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June 2, 2022
Election 2004: The National Security Context

Special Section: Campaign 2004

By Alton Frye

In U.S. politics, it is not always “the economy, stupid.” However often economic and domestic concerns have dominated U.S. political campaigns, national security and foreign policy issues also play frequent roles in shaping voter choices, especially for president.

Skip through American history and note the many instances in which international security problems, often intersecting with economic difficulties, impinged on U.S. politics. From the frictions with Britain and France and pirates that dominated the opening decades of U.S. diplomacy to the issues of war and peace that were central to the country’s emergence as a world power in the 20th century, presidents were forced to confront hard trade-offs among foreign policy choices and domestic campaign imperatives. Consider only the abrupt swings in Lyndon Johnson’s political fortunes that occurred between the 1964 and 1968 presidential elections. Fears of his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater’s nuclear recklessness contributed significantly to Johnson’s 1964 political landslide, even spawning an entire organization of “Scientists and Engineers for Johnson-Humphrey.” Yet, four years later, LBJ was forced to make an anguished withdrawal amid the Vietnam catastrophe.

These examples offer a partial context for anticipating the 2004 political campaign. The contours of the race are already visible, and they include a heavy weight for national security and foreign policy concerns. There will be arguments over the balance of attention the administration has given to unilateralism versus multilaterism, to military operations abroad versus measures to secure the homeland, to free-trade negotiations versus protecting American jobs, to pre-emptive action against plausible threats versus investments in intelligence to confirm actual dangers. Those contours, however, remain fluid, especially because of possible—in fact, likely—surprises on the international scene. A North Korean nuclear test, the assassination of President General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, collapse of the Karzai regime in Afghanistan, or a major additional terrorist success for the elusive Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda—any of these developments would complicate policy and politics severely, just as progress in any of those arenas would bolster the administration’s claim to effective international performance.

Bush’s Re-election Campaign

By all accounts, President George W. Bush and his advisers have been preoccupied with what they consider the lethal lesson of the first Bush presidency, namely, that domestic concerns trump even a successful foreign policy when it comes to voters’ behavior in the next election. After what was arguably the most successful major diplomatic-military campaign in American history—the mobilization of a global coalition to repel the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991—George H. W. Bush soared to astronomical levels of public approval only to lose the election the next year.

Moreover, the anxieties of the Bush team are well grounded in history. Time and again, even successful war leaders are dumped by voters, notwithstanding the general tendency of citizens to rally round the commander-in-chief during a crisis. Franklin D. Roosevelt surely benefited from the latter tendency in 1944 as the Second World War moved toward a climax, but Winston Churchill was unceremoniously removed from office a few months later.

It is understandable, therefore, that a slow sigh of relief has been rising from the White House as rather encouraging economic reports have blended with highly touted legislation to revamp Medicare with prescription benefits to improve Bush’s domestic political standing. Yet, it may be premature. In the end, Bush’s political future is likely to hinge on the public’s view of Bush’s performance on national security concerns as much as economic ones, and foreign policy issues may not play out to the benefit of the White House. In the end, voters may be forced to decide if they should hail and reward Bush for the strong leadership he exhibited after the terrorist attacks of September 11 or punish him for the unease they feel over protracted engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A New Terrain

No one can doubt that Bush has altered the terrain and the terminology of the national security debate. He has done so partly by force of circumstance, compelled to respond to the unprecedented implications of the September 11 attacks. Yet, quite apart from that traumatic event, Bush introduced sharply different perspectives and preferences to U.S. policy. From his campaign themes forward, Bush has displayed greater kinship to the style and substance of the Reagan presidency than to those of his father. That is nowhere more evident than in Bush’s habit of drawing lines in the sand comparable to Ronald Reagan’s famous declaration about the “evil empire” and his sharp-edged demands for Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Sometimes, however, a reach for moral clarity can breed political confusion, as one may argue was the case in Bush’s rhetorical flourish against the “axis of evil.”

