January 17, 2007 | Commentary on Political Thought
After September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush set forth on a revolutionary approach to U.S. foreign policy. There was a tremendous sense of urgency and an assumption that the old way of doing things had not worked. The strategy of pursuing stability and of slowly working problems through the half-measured process of multilateral diplomacy had not prevented a direct attack on American soil. New strategies and measures were needed to deal with a drastically new and different world. The president moved determinedly to topple the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, to aggressively challenge the rogue regimes of Iran and North Korea, to shift the focus of alliance policies toward Japan and Central and Eastern European countries, to expand the range of military, law enforcement and diplomatic activities to fight the war on terrorism, and finally to adopt his now-famous freedom and democracy agenda aimed (in large measure) at the Middle East.
Many in the Bush Administration thought their various strategies in support of the "long war" on terrorism, including the freedom agenda and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's "transformational diplomacy", would usher in a sea change not only in U.S. policy but in international affairs-not unlike the role of the Truman presidency in establishing a new framework for U.S. foreign policy and the containment policy that endured under Eisenhower and indeed for decades and brought victory in the Cold War.
Now, with two years remaining in his presidency, the administration faces the question of whether it can institutionalize its new approach to foreign policy.
President Bush sorely upset the international apple cart, and while many were happy with the disruption, many others were equally unhappy not only that their equilibrium was thrown off balance, but also that it was Bush, and not them, pushing the cart.
It should come as no surprise that this attempt to reorder international affairs has been met with resistance. The major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been much more difficult than anticipated, producing a politically toxic antiwar movement in the United States and a breakdown of the bipartisan consensus that emerged after September 11. Moreover, the reassertion of U.S. power in the world rearranged the international playing field. Old rogues like Saddam Hussein and the Taliban are gone but dangerous insurgencies arose in their places. Osama bin Laden is in hiding, but his movement morphed into largely self-contained cells and organizations. Some allies like Japan and Pakistan came closer to the United States while others like Germany and France distanced themselves. Rival states like Russia and China became more assertive in challenging U.S. dominance. North Korea set to launching nuclear devices to attract U.S. attention. Hostile states like Iran and Venezuela jockeyed for position to lead a new international movement against America, globalization and Western notions of freedom.
So what must President Bush do to ensure his legacy in foreign affairs? It is clear that he must be perceived as being in control of America's destiny in Iraq. Moreover, as he continues to confront North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs, he must put in place either a solution to the problem or the foundation of a strategy to deter them if they become nuclear powers. Success in these areas would do wonders to strengthen the perception of American strength and leadership, attenuating some of the push back on America around the world.
Beyond these immediate problems, the president must devise a better way to win the war of ideas involved in the fight against terrorism-and he must anchor his approach by consolidating and extending the gains made in advancing the freedom agenda anddealing with the backlash against it in the Middle East, Latin America and Europe.
The Iraq Conundrum
Washington has been awash in rumors and plans to save Iraq, including proposals advanced by the Iraq Study Group and in this magazine. Most-such as partitioning, setting up a strongman, creating a regional conference or contact group, setting a timetable for withdrawal-seem predicated on the assumption that any option is preferable to the current one. But this is not true. As bad as the situation is in Iraq, it is remarkable how little analysis is made of these alternatives, particularly since it is not all that difficult to explain how these other approaches could quickly and dramatically make the situation in Iraq much worse and endanger American security even more.
For example, partitioning Iraq would likely unleash massacres and bloodletting on a scale not seen since the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in the 1940s. A so-called strongman would likely spark a full-blown civil war, making the current low-burning sectarian fighting seem positively tame in comparison. A regional conference or contact group that contained Iran and Syria would be like inviting the fox into the chicken coop; these meddling nations would get international cover for their material and political support for the destabilization of Iraq. A unilateral timetable for U.S. withdrawal-one not tied in any way to the situation on the ground or to Iraqi agreement-would demoralize the Iraqi government and signal to the emboldened insurgents, terrorists, sectarian militias and other groups vying for power exactly when they should start their coup d'etat.
This does not mean that there are no new approaches to take in Iraq. On the contrary, it only means that the options du jour seem totally inadequate. To expand the options, we need to help change the political and security environment.
The solution to Iraq is, after all, primarily up to the Iraqis. They must re-forge a national consensus to give all Iraqis a say in their future. To assist this process, the United States should adopt a dual-track strategy: It should first press Prime Minister al-Maliki and Shi'a leaders to give moderate Sunni Arabs a stronger role in the ruling coalition, which would strengthen political support for the government and weaken it for insurgents and militias. It should forcefully press Maliki (or any subsequent Iraqi administration) to clamp down and eventually disband the sectarianmilitias. Until that is done, the Maliki government will have a tough time defeating the insurgents and getting the militias under control.
At the same time, the United States should help bolster the capabilities of the Iraqi army and police and press the government to root out sectarian infiltrators in government institutions, particularly the Ministry of the Interior. It should triple support for police training over the next year and embed U.S. advisors in various police units and the Ministry of the Interior to help improve effectiveness and reduce abuses. In the next several months, the Bush Administration should negotiate an agreement with the Maliki government for Iraqis to take over responsibility of day-to-day security-especially in the cities. The United States would continue to support Iraqi counterinsurgency operations and, more importantly, retain the lead role in fighting Al-Qaeda and other outside terrorist groups in Iraq.
With Democrats in charge of both houses of Congress, it may be possible for a consensus to be reached on this strategy in 2007-providing there is sufficient political will to avoid partisan wrangling.
North Korea and Iran
A focus on Iraq should not distract us from the increasing threats posed by North Korea and Iran. The Bush Administration is dedicated to finding a diplomatic solution to the problem of Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons. That's a laudable and understandable strategy-for now. But if President Bush wishes to leave a lasting legacy of leadership in this area, he will either have to disarm them by diplomacy or military force or, failing that, establish a lasting framework of augmented deterrence.
The current diplomatic strategy is to combine UN Security Council pressure with that of various regional diplomatic groupings like the EU-3 and the Asian Multiparty Talks. At some point this approach will run out the president's clock. Since it would take at least a year to establish the beginning of a credible deterrent strategy for Iran and North Korea, the president should look to the summer of 2007 as the drop-dead date for letting diplomacy runs its course. While they should never be taken off the table officially, if, at that time, military options are deemed unlikely to succeed, then we must begin overt and aggressive preparations for an augmented deterrent regime against these rogue nuclear nations.
A deterrent strategy against North Korea should expand our already robust military cooperation with Japan, particularly on missile defense, sustain the intense international pressure on Pyongyang and revitalize the U.S.-South Korea relationship. A deterrent strategy against Iran would involve strengthening military, security and intelligence cooperation with Iraq, Turkey, Israel and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. They should be offered missile defenses, joint military planning and stepped-up joint military exercises. Further, the president should take steps to prevent Iran from disrupting the flow of oil to the West through the Strait of Hormuz, with a strong naval and air presence in the Persian Gulf and-as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence advised last August-increase and improve intelligence gathering.
The strategic component would be complex since it involves nuclear proliferation, the source of which could be precisely unknowable with two known nuclear proliferators like Iran and North Korea operating in the world. Nevertheless, there is no reason why this ambiguity should work to America's strategic disadvantage and to Iran's and North Korea's advantage. It should become U.S. declaratory policy that the explosion of a nuclear device by any group or entity linked to either Iran's or North Korea's nuclear programs against U.S. interests or its allies shall be deemed a direct attack by Iran and North Korea on the United States meriting a full nuclear retaliatory response.
However, given the fact that even such a threat may fail to deter the fanatical leaderships of North Korea and Iran, the United States must back up this strategy with a damage limitation component including active ballistic missile defenses. President Bush made significant progress in this regard over the past six years. He threw off the constraints of the anachronistic ABM Treaty, achieved a consensus in America on the need for missile defense, deployed ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California and secured funding to equip Aegis ships with defenses. We now have interceptors on at least three ships and more of them with radar capabilities-capabilities that were prohibited under the abm Treaty. By the end of his term we should have some thirty interceptors on at least six cruisers.
Yet much more can and must be done, given the increasing threat from terrorists and Iran and North Korea. To maintain and accelerate the momentum will require concerted leadership, particularly since we will need to expand sea- and space-based assets. We cannot predict where the first missile will come from, so we must invest in layers of defense from land to sea and sky.
Space may prove the most vital. Our satellites are critical for communications and surveillance-for detecting and tracking a missile launch and sending constant targeting data to a range of interceptors in time to destroy the missile. Closer to the launch is always better, so we must extend our situational awareness across space, which means having an array of smaller and lighter satellites that can operate autonomously through distributed satellite networks, and flexible responsive launch capabilities. Such a system cannot be completed in two years, but many of its critical components can be put in place without great expenditure. Visible and forceful leadership will be needed to cement political will and public support for this endeavor, no matter who controls Congress. In the end, no one leader or party will want to be held responsible for blocking technologies that could have prevented a missile attack.
Freedom versus Terror
President Bush has already established a lasting legacy in fighting terrorism by toppling the Taliban regime and breaking up Osama bin Laden's operational network. He also instituted a set of new laws and regulations on detainees, interrogations and surveillance, in an effort to give U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement officials the tools they need to combat terrorism. Though these steps are likely to be challenged by a Democratically controlled Congress, there is no doubt that in the War on Terror our laws and regulations will need to be refined to balance the needs of security with civil rights.
But victory in the War on Terror means more than these as well. It also means winning the war of ideas associated with this struggle.
We need to have a much better understanding of what motivates ideological fence-sitters on terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere. There are various demographic, national and religious views in the Muslim world that are scarcely understood by American policymakers. It simply will not do to conclude that because many Muslims are ambivalent about some parts of America's War on Terror, not to mention America's values as a society, they have written off our values of freedom and democracy. Islam-both as a religion and as a political movement-is going through a crisis and a revival at the same time. We need to better understand it before we can even think of influencing it. But to influence it, the 2006 National Security Strategy is right: We will need to counter the lies behind the terrorists' ideology by empowering people through political and economic reforms. And we must encourage many more responsible Islamic leaders to denounce the ideology that distorts and exploits Islam for destructive ends.
President Bush understands that it is not enough to denounce radical Islamism. His signature contribution to the ideological struggle in the War on Terrorism has been his forthright assertion that America should actively support the spread of freedom and democracy around the world. That agenda is essentially the ideological component of the war. It is both a long-range strategic goal and a short-term political tactic. It is intended to lay claim to the high moral ground against the terrorists, particularly the radical Islamic variety, but also to provide an alternative of hope to fence-sitters in the Middle East and elsewhere who may otherwise take inspiration from the fanatical haters of freedom and democracy.
This agenda has many critics, some of whom are as guilty of over-simplification as the administration is in its public pronouncements. It is true that sometimes the administration has failed to make a proper distinction between democracy and elections, as was the case in the administration's statements on the Palestinian elections. And it is also true that some of the soaring rhetoric of the administration's speeches have raised expectations that cannot possibly be met in the short run, if ever.
But it is also true that President Bush is not doing anything all that different from previous presidents, including Ronald Reagan who is far more the ideological progenitor of George W. Bush than Bush's father. He is essentially making the rather commonplace claim that, by and large, America's best friends (and most reliable partners) in the world are free, democratic countries. Moreover, not only would people around the world be better off if they lived under free and democratic governments with good governance and the rule of law, but Americans themselves would benefit.
There is only so much America can do to pursue that goal, but while trade-offs and hard choices must always be made, it would be better if America said this forthrightly rather than appear to be embarrassed by or indifferent to its values.
For this 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 are just as often 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 is 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 "neoconservatism" 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.
Lastly, the administration needs to link its political freedom agenda to its economic agenda. It has missed a valuable opportunity to explain how freedom-political and economic-is indivisible. Free economic institutions-in the form of property rights, lower trade barriers and limited government intervention in the economy, for example-are absolutely necessary to eliminate poverty and raise living standards all over the world-and indispensable in reinforcing democratic political institutions and civil liberties.
The clock is ticking for the president. He has had considerable success in getting new free trade agreements, lowering trade barriers and using aid to help developing countries become more attractive to private investment. Yet Congress appears to be growing more hostile to free trade agreements. This puts at risk not only renewal of trade promotion authority (TPA) but approval of free trade agreements and progress at the World Trade Organization.
The president should work with Congress to get TPA approved before it expires in June, ratify the agreements concluded with Peru and Colombia, hold the line on new trade barriers and advance agreements with Panama, Ecuador, South Korea, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates. When the Farm Bill comes up for renewal, the president should refuse to sign it unless it demonstrates global leadership on trade by reducing agricultural subsidies, something the developing world would applaud.
If Congress turns hostile to trade, the president can still take the wheel and transform trade policy for the future. Currently, no single U.S. agency has authority over all facets of trade policymaking and implementation. If foreign companies want to do business with Americans, they have to deal with various agencies, mechanisms, policy tools and rules. Just as he has transformed the federal homeland security structure, President Bush should streamline our complex trade structure. Breaking down stovepipes would indeed be a legacy initiative. He could begin by making the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative a one-stop shop for all conduct and development of trade policy, mandating that the office eliminate all redundancies and do a better job matching policy tools with policy objectives in each country, as well as evaluating results.
There are also things the president could do to ensure that U.S. foreign aid promotes political and economic freedom. More aid isn't one of them; donor nations have sent trillions of dollars to help poor countries, with little success. He should focus U.S. assistance on countries that have adopted policies that promote economic growth and development, and press Congress to greatly reduce the number of foreign assistance earmarks that undermine that effort.
Finally, there must also be a plan that will do a far better job explaining to Americans why we must maintain our historic commitment to the spread of economic and political freedoms in a world increasingly hostile to them. There is no greater advocate for the idea and practice of freedom than America, so it is up to all of us-not just the president-to champion it or risk losing the internal compass that gives our every effort meaning.
Positive presidential legacies in foreign policy are rare things. Some presidents leave nothing behind. Others bungle things, making the country worse off. Still others make modest accomplishments that are overturned by their successors. The most successful were the ones who grasped the essence of a crisis and rose to the occasion to meet it. That was what Truman and Eisenhower did when they established a containment strategy that lasted for a generation. And that was what Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush did when they won the Cold War.
Whether George W. Bush achieves the hallowed historical status of a Truman or Reagan depends on his leaving a lasting legacy of freedom and prosperity. To do that, he must figure out how to marry his obvious strength of fortitude with a newly developed flexibility toward his longstanding goals. All too often in the later years of their terms, presidents confuse tactics and goals, feeling the need more to defend what they've done than to decide what must be done next. President Bush should not make this mistake. He will never run for office again. He should be less concerned about defending his decisions than about getting better results. It is on the latter that his presidency will be judged long after his current critics are dead and gone.
Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The National Interest