This is a crowded and complicated season for U.S. foreign policy. The war in Iraq rages on and is consuming much of the foreign policy debate, with the American public and bipartisan majorities in the U.S. Congress steadily losing patience and faith in the current strategy.
For his part, President George W. Bush shows no inclination to back down or make fundamental changes regarding Iraq, and Congress, controlled by Democrats, seems determined to challenge Bush on his Iraq policy, until the very end of his presidency most likely.
Meanwhile, a changing and demanding world shows no signs of slowing down or accommodating the U.S. political calendar. Almost every day, developments in countries such as Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Lebanon, Venezuela and Sudan remind U.S. policymakers that its interests are extensive and require tending. New governments and fresh leaders have come to power in the past year, and relationships between the United States and powers such as Europe, Japan, Russia and China are in constant flux.
And U.S. foreign policy analysts, anticipating the end of the Bush administration, are already thinking and writing about new policies and structures that the next occupant of the White House can implement to regain the nation’s lost stature in the world.
In interviews with members of Congress, diplomats and think tank leaders, a strong consensus emerged that although the war in Iraq continues to dominate the debate, the U.S. foreign policy agenda is packed with consequential issues, and it is therefore critical that the discussions become broader, deeper and more forward- looking.
“This is a very busy time in American foreign policy,” said Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the two-time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is now the ranking Republican on the panel. “I think it is fair to say that we have an unusually crowded agenda. But to say this, is not to cast praise or blame as to why this is so. The United States didn’t create all of this complexity. History has contributed to the dilemmas we face. But face them we must.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution, said the U.S. leadership has been absorbed by the war in Iraq, but there are many other items that are just as important. Among these, he said the United States needs to monitor and, if necessary, respond to potential crises in Iran, North Korea and Pakistan. It also needs to consider significant strategic challenges such as the rise of China and the recent assertiveness of Russia, as well as long-term issues such as nuclear proliferation, energy security and global warming.
“The United States must keep working in the global arena. We can’t just wait until after the next presidential election. There are a lot of problems that require our attention and can be addressed in a positive way by the U.S. during the rest of the Bush presidency,” O’Hanlon said.
The Iraq debate on Capitol Hill is dominated—at least as measured by decibel level—by two extreme positions: One camp, composed mostly of liberal Democrats, is calling for the speedy American withdrawal from Iraq. Another camp, dominated by Bush’s most loyal Republican supporters, is calling for the United States to hunker down and do whatever it takes to prevail militarily.
However, experts say there is an emerging consensus in Congress that although the United States should not leave Iraq precipitously, it should begin redeploying troops in a careful way so that it can limit the damage done to American interests in the Middle East and ease the terrible suffering of the Iraqi people.
One of the most notable Republican critics of Bush’s Iraq strategy, Lugar has said that a careful, well-planned redeployment could contain the violence in Iraq, reduce the prospect of terrorism, prevent Iraqi sectarian disorder from spilling over into the wider region, prevent Iranian dominance of the Middle East, and limit the loss of American credibility.
Lugar argues that it is essential for Iraq to be considered in a broader, strategic context. This type of careful attention to the entire Middle East is imperative and requires special consideration to thorny issues such as the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the aspirations of Syria and Iran, as well as U.S. dependence on Persian Gulf oil.
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, the second-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee (who has announced he will not seek re-election), said Iraq, though very important, has swamped and distorted the U.S. foreign policy debate.
“Iraq has sucked all the energy and creativity from American foreign policy. It has drained our time, our energy, our treasure. It’s been all-consuming. It is critical that we start seeing foreign policy from a wider lens. There are a lot of countries and regions we’re not paying enough attention to—Russia, China, South America, Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Gaza, Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. At some point we need to have a larger view of the world,” Hagel said.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) agreed that Iraq has been overshadowing the foreign policy debate in ways that are not helpful.
“Iraq is a serious problem, but I think it is a short-term problem. Our more serious problems are deeper and broader. Even after 9/11, it is sometimes hard to convince Americans that we have a stake in what happens around the world—in Africa, for example, which might be one of the most important places in the world in coming decades,” Rockefeller said. “The biggest challenge we face, frankly, is getting the American people really interested, really engaged, in what is going on in the world.”
