COLUMN: Is the Bush Doctrine of foreign policy nearing its end? Not quite.

By Brian Pierce

The cover story of Time magazine this week asks if the changing times have brought about a change in doctrine on the part of the Bush administration, declaring “the end of cowboy diplomacy.”

The story cites the rise of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the more diplomatic approaches to crises with Iran and North Korea and President Bush’s expression of regret about his “bring ’em on” rhetoric. It concludes that while Bush, in the wake of 9/11, used to “dispense with the nuances of geopolitics and go with his gut,” the administration has now been “forced to rethink the doctrine with which it hoped to remake the world.” Princeton political scientist Gary J. Bass is quoted as calling it a “doctrinal flameout.”

But is the Bush doctrine really hobbling toward extinction? Whether you love Bush’s policy or hate it, Time flagrantly misses the point when it claims that its essence is its swagger, its unilateralism, or its resistance to diplomatic solutions. As such, it does not follow that a maturation of the administration’s rhetoric or a failure to wage war in response to every foreign crisis is a sign of the Bush doctrine’s demise.

An open debate needs to be had about the wisdom and effectiveness of Bush’s policy. That debate cannot occur if the President’s policy is not honestly defined.

This is a difficult task, given that the administration itself has muddied its rhetoric with talk of WMDs and exaggerated threats of terrorism. But the President’s second inaugural address in 2005 provided a much needed (and much unnoticed) moment of clarity, when he declared the true essence of his foreign policy: “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

There are reasonable objections to this foreign policy and to the Bush administration’s application of it in Iraq, but if we are to talk about its demise, we must talk about its true character. No part of Bush’s foreign policy requires unilateralism, it simply allows for it when other nations won’t stand with us. No part requires preemptive strikes, it simply allows for them when a threat is growing, something not at all unique to the Bush administration. And certainly no part requires a resistance to diplomatic solutions; indeed, when it advances the goal of ending tyranny, diplomacy is embraced. Democratic reform in Egypt and Saudi Arabia came without military intervention, for example.

So, is a tampering of the President’s cowboy image really anything more than a cause for hope that his policy will become more effective as it turns fewer people off with its brashness? Time magazine falters by treating the President’s swagger and his foreign policy as one and the same and declaring that as the swagger dies out, so goes the policy. But in reality, the policy has been strengthened by an increased civility. The end of cowboy diplomacy may be welcomed news, but it by no means spells the end of the doctrine that will become Bush’s true legacy.