Like Reagan, Bush’s rhetoric is polarizing: it invigorates his fellow Republicans while infuriating Democrats. Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s surge toward the nomination has drawn strength not only from the sense among Democratic base voters that they were robbed in Florida in 2000 but from their opposition to Bush’s war in Iraq and his perceived abandonment of America’s bipartisan traditions in foreign policy. In going to the polls, voters are likely to respond to Bush’s general approach to America’s international role as much as his policies on individual issues.

Nonetheless, many voters will find it essential, if difficult, to draw a scrupulous ledger of the assets and liabilities of Bush’s foreign policy record. There is much to be listed on the positive side of that ledger, and critics would do well to stipulate as much. Bush has taken the most advanced position of any president in supporting a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has made multibillion-dollar commitments to the global effort to deal with HIV/AIDS, and his recasting of U.S. foreign assistance programs into the Millennium Challenge Account will, if funded, represent major improvements. He provided sober and determined leadership after September 11, earning wide admiration. With more agility than many expected, Bush shifted from a wary initial posture toward China as a strategic competitor to forge what knowledgeable observers describe as the best relationship the two countries have known since the Tiananmen Square crisis of the late 1980s. The president will able to tout these and other aspects of his foreign policy record as the 2004 race proceeds. It is on other issues that challenges will center.

Consider for a moment developments in arms control. The vocabulary of arms control has become almost taboo, but Bush has certainly effected clear changes in arms control and nonproliferation policy and has been more balanced in his approach than is often advertised. No president before him has placed such emphasis on the danger that proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) could lead to their acquisition by terrorists, presenting a threat that would be less susceptible to traditional means of deterrence. Bush’s highlighting of the enhanced risks of proliferation in an age of terrorism is the baseline for his national security policy, a formulation that is both sound and politically astute.

Nevertheless, this central preoccupation has bred controversial initiatives. Disregarding domestic resistance and nearly universal international opposition, Bush moved methodically—some would say gratuitously—to terminate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to pursue an as yet unproved national missile defense system. Yet, he coupled the action with commitments for further reductions in strategic offensive nuclear forces. Those commitments were embodied in a new treaty with Russia, albeit one of limited duration and scope. The president opposed reconsideration of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty but promised continued adherence to a testing moratorium. The latter policy, however, grew suspect with the administration’s plans to investigate new types of nuclear weapons and shorten the lead time for the possible resumption of testing, if deemed necessary for such hypothetical missions as deep-penetration bunker busters. Reflecting the administration’s skepticism of anything less than nearly perfect verification arrangements, the Bush team shied away from attempts to enhance inspection and enforcement provisions in the Biological Weapons Convention.

These elements in the Bush policy produce a complex mosaic that does not lend itself to single, definitive characterization. One thinks of Harold Laski’s aphorism that, when socialism came to America, it would be called capitalism. When arms control comes to the Bush administration, it is called defense policy.

A Controversial Strategy

A serious difficulty in the administration’s approach—one sure to attract criticism in the coming election season—has been a tendency toward inflammatory language and provocative concepts. Read as a whole, the administration’s National Security Strategy offered many reasonable, forward-looking dispositions, including acknowledgement of a host of issues that can only be addressed through effective international collaboration. The entire document came under a cloud, however, because of its brief assertion of a doctrine of pre-emption and a determination that the United States should strive to maintain its military dominance more or less permanently. Those ideas were bound to elicit worry and condemnation in many quarters; they were hardly rallying cries for other states to join in efforts to manage the wider array of shared problems identified in the paper.

Particularly controversial is the theory of pre-emption, and that controversy grows more serious with the failure to find expected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Other rationales for the war to remove Saddam Hussein may persuade many people, but the pre-war depiction of the Iraqi threat from weapons of mass destruction was primary, and the collapse of that argument is likely to heighten skepticism about any similar future U.S. claims. Though many Americans want to give their president the benefit of the doubt in such matters, especially after the attacks of September 11, international sentiment is rock solid in demanding that the concept of pre-emption be tied to an imminent threat of attack—that means a very high standard for intelligence, one the United States was clearly not able to meet during the months before the invasion of Iraq. Pre-emption without intelligence is Mars without eyes; the god of war may strike the innocent as often as the guilty.

