AUSTIN, Texas — It’s hard to keep up with George W. Bush’s shuttles between internationalism and isolationism. You may recall he first ran for office declaring he was against nation-building and other such effete, peacekeeping efforts. None of that do-gooder, building-a-better-world stuff for him — he couldn’t even be bothered to learn the names of the Grecians and Kosovians.

Until Sept. 11, except for staring deep into Vlad Putin’s ice-blue eyes and concluding the old KGB shark had soul, Bush evinced little interest in foreign affairs.

Then he literally became an internationalist with a vengeance. Absolutely everybody signed up to help go after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan — offers of help gushed in. Next came the campaign to bring down Saddam Hussein because he had weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear weapons program. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the world didn’t think Iraq had much in the way of WMD, or at least felt the United Nations inspectors should be given more time to see if the weapons were there.

The unseemly haste with which Bush pushed toward an unnecessary war alienated many of our closest allies, and the Bush team could not have made their contempt for those allies and the United Nations clearer.

So for a while we were the new imperialists and disdained the rest of the world. We didn’t need anyone — we would go our own way, and good riddance to the United Nations, what a bunch of wusses they were. It was the season of hubris, arrogance and rudeness.

In the ultimate “up yours,” Bush named John Bolton ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton is a man so undiplomatic, not to mention so anti-U.N., that half the administration was appalled by the idea. These were the days when mental pygmies outside the administration were dismissed as the “reality-based community.” The senior Bush advisor famously quoted by Ron Suskind explained, “We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Gosh, that was an exciting time.

Unfortunately, reality uncharitably refused to conform to the Bush administration’s demands. In fact, reality kept blowing up in our faces. In Afghanistan and particularly in Iraq, reality turned out to be downright ugly about not obliging our blithe president.

Several months after our invasion of Iraq, it turned out we had actually invaded in order to bring democracy to that lucky little country. In the odd, dreamlike way that Bush policy morphs, all the conservatives began to pretend we had always gone in to create democracy and anyone who suggested otherwise was mis-remembering that pesky reality.

Indeed, so dedicated were we to the promotion of democracy around the world that it was the very first principle of our foreign policy. And if we still aren’t too keen on nation-building — well, we’ll just outsource it to Halliburton and let them worry about it. And what a fine job they’re doing.

So here we are, internationalists again, and Bush sets off for India, where he promptly reversed decades of American foreign policy to exempt India from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. It had been our policy since Nixon was president to refuse to share nuclear energy technology with nations unwilling to agree to the nonproliferation regime. Both India and its mortal enemy, Pakistan, became nuclear-armed powers in 1998, leading to the truly horrific possibility of a nuclear arms race on the subcontinent.

Having made this lamentable deal, Bush then proceeded to Pakistan, which naturally feels insulted and slighted at not getting the same deal. This is particularly unfortunate, as President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is critical to the control and capture of Al Qaeda.

Bush, who dropped the entire subject of Osama bin Laden like a hot rock in 2003, is now back to saying we want to capture him. Having offended Pakistan, our critical ally, Bush then returned triumphantly to — ta-da! — send exactly the wrong message to Iran. Just in time, showing the Iranians that if they persist in developing nuclear weapons, they too will eventually be rewarded like India. Naturally, this in turn strengthens the hard-liners in Tehran and undercuts the pro-Western reformers. What were they thinking? Does anybody here know how to play this game?

So far, it looks as though Bush does better on foreign policy when he’s being an isolationist. Maybe he should just stay home and cut taxes for the rich some more, or go expose some CIA agent for political payback against her husband, or just spy on a lot of American pacifists.

When I heard him deploring xenophobia (that’s fear of foreigners) on the Dubai Ports deal, I did a double take. Michael Chertoff of Homeland Security again has said the trouble with homeland security is that it threatens trade — all important, all sacred trade, profits above all. For the umpteenth time, it is not only possible but smart to insist on adjusting free trade for labor standards, for environmental standards and even so your ports don’t get blown up.

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