This election, more than any other since 1980, could turn on questions of foreign policy and national security. Yet despite the obvious difference in worldview of the two candidates, and the increasingly acrimonious exchanges between them, the two campaigns have staked out remarkably similar positions on Iraq, the “war on terrorism,” and more generally on America’s position in the world. Indeed, leaving aside questions of style and tone, the discussion to date has largely come down to the question of who is more capable of carrying out the current agenda: who can better take the war to the terrorists, who can better stay the course in Iraq, who can better terminate Iran’s and North
Korea’s nuclear ambitions, who can better lead America’s alliances and maintain our predominant military position in the world.
If the two candidates continue to follow their current scripts, the American public will be the big loser. For the nation badly needs a fuller and more honest debate about the lessons of the Bush era and the challenges and choices it has left us with. Given the enormity of these challenges, this is a debate that cannot be left until after the election or be defined by the current policy positions of the candidates themselves. The place to begin this debate is with the “war on terrorism,” which both campaigns have made the centerpiece of their foreign policy and national security strategy.
The ‘War on Terrorism’
The “war on terrorism” has always been a troubling concept, in part because it leaves to everyone’s political imagination just who the enemy is and in part because it provides a license to ignore the political background to terrorist activity and to overemphasize a military response. It is an even more troubling concept in light of the substantial damage the “war” has done to American interests in the world.
The Kerry campaign, which has recently begun to mount a more coherent critique of Bush’s failures, has been correct to criticize the war in Iraq as a diversion of resources from the fight against Al Qaeda, but it has been wrong to accept other aspects of the “war on terrorism” so uncritically. The Administration’s strategy has been to take the war to the terrorists, “to get them before they get us.” It has thus pursued a forward-based military offensive, albeit one supplemented by increased police and intelligence cooperation with other governments. It has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and has established new bases across the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. But this expansion of America’s footprint in the Islamic world has been disastrously counterproductive, transforming a limited terrorist threat into a wave of bin Laden-inspired Islamic radicalism that is beginning to ripple across the region.
The fact that Al Qaeda has metastasized from a loose, single organization into a mass movement with many local terrorist groups may have reduced the threat to the US homeland in the short term. But it has magnified the problem of radical Islam and has made the United States the central issue in a series of intensifying Islamic civil wars that threaten, to varying degrees, the stability of strategically critical and already unstable countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as well as previously stable US friends like Jordan and the Gulf sheikdoms.
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Before September 11 and the launching of the “war on terrorism,” Osama bin Laden and his band of Islamic revolutionaries appeared to be a spent force with little or no popular support in most Arab societies. However, Bush’s “war on terrorism” in general and his war in Iraq in particular have given new life to bin Ladenism by fusing Islamic radicalism with anti-imperial nationalism and by giving Islamic radicalism the foreign imperial enemy it needs to succeed.
The “war on terrorism” thus has created a much larger and more difficult foreign policy challenge. That challenge is not how to militarily eliminate the growing number of local Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist groups but how to damp down the flames of Islamic revolution that US policy has unwittingly helped stoke before they engulf the region. This calls not just for a smarter war on terrorism, as the Kerry campaign at times has suggested, or a better PR campaign to win hearts and minds, as the Administration seems to think, but a more radical shift in US policy.
The logical alternative to the Administration’s forward-based military offensive would be expanded police, intelligence and special-forces cooperation. After all, much of the success we have had with respect to breaking up Al Qaeda has come as the result of arrests and sting operations by allied governments, not military operations. This strategy would be combined with an effort to address the legitimate grievances that have led many people in Islamic societies either to support bin Laden’s agenda or to hesitate to join the fight against Al Qaeda. Among these are Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, the stationing of US forces in the Gulf and now the American war in Iraq, which is viewed by many as an attempt to further secure US-Israeli hegemony in the region, including the oil-producing Persian Gulf. Such perceptions cannot be altered by fine words about our support for democracy and freedom but only by real changes in US policy.
