The End of Cowboy Diplomacy?

This idea is increasingly being seized upon by pundits and commentators with respect to the supposed evolution of President Bush’s foreign policy. Time magazine’s July 9 cover story pointed at the President’s diplomacy-first approach to North Korea and presumably Iran as well as evidence of a softening in the White House’s tone on foreign policy. “Under the old Bush Doctrine, defiance by a dictator like Kim Jong Il would have merited threats of punitive U.S. action,” says the Time story; but now Bush “has mainly been talking up multilateralism and downplaying Pyongyang’s provocation.”

Daniel Schorr on NPR Wednesday echoed this sentiment in his analysis, observing that the President appears to be “putting away his cowboy spurs and trying a softer approach.” Shorr explains what he apparently deems to be the self-dismantling of the most aannoying elements of the Bush Doctrine. Instead of “Axis of Evil” rhetoric, North Korea and Iran are “admonished,”not threatened with punitive action. He points to the upcoming G8 summit in Russia as an indicator of whether “Cowboy Diplomacy” is truly dead or not, saying that the answer hinges on whether or not the President vocally bashes host Vladimir Putin’s backsliding on democratic government.

The Time story states that the obvious reason for the new soft diplomacy we are evidently seeing out off the White House is “that the Bush Doctrine foundered in the principal place the U.S. tried to apply it(Iraq).” Disregarding the success of the Iraq war itself, the important question in this context is if or not the Iraq issue is really to be considered on the same plane as the Iranian and North Korean problems. A closer look at the three in relation to each other suggests not.

Looking at Iraq circa late 2001 in comparison to today’s Iran and North Korea shows number of significant differences. First of all, with respect to threat posed by each, we see that Iraq in 2001 did in fact have WMDs, though they in the end the functional stuff proved mostly to be biological weapons (which are quite deadly nonetheless). Saddam Hussein’s nuclear threat was minimal. Data makes it appear very likely that nuclear research was ongoing, though probably it was not very highly developed. So there was a fairly legitmate threat, as there had been for some years reaching back into the Clinton era. Clinton, we rememeber, did in fact order missile strikes in 1998 to “attack Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and its military capacity to threaten its neighbors.”. Aside from the ongoing diplomatic battle that followed the Clinton-ordered strikes into the Bush administration’s dawning year, roughly eight months separated Septemeber 11 and the commencement of the US invasion of Iraq in May 2002. Clearly, a rather protracted diplomatic effort preceded the escalation of belligerent rhetoric on the part of President Bush.

Conversely, a look at the Iranian problem shows a definite push on the part of the Iranian government to acquire nuclear weapons capability. The cageyness on the part of the Iranian government in response to international pressure makes the threat unclear and destroys any predictability of the Iranian leadership. The North Korean issue is similarly muddy, especially with regard to what the North Koreans are truly willing to do with their weapons. This is due to the highly reclusive nature of that nation; but despite this we do know that unlike the other nations under consideration they actually do have nuclear weaponry.

Both Iran and North Korea pose real theats, but in relation to the timeframe of the Iraq issue these are very young threats. Iran began making louder noises about nukes in only the past few months, and the announcement that the North Koreans had test missiles poised to launch did not come until early or mid-June. So to say that there is no room for Cowboy Diplomacy seems very premature.

In reality, Iran and especially North Korea are real threats that have to be dealt with very carefully. The Bush doctrine, Bush has said, is constantly being defined by action, not just words. Bush and company are right to push diplomacy for awhile longer. But by the Iraq precedent, it is much too early to rule out that the President might don the spurs again if necessary. Especially in the case of North Korea, the US might even be joined by a small posse if tensions escalate to that point. The opponents of the President’s foreign policy approach should be wary of calling the perceived softened tone a “relief.”

Dubya might be speaking softly now, but my money says he still carries a big stick.