An Absence of Nuance

Peggy Noonan, formerly a speech writer for Ronald Reagan and "Poppy" Bush, and now a Wall Street Journal contributing editor, interviewed George W. Bush in June 2001, shortly after his return from meetings with European leaders and Russian president Vladimir Putin. Noonan apparently asked Bush what he thought of the prospect of Russia joining NATO. Bush responded, "I haven't thought about the nuance of it." The remark is particularly telling as reported by Noonan -- a commentator undoubtedly sympathetic to the Bush clan -- and printed in the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial pages sometimes read like a house organ for the Bush administration. Yet it neatly summarizes Bush's approach to and grasp of foreign policy.

Simon Tisdall reviewed Bush's foreign policy recently in the Guardian (UK). Tisdall's column was occasioned in part by Bush's return to his "axis of evil" theme in a speech at Lexington, Virginia. "Nations must choose -- they are with us or they're with the terrorists," Bush reiterated. He claimed that his policies embodied high moral purpose, promoting "the dignity and value of every individual" in "a better world," while at the same time warning that the U.S. would resort to military means to "defeat the threats against our country and the civilized world." Tisdall observes that this grab bag of trite phrases might at one time have been dismissed as demagoguery or campaign rhetoric outside the U.S.

The problem nowadays, the world has learned, is that Mr Bush really believes this stuff. It may be simplistic, superficial nonsense; it may be harmful to international stability and mature dialogue between nations; it may indeed be counter-productive, having the effect of alienating and alarming friendly countries and antagonizing potential enemies. To non-American ears, it certainly sounds arrogant and foolish in the extreme. But it has become the "Bush doctrine" and as such, it is official US policy, and everybody has to deal with it.

Asking and answering the question of whether Bush's foreign policy actually works, Tisdall summarizes by declaring the results "mixed," even though the details show mostly failure:

  • Osama bin Laden. Although the Al Qaeda network has been degraded and the feared second wave of terrorist attacks against U.S. targets never materialized, the U.S. now admits bin Laden probably escaped during the assault on Tora Bora.
  • Afghanistan. Early success has given way to an "increasingly messy" situation. Promised international aid has not appeared, the interim government of Hamid Karzai struggles against domestic enemies and warlords, allies can't agree on the role of international peacekeeping forces, and fundamentalists are regrouping in Pakistan.
  • Arab-Israeli conflict. Bush has attempted to reverse the "not-Clinton" hands off policy his administration pursued during its first year. Unfortunately neither party to the conflict seems to have paid much attention when he finally sent Secretary of State Powell to the region. As Tisdall says, "Things are now far worse than when the much-reviled Clinton left office and it is unclear how the US can restore its leverage and lost credibility and help revive the peace process."
  • Iraq. The Bush administration's obsession with "Poppy's" unfinished business in Iraq has strained U.S. relations with Europe and the Arab world. According to Tisdall, Bush may realize that he may not ever be able to act on his policy of seeking a "regime change" in Iraq, "without incurring immense damage, not least in terms of [U.S.] economic interests and its energy supply. Mr Bush is reduced to talking tough and looking ineffectual."
  • Russia. Despite an apparently good working relationship with Russian President Putin, Bush's chief success here may be Russian grudging tolerance of Bush's missile defense system, which faces major opposition domestically and abroad.
  • Multilateralism. Bush has thumbed his nose at the Kyoto protocol on global warming, abrogated the anti-ballistic missile treaty, and undermined international efforts to curb chemical and biological weapons as well as small arms.

The war on terrorism has been prosecuted with a singularly simplistic approach, which Bush revealed shortly after September 11. "There's an old poster out West that I recall that said, 'Wanted, Dead or Alive.'" As Christopher Miller noted recently, the remark unwittingly revealed Dubya's childish worldview: Bush and his cronies are the sheriff and his posse, meting out old fashioned justice with little tolerance for any criticism of their methods. Bin Laden, or Iraq, or Iran or North Korea are the bad guys who "want nothing less than to destroy our way of life." Historically the domestic fallout from this kind of oversimplification has included such regrettable episodes as the Palmer raids against suspected radicals in the aftermath of World War I, the imprisoning of Japanese and Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II, the exploits of Joe McCarthy's Government Operations Committee, and Richard Nixon's attempted use of the IRS and FBI to harass dissidents.