Iraq and America’s Regional Role
The issue of what American policy toward Iraq should be goes directly to the question of how best to halt the fusion of Islamic radicalism with anti-American nationalism. There is a legitimate argument that a US withdrawal would not only embolden the radicals but leave Iraq a failed state and a haven for terrorists, and that therefore the United States has no choice but to continue to keep substantial military forces in Iraq until stability is assured. This, with minor differences, is the position of both the Bush Administration and the Kerry campaign.
There is an equally legitimate, and in my view stronger, argument, that a continued US military presence will only further radicalize the population and help Islamist extremists by handing them the cause of Iraqi nationalism. This position recognizes that there is no military solution to the insurgency, and that there cannot be a political solution either as long as the US occupation remains the issue. Therefore, we have little choice but to begin to withdraw our troops and renounce any interest in basing rights and oil concessions. Moreover, as we learned from our withdrawal from Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks there in 1983, withdrawing US forces can actually have a beneficial effect, because it removes one of the rallying cries of jihadist movements.
We must also discuss a different role for the United States in the region. Our only choice should not be between two forms of maintaining American hegemony–one with the help of Bush’s “coalition of the willing” and the other by asking our traditional allies for money and troops–if for no other reason than that neither is likely to succeed. Bush’s crusade to transform the Middle East has been a disaster, and his coalition of the willing is unraveling. The Kerry campaign promises to internationalize the burden of stabilizing Iraq. But it is unrealistic to expect other countries to commit substantial forces and more money in Iraq without an internationalization of other elements of US Middle East policy.
At a minimum, that means giving Europe and the leading powers of the UN Security Council more say in regional affairs, and that in turn means moving our policy closer to the international mainstream position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on Syria and Iran. In other words, true internationalization means not only giving up American dominance but also ending our special treatment of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and normalizing relations with Syria and Iran. We must do so not simply for the sake of world order but because it is not in our interest, and for that matter Israel’s, for Washington to support unconditionally the Likud’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza and to turn a blind eye to Israel’s violations of international law, particularly its illegal expropriation of Palestinian land. And it is not in our interest to pursue a state of belligerence toward Syria and Iran when we need their help in stabilizing Iraq and in curbing Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist groups.
The Military Budget and the US National Security Doctrine
Despite differences on a few details, both candidates have promised to increase military spending (now at $400 billion a year), to further modernize American forces and to keep the United States the predominant military power in the world. We need an alternative that would spend less but better meet our legitimate national security needs.
Such an alternative is possible because both Bush’s and Kerry’s proposed military budgets are based on unrealistic assumptions about the utility of American military power and the kinds of military missions we can legitimately pursue. Bush’s national security doctrine calls for the use of military force for preventive regime change and to halt nuclear proliferation as well as for more traditional military missions like deterrence and defense of the sea lanes and the homeland. It is these new and expansive missions–missions more associated with the pursuit of empire than international order–that are driving the increase in the military budget. In light of our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to have an honest debate as to whether such expansive missions are actually necessary to our national security and consistent with the kind of world order we want to promote.
We also need to ask whether military force is capable of achieving these objectives at an acceptable cost. If anything, the war in Iraq as well as the “war on terrorism” suggests it is not. The Administration’s inability to subdue the insurgency and establish minimum order in Iraq shows the limits of US military force in achieving reasonable political goals–at least at an acceptable cost. It has also revealed the limits of America’s military reach–an important consideration if preventive regime change becomes a core tenet of our national security policy. Even Washington’s limited military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched American forces thin, thus making any threats against North Korea, Iran and Syria look increasingly hollow. A future administration could end up asking for even more money and more troops, if Washington continues to believe there are military solutions to the problems of Iran and North Korea other than deterrence.
