The Bush Team’s Foreign-Policy Valedictories

Of all of George W. Bush's senior officials, Condoleezza Rice has changed the most. No, the secretary of State hasn't exactly acknowledged this or admitted major mistakes, but she has been the most influential official in transforming the president from a my-way-or-the-highway unilateralist in his first term into a passionate multilateralist in his second. She also evinces a humility that remains notably absent in others such as Vice President Dick Cheney—who, when asked recently about flagging U.S. support for the Iraq War, responded, "So?" Rice was once Bush's black-booted generalissima, full of confidence about "the birth pangs of a new Middle East." Now, in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, she delivers an apologia that is most notable for its defensive language and tentative conclusions.

Rice makes the administration's farewell arguments for an array of policies—from the decision to invade Iraq to its fateful choice to force elections on the Palestinians. And while she still gives short shrift to the United Nations and other multilateral bodies, Rice ends up embracing the "international community" she had dismissed as "illusory" in the last big essay she did for Foreign Affairs, back in early 2000. In the new essay, Rice also rediscovers policies very similar to those championed by the once-derided Clinton administration, among them nation-building. What Bill Clinton's former national-security adviser, Tony Lake (now a key foreign-policy adviser to Barack Obama) once embraced as the "enlargement" of democracy and markets as a way of securing U.S. interests, she calls a new "American realism." "An international order that reflects our values is the best guarantee" of national interest, she writes. In fact, there's nothing new about it: it is a policy that goes back at least to Woodrow Wilson, and was embraced by FDR, Truman, Reagan and every other president with an internationalist bent. Rice's essay calls to mind T. S. Eliot's famous line that "the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

Rice is hardly the only one gingerly laying out the administration's case for posterity, even as a new Pew poll shows that global views of America have started to improve in anticipation of Bush's departure in six months.

Bush himself, in interviews and remarks to foreign counterparts and reporters, has sought to plead his brief to the historians. "I think that in retrospect I could have used a different tone, a different rhetoric" in the first term, he told the Times of London this week. He fretted that the now-infamous phrases from that period—his vow to catch Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" and his chesty call to "bring on" Iraq's insurgents—"indicated to people that I was, you know, not a man of peace."

Some of these arguments may soften the judgment of history. Others will simply be scorned. The new report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, for example, shows that Bush was hardly behaving as a "man of peace" when he defied the doubts of his own intelligence analysts to actively justify a war with Iraq that his former spokesman, Scott McClellan, says didn't have to be fought. Why did Bush do it? Rice's essay seeks to dispose of the matter in one line. "The United States did not overthrow Saddam to democratize the Middle East. It did so to remove a long-standing threat to international security," she writes. Shorn of its evidentiary undergirding—Rice's essay mentions nothing about the "grave and gathering danger" of Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, mushroom clouds as smoking guns or Saddam's alleged links to Al Qaeda—the statement seems feeble.

Indeed, Rice is uncharacteristically vague and cryptic in delivering judgment on this, the biggest, most dramatic move the administration has made in seven and a half years. The decision to topple an Arab autocracy like Iraq's in the middle of the fight against Al Qaeda, she says, was an effort to attack the "underlying cause" of the terrorist group's support. "Perhaps it would have been possible to manage these suppressed tensions [in Arab societies] for a while" longer, she writes. "Indeed, the quest for justice and a new equilibrium on which the nations of the broader Middle East are now embarked is very turbulent. But is it really worse than the situation before?" She never really answers the question. If she's not sure that things are better, why should the rest of us be?

Even as the administration begins to shuffle off the stage, it still hasn't figured out the best mix of policy approaches. Early in his second term Bush seemed so chastened by his Iraq experience that he clung to multilateralism like a life raft. Even bilateralism—talking directly with an adversary—was a no-no. Asked two summers ago about engaging with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il—who was practically begging for negotiations—Bush declined, saying, "What I'm not going to let us do is get caught in the trap of sitting at the table alone with the North Koreans." Only when veteran U.S. diplomat Chris Hill pushed Rice and Bush to do just that did the administration score what may be its most significant diplomatic triumph: the 2007 agreement to dismantle Pyongyang's nuclear program. Similar bilateral efforts to engage Syria and Iran do not appear to be forthcoming.

As for the rest of Bush's legacy, he and his alter ego, Rice, are pointing to the "structures" they will bequeath—which is a wonk's way of saying that even though our negotiations and initiatives didn't end in success, we hope the next guy will be able to retrieve something useful out of them. Bush told the Times that his focus now is to "leave behind a series of structures that makes it easier for the next president" to achieve a Palestinian state and a long-term partnership with Iraq, among other things.

Bush may have one big surprise left in him, one last moment of leader-of-the-free-world clout. As Jennifer Loven of The Associated Press reported, Bush, traveling in Germany this week, seemed more open to the idea of striking Iran over its brazen pursuit of a nuclear arms program. He described diplomacy as his "first choice," suggesting there might be others. Some hawks in his administration have suggested to NEWSWEEK that military action could occur between the November election and his Jan. 20, 2009, departure from office. But resistance from the defense and intelligence community is still strong, and most experts think an attack is unlikely. It may be the last Bush decision that history awaits.