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Undebated Challenges | The Nation

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Undebated Challenges

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The most damaging part of the Bush foreign policy legacy is not the precipitous decline in American power and influence brought about by the disastrous Iraq occupation. It is the way the Administration's "war on terror" and its neoimperial project in the Middle East have distorted our vision of the world. They magnify out of all proportion what should at worst be minor threats to our national security and ignore much larger developments, such as the extraordinary economic rise of China and India, which are having a much more profound effect on the American way of life.

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Sherle R. Schwenninger
Sherle R. Schwenninger is director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and a senior fellow at...

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Just how distorted our vision of the world has become has been on constant display during the primary campaign leading up to the 2008 elections. The major candidates from both parties have followed a foreign policy narrative dominated by Iraq, Iran and Islamic extremism. Promising to see the Iraq War through to a successful conclusion, the Republicans want to extend Bush's policies into a generational war against Islamic extremism, which they see as a new totalitarian threat. Democratic candidates have committed themselves to getting out of Iraq--or at least vastly reducing America's presence there--and to fighting a smarter war against terrorism while restoring America's global leadership. But they, too, seem intent on proving their toughness, even to the point of pursuing many of the same goals that led to the loss of America's standing in the first place.

Neither party seems ready to deal with a radically changed world that in many ways moved on as we got sucked ever more deeply into Bush's Iraq catastrophe. In this sense, the 2008 elections pose a larger challenge: to advance American goals and interests in this new world, it will not be enough merely to repudiate the worst features of Bush's militarism. It will be necessary to rethink American priorities and the very meaning of what American foreign policy is about.

The Republican Narrative

It is clear that this rethinking will not come from the leading Republican candidates. The GOP narrative of a long war against Islamic extremism is purposely backward-looking, modeled on the earlier struggle against Soviet Communism during the cold war. Yet as Juan Cole suggests, the idea that Islamic extremism poses a threat commensurate with Soviet Communism is patently absurd. Six years after 9/11, it is clear that Al Qaeda does not have the organizational capacity or resources to pose a systematic danger to American lives or interests, and that common-sense counterterrorist measures--better intelligence, more effective border control and internationally coordinated police work--can dramatically reduce the risk of terrorist attack. It is also clear that Al Qaeda does not have the popular appeal in Muslim societies to constitute a threat to any significant government, despite the boost that Bush Administration policies may have given to Al Qaeda recruitment.

When leading Republican candidates talk about the Islamic threat, they do not just mean Al Qaeda. They also mean religious-based popular movements like Hezbollah as well as the clerical leadership of Iran. But it is here that the Republican narrative turns from the absurd to the tragic, greatly expanding the number of America's enemies and ignoring the fact that Iran and its Shiite allies are bitterly opposed to Al Qaeda and could be useful partners in the fight to eliminate extremism. Whether Republicans conflate the two out of ignorance or because they believe that Islamic radicalism of any stripe poses a threat to US interests, or merely because they want to play on the public's fears, it makes for bad policy, as the Bush Administration's failed Middle East strategy demonstrates.

Like know-nothing nineteenth-century imperialists, the leading Republican candidates warn that Islamic radicals want to push the United States out of the Middle East. They have forgotten that in the twenty-first century a military presence abroad is no longer a reliable way to secure a great power's interests and may only create the very threat it seeks to avoid. It is not a coincidence that the greatest amount of Islamic terrorism stems from resistance to foreign military occupation or that the governments that feel most vulnerable to Islamic jihadism are those that have had a close association with the United States, or on whose soil the United States has left the heaviest footprint. Indeed, the tragedy of the Republican position is that it would suck us even more deeply into a "clash of civilizations" with a fringe Islamic movement while isolating us from other parts of the world that are just as or more important to American interests.

The Democratic Narrative

The leading Democratic candidates understand many of the shortcomings of the Bush Administration's approach to the world. They understand, for example, that America's moral standing has been gravely damaged by Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and by the Administration's disregard for international law, as Oona Hathaway points out. Yet in many key respects they are trapped in the same post-9/11 view of the world.

The Democratic candidates say they want to fight a smarter war against terrorism, but in the end they are adopting policies that seem more designed to prove their toughness than prevent terrorist attacks. This is evident, as William Hartung notes, in their calls for increasing the size of US ground forces and for retaining a military presence in Iraq and neighboring Arab countries, as well as in Afghanistan. Such a visible US presence would serve no useful military mission, but it would give Al Qaeda an ongoing cause to keep its movement alive.

The Democratic commitment to restoring America's global leadership also raises questions. For one thing, it will be difficult to reclaim moral leadership as long as America is bogged down in increasingly unpopular counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For even the most enlightened counterinsurgency warfare will inevitably entail civilian casualties, which engender nationalist resistance. This is not to mention the financial cost of ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (estimated to be well more than $1 trillion over the next decade), which would foreclose other foreign policy initiatives as well as new social investments at home.

As important, the Democrats seem to assume that the world so wants and needs American leadership that it is there for the taking. But as Anatol Lieven suggests, the overarching question facing American foreign policy is not how to restore leadership but how to adjust to an increasingly multipolar world that may be less open to any one power's primacy. Russia, China, India, South Korea, a host of South American countries and even the pro-American powers belonging to the European Union have all grown accustomed to a world in which the United States has been preoccupied with Iraq and in which they have had more freedom to shape the politics and economies of their regions. Much of the world has done just fine without active American leadership during this time and thus may not be as receptive to a reassertion of US leadership, as most of the Democratic candidates seem to suggest.

Indeed, the leading Democratic candidates have failed to grasp one of the central lessons of the Bush era: the world does not need strong US leadership so much as it needs constructive US participation as a great power. On global climate change, on AIDS in Africa, on engaging North Korea, to mention just a few issues, other powers and new coalitions of transnational NGOs and intergovernmental agencies--as well as long-established ones such as the United Nations--got there just as quickly as and in some cases before the United States, and they now have an ownership stake in these issues and well-developed views about how they should be solved. They would welcome the United States to the fold, but they would not cede all leadership to Washington.

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