In the current period, we've witnessed widespread arrests based on racial profiling, monitoring of attorney client conversations, prosecution of an attorney for expressing her client's views to the press, and the granting of vast powers to the executive branch of government to monitor private correspondence (through legislation passed with no meaningful public debate). At the same time, Bush has twice used an executive order to bypass the Presidential Records act, created to protect the nation from the abuses of power that characterized the Watergate scandal. (Bush used the orders to prevent the release of tens of thousands of pages of documents from the Reagan administration -- the regime that brought us the Iran-Contra affair, and in which "Poppy" Bush served as Vice President, of course.)

But the Saturday-morning-kids-TV-show world view has perhaps caused the most harm in policies concerning the Middle East. As Richard Falk, who was a member of the U.N. human rights commission of inquiry into the Arab-Israeli conflict, noted recently in The Nation,

By overgeneralizing the terrorist threat posed by the September 11 attacks, Bush both greatly widened the scope of needed response and at the same time gave governments around the planet a green light to increase the level of violence directed at their longtime internal adversaries.

Falk argues that conflicts over territory and statehood, such as that between Israel and the Palestinians, should be resolved by negotiation and diplomacy, and violence on either side condemned. The conflict over Palestine is distinctly different from the effort to combat Al Qaeda, which is an example of what Falk calls "visionary terrorism" that will not respond to negotiation, and "must and can be disabled or destroyed in a manner that is respectful of moral and legal limits."

The term "terrorism," Falk reminds us, was first applied to government excesses during the French Revolution. The Bush administration would like us to forget this, as it applies the term only to "violence by nonstate movements and organizations, thereby exempting state violence against civilians from the prohibition on terrorism." This propagandistic use of the term allows Russia's response to the Chechnyan independence movement, and Israel's behavior during the occupation of the Palestinian territories to be excluded. The definition also conveniently labels Palestinian violence as terrorism, while including Israel's systematic destruction of the civil infrastructure in the Palestinian territories as part of the war on terrorism.

The myth that Yasser Arafat's rejection of the Camp David peace accord was "tantamount to saying that the struggle was not about establishing a Palestinian state but about ending the existence of the Jewish state" has been noted elsewhere in The Dubya Report. As Richard Falk points out, this biased but widely accepted assessment ignores the extent to which Arafat's rejection of the proposal reflected unhappiness with parameters of the solution on the part of a significant portion of the people he represents. The widespread fear among Palestinians at the time was that Arafat would make unacceptable compromises for the sake of establishing a state -- "any state." The entire negotiation, after all, concerned only 22% of what was known as Palestine under the British mandate; the 78% that is now Israel was not part of the discussion. Moreover, the security arrangements would have isolated the Palestinian state from its own international borders, in Falk's words "denying the fundamental message of any genuine peace: insuring equivalence between the two states for the two peoples."

During and following the Camp David discussions, Arafat was regarded as a moderate voice among the Palestinians. He had demonstrated the capacity to stand up to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and a commitment to preventing the Palestinian territories from being used as a staging area for attacks against Israel. The recent intifada began in response to Ariel Sharon's visit to the Al Aqsa mosque, which the Barak government allowed to proceed despite warnings from respected Palestinians including Faisal Husseini, head of Orient House in Jerusalem. Israeli response to the initially nonviolent Palestinian demonstrations included disproportional use of force, and assassination of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. As Palestinian resistance grew more violent in response, Israel retaliated in kind, eventually using the most sophisticated tanks and helicopter gunships. It was in this context of escalating violence that "suicide bombers appeared as the only means still available by which to inflict sufficient harm on Israel so that the struggle could go on." The inquiry panel appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Commission last year, of which Falk was a member, supported this interpretation of the events surrounding the intifada, as did a majority of the United Nations Security Council, namely "that Israel was mainly responsible for the escalations, and that its tactics of response involved massive violations of international humanitarian law."

Perhaps because on nearly every issue under dispute, the Palestinians have international law on their side, Sharon has resisted any effort to restart the peace process, including both the Mitchell report and the Tenet plan for establishing a cease fire. International law requires the Israelis to withdraw from land taken during war, allows refugees the right to return to the country that expelled them, and supports in a general way the notion of a Jerusalem that belongs to "everyone and no one." Falk asserts that failure of the U.S. to advocate Palestinian rights, and the failure of the U.N. to "implement its authority" have allowed the focus in the region to shift away from the Palestinian cause toward the claims of militant groups like Hezbollah, who advocate the ouster of Israel by force.

