Tie Game in US Foreign Policy

Since the reelection of President Bush, the world has wondered who would gain the upper hand in foreign policy during his second term.

Would the idealists who advocated advancing Iraqi democracy by military invasion continue as the dominant voice? Mr. Bush's forward-ho inaugural address on world freedom indicated they would.

And yet the president and his new secretary of State have also talked non-stop about diplomacy. That's given the impression that Term II might give way to the "realists" - those who put US interests above concern about the autocratic governments Washington sometimes has to deal with.

Judging by the president's Brussels speech Monday, the guessing game is over. It's a tie. As he specifically pointed out, this time in history requires idealism and realism.

With a US military that's stretched thin, and with no appetite at home or abroad for an Iraq-type invasion to accomplish regime change in say, Iran or Syria, the argument that sometimes raged between these two camps in the first term loses resonance in the second. Pushing democratic ideals and being pragmatic about it aren't mutually exclusive. Actually, the combination makes a lot of sense.

Take Russia, whose president will meet with Bush in Slovakia Thursday. Moscow's recent rollbacks on the media, rule of law, and political power sharing have idealists demanding that Bush do much more to push democracy in that country. The backtracking even prompted the administration to review its Russia policy.

Interestingly, it's decided to essentially stay the course by engaging Russia without conditioning relations on reversing the democratic slide. For any number of practical reasons, it would be a mistake to isolate Russia. The US needs Russian help in the war on terrorism, for instance, and in curbing weapons proliferation (though Moscow seems to be working against this latter aim with Iran and Syria).

These practical considerations, however, shouldn't preclude the US from being more assertive on the democratic front. Bush made his strongest statements yet against Russian regression this week, and he promises to talk about this with Mr. Putin at their summit.

In dealing with Russia, it's a matter of balance - using the right mix of rhetorical, global, personal and economic pressure to achieve results. Yes, in the case of a nuclear Iran, the military component is not off the table. Still, the president underscored Monday that Iran, where "we're in the early stages of diplomacy," is not the same as Iraq.

Bush spoke this week of acting "wisely and deliberately in the face of complex challenges." That's a decidedly more nuanced approach than in his first term, and an appropriate one.

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