Where the US went wrong

Published in January 2006 in The Dawn

THE Bush foreign policy has provoked intense debate both at home and abroad. Within the US, one is stunned by the inconclusiveness of the debate; it is strained and confused. It is obvious that the fractious debate is reflective of the testing times the country is facing internally and abroad in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world. But scarred by the 9/11 trauma, inspired by a religious outlook and driven by the supreme consciousness of power, the American response tends to simplify or distort emerging challenges.

The fact is that although the United States may have become the sole superpower, globalization and the end of the Cold War have also led to a certain devolution of power, thus raising the status of other powers with competing interests and policies. This makes it difficult for the US to lead, tempting her to dominate and so provoking reaction and resistance. There is a tragic paradox in America.s condition; being the only superpower encourages the temptation to use power yet constrains the prospects of success as never before. American power, therefore, is not absolute. And, on many issues, the United States is walking alone.

It was alright in the days when the US was a dominant power, at least in half of the world. Now it may command the whole world but its power and influence are no longer incontestable. Also, coalitions or partnerships these days are not as rigid as during the Cold War era. They are based on narrow or limited interests, are transient and unstable, and ever more susceptible to the vagaries of public opinion in each country. America has to thus learn to lead not through domination but consensus and compromise. And that is the central dilemma it faces: how to navigate the transition from hegemony to domination and to leadership. Its recourse to unilateralism could well be an escape from this dilemma.

That said there is broad agreement in the United States that terrorism poses a grave threat to national security. In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, Americans genuinely feel that they are unsafe and vulnerable especially when the threat could conceivably be from weapons of mass destruction. On that there is no difference of opinion in the US, nor is there any dissent regarding the desirability of a demonstrable projection of power in response to 9/11. Any other American leader would have reacted equally strongly. When it comes to the core issue of national security, the rights and wrongs of the response are hard to disentangle.

Where did Bush go wrong? A major part of the problem has been the Iraq war. The Bush administration has been a matrix of multiple political strands . ideologues, evangelists, neo-cons, Cold Warriors, special interests, holdovers from the Reagan and Bush Senior era, with strong and long-standing ties to big business, specially oil, and career lobbyists for Israel. Many of them had been mighty men of power once. They had been waiting to regain ascendancy, and could not resist the opportunity offered by September 11 to overreach themselves.

Their varying agendas merged and found a good focus in a president with a simple world view and a combative and quixotic disposition. Drawing their support from an ideologically committed and politically activist minority in the country they have prospered in America.s fear and pain and have come to dominate the foreign policy discourse, thus hampering the emergence of a policy based on a strategic calculation of America.s broader national interests.

Doctrines such as that of preemptive strikes are basically .political oratory.. America has struck preemptively in the past and will do so in future; so it was not a novel idea after all. It is just that America attacked the wrong country for the wrong reasons and at a wrong time, and badly entangled the war on terrorism with the WMD issue and the so-called democracy initiative.

This created a huge backlash in the Islamic world at an emotionally charged time after 9/11 when both Islam and the West felt they were under siege. It simultaneously unleashed so much anti-American and pro-Islamist feelings that the United States ended up intensifying rather than weakening the radical forces and tilting the balance of power in favour of the Islamists.

Anti-Americanism has complicated not only the war on terrorism but also Bush.s so-called democracy initiative. There is a lot of talk in Washington about freedom and democracy, but the fact is that in large measure it is driven by the need to redefine the Iraq invasion for the sake of history and to sustain domestic consensus for the war effort.

This talk may also be meant to give a moral veneer to the hard-line approach the Bush administration has adopted towards authoritarian regimes that threaten US interests or its friends in the Middle East. Indeed, democracy may be a codeword for a change of regimes perceived as unfriendly. The real test of American commitment to a democratic Middle East will come when the US has to move against undemocratic but friendly regimes.

Even if Iraq does get on the road to democracy its example will not be relevant to other countries. Muslims do not take American intentions to democratize the Middle East seriously, even though the American public, specially the academic community, does. I guess the public has great faith in the American idealism. Muslims, however, feel that the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were not about democracy. They were about removing certain perceived threats to the United States and to global security, and in the process, to set up client states in a region of immense strategic and economic importance to the US.

It is a different matter that the US has ended up with unintended consequences in Iraq and is now making the most of a bad bargain on which it is putting on a brave new face of democracy promotion. Ironically, democracy may now be the only avenue open for the Iraqis to seek an end to the American occupation and for Shia activists to empower themselves, something the Americans may not have bargained for. Whatever the case, democracy in Iraq has a unique context not to be extrapolated to the region. The only relevance that the Iraq example holds is that this may not be the best way to bring democracy to the Islamic world.

In any case, the Islamic world does not need an example to inspire it towards democratic ambitions. These ambitions have been flickering for decades. If anything, the Iraq war and the war on terrorism have come to militate against the advancement of democracy. On the one hand, they have raised the profile of the Islamists, and on the other, strengthened the forces resistant to change since state power is needed to act against extremism and the ruling elites in Muslim countries may have found another rationale to legitimize their power.

US foreign policy has traditionally rested on two planks: a measure of idealism wrapped in soaring rhetoric and a missionary sense of exceptionalism, and cold-blooded power politics. The US always claimed to have primarily acted in the name of principles and values but often the facts have spoken against this stance. Yet America was either given the benefit of the doubt or there were overriding factors to put up with its dominant behaviour as it maintained some semblance of balance of power and international order and stability, and played an admirable role in the two World Wars. There has also been at times a humanitarian complement to the pursuit of its geopolitical interests.

But the world has changed. As America chooses to affirm some treaties and UN resolutions and reject others, attacks some countries but tolerates others, enforces non-proliferation in some places and not in others, kills innocent citizens in Afghanistan and Iraq and treats prisoners inhumanely, the legitimacy and morality of its conduct is coming under serious challenges. This fuels anti-Americanism particularly in developing countries many of which do not feel as critically dependent on the US as before and have alternative choices of allies among other big powers.

Their populations are becoming assertive and are expressing their resistance to their pro-West elite and their pseudo liberalism, which has made little material difference to their lives, through nationalism and anti-Americanism. The Islamic world is doing so in the idiom of religion and Latin America through its flirtation with the Left.

Nonetheless not everything in the US foreign policy is exceptionable. Relations with China, Russia, Japan and India are anchored in good strategic calculations. The fundamentals of its alliance with Europe remain viable and enduring . it is not the alliance but the concept of American leadership which is in trouble. Yet the US anticipates growing difference of approach if not interests with the increasingly assertive .Old Europe. in the future as it grows out of a relationship of dependency on the US. That is why America is trying to strengthen its ties with the New Europe which will remain dependent on it. The same concept of dependency is being tried with India in assisting it to achieve its big power ambitions especially where China.s strategic shadow looms large. Pakistan will remain important for some time, but for different reasons.

Do we see hints of .imperialism. in the US foreign policy today? No, America has not embarked on an imperialist venture in this day and age. Yet America commands an immense array of diplomatic, economic and political assets and its power will continue to play a decisive role in international affairs, but for its own good and that of the world America will have to learn to use its power differently.

The current policy is not sustainable. Major domestic crises seem to be gestating at home . deficit, social security, health care, energy, political corruption, the state of education, jobs, outsourcing and other challenges of globalization. There is no lasting place for an expansive foreign policy in future national priorities. Indeed, the next election may change more than a president.

Perhaps the Iraq experience is the best thing that has happened to America. A success there would have set America on an even more dangerous course.