Monday, April 18, 2011

United States Foreign Policy: Increasingly Out of Step

You can barely see it in the popular press, but the global insurrection is going great guns, despite the fecklessness of the so-called Western world.  And it’s going great guns in our enemies’ countries, not just in those of our (at least erstwhile) friends.

In Syria, for example, the anti-Assad demonstrations are getting bigger and are explicitly calling for regime change.  In Iran, there are ongoing strikes, violent anti-regime demonstrations in the oil regions in the west, adjoining Iraq (think Basra), and continued sabotage of the country’s gas pipelines.

He goes on to list out the many ways that people inside these countries are resisting.  Then there is this gem:

So what does our government do, when faced with a splendid opportunity to advance the cause of freedom, strike a blow at the world’s leading supporter of terrorism, and perhaps even convince waverers around the world that American support is worth something after all?
We tell the Syrian opposition to take a hike, that’s what.  As Eli Lake tells us,
The Obama administration has turned down a plea from Syria’s democratic opposition to step up diplomatic pressure on President Bashar Assad, who has violently repressed peaceful anti-government protests
Please read that again and notice that the Obama administration turned down a plea for DIPLOMATIC pressure on poor Assad.
There is a serious problem with our foreign policy.  It is completely out of step with current events and, for some reason, refuses to acknowledge that all of the aspirations of the United States for the spread of freedom and democracy are continuing to be met.  There is an ideological war being fought.  Not just outside the borders of the United States or within Islam, but within the State Department and various other departments and institutions responsible for advising and designing US foreign policy.  

This ideological war is between those in the realpolitik camp who still maintain that stability and a softly, slowly approach are preferable and those who feel that momentum is on the side of a foreign policy that is more ideologically hawkish on the part of freedom and democracy.  Those who didn't cringe when Reagan demanded that Gorbachev "tear down this wall" or fear that George W. Bush was going to go John Brown, traipsing across the sands of the ME, installing democracy at gun point everywhere just because he said that "Freedom is a fire in the minds of men."

There are those who are like Kaplan, insisting that foreign policy is essentially a matter of might makes right.  Or, as he put it:

We should not kid ourselves. In foreign policy, all moral questions are really questions of power.

Another gentleman at the Council for Foreign Relations suggested that the United States should be more humble to belay fears of our rivals and friends alike.  Where as others believe that it is the role of the United States as the pre-imminent leader of the free world to speak loudly and proudly about freedom and democracy.  Not only because it is the United States' ideological banner and claim to fame, but because it is the last, best hope of mankind, a bulwark against the rise of tyranny and the desire of all people.  That there is power in simply saying the words and more when the ideas are defended where ever people rise to demand their rights.

Shadi Hamid, director of Reasearch at the Brookings' Doha Center, wrote that there is power in the words and even more in action.  He points out that, during the "color revolutions", the "west" (the United States) actively supported democratic movements by providing direct funding for organizations as well as setting up opposition news channels.  More importantly, he insists, the words of support helped fuel the democratic revolutionaries by assuring them that they were not alone:

Unlike the often impenetrable and calibrated language it used in addressing the Arab world, the West’s rhetoric in Eastern Europe was clear and unapologetic. During Ukraine’s second round of elections in November 2004, President George W. Bush sent Senator Richard Lugar as his special envoy. Lugar issued a forceful statement condemning President Leonid Kuchma’s government for election fraud. Soon after, Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to recognize the election results and warned that “if the Ukrainian government does not act immediately and responsibly, there will be consequences for our relationship, for Ukraine’s hopes for a Euro-Atlantic integration, and for individuals responsible for perpetrating fraud.” As political scientist Michael McFaul recounts, the protestors in Maidan Square applauded when Powell’s statement was read.3 Meanwhile, Lech Walesa, Poland’s first democratically elected president, assured the crowd that the West was on their side. The West had aligned itself with revolution.
 Though he goes on to say that Bush's policies were "dubious, cynical" and "self interest" (as apparently all good supporters of freedom forward policy must say to be taken seriously), he points out that they did, in fact, produce some forms of freedom though they were quickly rolled back once the Islamists made a showing and, as previously suggested here, the Iraq war seemed to drag on.  It was those events that had the realpolitik, caution and status quo contingent re-asserting their power over foreign policy.

