You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? ... A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. - Matthew 7:16,18
In 1980, a book was published about the failure of liberal policies in New York City. Its title, The Cost of Good Intentions, soon became a conservative catchphrase about the limits of expansive government. Even the best motives could produce dismal results. Policies had to be judged not by their ostensible purposes but by their consequences in the real world.
What many conservatives didn't recognize then is that the lesson learned from Great Society programs also holds for foreign policy and military undertakings. What counts is not so much whether the government means well, but whether it does well. By that standard, the Bush administration's approach to international relations has to be judged a failure. In almost every part of the world, the U.S. faces graver and more intractable problems today than it did when President Bush took office. And things keep getting worse.
Looking around the globe, it's rare to see a bright spot. The North Koreans are building nukes and testing missiles. The Iranians are moving steadily toward building their own atomic arsenal. Israel suddenly finds itself fighting a two-front war.
Afghanistan has suffered escalating violence and a resurgence of the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden is still at large. Russia has moved in the wrong direction on democracy and human rights, besides blocking U.N. sanctions on Iran. And there is Iraq, racked by mayhem that claims hundreds of American and Iraqi lives every month.
Even in less menacing parts of the world, things look bleak. Latin America is moving to the left under the influence of Venezuela's fervently anti-American President Hugo Chavez. Public opinion in the Muslim world is almost universally against us.
Relations with our European allies have rarely been worse. About the only improvement has come with Germany - owing partly to the fact that things were so bad in Mr. Bush's first term.
Early on, he decided he was going to show more toughness than Bill Clinton. He broke off negotiations with North Korea. Iran took our side when we went after the Taliban, but Mr. Bush rebuffed the overture. When a coup briefly ousted Mr. Chavez, a democratically elected leader, the administration cheered.
Sometimes, Mr. Bush chose a less confrontational approach. He had nothing but warm words for the former KGB agent who rules Russia. He declined to follow up on Mr. Clinton's unsuccessful efforts to broker a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. When the CIA told him al-Qaida was behind the bombing of the USS Cole, he didn't retaliate.
After 9/11, though, the administration decided that using or threatening force was the only way to go. Mr. Bush courted a showdown with Saddam Hussein. He labeled Iran and North Korea part of the "axis of evil" and assured them, "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton, now U.N. ambassador, warned Syria, Cuba and Libya that if they didn't change their ways, they too could "expect to become our targets."
The administration was confident that by removing a dictator in Iraq, we would intimidate a host of bad actors. Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey praised the president's new willingness to use force. Foreign governments, he predicted, "will say, 'You make us very nervous,' and our response should be, 'Good.'" By establishing democracy in Iraq, we were told, we would promote popular rule across the Middle East, advancing peace and freedom.
This approach achieved one obvious success, when Libya abandoned its nuclear program. But elsewhere, things have not gone according to plan. Elections brought terrorists into government in the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon. Instead of capitulating, North Korea and Iran have behaved worse than ever.
Peace has yet to break out in the Middle East. The Security Council is not leaping to do our bidding.
Conservatives may reply that Mr. Clinton also mishandled many of these situations, and they may be right. If Mr. Bush is doing a better job than Mr. Clinton, though, you would expect to see better outcomes. Good trees are supposed to produce good fruit. But what we're harvesting right now is pretty hard to swallow.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.