The big news of President George W. Bush's trip to Europe last week was not the multiple agendas that he juggled or the feathers he ruffled. It was the news he left behind. President Bush tried to set the domestic agenda for the week, with a pre-dawn press conference on his way to the airport last Monday. The sleepy First Couple stood side-by-side, as Bush told Congress they had "a lot of work" while he was gone. He even left a to-do list: pass Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, act on his Federal Housing Administration reform proposals, and agree to the Colombia free trade agreements.
None of these to-dos was crossed off the list while he was gone. Instead last week's newspapers were crammed with gloom and doom: the ACLU's outing of the White House torture memos, the military's failures in Basra, fallout from the Bear Sterns bailout, and (perhaps most dramatically) hearings on how the Pentagon awarded a fledgling, shady company millions of dollars to procure ammo to the Afghan military (much of which was substandard).
Bush was not in Bucharest, Romania, Ukraine and elsewhere just to dodge the bad news. He had a few to-dos of his own: win endorsement for missile defense deployments in Poland and Czech Republic, wring new military commitments for Afghanistan out of European leaders, and set Ukraine and Georgia on the road to NATO membership.
The fact that most of these agenda items would irritate, threaten or provoke Russia was surely incidental.
Bush Wins Two out of Three: Sort Of
The president achieved one of his goals: Europe is sending more troops to Afghanistan. France will commit 700 and the United Kingdom will send 800. Poland has already committed 400 soldiers. Most of these troops will be dispatched to the calmer eastern areas of the country, while U.S. Marines will go south into Taliban-held areas.
President Bush pushed hard, trying to reframe NATO as a force in the war on terrorism, saying: "NATO is no longer a static alliance focused on defending Europe from a Soviet tank invasion. It is now an expeditionary alliance that is sending its forces across the world to help secure a future of freedom and peace for millions."
And he called on members of NATO to "shoulder the burden necessary to succeed."
Recent reports from Afghanistan indicate that this is a heavy burden indeed. The State Department's International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, issued in March, asserts that "narcotics production in Afghanistan hit historic highs in 2007 for the second straight year." And another March report, the UN Report to the Secretary General, found that "the Taliban and related armed groups and the drug economy represent fundamental threats to still-fragile political, economic and social institutions."
These were hard-won commitments. Defense Secretary Robert Gates pushed Europeans for more troops willing to "fight and die" in testy meetings leading up to the NATO summit.
The Real Prize But the real prize of President Bush's week on the road was NATO's endorsement of U.S. plans to base 10 missile interceptors in Poland and establish a tracking radar site in the Czech Republic. He argued for the sites using his trademark combination of dark, dire and unsubstantiated predictions, referring at one point to U.S. intelligence that "Iran could test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. and all of Europe." This may strike fear into many hearts, but Iran would need seven to 10 years to develop a crude nuclear device -- assuming that diplomatic efforts don't end its pursuit of nuclear weapons in the mean time. And adapting such a weapon for use with a ballistic missile would take years longer.
No one is breaking ground on an interceptor bed or a radar site tomorrow. Legislatures in both countries need to sign off, and Russian concerns will need to be addressed. According to The New York Times, Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spent a dinner debating the wording of the Strategic Framework Agreement the two countries would sign. The question at hand was whether Russia's concerns would be "assuaged" or "eased." Note to word buffs: they went with "assuaged." Webster's defines "assuaged" as "to lessen the intensity of something that pains or distresses." On the other hand, "eased" implies a more active engagement: "to free from something that pains, disquiets or burdens."
The line reads: "Yet, [Russia] appreciates the measures that the U.S. has proposed and declared that if agreed and implemented such measures will be important and useful in assuaging Russian concerns."
And then there is the issue of what NATO "endorsement" means. While the White House interprets the NATO statement as a green light, it can also be seen a sophisticated form of punting. NATO merely endorsed a principle and a process. The principle is: "ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to allied forces, territory and populations," and that the system could help protect allies. The process is: NATO members should explore ways in which the planned U.S. project can be linked with future missile shields elsewhere, and leaders should come up with recommendations to be considered at their next meeting in 2009.
Implicit in this process is a hope that a proposal deferred is a proposal denied, and that the proposer will just go away. Bush responded to this interpretation by saying: "You can cynically say it's kicking the can down the road. I don't appreciate it." But, kicks or no kicks, by the time NATO members come back together in 2009 there will be a new U.S. president and perhaps a new set of foreign policy priorities that make the controversial plan a moot point. Europeans are wise to be wary of a program that costs U.S. taxpayers more than $8 billion a year, has not been adequately tested, does not work, fans international tensions, and locks in an every-nation-for-itself approach to nuclear proliferation.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last month sums up U.S. investment in missile defense: "Since the 1980s, Department of Defense has spent more than $100 billion on the development and early fielding" of missile defense systems and "it estimates that continued development will require an additional $50 billion between 2008 and 2013." The report continues to note that "the tests done to date have been developmental in nature and do not provide sufficient realism" to "fully determine whether the ballistic missile defense system is suitable and effective for battle." This typical bureaucratic understatement, nonetheless, contains crucial information. In plain English, the GAO is saying: The United States has spent $100 billion in the last 25 years and we will spend half again as much in the next five and likely fail to produce a system that is suitable or effective.
Expand or Die
Bush's two "wins" were offset by one loss, The President championed Ukrainian and Georgian aspirations to join NATO, but Europe spurned his calls and conferred the sought-after access only to Albania and Croatia. In this decision, NATO opted not to further antagonize a Russia that vowed to put Kiev and Tbilisi in the cross hairs of its nuclear missiles targets. In Hang Separately: Cooperative Security between the United States and Russia, 1985-1994, Leon V. Sigal writes: "In February 1990, after talks with West Germany's foreign minister, Secretary of State Baker had assured Gorbachev and Shevardnadze that 'NATO's jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position.' The Bush administration [of George Herbert Walker Bush] began backing away from that pledge almost immediately. The Clinton administration reneged on that commitment altogether when it decided to expand NATO into Eastern Europe." This might seem like ancient history. But it is not so long ago, and Moscow has not forgotten Baker's assurances, even if everyone else in Washington has.
While President Bush was off in Europe, the economy got worse, the American people got more fed-up, and the war raged on. It is surely unpleasant to face all that bad news.
After spending most of the last eight years avoiding international travel, the president contracted a case of the wanderlust and has a least three more globe-trotting trips planned for the next nine months. No matter what continent he is on, the question is: in his final months, is the president still doing more harm than good?
Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate at the Arms and Security Project of the New America Foundation.
Copyright © 2008, Institute for Policy Studies