WASHINGTON--``Remember George, this is no time to go wobbly.'' So said Margaret Thatcher to the first President Bush just days after Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait. Bush did not go wobbly. He invaded.
A decade later, the second George Bush came into office and immediately began a radical reorientation of U.S. foreign policy. Now, however, the conventional wisdom is that in the face of criticism from domestic opponents and foreign allies, Bush is backing down.
Has W. gone wobbly? In his first days, he offered a new American nuclear policy that scraps the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, builds defenses against ballistic missile attack and unilaterally cuts U.S. offensive nuclear forces without wrangling with the Russians over arms control, the way of the past 30 years. He then summarily rejected the Kyoto protocol on climate control, which would have forced the United States to undertake a ruinous 30 percent cut in CO2 emissions while permitting China, India and most of humanity to pollute at will.
Bush's assertion of American freedom of action outraged those--U.S. Democrats, Europeans, Russians--who prefer to see the world's only superpower bound and restrained by treaty constraints, whether bipolar (ABM) or multipolar (Kyoto), in the name of good international citizenship.
The word now, however, is that Bush has gone soft. He sends Secretary of State Colin Powell to Europe to try to get agreement on missile defenses. He tries, reports The New York Times in high scoop mode, to cook an ABM deal with the Russians--shades of the old days. He then concedes there is global warming and promises action. ``When President Bush announces ... that he will seek millions of dollars for new research into the causes of global warming,'' reported the Times, ``... it will mark yet another example of how global and domestic politics have forced him to back away from the hard-line pronouncements of his first five months in the White House.''
The alleged cave has been greeted with smug satisfaction from those on the left who see Bush returning, after a brief flirtation with the mad-dog ideological right, to the basic soundness of post-Cold War foreign policy as established by the Clinton administration.
Has Bush gone wobbly? Not at all.
Ask yourself: If you really wanted to reassert American unilateralism, to get rid of the cobwebs of the bipolar era and the myriad Clinton-era treaty strings tying Gulliver down, what would you do? No need for in-your-face arrogance. No need to humiliate. No need to proclaim that you will ignore nattering allies and nervous ex-enemies.
Journalists can talk like that because the truth is clarifying. Governments cannot talk like that because the truth is scary. The trick to unilateralism--doing what you think is right, regardless of what others think--is to pretend you are not acting unilaterally at all. Thus if you really want to junk the ABM Treaty, and the Europeans and Russians and Chinese start screaming bloody murder, the trick is to send Colin Powell to smooth and soothe and schmooze every foreign leader in sight, have Condoleezza Rice talk about how much we value allied input, have President Bush in Europe stress how missile defense will help the security of everybody. And then go ahead and junk the ABM Treaty regardless. Make nice, then carry on.
Or, say, you want to kill the Kyoto protocol (which the Senate rejected 95-0 and which not a single EU country has ratified) and the Europeans hypocritically complain. The trick is to have the president go to Europe to stress, both sincerely and correctly, that the United States wants to be in the forefront of using science and technology to attack the problem--but make absolutely clear that you'll accept no mandatory cuts and tolerate no treaty that penalizes the United States and lets China, India and the Third World off the hook.
Be nice, but be undeterred. The best unilateralism is velvet-glove unilateralism.
At the end of the day, for all the rhetorical bows to Russian, European and liberal sensibilities, look at how Bush returns from Europe: Kyoto is dead. The ABM Treaty is history. Missile defense is on. NATO expansion is relaunched. And just to italicize the new turn in American foreign policy, the number of those annual, vaporous U.S.-EU summits has been cut from two to one.
Might the administration yet bend to the critics and abandon the new unilateralism? Perhaps. But the crowing of the Washington foreign-policy establishment that this has already occurred is wishful thinking. Anyone who has watched Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, read Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz, known Vice President Cheney or listened to President Bush would be wise to place his bet at the ``no wobble'' window.