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U.S. Security Vs. U.S. Competence

Will the Bush Administration’s poor decision-making and increasing recklessness destroy its credibility?

April 29, 2002

Will the Bush Administration's poor decision-making and increasing recklessness destroy its credibility?

There is little doubt that the terrorist attacks in September 2001 have tested the Bush Administration’s ability in crisis management. Yet, after a strong initial response, the Bush Administration has increasingly mismanaged decisions, grown reckless and squandered credibility. It is letting management errors undermine its security efforts.

Exhibit 1: Some weeks after U.S. editorial cartoonists began to picture Osama bin Laden holed up in fortified caves that the CIA built in the 1980s, U.S. military forces zeroed in on Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. Initially, you may remember, the U.S. campaign was to neutralize bin Laden and his senior officers. The American public was assured that none of the Al Qaeda or Taliban in that area would be allowed to escape. Time was on our side.

Despite the direct U.S. security stake in the outcome of the Tora Bora battle, the Bush Administration apparently deferred to its own military’s interest in minimizing the exposure of U.S. forces to danger.

Scarce U.S. ground forces were used to spot for airborne bombing runs, while local Afghans skirmished in the mountains — and Pakistani border guards would watch the back door.

At the time, entrusting unknown eastern Pashtun warlords with the pivotal task of bin Laden’s capture after the completion of the aerial bombardment seemed akin to asking Iraqi dissidents to go kill Saddam after 1991’s Operation Desert Storm. Osama and his second-in-command, Zawahiri, apparently escaped. Whatever its reasoning at the time, the Army quietly tore up its previous strategy of staying on the sidelines.

Exhibit 2: After missing the chance to corner and capture Osama, the Bush Administration shifted its objectives. From now on, the goal was to prevent a return of radicals to power in Afghanistan.

But nobody bothered to explain how the United States would safeguard Afghan stability given the Bush Administration’s well-publicized opposition to countrywide peacekeeping. In the end, the U.S. government pedaled back in the direction of nation-building (which it vociferously criticized for six months) after several assassination attempts were made on members of Afghanistan’s interim government.

Exhibit 3: Perhaps the weakest thinking of the Bush White House — from a security perspective — is exposed in its lame defense of U.S. support for Israel’s recent offensives. The Bush Administration’s frequent gaps in logic and altered timetables in reacting to — and supporting — Israel’s aggressive response to suicide bombs basically suggest one thing: Domestic U.S. politics — and not security concerns — are now driving U.S. Middle East policy.

For example, the U.S. President has consistently highlighted Israel’s right to defend itself. Sounds good. But evidently, nobody in the White House has asked whether the Israelis had peaceful means (that is, rolling back illegal settlements) to stop murderous Palestinian attacks.

Mr. Bush has also argued that Israel is fighting “our” war against terrorism — implying a moral equivalence with the United States.

To the contrary, it is the U.S. government’s solemn responsibility to remind the world — loud and clear — that the United States occupies no land illegally. Nor will it support those who do. The United States, the message has to be, frustrates no family’s hope for a meaningful future in the Middle East.

Because the Administration’s backing for Israel makes little, if any, credible reference to U.S. security interests, its pronouncements on the Middle East appear to be a predominately political calculation. At least in the case of the United States, injecting politics into foreign affairs needlessly signals weakness.

In general, since the beginning of 2002, the Bush Administration’s decision-making has veered toward recklessness. Its determination to unseat Saddam Hussein may ultimately prove sound. The timing of this plan, however, has been reckless.

Targeting one of the few Muslim countries which hosts no Al Qaeda operatives as “stage two” of the war against terrorism trivializes that war — especially when Al Qaeda’s operations in a dozen other countries pose an ongoing terrorist threat.

The pipe dream that saber-rattling toward Iraq might destabilize the country contains real risks. One of the most obvious, of course, was giving the Arab League — full of passive-aggressive dictators — a precious bargaining chip with the United States. Thay all asked themselves this question: What reward would they receive for allowing the U.S. war on Saddam to proceed?

This tactic failed most spectacularly during the U.S. Vice President’s trip to the Middle East in March 2002. Mr. Cheney went to drum up support for war against Iraq — and not to talk about Palestine. Yasser Arafat was incensed, but the trip gave him an opportunity to take credit for derailing America’s Iraqi initiative — by stepping up his own intifada. Israel immediately reacted, ensuring that the Vice President would come back with little to show for his visit.

Furthermore, all the gratifying, but useless, “Axis of Evil” language has proven similarly reckless. While of no discernible strategic value to the United States, this rhetoric has visibly undermined a reform movement in Iran that was needed desperately to reduce overall threats in the region.

And no account of the Bush Administration’s recklessness would be complete without mention of Venezuela. The inept use of the International Republican Institute to encourage President Hugo Chavez’ opposition failed to unseat him in a spectacular fashion. But, worse yet, it also spoiled U.S. relations with other Latin American countries. U.S. policymakers should be cultivating them as bulwarks against backyard terrorism.

With his infamous “Man of Peace” speech, President Bush’s language has grown increasingly reckless. One wonders: Which audience did he have in mind for such a patronizing mischaracterization of Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon?

The words even misjudge the sentiments of many Israelis. After all, they elected him more to spite Arafat after the failure of the Camp David peace initiative than for any desire to install a general widely blamed for atrocities in Lebanese refugee camps to Israel’s top office.

Perhaps Mr. Bush’s speech targeted the President’s conservative base within the United States. But shoring up a handful of well-served constituents on the hard right cannot be worth curtailing U.S. options in a vital region which requires the maintainance of at least a public neutrality.

And it is certainly not worth undermining the gravity of Presidential speech by mischaracterizing a deliberate combatant as a “Man of Peace.”

The gravest U.S. recklessness, however, has been in the fiscal domain. The United States can afford all the unilateralism it desires — provided it does not need to borrow from China, Europe and Japan to finance its deficit.

Conversely, it can afford a deficit in its current account if it is willing to play by most of the rules that its allies want it to observe. But one thing is for sure: The United States cannot afford both foreign policy unilateralism and yawning deficits that stretch far into a graying future.

In conclusion, the quality of political decision-making is always open to debate. And there are times when recklessness pays off. But everybody can agree that credibility — even, and especially for the United States — is hard to recover once it is lost.

Unfortunately, with his Middle East strategy, Mr. Bush has delineated the precise limits of his own credibility. He did so by letting Israel — a client state that receives $3 billion per year in U.S. aid — dictate the terms of its “immediate” withdrawal from the West Bank.

Look at the fallout that is already evident. Mr. Sharon miscalculated Mr. Arafat’s continuing relevance in the region. But Mr. Sharon was not wrong in assuming that domestic U.S. politics would work out in such a way that they effectively rendered irrelevant the Bush Administration’s demands on himself.

What no one could have expected, however, was that President Bush would compound this embarrassment. Mr. Bush effectively destroyed the credibility of his own Secretary of State by sending him on a mission that demanded results — without giving Mr. Powell the means to secure them.

In the process, the entire Arab world has been treated to images over which it will brood for a generation. It has seen gun ships manufactured and financed by the United States level the old souq and castle at Nablus.

Of course, by making the United States an intimate, if unwitting, accomplice in Israel’s reprisals against Palestinians, Mr. Sharon — for his part — has guaranteed that Israel will not stand alone in the crosshairs of Islamic extremist terrorists — by keeping Americans squarely in those crosshairs as well.

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