Over the last year, an important shift has occurred in U.S. foreign policy. Though White House rhetoric remains as uncompromising and self-assured as it was during the days when neoconservatives talked of regime change in multiple states, assertions of confidence and determination veil a reversal of the most ambitious aspects of the Bush foreign policy. The president's low approval ratings and the growing unpopularity of the conflict in Iraq have transferred power and influence within the administration away from aggressive neocons toward more risk-averse "conflict managers."
New faces have emerged. Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a forceful advocate for regime change in Iraq, has moved to the World Bank. In his place, former Navy Secretary Gordon England has won praise as a pragmatist and problem-solver. A skilled diplomat, Undersecretary of State Nick Burns has become a guiding force in the formulation of Middle East policy—at the expense of arch-neocon Elliott Abrams.
These and other new players have implemented fresh policies. Where the administration once threatened foreign antagonists like Syria with regime change via threats of military intervention or active support for opposition forces, it now more often seeks a cautious, multilateralist approach intended to protect a stable status quo. U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad's initiative to directly engage Iran on Iraq's future security is noteworthy. Burns approved the plan. Abrams strongly opposed it.
On North Korea, the administration has moved beyond its mantra that Pyongyang's nuclear program is "unacceptable" toward efforts to stabilize the diplomatic conflict. The administration offered genuine support for opposition forces in Georgia and Ukraine, and denounced heavy-handed treatment of demonstrators in Uzbekistan. Yet, following the recent elections in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, regime opponents there who complained of electoral fraud found little support from Washington.
On China, despite the widening bilateral trade gap, the White House has resisted congressional efforts to brand China a "currency manipulator." President Hu Jintao's unwillingness to offer Bush a meaningful revaluation of the renminbi or concessions on the protection of intellectual-property rights during a recent visit to Beijing did nothing to harden the administration's approach.
But the administration's unwillingness to add pressure to existing conflicts or to create new ones cannot eliminate risk. In fact, the "status quo" strategy faces two important challenges. First, many of the regimes with which the administration is still prepared to negotiate create risks of their own. The more cautious approach to Iran and North Korea, for example, has not prevented new bursts of belligerence from these regimes.
In addition, some governments the Bush administration tacitly supports produce unrest. The White House has remained notably silent as Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo considers amending his country's constitution to seek a third term in office. The administration recognizes that Obasanjo's economic-reform efforts and his good relations with international financial institutions enhance stability in a troubled (and energy-rich) region. The administration fears that Obasanjo's successor might not prove as worthy of faith and credit. Even so, the Bush team has opened itself to the charge that U.S. opposition to similar "reforms" in Uganda and Zimbabwe reveals a double standard.
Much more worrying is the likely reaction to Obasanjo's plans within Nigeria. If the constitutional end-run he is considering succeeds, the Nigerian president can expect new opposition alliances among both his rivals in the north of the country and supporters of his ambitious vice president. Worse still, militia leaders in the Niger Delta may join the fray. If so, there's significant danger of a crisis, with worrying implications for Nigerian oil production.
The second challenge to this approach emanates from Capitol Hill and from U.S allies. A number of U.S. lawmakers are less willing than the White House to give China a pass on trade issues. In particular, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have renewed their threat to slap a 27.5 percent tariff on all Chinese imports if Beijing fails to move forward with a much more substantial currency revaluation than the one they implemented last summer. Sixty-seven senators resisted White House pressure and supported the bill during a procedural vote in April 2005. His influence on Capitol Hill diminished, Bush may be unable to prevent Congress from igniting a trade war with China when, as seems likely, the issue returns to the congressional agenda.
What's more, while the administration would like to control the pace and direction of the building crisis over Iran's nascent nuclear program, Iran and Israel may have other ideas. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly stated his view that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth. Tehran has further upped the ante by purchasing surface-to-air missiles from Russia and removing U.N. seals from three of its nuclear facilities.
Israel has responded with saber-rattling of its own. Prior to the stroke that appears to have cut short his political career, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that his country "cannot accept" a nuclear-armed Iran and that Israel is "making all the preparations necessary" to deter Iran's threats. Israeli defense officials say its Arrow missile-defense system has successfully intercepted a test missile similar in design to the long-range Shahab 3 that Iran is reportedly developing.
Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the leading contenders to become Israel's new prime minister after the March 28 elections, has said he favors a pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iran's suspected nuclear sites. If he assumes greater responsibility, Netanyahu will moderate his rhetoric, but his underlying views will not change.
Israel's capacity to attack Iran's nuclear facilities may well serve U.S. interests. But the White House knows the showdown may come at a time and place of someone else's choosing. In the Middle East, as elsewhere, a more measured and pragmatic U.S. approach does not guarantee that all the world's ticking political time-bombs can be safely defused.
The grand visions of transformative foreign policy have gradually given way to conflict management, but the new approach doesn't mean that we can avoid conflict. Maintaining the status quo carries risks of its own, risks that may become crises as 2006 progresses.