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U.S.: Government Looks Ahead After Foreign Policy Setbacks

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Washington has suffered a series of foreign policy setbacks recently, including an arguably unsuccessful policy in the Middle East and embarrassment over its reaction to a failed coup in Venezuela. Meanwhile, President George W. Bush's popularity ratings have slipped for the first time in months.

Washington, 22 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Just a few months ago, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush appeared incapable of doing wrong in its affairs abroad.

On 11 September, terrorists struck America, hitting its symbols of international economic and military might. Bush, brushing aside critics who questioned his ability to lead, boldly launched a global war on terrorism that quickly defied predictions the U.S. would fail in Afghanistan.

With the Taliban's fall in November, America rallied around its victorious president, whose popularity rating soared past 90 percent as the talk in Washington turned to the war's second phase. Where would it go next: Somalia, Iraq, Yemen?

Yet just a few months later, the war on terrorism appears bogged down in a mire of foreign policy setbacks. They include an increasingly difficult situation in the Middle East and an embarrassing reaction to a failed coup attempt in Venezuela.

These were compounded last week by the accidental deaths of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan at the hands of an American pilot. Canada, one of the U.S.'s closest allies, said it was "mystified" at how the accident could have happened.

Finally, the White House suffered perhaps its biggest defeat to date in domestic politics on 18 April when the Senate voted down its proposal to drill for oil in a wildlife sanctuary in northern Alaska.

A day later, pollsters said Bush's popularity had dropped to a 75 percent approval rating -- an unthinkable turnaround from just a few weeks ago.

What's happening in Washington?

Joseph Cirincione, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had this to say:

"The amazing success that the U.S. had with its military operations in Afghanistan, I think, gave us a false sense of confidence and this feeling that we were the colossus astride the world. Even at the time, some of our closest allies were warning us that there were some things that even the most powerful country in the world can't do by itself. But a lot of those cautions were brushed aside."

After enraging much of the Arab world by steering clear of the Middle East crisis for the last year, Bush announced suddenly, on 4 April, that he was sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region to broker a cease-fire and an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from recently occupied West Bank areas.

But when, after 10 days in the region, Powell came home virtually empty-handed, Bush appeared to abandon his previous strong demands on Israel. Instead, Bush said he was pleased with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's efforts to pull back troops and called Sharon "a man of peace."

That infuriated Arab governments and media. It also put further strain on Muslim governments friendly to the U.S., such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which have seen recent demonstrations against Israel and the U.S.

In Washington, analysts say Powell's mission was undermined by a split within the Bush administration itself. Elements within the White House clearly favor Sharon, who has sought to portray his battle as part of the larger war on terrorism -- an argument many Americans appear to agree with.

So while much of the world welcomed America's belated plunge into the crisis and even-handed efforts by Powell -- the first foreign official of his stature to visit Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in months -- others appeared baffled by Bush's rhetorical reversal.

Cirincione said: "What are the allies to think, what is Israel to think, what are the Palestinians to think? U.S. foreign policy at this point seems to be wandering, confused, directionless. In that sense, the Powell visit has made things worse, as it exposed the inconsistencies and the problems within the administration on what it thought was its strong point: foreign policy."

Indeed, judging by the reaction of many Arab officials and media, the trip by Powell appears to have inflamed Arab anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli passions rather than cooled them.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher sought to counter that perception last Friday, when asked how Washington intends to confront growing rage on the Arab "street" toward America:

"I think the message to the people on the [Arab] street is the same as the message to the governments. And that is, the United States does care deeply about the situation. The United States, more than any government, has been heavily involved in practical ways to try and see that Israelis and Palestinians get back their lives -- that they can get normal lives, that they can get hope for the future."

Meanwhile, Washington's hopes to widen its war on terrorism to take on Iraq are foundering, according to analysts.

Prior to Powell's trip, Vice President Dick Cheney had toured 11 Middle East capitals in an apparent effort to win backing for an Iraqi campaign.

But analysts say that unless the U.S. can help to significantly improve the Middle East crisis, it will not win Arab support for taking on Saddam Hussein.

The White House last week suffered another image blow when it declined to condemn an attempted coup against the democratically elected leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.

Key countries in Latin America deplored the coup bid on April 12, calling it anti-democratic. But Washington's reaction was that it was simply the result of Chavez's bad policies. Yet when Chavez returned to power two days later amid rumors that the U.S. had a hand in his failed overthrow, the White House appeared publicly embarrassed over the turn of events.

Washington vehemently denied it had anything to do with the action or that it supported it. But critics across the Americas regretted Washington's failure to strongly back the rule of law in a Latin American country.

Washington has never made a secret of its dislike of Chavez, a leftist populist who has cultivated friends like Fidel Castro of Cuba, as well as leaders in Iran, Iraq, and Libya.

The Bush administration also has angered governments around the world, but particularly in Europe, Russia and Japan, over its decision to tax steel imports.

Some analysts say these various U.S. policy decisions -- which appear to be "unilateral" -- are undermining international support for American leadership and for its war on terrorism.

But they may have repercussions at home, too.

With almost three years to go to the next presidential election, analysts say Bush could risk his father's fate -- losing a re-election after soaring in popularity during the Persian Gulf War.

The elder Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 largely because of domestic issues, such as the economy. But analysts say the younger Bush will need to protect himself against setbacks in foreign policy, such as a spiraling Middle East crisis or a confused war on terrorism, if he is to preserve his popularity.

The last two weeks have not been good for Bush. But for now, at least, time appears to be on his side.

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