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Did President Bush Receive a Mandate?

In the aftermath of the 2004 re-election of President Bush a debate has erupted on whether his margin of victory at the polls over Senator Kerry constituted a " mandate". In terms of American foreign policy, the voters may have determined that the 2004 election constitutes if not a "landslide" for George W. Bush, then a "landmark" where a fundamental shift in American policy in world affairs has been ratified and consolidated.

Previous presidential elections that both hinged on foreign policy questions and ratified a doctrinal change in direction for the nation have been relatively rare in American history. More often, the voters elect to use the ballot box to check or moderate attempts at drastic change. Woodrow Wilson was not only rebuffed by the U.S. Senate on the treaty of Versailles but conservative Republicans who advocated a policy of far more limited engagement in world affairs-- "normalcy"-- triumphed at the polls in 1920. Détente with the Soviet Union, which had been pursued by Jimmy Carter coupled with his strong criticism of the often loathsome human rights records of friendly, right-wing, dictatorships, was rejected by American voters in 1980, who preferred Ronald Reagan's more strident anticommunist rhetoric.

Where voters have ratified new foreign policies in presidential elections the effect has been to inaugurate an era of American activity in world affairs and institutionalize the new policy as the status quo. The election of James K. Polk on an unabashedly expansionist Manifest Destiny platform was a vote for national greatness even at the cost of war -- something Polk quickly got down to business provoking with Mexico. This shift to actively expanding the boundaries of American power was interrupted by the Civil War and Reconstruction but resumed in the 1890's when Imperialism came into fashion. The process continued in various guises -- Open Door, the Roosevelt Corollary, Dollar Diplomacy, and Wilsonianism -- until isolationist retrenchment began in 1920.

A less obvious example of ratification would be the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. President Truman had boldly initiated George Kennan's containment strategy as national policy under his Truman Doctrine and built or strengthened the entire architecture of the postwar West -- the UN, NATO, the Marshall Plan, the Coal-Steel Community, the IMF, the World Bank and so on. The Federal government was reengineered to carry out the task of fighting Communism; the armed services were fused into the Department of Defense, the CIA and NSC were created to guard national security. It is generally forgotten that containment as articulated by Kennan, Paul Nitze and Dean Acheson faced powerful critiques at home from such diverse figures as Robert Taft, Walter Lippmann and Henry Wallace. Instead of abandoning containment or trimming the sails, the Eisenhower administration opted to embrace Truman's general foreign policy and institutionalize it, politically marginalizing containment's critics for a generation.

It is impossible to say whether or not Senator Kerry would have played Dwight Eisenhower to George Bush's Harry Truman or opted, like Ronald Reagan, to change course in foreign policy to a more traditional stance. Mr. Bush now has the luxury of widening or narrowing the parameters of his foreign policy which has been based on the National Security Strategy of the United States -- a blueprint deeply influenced by the analysis of neoconservative thinkers. Most controversially, the hotly debated "Bush Doctrine" of preemption which is opposed by several key American allies and important regional powers such as China.

President Bush has a freer than normal hand in this regard not only because of his election victory which has already sparked calls for reconciliation in Europe but the paucity of competing visions at home. Liberal antiwar critics have excoriated the Bush Doctrine and the Iraq War in moral terms, unambiguously rejecting both the policy and the need for a war stance to fight terrorism. Bipartisan establishment figures of the realist school of thought like John Mearshimer have listed their foreign policy criticisms in detail but ultimately have argued for a return to the pre-9/11 status quo of the Clinton years. Leftists and paleoconservatives like Paul Schroeder have condemned Bush policy as a quest for " empire"; a position completely without resonance with the voting public as it is empty of practical policy solutions.

One viable foreign policy strategy in which both the Bush Department of Defense and the Kerry campaign expressed interest has been outlined in a new book, The Pentagon's New Map, by Naval War College professor and DoD consultant Thomas P.M. Barnett. Barnett postulates that the causative factor in many foreign policy problems from terror to WMD proliferation to failed states emanate from a region of the world he terms "the Non-Integrating Gap." The Gap is a mostly but not exclusively Third World regimes that have so far resisted the "connectivity" of economic and information integration provided by globalization (and promoted by the advanced, industrialized "Core" represented by the G8, India, China and a handful of other states).

The strategy for success -- a "future worth creating" in Barnett's words -- lies not in perpetual wars for perpetual peace but in connecting the Gap to the Core and establishing Core "Rule-sets" regarding market liberalization, the rule of law, information and capital flows, human rights and the functioning elements of civil society. Intervention in troubled Gap states comes in two forms: (1) "Leviathan," overwhelming force to crush outlaw regimes which the United States does very well but the rest of the Core does not and (2) "System Administration," the reconstruction, peacekeeping, mentoring, "nation-building" tasks that the rest of the Core excel at but the American military is not currently designed to execute well. It's a far more multilateral and holistic strategy than the Bush approach that does not see military action narrowly in isolation but only in the context of everything else.

The actions the Bush administration takes in the next six months to a year in Iraq, with our NATO allies, China, the UN and the pursuit of al Qaeda will most likely decide the direction American foreign policy for the next several decades. Having been generally supportive of the new Bush Doctrine thus far I'm hopeful that the second Bush administration will consider a far greater engagement with our allies where possible. The unilateral approach has its uses, but is running into the law of diminishing returns and is facing increased resistance from governments whose help America needs in order to succeed in defeating al Qaeda and spreading liberalization and democracy. Examining more positive but congruent strategies like the one outlined in The Pentagon's New Map would be a worthwhile investment of time and help transform the Bush Doctrine into a form our allies and states like China could welcome rather than fear.