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It is easy - as Ted Galen Carpenter illustrates in Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America - to criticize US foreign policy. It is indeed a mess of incoherent and ill defined goals, expressing the confused thinking of the State Department bureaucracy and its associated foreign policy establishment.
Carpenter's criticism is part of a growing debate in the US among several schools advocating different approaches to foreign policy. As Carpenter, who is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, rightly claims, present policies lead the US to try to "dictate outcomes everywhere and on every issue," a mission impossible even for a great power. US foreign policy gets enmeshed in relatively marginal conflicts as in Serbia or Somalia. It focuses far too many energies and resources on a putative Middle East peace process - on what strategically is really a neighborhood brawl - while neglecting crucial challenges, such as the uncertain future of the Saudi regime and its vast oil resources, or the devastating impact a nuclear Iran will have on the availability and the price of oil, namely on Europe's and America's economic and political future.
Carpenter's solution, however, is not the reordering of priorities to better focus on such prime strategic threats, but the application of a simpleminded libertarian, isolationist foreign policy. He recommends that the US withdraw from crucial areas of conflict and cut its strength rather than use it more effectively. Dangerously, he ignores or belittles serious threats to America and to the world like the spread of a triumphalist Islamic fundamentalism, especially by Iran, and the effective use it makes of oil and terrorism as strategic weapons against the West. Carpenter also overlooks the challenge posed by Russian and Chinese collusion with US enemies, notably Iran, and other such major threats.
'TERRORISM IS a tactic," Carpenter avers, "not an identifiable adversarial threat." Considering the adroit strategic use Iran - a definitely "identifiable adversarial threat" - makes of its terrorist proxies, instigating threats and attacks that have jacked up the price of oil and helped it reap huge profits that it uses for nuclear armament and ever more dangerous terrorism, Carpenter's semantic evasions seem ludicrous.
He is apparently so blinded by his ideological blinkers that he even tries to make light of the consequences of the use by terrorists of a dirty bomb. Since al-Qaida "has no realistic hope of obtaining thousands of nukes..." he argues, "the scope of destruction [of one such dirty bomb], while terrible, would still not begin to rival the horrors of last century's bloodletting..." This pathetic bid to minimize the danger of terrorist dirty bomb attacks on US cities by creating a one to 10 scale of horrors and claiming that since such an attack could not match the horrors of World War II it should not be taken seriously is typical of his attempt to shoehorn reality into his shallow analyses and then draw from them "alternative" foreign policy directives. Carpenter repeatedly draws questionable policy conclusions from analogies between vastly different events, occurring in entirely different circumstances.
ALTHOUGH THIS book is published by the economically oriented Cato Institute, it does not even consider the huge economic consequences that Iranian control of oil flow and price (which a nuclear Iran could impose) will generate. Nor does it consider the devastating economic consequences - beside the tremendous loss of life - a mega terrorist attack on US cities might cause. Carpenter may be correct that terrorists might not be able to get "hundreds" of dirty bombs. But might they not be able to acquire four or five, or succeed in spreading a smallpox epidemic or in setting off toxic gases?
Would Carpenter still insist then that radical Islamic terrorism is "minor league"? Would he still claim that if not for neoconservative "panic mongers" (the real enemies of peace in his book because they, and their support for Israel, are responsible for "provoking" Islamic rage), Islamic Jihad would be no more than a "nuisance," similar to the anarchists of yore? Would he still argue that while the Islamic threat may be "a little more potent" than that, it is nevertheless a "manageable" one? Manageable? With possibly hundreds of thousands of casualties and immense destruction?
Generally, Carpenter indulges in ad hominem attacks on his adversaries. Instead of facing neoconservative arguments, he tries to discredit them by calling them "shrill," "hysterical," "inflated," etc., not exactly a technique conducive to serious discussion.
Carpenter's shallowness becomes even more evident when his principle foreign policy prescription is examined: "Encourage multiple centers of power," he admonishes, which ostensibly will provide the world with "security buffers" and protect it.
Carpenter does not spell out who will do the "encouraging" and "protecting," nor how. Should it be US diplomacy or the UN, institutions which have demonstrated their efficacy in stopping the slaughter in Darfur or in imposing sanctions on Saddam Hussein or on the Iranians?
Carpenter writes that "ideally" such centers should be "stable and democratic." This rules out China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. It leaves one "pole" besides US - Europe.
But as the prolonged agony around the formation and role of NATO and the growing power of Islam within Europe indicate, Europe can hardly be counted upon to defend itself, let alone provide an effective "security zone." Moreover, in the past, "mulitpolarity," Carpenter's panacea, resulted not in "balance" or security and peace but in two bloody world wars and perpetual strife between multipolar entities.
Smart power? One wonders.
The writer is director of The Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress.
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