L'Etat, C'est George W.

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

October 4, 2004

George W. Bush has campaigned on a foreign policy that is, for the most part, appropriate and wise. He has said that this country and its leaders should show "the modesty of true strength [and] the humility of real greatness." We take issue with his criticism of what he has called "nation-building" because we believe that American might can and should be used sometimes to promote democratic values in other countries. But his is a vision of America's role in the world that would make us happy and proud.

If only we could have it. For that was Bush's vision in 2000. He has governed very differently. Yes, the events of Sept. 11 changed much, if not everything. But that doesn't justify Bush's dramatic flip-flop (to use his favorite criticism of his opponent, John F. Kerry). Elected leaders should be penalized for saying one thing and doing another, even if the result isn't disastrous. Bush's foreign policy has been disastrous.

When Bush and Kerry debated Thursday, they focused so narrowly on Iraq that they didn't really answer this fundamental question: Is the U.S. safer than it was four years ago? Even allowing that our country was less safe four years ago than we realized at the time, the answer is no.

When Bush entered office in January 2001, the United States was not just a dominant power in the world, it was an unrivaled one. Europe cheered as U.S.-led airstrikes toppled Slobodan Milosevic's tyranny in the Balkans. China backed down from threatening Taiwan when President Clinton sent warships into the region. Around the world, the American model was seen as the only path to prosperity and freedom.

Now all that is gone. The military is stretched to the breaking point, with more than 100,000 troops tied down in Iraq and more than $90 billion having been spent on behalf of a war that was based on a massive intelligence failure. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been willfully abandoned by the Bush administration. North Korea and Iran are constructing nuclear weapons with impunity. Russia is reaching back to its czarist past as Vladimir V. Putin tightens his grip on power, while Bush utters feeble pieties about how he will continue to push for democracy and human rights. Meanwhile, admiration for the U.S. has been replaced by loathing; even in moderate Turkey, 59% of the population, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, believes that suicide bombings are legitimate in Iraq.

The mischief began even before 9/11. From the start, Bush's credo was unilateralism. Even as German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was on his way to visit the White House, Bush gratuitously humiliated him by announcing that he would not sign the Kyoto treaty limiting greenhouse gases. He made it clear from the start that he would repudiate the antiballistic missile treaty with Russia, which he did, in order to pursue the chimera of strategic defense. The taxpayers will spend more than $10 billion next year on this highly doubtful missile shield.

That same unilateralism has suffu sed the approach to the war on terrorism, leaving the U.S. to bear the brunt of the war in Iraq and earning it the odium of the outside world. By simultaneously overextending the military and running up huge deficits, Bush may have created the kind of overstretch that has destroyed empires.

But would Kerry offer a more realistic foreign policy? The former Navy man regained his sea legs, so to speak, during the debate by proposing, however vaguely, that the U.S. should begin to think about an exit strategy from Iraq. His other foreign policy stands are not remarkably different from Bush's.

Kerry's biggest virtue is what he is not. In contrast to Bush, who seems to be living in a fantasy land about Iraq, he realizes that the U.S. has to patch up its relations with Europe, fight nuclear proliferation and make choices about where it can and cannot exercise power. Sadly, there is also some comfort in the thought that, like Bush four years ago, Kerry can change his mind. Bush is committed. There is value in non-incumbency.

There is value in incumbency too. Bush is now claiming the virtue of experience and knowledge of global leaders (he reeled them off in Thursday's debate). His experience might count for more if it hadn't been our experience as well.

One aspect of Bush's incumbency deserves special comment. In the debate and elsewhere, he has repeated a Kerry line about Iraq being the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, and has declared that this and similar criticisms of his policy disqualify Kerry as president because they send a bad message to, variously, U.S. troops, citizens or allies.

The message Kerry's criticisms send is that, even in wartime, the United States is a democracy. The message Bush sends is that he need not defend his stewardship because criticism is invalid, whatever its merits. L'etat, c'est moi, as one of those French fellas put it. So much for the modesty of true strength and the humility of real greatness.