Obviously, the verdict on Bush’s actions in Iraq hinges on developments still to come. It is already apparent, however, that the president acted on the basis of twin hypotheses, both of which proved dubious. The military decision rested on a worst-case assumption, crediting Hussein not only with WMD programs but with available chemical and perhaps biological weapons that might be used or passed to terrorists. The plans for postwar operations relied on a best-case assumption that Americans would be greeted as liberators and supported by functioning Iraqi institutions that could meet many of the country’s security and social needs. The president will be hard-pressed to obscure the inadequacy of those assumptions, even though he undoubtedly feels that the capture and expected prosecution of Hussein amply justify U.S. policy.

In the Iraq case, U.S. pre-emption certainly eroded the UN Security Council foundations for collaboration. Impatient though Americans may be with regard to the United Nations, there remains a strong desire in public opinion to share the burdens of international security with other nations. Only the most skillful diplomacy and flexible policies toward the transition in Iraq will enable the administration to engage UN and other collaborators in the process of accelerating the return of sovereignty to Iraqis before next November’s U.S. election.

The Iraq intervention stands in marked contrast to the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The administration’s justification for stern action after the 2001 terrorist attacks was scarcely questioned at home or abroad. Moreover, the president’s demeanor and the emphatic success of dislodging the Taliban from government as appropriate retaliation for harboring bin Laden’s terrorists deserve the nearly universal praise they won. Though tentative and fragile, progress toward restoring a credible and representative government in the face of chronic warlordism is one of the administration’s most impressive diplomatic accomplishments. Unless things fall apart badly for the Karzai government in Kabul, Bush will carry into his election campaign credible claims of historic results in Afghanistan.

One notes that in Afghanistan the president moved quickly to correct a damaging slip of the tongue. His initial reference to a “crusade” gave way to more careful and suitable descriptions, offering reassurances that the assault on the Taliban and al Qaeda was in no sense directed against Muslims in general. Yet, Bush’s own instinct for confrontational language, together with insensitive speech by others associated with his administration, has produced a troubling pattern of rhetoric that impedes effective policy implementation. No matter how confident the president was of U.S. military capability in Iraq, it was in no sense helpful for him to taunt the Iraqi resistance by the ill-chosen phrase “Bring’em on.” The hundreds of American and other personnel killed since he uttered those words are a profound rebuke to gratuitous tough talk. Similarly, a nation devoted to the rule of law was not well served by Bush’s recent sneer about “international law, maybe I better consult my lawyer.” These lapses of language diminish the president personally while eroding respect for the policies he espouses.

Counterproductive Labeling

Of all the rhetorical problems generated by the administration, the president’s ad lib remarks are less serious than the deliberate but utterly counterproductive labeling of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” Part of the difficulty with that formulation was its ahistorical analogy. Unlike the original Axis powers of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Japan, there is no Tripartite Pact formally linking the three targets of Bush’s ire. (Even with a formal treaty relationship, the original Axis powers were more wary of each other than actively cooperative—Theo Sommer described them as “accomplices without complicity.”) Moreover, the operational ties among them appear tenuous and occasional at most.

If the phrase “axis of evil” fails as an accurate description, it was positively pernicious as a basis for dealing with the three countries. Facing a Bush doctrine that contemplated pre-emption, would any of the regimes portrayed in such terms be receptive to accommodation with Washington? Or would they court favor elsewhere while seeking to bolster their own indigenous capabilities to thwart U.S. aims? Evidently, linking the three countries rhetorically did nothing to ease the path for U.S. policy to deal with each of them individually. It also triggered further doubts among close U.S. allies that Washington had a coherent view of the three quite varied situations or sound approaches to cope with them.