The reference to international law provides an interesting indicator of "moral clarity" though perhaps not a basis for a peace settlement. Falk believes, "an American civic movement of solidarity with the well-being of both peoples is essential," and recent articles in the popular media suggest such a trend may be appearing (see for example, New York Magazine's May 6 cover story "Crisis for American Jews"). Die-hard supporters of Israel are increasingly finding themselves in the uncomfortable company of Republicans, especially the right-wing contingent. Bush's wild-west world view seems echoed most loudly by this crowd, who decry any negotiation with Yasser Arafat as "rewarding terrorism."

It should be clear from the foregoing discussion that dismissing Arafat as a terrorist is a dangerous oversimplification. Yet even if for the sake of argument one admits that his association with terrorists is closer than one would desire in a partner to diplomatic negotiations, there is evidence from recent history that absolutism may have to be set aside in the pursuit of peace. The example comes from the conflict in Ireland.

The new book Blood-Dark Track is Joseph O'Neill's account of his activities as a member of the IRA. O'Neill's great grandfather participated in the 19th Century Land War. Great uncles, a grandfather, his father and two uncles were all active members of the IRA. Generations of his family were dominated by a "simplistic imperative," to get the British out of Northern Ireland. O'Neill juxtaposes a sympathetic portrait of his "lively, intelligent, fundamentally decent" family, with a description of how "undeserving" targets of violence were more effective because they produced greater outcry in response and a perception that the violence was morally coherent. By telling the story this way, writes Fintan O'Toole in a recent review for The New York Review of Books,

O'Neill shows us ... something valuable: that it is possible for a kind, rational, enlightened person to be drawn by the allure of warm feelings —family, homeland, belonging—into the politics of mass murder. His fundamental insight is that it is not just what is bad in political ideologies but also what is good that can turn decent people into terrorists. Sustained campaigns of terror may be carried on by people whose belief in civilized values is quite sincere.

The Northern Ireland peace process, O'Toole writes, was built on the principles that the political concerns of terrorists should be addressed, that terrorists should be admitted to the negotiation process, and drawn into the democratic system. The more basic perception underlying those principles is that "people who engage in organized political violence are not necessarily, or exclusively, the kind of warped individuals who would be a menace to any society." Some of them, especially the leadership, are likely to be capable of making valuable contributions. This framework, which, it is important to note, was endorsed by the U.S., led to hundreds of people being released from prison in Northern Ireland; a former senior IRA commander is now minister of education; a former member of the Protestant paramilitary Ulster defense force is now a respected member of parliament.

O'Toole notes that there is an inherent danger in making this fundamental change in attitude. No democracy, he admits, wants to send the message that a terrorist's actions and behavior will achieve the political changes he or she desires. Yet "the results of the Irish peace process speak for themselves," After 25 years as one of the most effective terrorist forces in the world, the IRA began to voluntarily destroy its arsenal, once it had been engaged politically. As O'Toole observes, it did so without achieving its primary goal, the withdrawal of Britain from northern Ireland and the establishment of a unified state. It also accepted propositions to which it had long been fiercely opposed: that the citizens of Northern Ireland would have a say in any change in their governmental status, that Northern Ireland could be governed by Britain, and that armed resistance should end.

The key is, in O'Toole's phrase, "to change the political context."

This is an insight that may well be beyond the faculties of the man the European press christened "president Bible-baseball-barbecue." On the Arab-Israeli question at least, Molly Ivins has offered an executive summary: "The political condition of the Palestinians simply has to be addressed." More generally, however, the Guardian's Tisdall reports that Bush confided to a close acquaintance that, although he liked the job of president, he found "this foreign policy stuff a little frustrating." To which Tisdall responded that Bush should perhaps "...stop looking at things in such stark terms, try a bit harder to grasp the nuances, and talk a little less loudly."


Noonan, Peggy "A Chat in the Oval Office" Wall Street Journal 25 Jun. 2001.

Tisdall, Simon "Bush struggles with 'foreign policy stuff'" Guardian Unlimited 26 Apr. 2002.

Miller, Christopher "When Cowboy Politics Falls Short" Democratic Underground 26 Apr. 2002

Ivins, Molly "The Lone Star state-of-affairs: Bush’s recent initiatives are bad Texan policies on a grand scale" Creators Syndicate. 29 Mar. 2002

O'Toole, Fintan "Guns in the Family" Rev. of Blood-Dark Track: A Family History by Joseph O'Neill. New York Review of Books 11 Apr. 2002.

See also the report of the U.N. commission inquiring into human rights violations in Palestine.