A failure in beliefs

Bit by bit, without publicly admitting any mistakes, the Bush administration is changing policies on key issues that have defined the president’s tenure in office.

President Bush, known for his adamant beliefs but beleaguered by dismal polls, an unpopular war and positions on many fronts that have failed to work, is reluctantly nodding assent to change. In many of the policy changes, the neoconservative or aggressive nationalistic point of view that prevailed from the day Bush took office is being modified, massaged or outright reversed.

The basic premise of neoconservatism is that America must act unilaterally, even to the extent of exercising its military power against the opposition of allies, or become permanently weakened. There is now a reluctant reassessment by administration pragmatists that this was the wrong tack to take and actually has resulted in more turmoil and violence around the world.

In the most recent reversal, the administration sent a top envoy to North Korea after refusing for years to engage in direct talks with Pyongyang, saying it would never engage in the “appeasement” that it believed President Bill Clinton did. Now, as part of the new willingness to negotiate with a dictator desperately trying to become a nuclear power, the United States is releasing $25 million of North Korea’s money that it had frozen.

The administration’s refusal to negotiate was a staple of neoconservative doctrine, which Bush accepted in rejecting advice from many diplomats that the time for negotiation had come.

Earlier, the Bush team reversed policy on not funding the Palestinian Authority after Hamas radicals won election victories last year and undermined the slightly more moderate Fatah faction. Again, administration neoconservatives have been thwarted. Critics argued that withholding support was only strengthening Hamas and hurting innocent Palestinians. It remains to be seen if the aid comes too late, but it is clear that Bush’s early refusal to push the peace process badly backfired.

Also, after a policy of ignoring Syria, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has begun quiet talks with Damascus in a search for common ground on Iraq.

At the G-8 conclave in Germany, Bush still refused to agree to mandates for reducing global-warming emissions but conceded, basically, that scientists are correct in predicting dire consequences if carbon dioxide is not checked.

After ignoring international opinion and installing neocon Paul Wolfowitz as president of the World Bank, despite his role in starting the war in Iraq, Bush stood by him through the scandal that erupted over Wolfowitz’s favoritism toward his girlfriend. Finally, Bush agreed that he must go and named Robert Zoellick, the trade expert who had been the favorite candidate for the job before Wolfowitz got it.

The badly mishandled war in Iraq will forever be the president’s most heatedly debated policy bequest. There, the neocons’ arguments for invading Iraq on the grounds Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that threatened the United States have been thoroughly discounted. The neocons argued that the risks of a pre-emptive war would be outweighed by the wave of pro-democracy fervor for freedom (and Western morality) that would sweep over the Middle East once the barbarous Hussein was gone. They vastly underestimated the costs and no-win consequences of postwar occupation.

Bush continues to assert that the rationale for starting the war was right although the arguments were flawed, but he is desperately looking for a face-saving way to leave, an avenue that increasingly seems blocked.

Bush came into office with no foreign-policy experience, although his father’s biggest interest was in foreign affairs. Once the younger Bush was overwhelmed by foreign-policy decisions, after 9/11, he decided to trust his instincts and those who favored neoconservatism.

On some issues, the president has stood his ground, convinced he is right.

He has refused, once more, to give way on the issue of stem-cell research, although Congress has twice passed legislation that would have opened the door to wider embryonic-stem-cell research on the grounds it could lead to cures for major illnesses. He is convinced that more aid to Africa is vital. He has pursued his No Child Left Behind dream, although such unprecedented federal involvement in local education rankles many conservatives.

Undeterred by their failures so far, neocons are strong advocates that Iran — also, like North Korea, pursuing nuclear weapons — must be dealt with unilaterally and militarily. So far, Bush has not acted.

But in an ironic twist, the neocons not only do not accept blame for the failure of their ideas, most notably in the total chaos in Iraq, but they blame Bush himself, arguing incompetence, incoherence, lack of a firm enough commitment and “disloyalty” to neocon philosophy within the very administration they once believed the likeliest to implement their views.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)