Likewise, Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador who is now a diplomat-in-residence at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said the United States needs to pay attention to Iraq, but not to the exclusion of everything else.
“Our foreign policy has become so narrow. It’s become completely Iraq-centric. But the rest of the world has not stopped. The rest of the world is not obsessed with Iraq. The rest of the world is moving on to other issues and other problems,” she said. “The rest of the world is struggling with problems that are not related to Iraq. The AIDS epidemic in Africa obviously doesn’t have anything to do with Iraq. We’ve been completely ignoring Africa and Latin America and many other countries and regions.
“We can’t just ignore Iraq now, but we shouldn’t make it the primary, let alone exclusive, focus of our foreign policy,” she added. “There are regional powers coming to the fore that we are not paying attention to. And we have a very negative-leaning foreign policy. We don’t seem to do or say anything positive anymore. That must change. There needs to be a hopeful and constructive focus to our foreign policy and our diplomacy.”
Bruce Berkowitz, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, argues that the United States needs to rethink both its policies and the organizational structure by which national security issues are considered and implemented. In a recent essay, “Strategy For A Long Struggle,” Berkowitz advocates a careful, calculated assessment of how the United States expends its military, economic and diplomatic resources in such a way as to preserve American strength.
A sustainable strategy, he says, requires that the United States understand its long-term resources and aim for a concerted, continuous effort that is affordable and commands broad public support. It also requires that the nation be proactive in dealing with threats, because modest amounts of force now may avert the need for larger, unaffordable amounts of force later. This type of strategy requires the U.S. government to be pragmatic in dealing with allies and potential partners.
Berkowitz said it is vital to seek bipartisan consensus to accomplish all this. “The United States cannot maintain a predominance strategy based on 51 percent of the public as measured every four years on election day,” he wrote.
Other analysts further argue that the United States not only needs new policies, but also an entirely new outlook on global affairs. “We don’t understand the world. We don’t have sure footing. We don’t understand nuances or other languages. We don’t establish clear priorities. We’ve been protected by oceans. We need to reach outside of ourselves,” said Rockefeller.
The senator argues that shifting U.S. foreign policy will entail a major domestic overhaul, such as fresh investments in education, especially language study. He also supports a two-year national service program for the nation’s youth to inculcate national values and foster cohesion.
According to Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, a reinvigorated effort to reach out to the world will also be necessary to stem the current tide of anti-Americanism. “While the U.S. is still very effectively connected to the rest of the world via financial and trade flows, in recent years it has suffered a profound erosion of its ‘political connectivity,’” he explained. “These days, politicians all over the world pay a stiff price if they appear to be sympathetic or aligned with the politics and goals of the United States. It is imperative for any new administration to re-engage the world politically and find ways—often via unilateral measures—to abate the current and very noxious wave of anti-Americanism.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, wrote in a recent essay in Harper’s magazine that too many people in the world now view the United States as arrogant, incompetent and indifferent.
She outlined a diplomatic initiative the next president might launch that includes closing Guantanamo Bay prison, pushing nuclear disarmament, joining the International Criminal Court, reforming the U.N. Security Council to make it better represent the world of the 21st century, and seriously confronting global warming.
To tackle this massive array of current challenges and anticipate future problems, some experts say the U.S. foreign policy debate should consider whether new American and global institutions are needed. They contend that a period of creativity is required such as what occurred after World War II when the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and World Bank were formed.
But Bodine of the Woodrow Wilson School said she does not believe the United States needs to create a new array of institutions such as it did after World War II—just pay better attention to the existing ones. “I don’t think we need to change the structure of post-Cold War institutions. They are not broken. What is broken is our ability to work effectively within those structures,” she said. “The U.S. needs to relearn how to work multilaterally. We need to return to basics, such as putting diplomacy back on the table. Diplomacy is an instrument to magnify a country’s influence, not degrade its sovereignty. We need to learn how to play with others. I’m baffled by those who say we don’t need others.”
Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a Democratic member of the Armed Services Committee, also champions a back-to-basics foreign policy approach by building stronger relationships. “We have a lot of work to do. We have to repair strained relationships, strengthen ones that we haven’t paid that much attention to, and reach out to create new relationships. There is so much to do.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.