The F-Words in U.S. Foreign Policy

Monday, December 11, 2006

Written by Gonzalo Moreno

For once, there aren’t that many people in the world whose week sucked more than George W. Bush's. The President was hit hard twice in three days by the "resignation" of John Bolton, the outspoken U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and by the release of the findings of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), a bipartisan commission created by the Republican Congress in March and co-chaired by former Secretary of State, and close Bush family friend, James Baker.

The ISG has created an incredible amount of frenzy in the media in the past few days. The findings paint an incredibly bleak picture of the current situation in Iraq and include some recommendations that would have previously been laughed off by the Administration, including holding talks with Iran and Syria in order to stabilize the whole region and withdrawing most of the American troops in a little over a year.

As fortune would have it, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had a joint press conference scheduled one day after the ISG’s report was released. The press conference quickly turned into a rain of questions about what was implied by the report, most of which came from (comparatively) irreverent British journalists. As Bush and Blair scrambled for rhetorical cover, the words "failed," "failure," and "in denial" were thrown carelessly around. In what has become the new catchphrase in U.S. foreign policy, both politicians said "the way forward" an average of five times per answer. This does not mean much, except that at this point people will come up with any excuse not to look back. Read into that what you will.

Overshadowed by the ISG report was the "resignation" on Monday of Ambassador Bolton. Technically, Bolton did not resign from his post, as his commission expires when the U.S. Congress adjourns at year's end, and he will remain in his position until then. What Bolton did was "resign" from seeking a confirmation for a second term, a confirmation for which he had been proposed by President Bush. Bolton preferred to avoid himself the embarrassment of having his confirmation shot down in public by the new Democratic Senate, even if Bush kept pushing his nomination against the Democrats, a group of Republican Senators, and eventually Bolton himself.

Bolton, some of whose most memorable quotes include "if you lost ten stories [of the U.N. building] today, it wouldn't make a bit of difference," or the ever-so-diplomatic "I’m not much of a carrots man," was at the very least a very abrasive personality, who burned underlings out at an alarming rate and tended to rub the wrong way on his fellow diplomats at the U.N. Although grudgingly admired for his persistence, most of the foreign dignataries who worked with him have said that they won't miss him.

It is still unclear what effect these blows will have on American foreign policy. Although the new Ambassador to the U.N. will most likely be very different from Bolton if he is to be confirmed by the Democrat-controlled House and Senate, the ISG’s recommendations are not binding, and Bush has some support in Congress for ignoring some of the most controversial aspects of it (the talks with Iran and Syria, for example).

But if this week has been groundbreaking in any way, it has been in the admission of failure in Iraq by the Bush Administration. Whether you want to call it a failure or use that other f-word, "forward," as in "way forward," the fact is that the ISG has finally put everyone, even the most delusional Bushite, and Bush himself, on the same page: Iraq is a big fat mess and whatever was tried there didn’t work. The auspiciously-timed Bolton resignation is a comparatively minor, but still significant, symbol that the way the U.S. engages in foreign policy is about to change.

One could engage in I-told-you-so vindication like some Democrats did a few days ago, or maybe stand fully behind the President in full we-can-still-win mode, or even reach a compromise between the two that is rare in today’s political climate. But in any case, the wind perceptibly changed in Washington this week. Let’s hope that whatever middle ground is struck between the failure and forward camps does not end in yet another f-word.

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