Despite his original intentions and the ridicule of opponents, George W. Bush will address the Republican convention tonight as a foreign policy president personally in charge of the nation's global destiny. His electoral fate depends on convincing voters that he can play that role successfully in a second term.
But exactly what foreign policy -- or foreign policy team -- a second Bush term would bring is less certain than the president and Vice President Cheney make it seem in their campaign speeches, which highlight foreign affairs and national security far more than is usual.
The president is comfortable with that concentration, I gather, and in fact is puzzled by John Kerry's willingness to allow the campaign to be fought essentially over issues of foreign policy and national security. Polls give Bush a clear edge when those issues dominate the debate -- even when Kerry goes on the attack, as he did yesterday before the American Legion.
Bush's desire to show that he has "completed his education on foreign affairs," as one Republican strategist put it, was probably behind the interviews he gave in advance of tonight's acceptance speech. In one interview he made a limited admission of "miscalculation" about postwar Iraq. In another, he drifted off-message to suggest the war on terrorism could not be won.
These excursions into nuance helped Bush seem more humble in foreign policy and could set the stage for personnel changes ahead. But nuance does not thrill Karl Rove, who runs Bush's campaign with the top-down authority and approach of a general commanding a tank offensive.
Rove soon had the White House backpedaling to say that the war on terrorism is winnable and to resurrect the subliminal message of the campaign and this convention week: With Bush and Cheney you know what you will get. With Kerry and John Edwards, you are just guessing.
But you also know some of what you won't get in foreign and security policy in a second Bush term. You won't get Colin Powell back as secretary of state. His absence from the New York GOP gathering and his low-to-invisible profile this summer after a brief foray to Sudan seem to confirm his wishes not to serve in a Bush 43/II administration and not to contribute to its happening.
Condoleezza Rice is ready to move on from her post as national security adviser. A nod from Bush will make her Powell's successor and elevate Steve Hadley, her deputy, into Rice's current job. Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld also may be ready to call it quits after a draining, controversy-filled four years and a plethora of scandals at the Pentagon.
This movement will mean little if Cheney continues to have the last and often decisive word with Bush on foreign policy decisions. But the signs increase that this is unlikely to continue to be the case, in the wake of the problems encountered in Iraq and because of Bush's growing confidence on foreign policy.
"The vice president is likely to be less of a driver of policy and more of a counselor or honest broker in a second term," says a knowledgeable GOP strategist. Adds another well-qualified observer: "Without Rumsfeld, Cheney is not the Cheney we know. He needs a strong ally at Defense to argue for and help implement his policies. No one will measure up to Rumsfeld in that respect."
Another "known unknown" in personnel at this point is the identity of Bush's national intelligence director. The new post was suggested by the Sept. 11 commission, enthusiastically endorsed by Kerry and adopted by Bush. The president could spring an October surprise by announcing that he will name, for example, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the commission's chairman and vice chairman, as co-directors in his second term.
That could politically confound Kerry but be a relatively safe move for Bush 43/II. To take personal control of a foreign policy that was a jump ball fought over by Powell, Rumsfeld and Cheney the first time around, the president must work to put the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan on a better footing, to find practical ways to move forward his vision of democratic change in the greater Middle East, and to repair relations with NATO and other allies.
This would be a big step back from the foreign policy radicalism and swerves and the strong clashing personalities of his first term. It would give G.W. Bush a foreign policy that could soon come to resemble, of all things, the one pursued by G.H.W. Bush, aka 41.