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Rebuilding Iraq

Bush charts his own course on world policy

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 3/18/2003

WASHINGTON -- As a novice on the campaign trail, George W. Bush made a firm pledge to be ''humble'' toward other nations, keep a low foreign profile, and limit the use of US troops in conflicts around the world.

That changed after he became president. He first strayed from that strategy with a declaration of a global war on terrorism and has since sent soldiers, sailors, and Marines to sites as far-flung as the Philippines and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Now, as he prepares to launch his second major war in 18 months, Bush appears to have permanently abandoned the hands-off philosophy.

Supporters say his shift in foreign policy was a hard-learned necessity. But his critics say that Bush has forgotten his promise of humility and that his brash approach to international affairs has led to a diplomatic meltdown at the United Nations over Iraq and to rising anti-Americanism around the globe.

But how much has Bush's foreign policy changed fundamentally since he took office or even since Sept. 11? Analysts and associates say they still see traces of the man who, as a candidate, promised to stick to a few defined goals. Bush remains committed to large principles, rather than the nuances of diplomacy, and is far less a student of intricate details than of sweeping forces of history, they said.

''He may not know the president of France's name, but he knows what the United States wants, and he can argue with the guy,'' said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a conservative who is a close Bush ally. ''His dad never did learn how to pronounce Saddam Hussein's name. But if you know what you want to do, it doesn't matter.''

To detractors, the man who once fumbled during a television foreign policy pop quiz is ''now failing the foreign policy pop quiz,'' said Morton Halperin, director of policy planning in the Clinton administration. Halperin said Bush is alienating US allies with his narrow focus on Iraq and turning world opinion against him.

''He said he was going to be humble and wasn't going to do nation-building and wasn't going to go chasing around the world,'' Halperin said.

Instead, Bush has done just the opposite, Halperin said. He cited a recently published interview with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice ''in which she proudly said he wants simple explanations and thinks in terms of right and wrong.'' That is evidence that Bush has learned little about crafting foreign policy, Halperin said.

''His simplemindedness is reflected not only in his pronouncements, but in the very policy of the government,'' Halperin said. ''My sense is he really is a very hands-on guy. He knows what he wants: It's based on right and wrong, and it's simple.''

In a little more than two years as president, Bush has made a series of bold moves on the global stage, taking command of a realm he knew little about before he was elected president. With his plans for Iraq, Bush is arguably embarking on one of the riskiest foreign policy gambits any US president has ever pursued, though not without some historical precedent.

The administration hopes the war will end the regime of Saddam Hussein, thereby prompting a domino-like toppling of undemocratic states throughout the region and ultimately bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians.

Conservatives like to compare Bush to Ronald Reagan, a former actor and governor who approached the standoff with the Soviet Union head-on during the Cold War and ultimately saw the Soviet Union collapse.

An even closer comparison may be made with Harry S. Truman, a foreign affairs neophyte, who learned the full extent of the atomic bomb project just days after assuming office and decided to drop the weapon on Hiroshima less than four months later.

By 1948 Truman, once a haberdasher from Missouri, was taking a forceful approach to the unfolding Cold War, pouring billions in dollars of aid to postwar Europe under the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.

Bush advisers argue that the president is at a similar historical crossroads and has been given an opportunity or even a mandate to reshape US policy to prevent further attacks and preserve international peace. More than a decade after the end of the Cold War, he has moved beyond the former security institutions, such as the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, to conform to current circumstances, they say.

The tenets of the Bush Doctrine, which draws a bright line between friends and enemies and allows for preemptive attacks on potential enemies, are viewed by his advisers as necessary in the face of current threats.

''Everything is looked at through the lens of 9/11, and that has put Bush on a pedestal, because he handled it so well,'' said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist.

Skeptics, however, say Bush may be taking a too radical approach or at least exceeding his mandate.

''Truman made bold decisions, but he didn't have a lot of options,'' said Stephen M. Walt of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. ''What's different for Bush is that he has enormous latitude in how he chooses to set America's foreign policy course'' and has chosen an exceptionally difficult course, Walt said.

Bush's foreign policy evolution, while driven by the Sept. 11 attacks, appears to have its roots in his domestic management style and strikes a familiar chord with some who observed him as governor and during his first year as president.

As he did in Texas, Bush has chosen a set goal and pursued it. Only now, instead of tort reform, it is ending terrorism around the world. He has largely ignored criticism, attempting instead to use the presidential bully pulpit to bring the public and his counterparts around to his opinion, as he did in proposing a $1.3 trillion tax cut his first year in office, over the objections of skeptics who said it could not be achieved.

Bush has chosen to compromise only as a last resort, as he did in adopting the Department of Homeland Security after initially rejecting it. In the case of Iraq, he eventually agreed to seek a second UN resolution, but for months he had made it clear the United States was willing to act, with or without UN approval. If there is a dramatic difference between Bush as a candidate and Bush today, analysts said, it is embodied in a single word: humble.

However necessary his current strategy may be, it bears little resemblance to the foreign policy Bush described on the campaign trail or in his first few months in office, when he scorned ''nation-building'' as a task for other countries and sought to distance himself from the violence in the Middle East.

Beyond his policy shifts, Bush's rhetoric, like that of his advisers, has seemed more indignant and determined than humble, as he has pursued his approach toward Iraq.

Bruce Buchanan, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin who has studied the politics of the Bush family for decades, said it was ''quite ironic now'' to remember Bush saying that he and his advisers ''ought to be humble on the international stage.''

This story ran on page A25 of the Boston Globe on 3/18/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.





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