Bush running low on foreign policy options


When President Bush addresses world leaders at the United Nations this week, he will have fewer options and lower expectations on almost every major foreign policy front than a year ago.

The United States is relying more readily on international institutions and alliances for help in Iran, Lebanon, North Korea, Sudan and elsewhere. Yet, according to analysts, the Bush administration has less room to maneuver.

Bush and his foreign policy advisers have tried with some success to dispel the caricature of Bush abroad as a Texas cowboy riding alone and herding the U.S. into an unpopular war in Iraq.

But the war, now in its fourth year, devours resources and energy for other global objectives and feeds mistrust about U.S. intentions, experts say.

"I’m not sure they have changed their mind about to what extent to proceed unilaterally and how much to use military force so much as they have run out of options," said Richard Stoll, a political science professor at Rice University who studies foreign policy and national security.

With Bush nearly halfway through his final term, time is dwindling for him to accomplish his signature goals of confronting terrorism and spreading democracy, and he faces more distractions at home, said Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University.

When the president speaks to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, he plans to carry a strong message, "based upon hope, and my belief that the civilized world must stand with moderate, reformist-minded people and help them realize their dreams.

"I believe that’s the call of the 21st century," Bush told reporters Friday.

A scan of the globe, however, points up the defensive posture for the U.S. these days and the changed circumstances from a year ago:

  • In Afghanistan, a military setback at the hands of a reconstituted Taliban took the administration by surprise this summer. Five years after the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban from political power, the militant Islamic group is proving a resilient enemy for NATO forces in the south while suicide attacks have spread to the capital, Kabul. President Hamid Karzai’s credibility has been undermined by the bloodiest fighting since the Taliban’s fall, failure to control the drug trade and wide disparities between rich and poor. Karzai is a U.S. favorite whom Bush will see at the White House this month.
  • In North Korea, the breakthrough weapons agreement announced during last year’s U.N. opening session fell apart weeks later. Now the communist government is boycotting talks with the United States and other nations. The situation worsened when North Korea tested a long-range missile theoretically capable of reaching the U.S.
  • In Iraq, political gains and the capture of a terrorist leader have not stopped the wholesale killing. U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom Bush will see in New York, has failed to make his security plan stick. Washington shelved plans to withdraw some American troops this year despite declining public support in the U.S. for the war and growing calls from Congress for a phased withdrawal. Bush has acknowledged that U.S. forces will remain there for years.
  • In Iran, the government has accelerated its nuclear program and defied U.N. demands. The U.S. is still the main force for U.N. penalties that allies find unappealing or of questionable value. With Tehran trying to undermine a fragile U.S.-built consensus, the weeks ahead may show whether the U.S. can persuade the Security Council to impose meaningful penalties or whether the administration will concede the futility of a course pursued for more than two years. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to deflect suspicion that the U.S. intends to topple Iran’s ruling mullahs or bomb its nuclear sites.
  • In the Mideast, the prospects for progress for peace between Israel and the Palestinians look more remote than at this time in 2005. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is unconscious from a stroke; his successor, Ehud Olmert, has political problems after an inconclusive war with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Humanitarian and political crises followed the victory of Hamas militants in Palestinian elections and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was vastly weakened.
  • Hamas’ victory was the biggest blow to Bush’s goal of spreading democracy in the region. Yet the U.S. said little about political reform in Egypt and Saudi Arabia while appealing to those Arab allies for help during the recent Israeli-Hezbollah war.

Bush may need help around the globe, but he could not resist taking a swipe at the United Nations during his White House press conference Friday. He stopped just short of calling the United Nations feckless in its response to the death and destruction in Sudan’s Darfur region.

"I think a lot of Americans are frustrated with the United Nations, to be frank with you," Bush said.


Anne Gearan covers diplomacy and foreign affairs in Washington.