Cowboy Diplomacy

Three little words: "axis of evil." Look at what a row they've caused. The French foreign minister called President Bush's characterization of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea "simplistic."

Chris Patten, a British Conservative and the European Union's foreign affairs commissioner, warned that American success in Afghanistan "reinforced some dangerous instincts ... that the U.S. can rely only on itself and that allies may be useful as an optional extra."

The German foreign minister complained, "Alliance partners are not satellites."

Russian President Vladimir Putin observed that, among countries whose citizens fought with the Taliban and helped finance the enemy, "Iraq is not on that list."

South Korea erupted in protests during Bush's visit last week. One banner read, "Who Is in Axis of Evil? You, Mr. Bush!"

To the allies, Bush's words sounded like cowboy diplomacy—with good reason. A week after September 11, Bush startled the world when he said about Osama bin Laden: "There's an old poster out West that I recall that said, 'Wanted, Dead or Alive.' " On February 8, Bush told a room full of cowboys at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association meeting in Denver, "Either you're with us, or you're against us."

Bush is not the first cowboy President. Ronald Reagan was also fond of wearing 10-gallon hats and saying things like, "Go ahead. Make my day!" Nor is Bush the first President to shock the allies by using blunt language. During Reagan's first year in office, his tough talk and military buildup brought on a nuclear freeze movement in Europe. The allies were shocked in 1983 when Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an "Evil Empire."

Reagan's policy was, "Talk tough and carry a big stick." In the end, it worked. The Evil Empire crumbled. Europeans scoffed in 1987, when Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and demanded, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" But two years later, the wall did come down.

Critics argue that Bush's cowboy rhetoric is counterproductive, that it undermines reformist forces in countries such as Iran. When the United States denounces their country as "evil," moderates have no choice but to join the hard-liners in denouncing the United States. They cannot risk being seen as pro-American. But that's all theatrics, the President's supporters would argue. What matters, they say, are the realities—the tyranny and corruption of the targeted regimes, and the steadfastness of U.S. opposition.

U.S. allies understand the military realities. Afghanistan proved that the United States is perfectly capable of fighting this war on its own—militarily. But the United States does need the cooperation of allies in two other, equally crucial areas—intelligence-gathering and financial sanctions. The United States cannot get information about terrorist networks or cut off their financing without other countries' cooperation.

Will Bush's blunt rhetoric cause our allies to go their own way? Here, too, the Administration claims the realities are on our side. Terrorists threaten the allies just as much as they do us. Are the allies going to refuse to cooperate with the United States when the reality is, we're all in this together?

In some ways, Bush's tough policy appears to be working. The Iranians have been arresting suspected terrorists. The Iraqis have issued statements saying that they are not interested in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. ("I've heard that before," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said.) The North Koreans are promising to keep their agreements with respect to missile development. Our enemies are all acting scared.

So are our allies. They're complaining about Bush's return to "unilateralism." What makes them think the United States is ready to go it alone? "The United States and only the United States can see this effort through to victory," Vice President Dick Cheney declared on February 15.

Well, OK. But wait. Powell can explain. "What the President said is, 'I'm calling it the way it is,' " Powell observed on February 17. "He did it in a very straightforward, direct, realistic way that tends to jangle people's nerves." You bet.

Yet the President's actions—to use his father's favorite word—tend to be "prudent." Powell added: "Once they settle down and understand that he is going about this in a prudent, disciplined, and determined way, they realize that's what leadership is about." Bush was extremely cautious and methodical in Afghanistan. He resisted a lot of pressure to take impulsive military action after September 11.

"I can assure you he has taken no decision about the use of force against Iraq," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said. And Powell said, "With respect to Iran, some good things have been happening." Bush himself elaborated his policy concerning North Korea. "We're a peaceful people," he said in South Korea last week. "We have no intention of invading North Korea. South Korea has no intention of attacking North Korea."

Talk tough and carry a big stick, but act with prudence. It's Reagan diplomacy with a Bush twist—just right for an Ivy League cowboy.