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Presidents and their foreign affairs

History shows foreign policy to be a fickle friend and nothing to bank on in the next election. Brave New World. By Michael Moran.

In November of 1906, fresh from a politically costly fight to impose standards in the meat industry, President Theodore Roosevelt did something no serving American leader had ever dared: He left the country. Presidents ever since have used diplomatic trips to burnish their resumes, but few produced such lasting benefits as the one Roosevelt took to the Panama Canal. President Bush, having vanquished two tyrannical regimes and now committed to peace in the Holy Land, may hope to build a legacy of his own to brag about. But history shows foreign policy to be a fickle friend and nothing to bank on in the next election.

Roosevelt's visit to the Panama Canal — a trip measured in weeks, not hours back then — silenced domestic critics and gave him new political capital to take on entrenched industrial barons. The final two years of his term included bruising antitrust battles and the economic “Panic of 1907,” but ask anyone today who built the Panama Canal, and chances are the answer will be “Teddy Roosevelt” — even though it was started by the French and opened six years after he left office. The first-ever presidential trip abroad made a lasting impression.

In 100 years, will there be as clear an answer to “Who liberated Iraq?” or “Who made peace between the Arabs and Jews?” Well-meaning people on either side of these debates should hope so, but the odds are stacked heavily against.

Ask President Carter, whose 1978 Camp David talks brought peace between Israeli President Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat but failed to spread it to the rest of the region (or his 1980 re-election campaign). Or President Clinton, who pushed the Serbs out of Kosovo but found his sex life made better headlines.

Most famously in this context, consider former President George Bush, liberator of Kuwait, a country most of the American electorate appeared to have forgotten by the time the 1992 election rolled around.

Wrong template
Ever since it became clear that the current president intended to finish the job his dad started in Iraq, the media has been gripped by soothsaying and tea leaf-reading columns and analysts asking the question: “Will history repeat itself?’ In effect, will Bush, like his father, win a war overseas only to be tripped up by a miserable economy?

It is the wrong question. Wrong, primarily, because it treats the current president’s foreign endeavors as foregone conclusions when, in reality, al-Qaida, the postwar mess in Iraq or his foray into Middle East diplomacy could come back to haunt him.

The political risks Bush assumed in launching the war on terrorism, it should be said, were initially thrust upon him, just as they were thrust upon all Americans. Bush, as he made clear during his election campaign, felt the United States should speak softly and carry a big stick, to steal a phrase. (The president-to-be’s own phrase was “If we’re a humble nation but strong, they’ll welcome us.”)

Right and Left can debate endlessly the causes of Sept. 11, the decades of support for Arab dictatorships, Muslim resentment of American-Israeli ties and the global backlash against the “hyperpower.” What they cannot claim is that the Bush administration came to power planning to use force to remake the geopolitical map of the world.

The door having been blown open on Sept. 11, 2001, however, the Bush administration stormed in. Had the administration’s response to 9/11 been confined to making quick work of the Taliban and pursuing al-Qaida wherever it raised its head, there would be little at stake politically back home. Even a postwar collapse of Afghanistan back into chaos might not register too deeply with the American electorate, conditioned as it is to write off such places as “ungovernable” and “quagmires.”

But the decision to expand the war on terrorism to include traditional rivals North Korea, Iraq and Iran in January 2002 raised the political stakes enormously. With al-Qaida too elusive to suffer “defeat” as it is conventionally understood, a move against one of the three “axis of evil” states became inevitable. In defeating and now occupying Iraq under the banner of safeguarding America from weapons of mass destruction and freeing Iraqis from a tyrant, the political backlash for things that go wrong there will now start piling up on the doorstep of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Stick by stick
So far, the pile is small. The war, won with such speed and efficiency by the Anglo-American force, may have left a “credit” of sorts with the American public when it comes to casualties. For a war against a relatively large, well-armed foe, even the toll in Iraqi dead, believed to be in the low thousands, was surprisingly low when compared with conflicts of similar scale.

But as U.S. soldiers continue to die in Iraq, and with little outward sign that the country is making progress toward stability or evidence of the heinous arsenal of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons the administration warned of before the war, Iraq could go from triumph to liability for the president. Polls are notoriously poor indicators of foreign policy attitudes, but most show something similar to this week’s CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll — only about 11 percent of the public thinks things are going very well in Iraq, down from 80 percent who approved of the way things were going in a similar Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll taken in mid-May. The president’s job ratings have slipped, too, though hardly precipitously — from a wartime high of 71 percent “favorable” to 64 percent.

Such ratings hardly suggest trouble for Bush’s political aides. But add a brewing controversy over whether intelligence data was skewed to justify the war — an issue that could help the hapless Democrats regain their footing — plus the ups and downs that a full-court presidential press on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can bring (see: Clinton, Bill), and Bush could find himself with little more than a series of ongoing crises abroad.

No doubt, many out there — Democrats especially — are murmuring to themselves, “It’s the economy, stupid.” This may or may not be true at a point in history when Americans, for the first time since the war of 1812, actually have experience of a major foreign attack on their mainland. What seems quite clear, however, is that “credit” for favorable outcomes abroad is hard to hold on to and endlessly up for debate, whether the subject is President Nixon and China or President Reagan and the end of the Cold War. In the end, perhaps unfairly, it is the negative questions that tend to stick: Not “Who hosted Camp David?” but “Who lost the hostages to Iran?”; not “Who beat Hitler?” but “Who lost China?”

In such a world, “Who beat Saddam?” may not cut it.