Max Boot: Bush must make American power more palatable

He should add rhetorical honey to make his castor oil policies go down more smoothly in the world

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George W Bush's re-election represents a thunderous affirmation of his first-term foreign policy. The President realised that Cold War constructs like "deterrence" and "containment" were not sufficient to deal with a shadowy threat from terrorist groups operating at the intersection of fanaticism and high technology. So he unveiled a new policy of using American power to maintain international security, spread democracy and pre-empt threats if need be.

The closeness of the election should not deceive anyone about the popularity of this programme in the United States. John Kerry paid backhanded tribute to his foe by signing on to the Bush foreign policy in all its essentials. Kerry, too, said that he would not need a "green light" from the United Nations or anyone else to defend US security. Kerry, too, said that he would act pre-emptively if need be. And Kerry not only promised to maintain American military hegemony; he vowed to add to it by increasing the total number of US troops.

Kerry's selling point was that he could do all these things more effectively than the incumbent. Voters didn't buy it. But at the same time, voters had doubts about Bush's foreign-policy management. That's why he won 51 per cent of the vote, not 61 per cent, in spite of a booming economy.

If Bush is smart - and, contrary to the popular image abroad, he's no dummy - he will shake up his foreign policy team, demand more accountability and bring in some prominent Democrats to give the "war on terror" a more bipartisan cast.

What exactly will Bush do? That is unclear. Some of the expectations widely held in Europe may turn out to be unfounded.

Will America, already embroiled in conflict against one member of the "axis of evil", now invade Iran and North Korea? Doubtful. The US armed forces are so committed in Iraq and Afghanistan that they're incapable of major operations elsewhere. In any case, there is little appetite among the American public for another major war. Barring a terrorist attack on US soil - in which case all bets are off - Bush will probably concentrate on consolidating gains in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than rushing off into another conflict.

Will relations between Bush and European leaders such as Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder remain as poisonous as in the past four years? Also doubtful. Chirac and Schröder must now realise that Bush is more popular than they are and that they have to live with him for another term. The recent decisions by Nato and the EU to get involved in training Iraqi security forces signal a desire by even the most anti-Bush leaders to patch up the transatlantic rift. Differences over Iraq will no doubt persist, but even the most obdurate Bush-bashers must realise that it is in no one's interests for Iraq to become a failed state.

Will the Middle East boil over because Bush "ignores" the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? Doubtful yet again. Bush's approach of supporting a Palestinian state along with Israel's security barrier is producing a reduction in terrorism and, hence, of tensions. If Arafat were to go to the great compound in the sky, there might even be a hope of liberalisation within the Palestinian Authority, leading to the creation of a peaceful polity not bent on Israel's destruction.

Will America continue to follow a "unilateralist" path? It all depends on what you mean. Bush is not going to come crawling back to the United Nations or sign on to flawed treaties like the Kyoto global warming accords. But he will continue to promote Nato and push for an expanded role for the alliance in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he will continue to co-operate closely with such allies as Tony Blair and John Howard whom Kerry disdained as "the coalition of the bribed [and] the coerced". Bush isn't going to change his fundamental approach. Nor should he.

What he should change is the way he implements his policies. He needs to add rhetorical honey to make some of his castor oil policies go down more smoothly in the rest of the world. In the first term, Bush and some of his aides seemed to enjoy cocking a snook at international institutions. In the second term, they should abjure such childish gestures and try to make American power more palatable to the rest of the world.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York

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