The wiser lesson to draw from Iraq would be that preventive regime change is both too costly and too counterproductive to warrant official approval. Military power is still useful for many traditional defense and deterrence missions, including attacks against known terrorist targets, but it has largely proved ineffectual or counterproductive in promoting democracy or in halting the spread of nuclear weapons. By refusing to acknowledge the limits of military power, yet by constructing a military budget as if preventive regime change is the solution to our security worries, the Bush Administration and the Kerry campaign would divert resources into military options that would be counterproductive in most cases. In so doing, they are also taking resources away from nonmilitary programs that might be able to do far more to create the foundations of stable democracies and to achieve other world-order goals that are more important to our national security.
Counterproliferation and Rogue States
Both candidates–Bush explicitly, Kerry implicitly–give credence to the theory of convergence, the notion concocted by neoconservatives that rogue states with weapons of mass destruction might give those weapons to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. (To his credit, Kerry gives greater stress to the possibility that terrorists might obtain nuclear weapons from poorly secured Russian or Pakistani weapons facilities and calls for increased spending to secure nuclear material.) And both support a policy that includes the use of force to reverse or eliminate the nuclear weapons programs of potentially hostile states, principally Iran and North Korea.
No one, of course, wants to see a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea. But the goal of reversing Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, certainly by coercive means, may be unrealistic, especially in light of our experience in Iraq. Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein’s regime was meant in part as a warning to both Iran and North Korea, but seems to have had the opposite effect; there is evidence that both have accelerated their nuclear programs as the best way to deter US attacks. And with American forces stretched thin in Iraq, in neither case is the use of force a plausible policy option. Bush’s fallback position of further isolating and punishing Iran and North Korea is also problematic, since it might only further accelerate their efforts and would require the full support of our diplomatic partners, none of which is likely to risk a more confrontational approach.
This has left us experimenting with a new regional concert model of managing potential international security problems–as represented by the efforts of Britain, France, Germany and Russia in the case of Iran, and by the six-power framework discussions led by China in the case of North Korea. This model includes inducements of trade and investment as well as nonmilitary pressures, and uses the International Atomic Energy Agency as an impartial judge of Iran’s and North Korea’s compliance. This model may not be perfect, but it does offer a way to manage the problem and to reduce some of the more worrying security scenarios associated with it. However, it cannot work if it is done in a half-hearted way without full US cooperation.
If we are really serious about wanting these countries to give up their nuclear programs, we must be willing to address their security fears as well as our own. Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs are not just the result of Iran’s regional ambitions or North Korea’s economic blackmail goals, but of real security fears, some of them fostered by American policy and, in the case of Iran, by Israel’s nuclear capabilities. We must therefore also be open to new regional security arrangements, including the establishment of nuclear-weapons-free zones, that address Iran’s and North Korea’s security concerns. If we are not willing to go this far, then we need to be willing to fall back on established notions of deterrence and containment.
America’s Standing in the World
The one area of major disagreement between the two candidates is over their differing assessments of America’s standing in the world and of US alliance relations. There is no doubt that the Bush Administration has badly damaged America’s relations with our traditional friends and allies in Europe and Asia. But there is a question as to whether either candidate has a plan that will repair this damage. Restoring American respect is the central positive foreign policy message of the Kerry campaign. Kerry does offer America’s allies a more multilateral approach, what his foreign policy team calls “multilateralism if we can, unilateralism if we must.” But while Kerry’s conditional multilateralism will certainly improve the atmospherics of US-alliance relations, it is only part of the answer.
To begin with, there is little practical difference between Bush’s conditional unilateralism and Kerry’s conditional multilateralism in cases of major policy disagreement with traditional allies. Indeed, the importance of the distinction between unilateral and multilateral is often overstated, since all countries pursue their interests both unilaterally and multilaterally. The more important question is whether the United States is willing to be bound by international law and treaty and whether it is willing to live by the rules of an interdependent world, which means reconciling our interests with those of other countries upon which we depend.
