Restore the balance

August 30, 2004|By Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke

IN THE HEATED mud-slinging of the presidential campaign, it is well to remember that Americans generally agree upon the nation's primary global objective: that a global order based on democracy and open markets best guarantees U.S. security and liberty.

U.S. policy in Iraq, however, has revealed a central dispute about whether this objective can be imposed through military force or whether American example and encouragement are better suited to achieving this desirable outcome.

During the Bush administration - and most especially since 9/11 - the former approach has prevailed. Under the influence of officials - often called neo-conservatives - at the Pentagon, National Security Council and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, the preferred approach has treated military force as an early rather than late option, has disdained cooperation with allies, has steered away from international organizations and treaties and has concentrated on the Middle East to the virtual exclusion of other areas.

Voters will judge for themselves whether this approach has produced satisfactory outcomes, but there is little doubt that it represents a detour from a half-century of largely successful post-World War II foreign policy. Let us remind ourselves who established the key components of this order: the United Nations, NATO, the International Monetary Fund and so on. It was the United States. The neo-conservatives argue, of course, that 9/11 changed everything, making past practice obsolete. We wonder.

Today, the broad balance sheet of U.S. foreign policy makes for grim reading. It is not just that the neo-conservative nirvana of a democratic Iraq has evaporated; perhaps the best we can now hope for is an uneasy truce maintained by a Baghdad-based autocrat. The damage is wider. The monopolization of top-level management time by the Middle East has caused a raft of other issues to go neglected.

How many Americans realize, for example, that China is now on the point of replacing the United States as the leading power in East Asia? Negotiations over North Korea make this obvious. These are conducted in Beijing, according to Beijing's timetable and in accordance with Beijing's interests. The Iraq-occasioned drawdown of U.S. troops in South Korea will reinforce the region's tilt toward China. Taiwan's vulnerable status may be jeopardized.

Elsewhere, Afghanistan is well on the way to becoming a narcotics-dominated economy; the recall referendum in oil-rich Venezuela has come and gone without a peep of American input; rising authoritarianism in Russia gets a free pass; the trans-Atlantic relationship remains under unprecedented strain; anti-Americanism is on the rise worldwide. In the wider Middle East, Iran is pushing the nuclear envelope at a time when U.S. credibility to marshal containment is at its lowest ebb. Finally, the radicalization of Islamic opinion threatens to spill over into Saudi Arabia.

None of these challenges has a ready-made solution; one of the key lessons of diplomatic experience is to beware of anyone who claims to have an easy answer. But the present model is not delivering results. What to put in its place?

Other analysts have put forward impressive-sounding new paradigms in comparison with which our suggestion may appear somewhat bare-bones. For what we are saying is that U.S. diplomatic history is replete with examples of successful crisis management: Harry Truman's early containment of Soviet aggression; Ronald Reagan's artful summitry with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev; the first President Bush's masterful handling of the reunification of Germany.

The common denominator was that the United States worked with the grain of the international community and drew on true professional expertise. During these successful episodes, the United States provided unashamed leadership but did not try to force a made-in-Washington ideology down foreign throats. By contrast, when ideology has gained the upper hand - for example, over the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam or, currently, Iraq - the results have been much less favorable.

Putting ideology on the back burner implies opening U.S. foreign policy to the whole range of instruments at the nation's disposal: diplomatic, military, economic, intelligence, cultural, social, religious. A judicious mixing of all the elements was on display to bring about the collapse of communism: Mr. Reagan's military buildup, the AFL-CIO's substantial but discreet financial assistance to Solidarity in Poland, Pope John Paul II's moral authority. No one element got out of balance.

Advocating the restoration of a balanced foreign policy does not set the pulse racing, but this may be exactly what is needed if we are to manage and eventually defeat the scourge of terrorism. The British in Ireland, the French in Algeria, the Colombians in their own country - all tried the one-dimensional military approach, and all abandoned it in favor of broader-based set of policies.

This is the direction in which U.S. policy now needs to proceed. Or, rather, return. For the good news here is that once the ideologues have been booted out, the United States has an excellent record of dealing with apparently intractable problems. It is this knack that needs to be recaptured.

Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke co-authored America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order.

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