U.S. Foreign Policy is Hostage to Bush Idealism

At a recent talk on his new book “America at the Crossroads”, Professor Francis Fukuyama, the well-known and thoughtful apostate of the neocons, noted, in apparent praise, that the idealistic, democracy espousing component of U.S. foreign policy has existed for as long as the American Republic, and counted our current President, as well as Presidents Clinton and Woodrow Wilson, as proponents.  In contrast, he suggested that the more pragmatic, European-based, balance-of-power foreign policy, implemented by former President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger, was an aberration and should be avoided. 

Although I view President Bush as a strong leader and a man of excellent values, an overemphasis on idealism in his conduct of foreign policy has led to actions that are not in the best interests of the United States.  Numerous examples come to mind including his forceful push for democracy in the Middle East, use of black and white vocabulary to describe foes, failure to rely on regional allies, such as South Korea, to resolve regional difficulties, and reliance on form over substance in handling the recent visit of China President Hu Jintao to the United States.  

To say that the world is a very complex place is a cliché, but not to recognize this fact when conducting foreign policy can be toxic. What may seem crystal clear on the local level, though even here ambiguity is often under appreciated, becomes kaleidoscopic on the international plane.  For most Americans, the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was an accident; but for many Chinese it was definitely intentional.  For most Americans, the abuses committed by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison were aberrations; but for many Arabs, they were business as usual.  All one needs to do is live abroad for a short period of time, and one will quickly notice how differently events are viewed and treated.   

Although I believe President Bush’s push for democracy in the Middle East is well intended, many in the region view it as a new crusade and an attack on Muslim values and culture.  Furthermore, to date, the most notable democratic advances generally have been detrimental to United States interests.  Leaving aside the complexities of  Iraq, two telling examples are the Palestinians overwhelmingly voting for Hamas this past March, in what most observers viewed as a very fair election, and the Iranians voting in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President in 2005.  Although the Bush administration did not directly cause these problematical results, the strident tone of Bush’s democracy-promotion policy makes it very difficult to deal with them without appearing hypocritical.  Quickly cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority after the Hamas election victory and continuing to criticize Iran as being undemocratic when Iranians could have chosen someone other than Ahmadinejad, have only exacerbated this problem.   Moreover, if truly democratic elections were held in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it is quite possible that fundamentalist, anti-American governments would be elected, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

A related problem is President Bush’s tendency to publicly describe countries and their leaders in black and white terms, as reflected most clearly in his “axis of evil” formulation.  The good-and-evil view of the world that this phrase articulates has made it next to impossible for the United States to credibly negotiate with the “evil” countries on nuclear weapons proliferation issues that are critical to U.S. national interests.  After attacking Iraq, one of the 3 axis countries, how could we ever get North Korea and Iran to give up their nuclear weapons programs (I assume Iran is attempting to develop a nuclear bomb) in the face of their not unsoundly held conclusions that they’re next on the list.   

With regard to North Korea, President Bush’s unilateral, hard-line, approach also contrasts markedly with the softer, more conciliatory, policy that South Korea, our long term regional ally, has taken in recent years.  Few would disagree that the South Koreans have the most extensive, in-your-face, knowledge of their brothers to the North of any country on the planet, including China and Japan.  Thus it puzzles me why South Korea’s no longer viewing North Korea as the threat they once were, even with its nuclear weapons and occasional bellicose posturing, doesn’t have more resonance with the White House.  Perhaps, White House rigidity on North Korea, to the point where we discount the advice of our most informed ally, is based on Bush’s conviction that he cannot make concessions to a regime or leader he views as evil.  Nevertheless, this idealized policy may have provoked North Korea to increase its nuclear arsenal, decreased the possibility of peaceful regime change in that country, and contributed to deteriorating relations with South Korea.  Moreover, it also may be causing the United States to put unrealistic pressure on China and Russia, and particularly China, to carry our water on the issue. 

The recent visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington also illustrates how pragmatism has been sacrificed to idealized principle in President Bush’s foreign policy. At this point in time, China has one of the world’s fastest growing economies, is the United States’ largest-growing export market, and is crucial to the United States for resolving any number of sensitive bilateral and multilateral issues.  Furthermore, over the past 25 years China’s communist system has substantially changed and its human rights record, though not ideal, has improved considerably. What the United States most wanted from the Bush-Hu summit was China’s cooperation in resolving important U.S.-China trade issues, such as intellectual property theft; and, the equally, if not more, important Iran and North Korea nuclear weapons threats. 

Given this background, I would have expected that the White House would have gone out of its way to ensure maximum opportunity for obtaining Chinese cooperation in these areas.  Nevertheless, despite China’s clearly preferring that President Hu be given the pomp and circumstance of a state visit, including a state dinner, this preference from a nation that has long placed extraordinary value on protocol and face-saving arrangements, the White House decided not to accommodate China on this issue of form.  Although it is hard to speculate what effect this had on the summit talks, not giving the Chinese a goody or two in the relatively unimportant realm of protocol seems short-cited and may well have made it more difficult for Hu to provide deliverables in areas of greatest importance to the United States.  

Believing that we have the best political and economic system in the world is fine and also bracing, and may even be true.  Nonetheless, it is not in our national interest to prescribe it as a one-note Johnny for other countries and civilizations who have been around for a long time and have different thoughts about how to run their societies.  Barring clearly hostile threats to the United States, as was Al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and currently Al-Qaida anywhere, we should act with more caution in dealing with peoples we don’t fully understand, and rely, to a greater extent, on allies with superior knowledge.  One reason for the generally successful foreign policy of President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger—rapprochement with China and the SALT Treaty with the former USSR being 2 manifest examples—is that it was based primarily on the way the world is rather than an idealized version of it.  A strong dose of Nixon/Kissinger realism is exactly what the United States needs.

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