As important, the causes of our loss of respect and influence go much deeper than our unilateral tendencies. Both campaigns tend to see the world as unipolar, and on a global plane the United States may still be the world’s only superpower. Viewed, however, at the level of our key relationships with Europe, Russia, China and Japan, in each case we need these countries as much as or more than they need us–whether it be for money and troops for Iraq and Afghanistan, diplomatic support on Iran and North Korea, or capital to pay for our military budget and our consumption and investment needs. Meanwhile, the economic foundation of our position in the world grows weaker each year, as our international debt continues to climb and with it our dependence on foreign capital. Indeed, this changing balance of power has transformed America’s alliance relations in ways not fully appreciated by either campaign. Just a decade ago, the great majority of Europeans wanted to keep the United States involved in Europe; now they want to keep us at a distance in order to insulate themselves from the instability and hatred that Washington’s policies are creating in the nearby Arab world. American relations with Asia have similarly been transformed, with much of Asia trying to avoid getting drawn into Washington’s “war on terrorism” and trying to prevent the United States from acting precipitately against North Korea.
The countries of Europe and Asia still want to cooperate with us, as they have in tracking down and arresting Al Qaeda terrorists and in providing money and forces in Afghanistan, but they will do so only if it also serves their interests and is consistent with their notions of world order. When it is not, we should expect to encounter resistance if not outright opposition, as we have on Iraq. The days of “what Washington wants, Washington gets” are over. The question is whether either the Bush or the Kerry foreign policy team can reshape American diplomacy accordingly.
The Forgotten World: The Marginalization of American Foreign Policy
After reading the policy statements of the Bush and Kerry campaigns, one would think that the American homeland was under daily terrorist attack, that Iran and North Korea were readying nuclear arsenals for war, and that the future of the world depended upon America succeeding in Iraq. One searches in vain for any analysis of China’s rising power or of the economic success of India or of the fate of democracy in our own neighborhood. Occasionally, one hears a reference to genocide in Darfur, to the AIDS pandemic or to the problem of global warming, but these concerns barely figure into our current worldview. The two candidates do not seem to be aware that our obsession with terrorism and rogue states has marginalized us. They continue to see the United States as the center of the universe; in fact, we have been on the periphery of nearly all of the most important geopolitical and geoeconomic developments of the past half-decade: the successful enlargement of the European Union and the launch of the euro; the beginning of what might be an Indian economic miracle; the emergence of China as a responsible regional power; and the re-establishment of the Russian state, notwithstanding its problems in Chechnya, to name just a few.
Even more worrying, the two candidates show no understanding of why in this new world the United States is losing, and others are gaining, influence. In East Asia, China’s influence has risen almost as rapidly as Washington’s has fallen, because it has better understood the need for diplomacy and negotiation when dealing with North Korea, and because it has spoken to the region’s aspirations with its emphasis on more trade and economic development. In Latin America, government officials are no longer lining up at Washington’s door, in part because they now doubt Washington’s economic wisdom, given the disastrous record of its brand of neoliberalism, and in part because the European Union has emerged as a more attractive economic and political partner. So little attention have we paid to their concerns, whether on trade or the counterproductiveness of our policy toward Cuba, that populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has become a more frequent visitor to most Latin American capitals than George W. Bush.
The political leadership of this country, as exemplified by the campaign positions of Bush and Kerry, has become so obsessed with our own security fears and so convinced of our own virtue that it has very little to offer in the way of positive socioeconomic development initiatives. To most of the people of Latin America, Africa and Asia, the United States has largely become irrelevant to their hopes for a better future–except as a potential market for some of their goods or as a source of outsourced jobs.
These developments are not all bad. Indeed, many of them are welcome because together they show that the foundations of a healthy multipolar world are beginning to emerge and that other countries are beginning to assume greater responsibility for peace and prosperity in their own regions. But this is not a world that either George Bush or John Kerry seems prepared to discuss. And that is perhaps the saddest testament of all to the emptiness of the current foreign policy debate.