Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Republican Debate on Foreign Policy

In the next issue of TNI, two prominent Republican practitioners and thinkers on foreign policy will offer their thoughts on what the Bush Administration should be doing for its last two years in office. I offer some advance excerpts here:

Kim Holmes:

For [the president's] agenda to have any resilience, however, the president will have to make a number of adjustments. First, he must tone down the rhetoric about democracy in Iraq. While it is understandable that the administration tried to create a democratic government to fill the gap left by Saddam Hussein’s demise, it unfortunately also tied his freedom agenda to the fate of the government in Iraq. America did not go to war in Iraq to establish democracy. It went to war to free America and the region from the potential threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a rogue regime. Democracy was a second-order goal to meet the very real need to create some form of legitimate government to fill the power vacuum. It may or may not work in the short run, but if it does not, that should not mean that America has to abandon its general commitment to freedom, the rule of law, human rights, good governance, and representative government.

Second, the administration will have to sort out the distinction between freedom as a long-range moral and strategic goal and democracy as a short-term political tactic. The two sometimes coincide, but they just as often are in conflict. Electing a government with a plurality or even majority of Islamist extremists does nothing for either freedom or democracy. In profoundly illiberal societies, elections are actually a danger to freedom and representative government. This hard fact is not easily understood and difficult to capture in inspirational speeches. But it is a fact nonetheless. In the real world, sometimes the lesser of two evils is the best choice. The inability to handle that ambiguity unfortunately has hobbled both the president and the critics of his freedom agenda—the former in being unable to explain adequately why, for example, he opposes the “democratically elected” Hamas government, while the latter escape into irrelevant debates about “neo-conservatism” and have an ideological meltdown because freedom and democracy are so difficult for some peoples to achieve.

In both cases some patience and historical perspective are in order. What cannot be achieved overnight may still be worth pursuing in the long run. What may cause instability in the short run may, when the time is right, be the only guarantee of stability in the long run. The key is in understanding both the difference in circumstances and the conditions of timing. There is no formula or one-size-fits-all model for advancing freedom around the world. The faster both the administration and its critics realize this, the better off America and the world will be.

Richard Haass:

... the experience of the past six years should lead to a reorientation of U.S. foreign policy. It is not simply that it needs to become more multilateral and more diplomatic. It also needs to shift its emphasis. Years were lost while the United States distracted itself with fanciful hopes of regime change. This time allowed North Korea to expand its nuclear arsenal. It also allowed Iran to continue clandestine efforts to develop an enrichment capability. In the process, the United States squandered the chance to pressure Iran when oil was one-third its current price, before the United States became bogged down in Iraq, and when Iran was governed by someone more open to normal relations with the outside world. Ambitious hopes for transformation also help explain why the United States embarked on its flawed policy in Iraq.

The problems with this approach to foreign policy are less philosophical than practical. Mature democracies are more peaceful. But creating mature democracies is a daunting task. Pacing, the sequencing of political and economic reform, taking into account local culture and tradition—these and other factors complicate all efforts to instill (much less install) democratic ways. Partial successes can translate into total failures, as incomplete or “emerging” democracies are prone to populism and extreme nationalism. Elections, far from a panacea, can introduce additional problems. In Iraq, they have reinforced sectarian rather than national identity; in Palestine, elections have brought to power a party with an agenda inconsistent with conflict resolution.

What is more, all of this social engineering necessarily takes place at the same time the United States must call upon some of the very governments it seeks to change (and on occasion oust) to help meet the pressing political, economic and strategic challenges of the day. Emphasizing the need for dramatic political reform can make cooperation on other priority matters more difficult; backing off opens the United States to charges of hypocrisy and double standards. For these reasons, the principal business of American foreign policy must be the foreign policy, not the domestic policy, of others.

You guys do not seem to have gotten it: US no longer has any strategic control over the course of events in Iraq.

That is over, finished, kaput.

US has to get out as soon as possible - it would be better for Iraq, for the Middle East, and for US.

Excepting the presidencies of Carter and Bush I, US and Israel have been reckless in the Middle East. No amount of talk and ink is going to change teh salient features of the new Middle East: Rising Iran, embittered friendly Sunni States, and extremely hostile Sunni Arab populations.

I am telling you - follow Odom and leave ASAP.
So how do you think this plays out for the Republican nomination in 2008 and how the hopefuls begin to assemble their foreign policy teams? I assume that the real addressee of these pieces is to a conflicted John McCain who has to decide whether to run against the Bush doctrine or whether to run as its savior.
I agree with Anonymous 6:01. Americans still think they hold the initiative in dealing with the situation in Iraq. Events on the ground have moved beyond your ability to control them with what you are prepared to spend or commit.

Biddle comes closer to appreciating this than other commentators when he compares Iraq to a lottery.
From the excerpts, the writers seem to be extrapolating a general policy from the experiences of the last few years in Iraq. How does Afghanistan fit into their overall view?

Do the writers take a position on Afghanistan that is consistent with the general conclusions they draw from Iraq? Or would they argue for treating Afghanistan differently, and if so, how and why?
I think this is a crucial point:

Elections, far from a panacea, can introduce additional problems. In Iraq, they have reinforced sectarian rather than national identity

Elections were but a tool in the developing sectarian/tribal contest.
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