One wonders, however, if that notorious phrase, coupled with the demonstrated readiness of the Bush administration to use force, has played a part in nudging Iran onto a more constructive course. As evidence mounted of clandestine Iranian programs to develop nuclear capabilities it had pledged in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to forgo, European countries took the diplomatic lead. They did so, however, with U.S. military power actively engaged both west and east of Iran, and that fact surely constituted an important backdrop to the mission to Tehran by the German, British, and French foreign ministers. From those encounters and the subsequent negotiations under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency, there emerged a far more forthcoming posture by the Iranian government, which submitted to intrusive inspections to guarantee that its nuclear programs complied with their professedly peaceful purposes. The intersection of U.S. and Iranian politics remains prickly, with little prospect of early normalization, but on the central issue of weapons of mass destruction, 2004 finds more promising restraints on Iranian efforts than had previously existed. Bush cannot be denied some degree of credit for that result. The same now appears true of the breakthrough in fresh commitments by Libya to curb its WMD ambitions and subject its activities to extensive international inspections.

The North Korea Problem

Harder to assess are the status and trajectory of the third member of the alleged axis, North Korea. It is tempting to blame Pyongyang alone for the heightened tensions and the breakup of the Clinton-era Agreed Framework to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. Although details remain obscure, most analysts accept that the Kim Jong Il regime was cheating on the earlier deal by pursuing a secret project to produce enriched uranium for weapons (though that kind of program was not specifically prohibited in the Agreed Framework). Bush’s diplomacy, infected by the president’s intense antipathy for the North Korean totalitarian, contributed to North Korea’s expulsion of inspectors and withdrawal from the NPT. There is no virtue in assuming that a country’s nominal allegiance to the NPT solves the problem of proliferation; North Korea (and presumably Iran) was not reluctant to conduct weapons-related programs under cover of NPT membership, even when that membership was supplemented by more elaborate monitoring arrangements for the facilities identified in the Agreed Framework. There is even less virtue in taking steps that tempt a would-be proliferator to walk way from the NPT regime entirely.

Again, one records a mixed verdict on the administration’s policy toward North Korea. Better to know and confront Pyongyang’s nuclear cheating than to ignore it, but better still to shape a diplomacy designed to deal with the problem in a timely manner. There is merit in the Bush team’s determination to shift the focus from bilateral dealings between Washington and Pyongyang to six-power talks involving other countries with key stakes in the issue. Unfortunately, the tempo of those talks seems much too slow, if North Korea is in fact taking steps to fabricate additional nuclear materials and weaponize them in the near future. North Korea’s intentions and activities remain shrouded in mystery, and it is not yet clear whether Bush will enter the re-election campaign saddled with grave misgivings about his handling of this threat or boosted by progress in the six-power talks toward a sounder bargain to constrain it. Although the administration thwarted Congressman Curt Weldon’s proposal to lead a delegation to the DPRK in 2003, the New Year’s announcement that Pyongyang will receive an unofficial visit to its Yongbyon nuclear complex by a group including the former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory may indicate that Kim Jong Il is at least flirting with a possible accommodation.

All in all, the president’s personalization of policy toward North Korea, reflected in his overt hostility toward Kim Jong Il, does not bespeak prudence in the face of danger. The menacing reality on the Korean peninsula makes hostages of Seoul’s millions of citizens and the thousands of U.S. forces deployed there. North Korea’s massive firepower along the 38th parallel constitutes an awesome conventional deterrent and denies the United States any acceptable military option to counter the North’s WMD activities. Great powers do not usually advertise their anxieties, but if the president’s approach is to be faulted, it is probably because it embodies too much loathing and not enough fear.