Hamid even suggests that, as ugly as Iraq seemed to be, the scenes of Iraqis daring suicide terrorists bombs in order to vote played across the Arab world in a message so powerful no dictator could suppress it.  Compare that to the United States current weak policy:

Instead of challenging the authoritarian status quo, Obama reluctantly accepted it. In his historic Cairo University address of June 2009, he promised a “new beginning.” Instead, the Obama administration moved to rebuild relationships—frayed from Bush’s democracy posturing—with Egyptian President Mubarak and other autocrats.
President Obama got one thing right—the centrality of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict to Arab grievance—but he got another wrong: that conflict was not, nor had it ever been, the most important problem facing the region. But pursuing peace seemed a more promising course than trying to refashion American foreign policy into a force for something—Arab democracy—it had actively resisted the previous five decades. The U.S. needed, or thought it needed, the support of ‘moderate’ Arab regimes to push the peace process forward. What Obama did, albeit unwittingly, was remove the U. S. from its central place in the ongoing Arab conversation over democracy.
And this, surely to raise angry denials and rejection by the current administration and their fellow travellers:

America’s unwillingness to align itself with democratic forces was not, it seemed, a matter of one president over another, but a structural problem inherent in U.S. foreign policy.

The optimism over the [Obama] Cairo speech quickly subsided. Somehow, in several Arab countries, U.S. favorability ratings dropped lower under President Obama than they were in the final years of the George W. Bush administration.
Here is the reality that the "softly, softly" contingent misses, why Bush for all his supposed evils, made the US more favorable in the Arab world: because, despite some actions that appeared to be detrimental, his words and greater over all policy initiatives actually matched and coincided with the desires of the people.  So long as the United States advocates freedom and democracy and appears to take some actions in support of those policies and ideas, even when the US may take some action that is seems opposite that policy or causes some unrest (Iraq), it retains the moral high ground. 

The problem now is that this sense of "realpolitik" has infected both the left and the right side of the political sphere.  The right suggests that Obama was wrong to suggest Mubarek go while not speaking powerfully against Iranian aggression.  The left, at least the realpolitik left, believes that the status quo would have been preferable, but, when forced to finally set up and take notice, that the "aspirations of a people for self-governance" was an acceptable middle ground.  Ridiculously lame when, had Obama actually made freedom and democracy the call, would have sent a message to the would be illiberal forces in Egypt, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and various Salafis, that they are welcome to the democratic process, but the US would not tolerate a state that was expressly oppressive or Islamist.  Thereby giving the liberal forces in Egypt a boost and placing such forces of oppression on notice.  

The right sphere of US politics insists on "realpolitik" of supporting "friendly" dictators because it believes firmly that the only thing that will emerge from these nations are Islamists and rightly see them as foes of freedom.  The left side is suggesting that there is some form of moral equivalency between freedom and democracy and "the aspirations of a people for self-governance".  An idea that suggests we would be happy to deal with the next dictator du jour, regardless of their associations or ideologies.

These ideas may not be wrong as subordinate policies when all other options have failed or there is no reasonable suggestion of democratic and free forces in the foreseeable future of a nation, but they cannot form the central message nor core of the United States' foreign policy.  Even to our would be allies, we must have Freedom Forward as our obvious policy, not only in liberalized economics, but, wherever possible, political and social freedom.
The United States must at least say it loudly and clearly and when possible act on it.  As Hamid suggests, just because the United States has been tripping over it's own policies trying to figure out it's correct role, does not mean that it has no influence or cannot regain it:

Arabs kept on waiting for America to change its policy and divest itself of dictatorship. It never did. So they did. In doing so, they are forcing the U.S. to reconsider five decades of a failed, and failing, policy in the Middle East.
It would be a mistake, though, to conclude that international factors are now irrelevant. In the cases of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, international pressure, whether from governments or citizens moved by what they saw on television, played a critical role in undermining support for regimes that just months before were thought by many to be invulnerable.
There is power in the idea of freedom and there is even more power in the voice of freedom.  If the United States wants any really role in the region or anywhere else for that matter, it must stop pretending to the position of leader of the free world and start acting like it.

No comments: