January 10, 2008

January 10, 2008 | Commentary on Europe

Changing the Middle East

How many times have we heard it, and how many times will we hear it again before November - this election is about change? Thanks to the campaign rhetoric of Sen. Barack Obama, any kind of change is now supposedly what voters want. The irony of American politics is of course that politicians tend to enter office on just such a platform, only to be identified as part of the status quo almost the moment they take office. Such is the ponderous weight of the federal government, whose course is slower to change than that of a U.S. aircraft carrier.

In foreign policy, where external events have a way of driving the agenda, change can be extremely hard to effect. How much difference will it make to the world who sits in the White House? Sen. Hillary Clinton has derided Mr. Obama for his inexperience, and if you look at the Cuban missile crisis under John F. Kennedy, or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan under Jimmy Carter, the perceived inexperience of an American leader can certainly encourage international power plays.

In some areas of foreign policy there will be a huge difference between a Democrat and a Republican in the White House, in others not a lot. Iraq has not dominated the campaign as much as might be expected, mainly because of the emergence of a successful military strategy - which in the words of The Washington Post, a paper that can find a dark cloud behind every silver lining, has left Iraqi cemetery workers in search of new employment.

Sen. John McCain has carried the heaviest load here of support for President Bush and for our troops. However, with the notable exception of Sen. Ron Paul, party lines dictate where the candidates stand. Republicans remain solidly behind Mr. Bush's strategy. Democrats want out, though once in office, that desire will be harder to act on as the inevitable consequences become direly evident. At least until yesterday, Iran has been much less of an issue, but here former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has taken by far the toughest stand, accusing Democrats of being "in denial" about Iran's nuclear ambitions and considerable progress to date.

Most candidates have had something to say about Latin America. Mr. Obama of course has famously stated that he would willing to meet with Fidel Castro, Kim Jong-il and Hugo Chavez. Few others are willing to go that far, but Democratic candidates, like Mrs. Clinton and Sen. John Edwards, have blamed the policies of the Bush administration for being "either disengaged or bullying," driving Latin Americans into the arms of Mr. Chavez. Republicans remain largely in support of the Bush policy, and show no signs of wanting to change the Bush administration's tough line on Cuba and Venezuela.

Further areas where marked differences emerge center not surprisingly around multilateralism. Republicans take a hard stand against the Law of the Sea Treaty, which as Gov. Mike Huckabee has put it "would endanger both our national security and our economic interests." Though most candidates on both sides have spoken about the necessity for international respect, leadership and allies, Democrats almost by instinct reach toward the vocabulary of muiltilateralism whenever possible.

In the words of Mr. Edwards, "we will solve the world's problems with the rest of the world in a multilateral, coalition-building way, because that is the most effective way to create respect for America." On the tough question that has challenged the Bush administration, how best to promote democracy, all the candidates pay some kind of tribute. At least the Democratic candidates pay lip service, and do not deride the idea as some of the Bush administration's critics have done. But there is much caution in the air. Mr. Huckabee has talked about the arrogance of the Bush administration, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has said that democracy cannot be exported by military means. Mr. Giuliani's talk about promoting democracy and freedom as very long term projects.

Mr. Bush is this week visiting the Middle East, the focal point of his agenda of democratic change and freedom agenda. Though the logic of Mr. Bush's choice of goal is impeccable - democracies don't wage war, ergo a democratic Middle East will be a peaceful one - it is hardly realistic to achieve within the timeframe of a U.S. presidential tenure. Changing the Middle East has turned out to be even harder than changing the political culture of Washington. Mr. Bush has said that this will be "the work of generations," but will his successor carry the ball forward?

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Europe

First appeared in the Washington Times