The hazard of North Korean proliferation is amplified, of course, by the regime’s long-standing practice of selling weapons and weapons technology to other countries. The scope and character of Pyongyang’s involvement in secret missile and nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, Iran, Libya, and other states are still obscure, but North Korea has undoubtedly relied heavily on trade in such items to gain income vital to its survival. To cope with the possibility that North Korea might export fissile material, as well as missiles, the Bush administration has enlisted a number of countries in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), planning and conducting various exercises to interdict such exports at sea, on land, and in the air.

The PSI grew out of the embarrassing episode in which Spanish forces, acting on a U.S. request, intercepted a suspicious North Korean vessel, only to have to release it when Yemen claimed the missile shipment belonged to it. Without clear international legal authority for such interdictions, the PSI faces an uncertain future, but even if legal justification can be found, China’s reluctance to join the effort could leave a fatal loophole in attempts to interfere with North Korea’s exports. Further, PSI offers little aid in terms of preventing the transfer of the softball-size quantities of fissile material that would be required for a few nuclear weapons: actionable intelligence will be exceedingly hard to come by and, if somehow obtained, could still pose the daunting challenges of forcing U.S. or allied troops to shoot down aircraft or stop a highly motivated individual rather than stopping ships for inspection at sea. In short, the PSI is useful mainly as a means of mobilizing the needed international coalition to address the matter, but it cannot be a sufficient method for preventing proliferation beyond North Korea if Pyongyang intends to follow that course.


This mosaic of U.S. foreign policy at the start of the 2004 election season presents opportunities both for attacks on the incumbent president’s performance and for credible defenses of his record. If the Bush campaign’s opening ads signify anything, their stress on the incumbent’s commitment to “preemptive defense” reveal that he is staking his administration’s fate on the bold, but costly, national security initiatives he has launched.

The Democratic nominating process has already brought to the fore the main critiques: recklessness in a war of choice against Iraq, compounded by inadequate preparation for the aftermath; loss of focus on the main anti-terrorist war by diverting attention to Hussein’s villainy; failures of intelligence; dismissive treatment of allies and indifference to the rising tide of hostility to U.S. policy throughout the world. Whether those assaults will erode the president’s continued strong approval ratings depends most of all on the train of events unfolding in Iraq. If Hussein’s capture is followed by marked reductions in attacks on U.S. and other coalition forces, by demonstrable progress toward a representative government in Iraq, and by broadening international participation in the country’s reconstruction, Bush may well be able to drown out complaints that he based the war on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that have not been discovered.

Bush’s greatest diplomatic feat—and his greatest political and diplomatic failure—have centered on Iraq. His sober address to the United Nations in September 2002 placed the onus for enforcing Iraqi compliance with UN orders where it belonged, on the Security Council. Secretary of State Colin Powell followed up with immensely skillful negotiations to produce the unanimous Security Council resolution that sent inspectors back into Iraq for more extensive surveillance than had ever been undertaken in any country. Yet, in the next few months the United States brushed aside the concerns of its allies and aborted the UN inspection process. By doing so and failing to find the alleged weapons of mass destruction, the U.S.-led invasion confirmed the worst suspicions of many that Bush was merely going through the motions in seeking UN involvement and that his intention all along had been to eliminate Hussein’s regime.

The diplomatic price for that conclusion may well be paid for years to come in the wariness of other nations toward future U.S. appeals for cooperation in large endeavors, such as constraining Iran or North Korea. Whether or not that is the dominant diplomatic result of the war in Iraq hinges on the pace and durability of political developments in that country. By proclaiming the goal of building democracy in Iraq as the preface to democratizing the entire region, Bush has set the bar very high.

He surely will not clear it before November 2004. The president will need to demonstrate progress on Iraq to convince the American people that he is a capable and responsible commander-in-chief. Unless there are further terrorist attacks on the United States, the degree of progress, or lack of it, toward credible stability in Iraq will cast the longest shadow of any national security issue in the coming election. Like many presidents before him, Bush enters the campaign both fortified and jeopardized by the relentless realities of America’s place in a dangerous world.

Alton Frye is counselor and presidential senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he co-directs the Congress and U.S. Foreign Policy Program.

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