During his last 18 months in office, President Bush confronts a broader set of international crises than in his first 18 months. While pundits blame unilateralism and the Iraq war, the deterioration of Washington's relations with once-staunch allies has less to do with a lack of diplomacy and more to do with its kind.
Too often, the administration has sacrificed long-term credibility for short-term calm. Take Turkey. At the June 2004 NATO summit in Istanbul, President Bush promised Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the U.S. military would shut down Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorists in Iraq. He did not. Three years later, the Turks no longer trust U.S. promises and may send their army into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Already the damage to U.S. prestige is severe. Once among America's closest allies, Turkey, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Project poll last month, is the most anti-American country in the world. Only 9% of Turks have a favorable impression of the U.S.; 83% hold the opposite view. Most blame U.S. inaction against the PKK.
On June 24, 2002, Mr. Bush declared, "The United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure." Less than a year later the State Department reversed course, eliminating the cessation of terror as a precondition for engagement. Palestinian terrorism grew.
While the White House condemns Hamas terrorism, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement, to which Mr. Bush promised a half billion dollars in July, is equally culpable. A year ago Fatah's military wing threatened to "strike at the economic and civilian interests of these countries [the U.S. and Israel], here and abroad," and it claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on the Israeli town of Sderot in June.
Empty promises of accountability encourage terror by diminishing the costs of its embrace.
While terrorists benefit, Arab liberals pay the price for the president's rhetorical reversals. His promise in the second inaugural speech to "support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture" rings hollow as Egyptian police beat, arrest and sodomize protestors rallying to demand the rule of law.
Mr. Bush has yet to act on his promise to resolve the case of Palestinian banker Issam Abu Issa, whose visa the State Department revoked in February 2004 as he prepared to testify before the House Financial Services Committee on Palestinian Authority corruption. Nor has the president fulfilled a promise to demand the release of Libyan dissident Fathi Eljahmi, imprisoned by Moammar Ghadafi since March 2004. State Department officials say Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit the Libyan dictator this autumn, regardless of Mr. Jahmi's fate.
On June 5, 2007, Mr. Bush endorsed the Prague Declaration, which calls upon governments to instruct diplomats "to actively and openly seek out meetings with political prisoners and dissidents committed to building free societies through non-violence," and announced that he'd tasked Secretary Rice to implement it. U.S. embassies in the Middle East have yet to reach out to any dissident or political prisoner.
Increasingly, friends view Washington as an unreliable ally; foes conclude the U.S. is a paper tiger. This latter conclusion may transform broken promises into a national security nightmare.
Way back in April 2001, the president established a moral redline when he declared that the U.S. would do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself" in the face of Chinese aggression. But amid Beijing's steady military build-up, Mr. Bush stood in the Oval Office beside Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and condemned Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian for holding a referendum on missile defense. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Bush has yet to send a single cabinet-level official to demonstrate commitment to the island nation. Such contradictions may raise doubt in Beijing and encourage Chinese officials to test U.S. resolve.
After promising Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in May 2003 that Washington would "not settle for anything less than the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of nuclear weapons program," Mr. Bush directed his administration to do just that. Despite the administration's self-congratulations over its ephemeral deal with North Korea in February of this year, the fact remains that, against its allies' wishes, Washington acquiesced to Pyongyang's continued custody of its reactor and nuclear weapons. This broken promise is guaranteed to haunt the next U.S. administration.
Kicking diplomatic problems down the road is not a strategy. Addressing crises with insincere promises is as counterproductive as treating a hemorrhagic fever with a band-aid. Empty promises exacerbate crises. They do not solve them. While farsighted in his vision, it is the president's failure to abide by his word that will most shape his foreign policy legacy. It would be ironic if he justifies the "Bush lied, people died" rhetoric of protestors across the White House lawn in Lafayette Park, though not for the reasons they believe.
Mr. Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.