Why We Don't Get No Respect

The Bush administration must wonder these days if it has a Rodney Dangerfield problem. No matter what it does, it can't seem to get any respect. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has engineered a broad shift in American diplomacy over the last year, moving policy toward greater multilateralism, cooperation and common sense on Iran, North Korea and Iraq, and several other issues.

And yet it hasn't produced a change in attitudes toward the United States. The recent Pew global survey documents a further drop in America's poor image abroad. President Bush tried to be conciliatory while visiting Europe last week but confronted an angry public. A poll published in the Financial Times on the eve of his visit showed that across the continent, the United States was considered a greater threat to world peace than Iran or North Korea.

Why aren't people noticing the new, improved Bush foreign policy? First, the changes coming out of Washington have been very recent. Perhaps more important, they remain incremental and incomplete. This is probably because they are still contested within the administration. Almost all of those officials who embody the administration's crude and clumsy policies of the first term--led by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney--remain in office. They merely appear to be lying low, for now. So there's a limit to how much things can change. What appears like a revolution in Bush policy--the administration is now finally thinking that maybe, possibly, Guantánamo should be shut down--often is just the belated arrival of common sense.

Rice and her team are clearly in charge--and extremely capable--but they operate within fairly tight constraints. The result is that the new approach retains many elements of the old: hectoring rhetoric, constant conditions and stiff demands. U.S. negotiators can talk to the North Koreans, but only on certain subjects in limited ways. For example, the North Korea talks have gone nowhere for some months in part because the United States has suddenly decided that Pyongyang's counterfeiting of currency is a dealbreaker and must stop before any further progress can be achieved. Memo to Washington: get your priorities right. The urgent problem right now is not that North Korea can make fake dollars but that it can make genuine nukes.

On Iran, Rice has won a broader reversal of policy by personally making her case to the president. But even there, the offer of talks is tightly conditional. She does not appear to have the flexibility and scope to really explore the diplomatic option. No one in the administration seems able to really take a fresh look. The entire approach of isolating, shunning and sanctioning regimes as a way of changing them or their behavior has been an unmitigated failure from Cuba (boycotted since 1960) to Iran (since 1979). Meanwhile, the regimes we have talked to and thus had influence with--in China, Vietnam, Libya--are evolving. In Washington, it's still more important to look tough than be effective.

But the main reason the Bush administration's overtures aren't having the effect that might have been expected is that they have come about under duress. "You're bogged down in Iraq, and so you need us to help you," said a senior European politician who declined to be named because he didn't want to add to transatlantic tensions. "It's not a real conversion. It's a product of failure. The administration tried unilateralism and, when it failed, went for a multilateral approach."

An international diplomat, who was revealing a private conversation, went further, saying that the Iranians remain suspicious because they are themselves wary of greater engagement with the West but also because they suspect Washington's motives. "An Iranian diplomat told me that Tehran believes Washington's change of heart has come only because it is in trouble in Iraq," he said. "If the situation in Iraq stabilizes, their attitude will instantly harden."

And you know what? The Iranians might be right. The Bush administration has moved to be more conciliatory, more multilateral and more sensible. But it's done this because its preferred approach failed, most spectacularly in Iraq.

As if to remind us of its preferred option, John Bolton has remained largely unreformed at the United Nations. Taking on the politically easy task of U.N.-bashing, his style has alienated almost every other country, resulting in failure after failure, most notably the breakdown of a reform program that met many of the United States' demands. His latest salvo was a crude, bullying message to Secretary-General Kofi Annan--that he expected U.N. officials to speak only in glowing terms of the United States (even as he constantly bashes the U.N.). In five minutes of posturing in front of a microphone, Bolton undoes five months of careful work by his boss, the secretary of State.

If the Bush administration wants to gain the benefits of a new and different foreign policy, it needs to actually have a new and different foreign policy--without rogue officials' constantly undermining it. And it has to convince the world that this new policy is the product of a change of heart, not a change of circumstance.