Time for a Really New Foreign Policy

The US needs to close the gap between rhetoric and reality.

| Tue Jan. 3, 2006 4:00 AM EST

In the wake of the third Iraqi vote in less than a year, President Bush is once again arguing that the country's US-sponsored political process epitomizes a new, democratic focus in American foreign policy towards the Muslim world. While persuasive, his argument is only two thirds correct. Without the missing third, the "complete victory" the President has defined as his desired outcome to America's involvement in Iraq, and indeed in the larger war on terror, will remain elusive.

It is true that the rhetoric and tactics surrounding US foreign policy have changed dramatically in the four years since September 11. Yet at the much more important substantive level it remains grounded in the Cold War paradigm that supported -- and often necessitated -- the violence, authoritarianism and corruption that helped foster today's terrorist menace. The most honest and straightforward expression of this paradigm was given in a 1948 State Department memorandum by Director of Planning George F. Kennan: "We have fifty percent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population. Our real task in the coming period is to...maintain this position of disparity."

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The policies advocated by Kennan reflected the United States' adoption of the strategic imperatives upon which decades (in some cases, more than a century) of European imperialism in the Muslim world were founded. The peripheralization of much of the region they reflected was cemented during the Cold War; today this condition is exacerbated by a set of policies, tellingly labeled the "Washington Consensus," that have further marginalized the majority of Muslims from the world economy. As for the Middle East's emerging globalized elite, their integration into the global ecumene is being paid for by increasing poverty, inequality and cultural violence across their societies.

In this context, President Bush's December 18 speech to the nation celebrating the Iraqi elections betrayed both a disquieting ignorance of the history, time line and impact of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Perhaps more troubling, it reflected a weak grasp of the complex roots of the violence that has defined his presidency.

Specifically, the President argued that since September 11 occurred before the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq America bears no responsibility for the conditions that fomented the war on terrorism. Such a view is not just historically wrong -- it assumes that the US was not deeply involved in the Muslim world before 2001 -- it contradicts the President's own oft-cited admission that "sixty years of excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East" helped create an environment that has nurtured the current generation of terrorists.

Yet such an ahistorical perspective is crucial to the President's argument that terrorists emerge out of a deep and seemingly irrational (if admittedly minority) tendency within Islam to view the world as a "giant battlefield," upon which, in the President's account, radical Muslims are trying to "de-moralize free nations... to drive us out of the Middle East, to spread an empire of fear across that region and to wage a perpetual war against America and our friends."

But it was the United States, not al-Qa'eda, that pioneered the tendency to view the whole world as a battlefield. And not just during the Cold War that was commencing when Kennan wrote his memo. This view equally defines the last decade's push towards "full spectrum dominance" over all of the United States' potential competitors. Indeed, in a 1992 ur-text of Bush administration policy-making, then Pentagon strategist (and today US Ambassador to Iraq) Zalmay Khalizad advised Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to define the United States' primary post-Cold War foreign policy objective as preventing any "return to a bipolar or multipolar system."

Why? Because by this period US planners well understood that globalization was increasing poverty, inequality and even anarchy across the developing world (the "coming anarchy" had begun to trouble strategic planners like former Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz at the same moment). As George Kennan would have agreed, in such an environment the United States and the West more broadly could maintain its way of life only by maintaining the global disparities that made it possible.

American policy makers are not the only ones familiar with this equation. Muslims also have long understood what a post-Cold War system characterized by unfettered American power would mean for their societies. That is why it is not just terrorists who, in the President's words, want to "drive us out of the Middle East." Rather, most Muslims (and this includes most Iraqis) do not want an American military presence in the region, nor do they want to see American companies and culture become dominant forces in their societies -- precisely because they understand that US power and policies make it harder, not easier, to create societies modeled on America's highest ideals.

President Bush would no doubt counter this belief by arguing that his focus on democratizing the Middle East constitutes an unprecedented shift in US policy towards the region. But our continued political, economic and military support for a host of repressive governments from central Africa to central Asia belies this claim.

In Iraq, where disconnect between the reality and rhetoric of American policy has been especially great, this dynamic led two elderly academics (one of whose son was "mistakenly" killed by American soldiers) to sit me down, quote Jefferson and Franklin, and then ask me, "If these are your ideals, what are you doing here?" Such sentiments are regularly expressed by friends in the Muslim world, and can be summed up by one exasperated colleague's question: "Why doesn't the United States walk the talk of freedom and democracy?"

A new year and a new Iraqi government offers the United States a fresh opportunity to do just that. But first we must decide: Is our foreign policy going to continue to be characterized by lofty rhetoric that is rarely matched by substantive support for peace, democracy and sustainable development; or is the US finally going to live up to its highest ideals? How Americans answer this question this year will have a far greater impact on the war on terror than events in Iraq.

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