Cowboy My Foot

It’s amazing how journalism can create instant myths, especially in this age of the Internet and television. Time magazine’s big story about the Bush administration ending "Cowboy Diplomacy" is a good example.

Time writes a lead story asserting that there’s been a big change in President Bush’s approach to foreign policy, and the television chatter heads pick up on it and talk it to death.

In the meantime, nothing has changed in the Bush administration. The claim the writers make that the Bush Doctrine no longer guides foreign policy is nonsense. Presumably, by the Bush Doctrine they mean pre-emptive war and non-negotiable positions. That was three-quarters cow pies from the very beginning. The only pre-emptive wars Bush ever contemplated were attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. He was never going near North Korea because of the high number of casualties that would involve.

As for non-negotiable demands, that’s still the rule in Bush’s foreign policy. He just happens to call ultimatums negotiations, but the U.S. position on both Iran and North Korea remains the same. In the case of Iran, the U.S. position is: Stop all enrichment activities and research, and then we’ll talk. In the case of North Korea, it is: Dismantle all your nuclear-weapon programs and missiles first, and then we might talk.

You don’t negotiate by demanding complete surrender at the outset. Therefore, negotiations will fail in both instances, but the pretense of negotiations at least gives Bush an excuse to avoid doing what he’s scared to do anyway — i.e., take military action.

That’s a problem that people who speak loudly but carry small sticks run into. Once you make a demand and the other party says no, what then are your options? Accept failure? Go to war?

Bush has no choice but to say, "Let’s try diplomacy," because he has no viable military options available for either North Korea or Iran. South Korean students are demonstrating against the U.S. even now over trade negotiations. The South would rebel if the U.S. started talking military attacks against the North. South Korea doesn’t want a war because it has the most to lose and nothing to gain by one.

Anybody who thinks South Korea and China would side with Japan against North Korea had better read some history. Koreans and Chinese hate Japan. A Korean friend of mine who used to compete in international tae kwon do meets said he always broke the shoulders of his Japanese opponents, even though it cost him penalty points.

An American army colonel told me about a South Korean general who owns a fancy hotel. He has his agents out scouring the region to find young, beautiful and diseased girls, whom he keeps exclusively for visiting Japanese businessmen.

You have to remember that the main product in Washington is words. Words pour out of the mouths of politicians, bureaucrats, think-tank propagandists, talk-show hosts, public-relations people and journalists in a Niagara volume. Journalists especially put way too much emphasis on words and abstractions like "Cowboy Diplomacy." One has to wonder that if the Bush Doctrine is cowboy diplomacy, why no Washington journalist ever called it that before.

Words are just sounds in the air or code printed on paper. What matters in the real world are actions. Always pay attention to what people do and not what they say. Do this especially in Washington, where most of the time most of the people don’t mean what they say anyway.

I wish Bush would adopt diplomacy, but he doesn’t have the mind-set and temperament for it. A successful diplomat always leaves an out for himself and for the people he’s negotiating with. Bush hasn’t figured that out yet.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.