Thursday, June 07, 2007

Beyond Bush: Restoring America's Global Role

This week's cover story at Newsweek is a provocative essay by Fareed Zakaria, "Beyond Bush: What the World Needs Is An Open, Confident America."

Zakaria's essays are always well informed, and sometimes pathbreaking. His 2001 article on the challenges of global Islamic fanaticism, "
Why Do They Hate Us?, was a widely-heralded essay on the political and religious origins of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In a more recent Newsweek essay, Zakaria made a compelling argument against the case for America's relative economic decline.

The current cover piece, however, is a deviation, in my opinion, from Zakaria's generally even-handed analyses. The article seems to mirror (more than illuminate) the current popular discontent with the Bush administration, particularly on the issue of Iraq. Zakaria argues for a "politics of fear," which is apparently a paralyzing public disposition inflamed by the administration's policy direction:
Today, by almost all objective measures, the United States sits on top of the world. But the atmosphere in Washington could not be more different from 1982 [during the Reagan years]. We have become a nation consumed by fear, worried about terrorists and rogue nations, Muslims and Mexicans, foreign companies and free trade, immigrants and international organizations. The strongest nation in the history of the world, we see ourselves besieged and overwhelmed. While the Bush administration has contributed mightily to this state of affairs, at this point it has reversed itself on many of its most egregious policies—from global warming to North Korea to Iraq.

In any event, it is time to stop bashing George W. Bush. We must begin to think about life after Bush—a cheering prospect for his foes, a dismaying one for his fans (however few there may be at the moment). In 19 months he will be a private citizen, giving speeches to insurance executives. America, however, will have to move on and restore its place in the world. To do this we must first tackle the consequences of our foreign policy of fear. Having spooked ourselves into believing that we have no option but to act fast, alone, unilaterally and pre-emptively, we have managed in six years to destroy decades of international good will, alienate allies, embolden enemies and yet solve few of the major international problems we face.

Zakaria's essay dwells on this "politics of fear" theme for some time. He indicates that the United States overreacted in response to the terrorist challenge, and he discusses the positions of some of the GOP's presidential candidates (Giuliani and Tancredo) to illustrate how Republicans are pandering to public anxieties on issues like terrorism and immigration. (Zakaria does point to some outlandish statements among candidates of the top tier [Romney's quoted as threatening to "take out" Mecca in response to a nuclear threat from Islamic radicals.]) Zakaria, though, in his earlier writings, spoke of a "dire security threat" facing not just the United States, but the entire world, and he argued that the use of military force would be a vital component of a multi-pronged approach to the "total destruction of al Qaeda."

The article is not vintage Zakaria, but read the whole thing, and you'll see my meaning. That said, toward the end of the piece Zakaria regains some of his normal lucidity. Here's what he says about Iraq and the future of America's deployment there:

In order to begin reorienting America's strategy abroad, any new U.S. administration must begin with Iraq. Until the United States is able to move beyond Iraq, it will not have the time, energy, political capital or resources to attempt anything else of any great significance. The first thing to admit is that our mission in Iraq has substantially failed. Whether it was doomed from the outset or turned into a fiasco because of the administration's arrogance and incompetence is a matter that historians can determine. The president's central argument in favor of the invasion of Iraq—once weapons of mass destruction were not found—was that it would be a model for the Arab world. In fact, the country has fallen apart. Two million people have fled; more than 2 million are internally displaced. Shiite extremists are in power in much of the country, imposing a thuggish and draconian version of theocratic rule. Normal life for nor-mal people—schools, universities, hospitals, factories and offices—is a shambles. If anything, Iraq has become a model in exactly the opposite sense from what Bush had hoped. It has become a living advertisement of the dangers of illiberal democracy.

Things could improve in Iraq over time. But that will take years, perhaps decades. It would be far better for us to reduce our exposure to the current civil war, draw down our forces, let Iraq's internal political forces play themselves out and restrict our troops to certain limited but core missions. We need to continue the battle against Qaeda-style extremists, maintain a presence to reassure and secure the Kurdish region, and continue to train and keep watch over the Iraqi Army. All this can be done with a substantially smaller force—about 50,000 troops, which is also a more sustainable level for the long haul.

Now, I don't agree with all of this quote. For example, I refuse to concede failure in Iraq, although I am troubled by our mismanagement and setbacks. Still, the argument that the U.S. should let internal forces proceed -- while American forces maintain a security backstop against the outbreak of extremism -- is reasonable and well-stated. Given the nature of public opinion on the war, the U.S. might not have a better alternative. The rest of the article, moreover, provides a thoughtful discussion for reversing some of the global animosity that has developed during the Bush years. Traditional diplomacy and greater efforts at multilateral cooperation, suggested by Zakaria in his conclusions, are already making a comeback under Bush. Plus, Zakaria points with optimism to the power of American openness toward the rest of the world, as well as the world's expectations of a welcoming United States.

In my view, America's global role after the Bush years will settle back to a less provocative forward stance, but the United States will remain the globe's indispensable nation. We'll need policy successes, along with more effective public relations, but the tough times (and bad blood) will not continue forever.

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