HOW HE SEES IT How many wars are on Bush's mind?
By DANIEL SNEIDER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Whatever he says in New York this week, George Bush has already made his core case for a second term.
"I'm a war president. I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind," he said earlier this year.
The question is how many wars are on the president's mind? In his first term, Bush began two unfinished wars -- the war against Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. Two more potential wars -- with North Korea and Iran -- loom on the horizon.
The president has flatly declared that he won't allow those two countries to develop nuclear weapons. But North Korea may have crossed that line long ago and Iran could be only months away from having the technical capability to build a nuclear warhead.
So far, the Bush administration has relied on diplomacy, in concert with allies in Europe and Asia, to try to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
But the option of carrying out a pre-emptive strike on the nuclear facilities of both North Korea and Iran is still seriously discussed, even though it threatens to trigger a wider war in both cases.
In both North Korea and Iran, the administration's current policy has been more of a holding action than anything else. The diplomacy has been half-hearted, hindered by a lack of focus and by deep divisions within the administration.
Will policy change in a second term? I found two views on this.
One is that reality will continue to trump rhetoric. A second Bush administration will be "defiant and not chastened but still unable to do a lot of things they would want to do," says RAND national security expert Gregory Treverton. Even if they want to "bump off another rogue state," he says, they don't have the allies or the resources to do it. He foresees reconciliation with Iran, though North Korea may be more difficult to manage.
The other view is that a fresh mandate could change those calculations. A central theme of the president's campaign is his image as a decisive leader, one who is prepared to make the difficult decision to send men and women into combat.
With an election victory, "the inclination would be to feel vindicated, that their policy of peace through strength is the way to go," says Brookings Institution expert Ivo Daalder, the co-author of "America Unbound," a study of Bush foreign policy.
Use of force
The administration will be "more likely, rather than less likely, to rely on the use of force," predicts Coit Blacker, the director of Stanford's Institute of International Studies and a former Clinton national security adviser.
Two-term presidents sometimes change course dramatically. Reagan went from denouncing the "evil empire" to grand bargains with Gorbachev. Clinton came into office reluctant to use force. He fled from Somalia and left the Balkan crisis in the hands of the Europeans. But by the end of his first term, the U.S. led a NATO force into Bosnia.
The shake-up of personnel that usually accompanies a new term can also affect policy. In Bush's case, that most likely will mean the departure of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the strongest advocate for diplomacy. The hard-line core of the administration -- Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- are less likely to leave.
What is most disturbing is the lack of evidence that the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan have prompted second thoughts in the White House. "These guys didn't go through an agonizing reappraisal," says Blacker. The president went farthest down this road last week when he admitted to The New York Times that he had made a "miscalculation of what the conditions would be" in postwar Iraq.
I share the view that a second-term Bush administration must come to terms with a world that is largely hostile to its aims. But I remain deeply concerned about the danger of further "miscalculation." It would be good if the president, before November, let us know which road he is headed down.
X Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.