Today's New York Times informs us that President Bush is about to embark upon another of those "series of major policy speeches" on Iraq. Though he has no new initiatives to unveil, and the ongoing drumbeat of bad news from that troubled region seems to present a risk of (yet more) severe political embarrassment in a second term that's well on the way to setting a standard of substantial and stylistic political failure, Bush evidently is set to make one meta-point that I think is well taken: America can't simply disengage from the rest of the world.
[S]tarting on Monday, just a few days shy of the third anniversary of Mr. Bush's order to topple Saddam Hussein, the president will begin an effort to explain his Iraq strategy anew in the changed environment of increased sectarian killings.
He acknowledged on Saturday that "many of our fellow citizens" are "now wondering if the entire mission is worth it."
But rather than simply delve into the familiar talk about the need to root out terrorists abroad so they cannot strike Americans here, the White House plans to have Mr. Bush expand his discussion of the need for the United States to embrace a new role in the world, even if that means explaining the benefits of globalization to a nation that does not appear to be in a mood to hear that message.
A search of the White House Web site confirms that Mr. Bush, who in the days before he took office kept the take-no-prisoners speeches of Teddy Roosevelt on a table at his ranch, made little mention of "globalization" for much of his first five years in office, even when European leaders brought it up.
Asked once, several years ago, about his aversion to the topic, one of his senior aides said Mr. Bush associated the word with "mushy Clintonianism."
"It ranks up there with 'nation-building,' " he added.
No longer. Now Mr. Bush is moving into a new phase of his presidency, not by choice or natural inclination, it seems, but by necessity. Mr. Bush changed his tone on nation-building several years ago.
As the invasion turned to occupation, he emphasized the spread of democracy. But even that talk, especially during his re-election campaign, had a unilateralist subtext: the schools and polling places were open because the hammer of the American military made it possible.
His new theme is different, because it is all about interdependence. Two of his aides say the near defeat of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in Congress last summer — it passed by one vote, after arm-twisting by the president brought just enough Republicans back into the fold — jolted Mr. Bush into recognizing a new retreat from the world by his own party.
There are actually two things to like here. Globalization, first of all, is a fact of life whether we embrace it or not. Bush is very much with the mainstream of economic opinion when he says (as is noted later in this article) that we should be excited, not solely apprehensive, at what "a 300-million-person market of middle-class citizens here in India" can mean for the sale of American-made products.
(The corollary, which unfortunately Bush doesn't seem to grasp at the policymaking level, is that to take advantage of this emerging market, you need to continuously cultivate a world-class knowledge workforce that will create things of interest and value to that market--as well as to this one. Thus, government disinvestment in financial assistance for higher education and research and development within numerous fields of inquiry is ultimately self-defeating, no matter how happy it makes Grover Norquist when you cut the "investment budget" to fund his tax cut.)
Given how badly Bush has failed to explain anything with non-emotional arguments (see: Social Security "reform," Medicare Part D, Iraq since the '04 election), it seems like a stretch to believe that he'll be able to make this case. It can be done, however, and my guess is that as the 2008 election draws closer, there will be both Democrats and Republicans who successfully explain the issue. (He could also just ask Bill Clinton to do it.)
Bush's real problem is with the other half of the "engagement" argument: using America's power beyond our borders. When you've lost William F. Buckley on Iraq, who's left to count on? The administration's toxic mix of dishonesty, rhetorical incoherence, and just piss-poor implementation is what's really behind the rising neo-isolationist impulse, and this is Bad with a capital B for the country: though Saddam was not a threat, and we should have known as much, Iran could well prove to present a major danger to world peace and stability as well as American interests. Pakistan, too, is a nuclear-armed dictatorship with radical religious elements who want to rule; if Musharraf falls, it's hard to predict what would happen.
Rather than either acting unilaterally, as we essentially did in Iraq, or retreating from the world's troubled areas, we should be using every instrument in the toolbox of governance--sanctions, coalition-building, and force as a last result--to advance both our interests and ideals. By just about any standard, George H.W. Bush did this successfully in both managing the first Gulf War and helping to build a stable post-Cold War order; he had his failures as well, with China after the 1989 crackdown, the Balkans, and in places like East Timor, but on balance he was a successful foreign policy president.
And, terrible though she was as National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice has actually done a decent job at this since taking over the State Department--working through the EU on Iran, reaching out to China and Russia as well, trying to mediate disputes elsewhere in the Middle East. That's a pretty good start. The hard political sell, however, will come if/when those measures fail and some use of force is called for. I don't know which party will carry the neo-isolationist banner at that point--but whoever is in front will have a much stronger case because of George Bush's failures in Iraq.