As President Bush set off this week for an eight-day visit to Asia, his aides were trying to portray the trip as a low-stakes jaunt to show the flag in an important region. Bush was to attend a Pacific Rim summit in Korea, talk business with China, and shore up some friendly relationships in Japan and Mongolia. There wasn’t much that could go wrong, officials reassured reporters traveling on Air Force One. In the words of National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, quoted in The Washington Post, “This is not a trip where the president has to come with a deliverable initiative.”
The aides didn’t say it out loud, but the inescapable comparison was with Bush’s embarrassing Argentina trip earlier this month. The president had gone there to attend a Western Hemisphere summit, show off his Spanish and wrap up a hemispheric free-trade pact, an administration priority. Instead he found himself humiliated, upstaged by the populist antics of Venezuela’s left-wing president, Hugo Chavez, and ended up fleeing the summit in the middle. As for his free-trade pact, it was turned down flat.
Such humiliations seem to be a growing trend for this administration. Just this past weekend, a prized Middle East democracy initiative appeared to melt down when Egypt stalked out of a 30-nation summit in Bahrain, scuttling a White House plan for opening up dialogue and encouraging pluralism in the region. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, speaking after the summit, tried to sound optimistic about the initiative, but warned that it would have to be reframed carefully to have a chance of success. “It would be a disaster if this region thought democracy was an American idea,” Straw said, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
Straw’s fear is telling. Under Bush’s stewardship, America’s standing in world esteem has sunk so low, it seems, that even good ideas risk becoming radioactive simply because they’re seen as coming out of Washington. The causes of the malaise aren’t hard to identify: the administration’s disastrous mishandling of the Iraq War; its high-handed treatment of the global warming crisis; the obtuse White House response to charges of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere. All these, coupled with the president’s falling stock at home, have left him all but bereft of diplomatic credibility and maneuvering room on the world stage.
Bush’s credibility crisis comes at an acutely sensitive moment. Diplomatic efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear project are at a crossroads, and a steady hand is needed to keep America and its European allies on the same page. Much the same can be said of North Korea’s nuclear project. Even under ideal circumstances, when American prestige was at its height, we never could have hoped on our own to bring these two rogue states to heel. As things now stand, with our credibility in tatters, we desperately need international cooperation. And yet, precisely the very same bull-headedness that has landed us in our present state prevents us from climbing out.
The paralysis isn’t all-encompassing. Just this week, a determined, personal intervention by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice succeeded in breaking a dangerous Israeli-Palestinian logjam on border crossings. The agreement, if it’s implemented, will permit the Palestinian Authority to bring its constituents some economic and humanitarian benefits from last summer’s Israeli disengagement; that could help boost the authority’s standing in the coming Palestinian legislative elections and reduce the chances of a Hamas electoral romp, which nobody wants.
Rice’s table-pounding diplomacy got the Palestinians to back away from some of their more absurd demands, giving the Israelis a deal that they could live with, even if it wasn’t everything they had hoped for. In the process, it proved once again that American engagement at the highest level, the sort that marked every administration before this one, is good for Israel and good for the region.
President Bush should think long and hard about the broader lessons of Rice’s Gaza intervention. Compromise is usually painful, but it’s nearly always better than deadlock. Listening to all sides is better than blustering and pontificating. America can be an enormous force for good when it acts pragmatically and constructively. On the other hand, butting heads gets you nothing but a headache.