President Bush is striving to present himself as a decisive commander in chief in a time of uncertain American national security. He has achieved limited success in this regard, as many of his supporters cite decisiveness as a key reason why they believe they are safer under President Bush.
A closer look at Bush’s record, however, shows that his decisiveness usually consists of tough talk with little follow-up, and that where he has acted, his course of action has turned out to be decisively wrong. This is most evident in the president’s policy failures on the greatest threats to American national security: North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and nuclear terrorism.
The president has talked a tough game on North Korea and Iran ever since he lumped them into the “Axis of Evil” with Iraq. But despite the administration’s evident lack of progress in resolving the crises, the substance of its “strategies” has gone virtually unchanged.
On North Korea, the administration is internally divided about the best course of action, which has resulted in an impasse over what to do about the Stalinist regime’s nuclear ambitions—giving the North plenty of time to quadruple the size of its nuclear arsenal. The administration’s “strategy” here has so far consisted of demanding that North Korea abide by its commitments before any substantive negotiations can take place; making vague coercive threats over its noncompliance; and matching North Korea’s bombastic rhetoric tit-for-tat.
If the president were truly decisive, he would settle the internal divisions and demand that his subordinates come up with a realistic strategy for completely and verifiably dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. His indecisiveness has allowed one of the world’s deadliest regimes to acquire the world’s deadliest weapon.
In the case of Iran, the administration has alternated between decisively punting the problem to our European allies and making decisively vague (if ironic) threats about taking Iran’s nuclear activities to the United Nations Security Council. The president’s recent threats of military action against Iran have only emboldened the fundamentalist theocracy.
This is more a grab-bag of wishful thinking than a coherent and decisive strategy. European carrots have not convinced Iran to change course, military “sticks” are not credible against predominantly Shiite Iran—not least because of the rebellion this would foment among Iraq’s restive Shiite majority against their American occupiers—and strong Security Council action is extremely unlikely because Russia and China will never accept economic sanctions or military action against Iran.
If the president were really as decisive as he claims, he would order a comprehensive review of his administration’s Iran policy to identify a more realistic package of carrots and sticks for Iran.
The president’s lack of decisiveness is especially difficult to understand in the area of nuclear terrorism. To carry out an act of nuclear terror, a terrorist would have to acquire sufficient material to make a nuclear bomb: no fissile material, no nuclear weapon, no nuclear terrorism. But there is enough fissile material in the world for hundreds of thousands of nuclear weapons, much of it secured by little more than underpaid guards and chain link fences.
Securing fissile materials from theft is a no-brainer. Yet Bush’s promises to expand efforts to improve fissile materials security have not been backed by budget requests. Moreover, a series of bureaucratic and other disputes between the United States and Russia have slowed progress. The result: less fissile materials have been secured in the two years since 9/11 than in the two years that preceded it.
Another example of the president’s “decisiveness” is his pledge to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—which serves as the world’s early warning system for nuclear proliferation—with the tools it needs to do the job. But here again, when it came time to act on this pledge by providing the IAEA with adequate resources, the administration’s budget request would have left the overstretched agency’s budget unchanged from the previous year, despite the increased demands being made on it.
Bush has been decisive on one thing, however: once he decided shortly after 9/11 that Saddam needed to go, there was no going back—despite strong evidence that Saddam had no active nuclear weapons programs and that there was no operational link between Saddam and al Qaeda. And in his rush to war, the president declined to let the weapons inspectors finish their job, hyped up flawed intelligence, and ignored the planners who warned him of trouble to come. On Iraq, the president has been more “rash” than “decisive.”
The president’s reputation for decisiveness is a product of effective image-building by his political handlers, not his actual policies. His “decisiveness” is entirely scripted, whether it involves landing a plane on an aircraft carrier to prematurely announce the end of a war, or announcing new policy proposals to great fanfare but then declining to do the tough follow-up. If only his policies were that well scripted, America would be much safer.
Andrew J. Grotto is an associate scholar in national security at the Center for American Progress.