever since. After two weeks of bloodshed, Col. Jeffrey Snow of the Army explained that the operation was a success even if the patient, Iraq, was dying, because “we expected that there would be an increase in the number of attacks.” Last week, the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, allowed that there would be “adjustments” to the plan and that the next six months (why is it always six months?) would be critical. Gen. George Casey spoke of tossing more American troops into the Baghdad shooting gallery to stave off disaster.
So what’s the latest White House strategy to distract from the escalating mayhem? Yet another P.R. scheme, in this case drawn from the playbook of fall 2003, when the president countered news of the growing Iraq insurgency by going around the media “filter” to speak to the people through softball interviews with regional media outlets. Thus the past two weeks have brought the spectacle of Mr. Bush yukking it up at Graceland, flattering immigrant workers at a Dunkin’ Donuts, patronizing a children’s lemonade stand in Raleigh, N.C., and meeting the press in such comfy settings as an outside-the-filter press conference (in Chicago) and “Larry King Live.” The people, surely, are feeling better already about all that nasty business abroad.
Or not. The bounce in the polls that once reliably followed these stunts is no more. As Americans contemplate the tragedy of Iraq, the triumph of Islamic jihadists in “democracies” we promoted for the Middle East, and the unimpeded power plays of Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they see reality for what it is. Gone are the days when “Mission Accomplished” would fly. Barring a miracle, one legacy of the Bush Iraq-centric foreign policy will be the mess that those who come next will have to clean up.
ANOTHER, equally significant, part of the Bush legacy is already evident throughout Washington, and not confined to foreign policy or the executive branch. Following the president’s leadership, Congress has also embraced the virtual governance of substituting publicity stunts for substance.
Instead of passing an immigration law, this Congress has entertained us with dueling immigration hearings. Instead of overseeing the war in Iraq or homeland security, its members have held press conferences announcing that they, if not the Pentagon, have at last found Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (degraded mustard gas and sarin canisters from the 1980’s). Instead of promised post-DeLay reforms, the House concocted a sham Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act that won’t do away with the gifts and junkets politicians rake in from the Abramoffs of K Street. And let’s not forget all the days devoted to resolutions about same-sex marriage, flag burning, the patriotism of The New York Times and the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Before long, Congress will be leaving on its summer vacation,” Bob Schieffer of CBS News said two weeks ago. “My question is, how will we know they are gone?” By the calculation of USA Today, the current Congress is on track to spend fewer days in session than the “do-nothing Congress” Harry Truman gave hell to in 1948. No wonder its approval rating, for Republicans and Democrats together, is even lower than the president’s. It’s not only cowboy diplomacy that’s dead at this point in the Bush era, but also functioning democracy as we used to know it.