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The Bush doctrine

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In American foreign policy, a new motto: Don't ask. Tell

For eight years the Clinton Administration preached the need for exquisite sensitivity to the Russians. They'd had a rough time. They needed nurturing from their new American friends.

They got it. We fed them loans, knowing that much of the money would disappear corruptly. We turned away from atrocity in Chechnya lest we weaken the new Russian state. But most important, we went weak in the knees on missile defense. The prospect of American antiballistic missiles upset the Russians. And upsetting the Russians was something we simply were not to do.

The Russians cannot keep up with American technology. And they fear that an American missile shield will render obsolete their last remnant of greatness: their monster, nuclear-tipped missiles. So they insist that we adhere to a 1972 treaty signed with the defunct Soviet Union that prohibited either side from developing missile defenses. That the treaty is obsolete--it long predates the world of rogue states racing to acquire missile-launched weapons of mass destruction--does not concern the Russians. Withdraw from the treaty, they said, and you have destroyed the "strategic stability" on which the peace of the world depends.

The Clinton Administration took that threat seriously--so seriously that for eight years it equivocated on building an American ABM system. Finally, President Clinton promised to decide by June 2000. Come June, he punted.

Eight years, and no defense. But the bear was content.

Bear contentment was never a high priority for Ronald Reagan. He offered a different model for dealing with the Russians. The '80s model went by the name of peace through strength. But it was more than that. It was judicious but unapologetic unilateralism. It was willingness--in the face of threats and bluster from foreign adversaries and nervous apprehension from domestic critics--to do what the U.S. needed to do for its own security. Regardless.

It was Reagan who famously proposed a missile shield, and even more famously refused to barter it away at the Reykjavik summit, an event many historians consider the turning point in the cold war. That marked the beginning of the Soviets' definitive realization that they were going to lose the arms race to the U.S.--and that neither threats nor cajoling could dissuade the U.S. from running it.

This decade starts with a return to the unabashed unilateralism of the '80s. It began last year with a speech by George W. Bush proposing that the U.S. build weapons to meet American needs--and not to accommodate the complaints or gain the agreement of other countries. For 40 years we would not cut our offensive nuclear missiles except in conjunction with Soviet cuts. Bush's refreshing question was: Why? We don't need Russians cutting our offensive weapons through arms-control treaties. And we don't need Russians telling us whether or not to build defensive weapons.

This was the genesis of the Bush Doctrine, now taking shape as the Administration takes power. Its motto is, We build to suit--ourselves. Accordingly, the President and the Secretary of Defense have been unequivocal about their determination to go ahead with a missile defense.

They staked their claim. And what happened? Did the sky fall, as the Clinton Russia experts warned? On the contrary. Convinced at last of American seriousness, the Russians immediately acquiesced. After just one month of Bush, Moscow has come forward with its very own missile-defense plan. The fact that it is not well sketched out and that it is in part designed to split us off from Europe is beside the point. The Russians have responded, as did the Soviets before them, to American firmness. Faced with reality, they accommodate to it.

Who defines reality: there lies the difference between this Administration and the last. Clinton let Russian opposition define reality. Bush, like Reagan, understands that the U.S. can reshape, indeed remake, reality on its own.

In the liberal internationalist view of the world, the U.S. is merely one among many--a stronger country, yes, but one that has to adapt itself to the will and the needs of "the international community." That is why the Clinton Administration was almost manic in pursuit of multilateral treaties--on chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear testing, proliferation. No matter that they could not be enforced. Our very signing would show us to be a good international citizen.

This is folly. America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.

Russia did not see the light on missile defense. It saw the future, as defined by us, and decided to join it.


Cover Date: March 5, 2001



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