Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Misreading the Tea Leaves: US Missteps on Foreign Policy

| October 5, 2006

This op-ed was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune as "In the White House, Blunder after Blunder" on October 6, 2006.

WHEN YOU think that US foreign policy couldn't possibly get worse, the Bush administration manages to take it down another notch. Iraq is a debacle; the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan; and Osama bin Laden is still at large. North Korea has become a nuclear weapons state and Iran's nuclear ambitions remain unchecked. The quixotic campaign to "transform" the Middle East has fueled several violent conflicts and empowered Islamic extremists in Iraq, Iran, the Palestinian Authority, and Lebanon.

This disastrous record is not just a run of bad luck. These setbacks occurred because the Bush administration's foreign policy rests on a deep misreading of contemporary world politics. Conducting foreign policy on the basis of flawed premises is like designing an airplane while ignoring gravity: it won't get off the ground, and if it does, it is bound to crash.

What did the administration get so wrong?

First, officials misunderstood how other states see US primacy. Convinced that American power was a force for good, Bush thought other states would welcome US leadership as long as he acted decisively. In fact, US primacy made even longstanding allies nervous because they didn't know whether America would use its vast power in ways that would help or harm them.

This underlying fear of US primacy made it harder to win international support than the Bush team expected. Instead of nurturing these delicate relationships with effective diplomacy, however, Bush emphasized a US willingness to "go it alone." This blunder merely reinforced other states' concerns and made them even more reluctant to cooperate.

A second mistake was blaming anti-Americanism on "what we are" rather than "what we do." Bush says our enemies "hate our freedom" and believes that anti-Americanism arises from "hostility to core US values." Wrong again.

Independent surveys of global opinion and separate studies by the Defense Science Board and the State Department showed that anti-Americanism is primarily a reaction to specific US policies. Yet Bush and his advisers never considered whether a different set of policies might reduce global opposition and enhance US security.

Third, Bush has consistently underestimated America's opponents, believing that they were too weak to stand up to the world's only superpower. Unfortunately, the past five years have demonstrated that even much weaker actors have many ways to counter US power.

Insurgents and terrorists have used suicide bombings and other brutal tactics to thwart us in Iraq and Afghanistan. States we have threatened — such as Iran and Syria — respond by helping one another and by backing such organizations as Hezbollah. North Korea and Iran pursue a nuclear deterrent, and threatening them makes them want one even more.

Because they exaggerate US power and do not understand that even weak actors have options, the Bush team tends to dictate rather than negotiate. Instead of trying to fix such flawed agreements as the Kyoto Protocol, Bush walked away. He refused to talk seriously to North Korea until it was recycling nuclear material, and he repeated this error in 2003 when he spurned an Iranian overture that might have halted Iran's nuclear program and prevented the election of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

By contrast, Bush's main successes have occurred when he abandoned the usual playbook and showed some flexibility. For example, Libya agreed to dismantle its WMD programs in 2003, but only because Bush agreed to abandon "regime change" and leave Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy in power. But the obvious lesson from this encounter has not been applied elsewhere.

Finally, Bush assumed the desire for freedom and liberty was hardwired into our DNA, and that expulsion of a dictator would quickly produce a thriving democracy. He forgot that nobody likes taking orders from armed invaders. And he did not realize that local loyalties and historical resentments routinely derail democratic aspirations.

Fixing our foreign policy would not be that difficult because many states would welcome more enlightened US leadership. To do it, however, Bush will have to ask for a few overdue resignations (such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld). He will also have to abandon the core beliefs that have guided his entire foreign policy. Bush has thus far shown little capacity to learn from experience, and he continues to maintain that we are on the right course. Americans had better get used to a failed foreign policy, at least until 2008.

Stephen M. Walt is a professor of international affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of "Taming American Power: The Global Response to US Primacy."   

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M..“Misreading the Tea Leaves: US Missteps on Foreign Policy.” The Boston Globe, October 5, 2006.

The Author

Stephen Walt