The Magazine

Bubba Dubya?

A curiously Clintonian turn in U.S. foreign policy.

Jun 19, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 38 • By MICHAEL RUBIN
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ON SEPTEMBER 20, 2001, President George W. Bush put the world on notice. "We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Unanimously, senators and congressmen gave Bush a standing ovation.

Now, faced with falling poll numbers, and wanting the affirmation of the foreign policy elite here and abroad--from the Quai d'Orsay to Auswärtiges Amt and Turtle Bay--the president seems to have reversed course. He still speaks about democracy and the war against terror, but increasingly his administration charts the path of least resistance and paper compromise so dominant during the Clinton years. This may please diplomats, but it does not ensure national security. It's déjà vu all over again in the White House.

Reviving the North Korea Model

On May 31, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reversed U.S. policy toward Iran. "We are agreed with our European partners on the essential elements of a package containing both the benefits if Iran makes the right choice, and costs if it does not."

Her announcement delighted European diplomats and validated former Clinton administration officials. An April 26 statement signed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and five European former foreign ministers had advised, "We believe that the Bush administration should pursue a policy it has shunned for many years: attempt to negotiate directly with Iranian leaders about their nuclear program." Sandy Berger, Clinton's second-term national security adviser, applauded the move: "[Rice] has done a very effective job in the last year and a half of consolidating foreign policy back in the State Department." To Albright and Berger, 1990s-style diplomacy, with its emphasis on multilateralism and consensus over substance, is an end in itself.

In the wake of Rice's announcement, senior U.S. diplomats and European officials speaking on background outlined the proposed carrots and sticks: If Tehran promises to suspend uranium enrichment, sits down, and talks, it will receive light water nuclear reactors. If Tehran refuses to talk, Europe, Russia, and perhaps even China will discuss sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. There is no consensus about what these sanctions would constitute, nor is there a timeline. Just two days after Rice's concession, her Russian counterpart hinted at just how flaccid the proposed sticks were. Speaking in Vienna, Sergei Lavrov commented, "I can say unambiguously that all the agreements from yesterday's meetings rule out in any circumstances the use of military force."

Precedent gives little ground for optimism. What Bush offered Tehran mirrors what Clinton gave Pyongyang. On October 21, 1994, Ambassador Robert L. Gallucci signed the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework. In exchange for a freeze of the Stalinist dictatorship's nuclear program, Washington offered to supply Pyongyang with two light water nuclear reactors and a basket of additional incentives. Clinton explained, "North Korea will freeze and dismantle its nuclear program. South Korea and our allies will be better protected. The entire world will be safer as we slow the spread of nuclear weapons."

But North Korea did not freeze its nuclear program, and the world did not become safer. In 1998, Pyongyang signaled its renewed belligerence when it launched a nuclear-capable Taepodong-1 missile over Japan. It continued to enrich uranium and later withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Central Intelligence Agency now estimates North Korea has a couple of bombs; the Stalinist state claims to have more. The idea that Clinton's deal was a success is revisionist nonsense. It is a model only for the triumph of appearance over substance. Kim Jong Il played Clinton; Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is playing Bush.

Terror Training Camps

It is not just the actions of the Bush administration that recall the Clinton years, but also the inaction. The Clinton administration knew that Afghanistan played host to terror training camps. The 9/11 Commission detailed the Clinton administration's decision to trust diplomacy. A declassified December 8, 1997, State Department cable detailed high-level talks between Assistant Secretary Karl F. Inderfurth and a Taliban delegation. The Taliban promised to "keep their commitment and not allow Bin Laden and others to use Afghanistan as a base for terrorism." The State Department lauded its own success. "We believe our message . . . came through loud and clear." It didn't.