Interesting Times: A synthesis to win

The next US president can bring an end to Western helplessness.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
IThough somewhat eclipsed by an economic slowdown, foreign policy is still a major political football in the upcoming US election. Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain will portray his Democratic rival, particularly the emphasis on dialogue with rogue regimes, as naive. Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will claim that the Bush foreign policy was a disaster, and that they can do better. The truth is that both critiques are right. The deeper truth is that the past two decades of American foreign policy - including the senior George Bush's term, eight years of Bill Clinton, and eight years of George Bush the son - all failed to fundamentally grasp the imperatives of the post-Cold War era. The core of the problem is this: Democrats take international law and institutions seriously, but not international threats; Republicans take global threats seriously, but not the institutions that have been created to deal with them. Today's world demands an integrated approach. To be fair, the Republican approach is considerable closer to the target. The Democratic failure to take fundamental threats to the international order seriously is ultimately a failure to take the ideals represented by international institutions seriously as well. WHEN DEMOCRATS scoff at the idea of promoting democracy, when they are happy to "engage" the worst dictators and ignore their human rights records, when they fail to be repelled as much by militant Islamism as they were by apartheid and other assaults on democratic values, they reveal their faith in multilateralism and the United Nations to be excuses for doing nothing. But the post-Cold War Republican approach has failed as well. It has oscillated between "realists" such as the senior Bush, who subscribed to pre-9/11 notions of "stability," to the current Bush, who knew how to take on tyrants militarily but fumbled when it came to consolidating victories and confronting rogues by non-military means. The charge that Bush is a unilateralist "cowboy" is not accurate. He did seek UN Security Council authorization for the invasion of Iraq, and the US did lead a coalition of nations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It's not fair to pretend that support from Great Britain doesn't count while support from France does. The failure, however, is at a more fundamental level. Democrats have largely been defenders of the UN, while Republicans have been willing to go around it; but neither has attempted to confront and transform the international system into something that aids, rather than impedes, the struggle for freedom, security and human rights. The task of transforming the international system must be taken on, even if it does not succeed for many years. There is no greater illustration of this need than the rising threat from Iran, and the stumbling international response to it. To most, the failure regarding Iran relates to its quest to become a nuclear power. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg. The even more fundamental error was to continue to allow rogue states to support terrorism with impunity. WHAT NEEDS to be remembered is that the UN was born after the most devastating bloodletting in history with a straightforward mission: to be a vehicle for peace-loving nations to take collective action against international aggressors. Unlike its predecessor, the League of Nations, the UN Charter had teeth, and soberly laid out escalating tools - from trade and diplomatic embargoes to military action - to maintain international order. We tend to forget this because the Soviet Union quickly turned the charter into a dead letter. During the Cold War, the fox had a veto in the hen house. But when, over two decades ago, the Soviets evaporated from the scene, the West did not proceed with a belated crackdown on terror-supporting regimes. The 9/11 attacks should have made such a crackdown an obvious imperative. Even then, however, the US chose to demand UN support for American-led action rather than demand that the UN take simultaneous and comprehensive action against all terror-supporting states. Though the UN Charter was written with old-fashioned invasions in mind, there can be no doubt that state support for terrorism constitutes a raw and brutal form of international aggression. Accordingly, it is impossible to speak of a "war against terrorism" when the UN Security Council still does not treat support for terrorism as a sanctionable offense. The sanctions that were imposed on Libya for terrorism were the exception that proves the rule; Iran's and Syria's open support for Hamas and Hizbullah continues with complete impunity. BUSH KNEW from the beginning that the Iranian regime, unlike those in Afghanistan or Iraq, could not be dealt with by an invasion. Yet he devised no coherent alternative designed to force Teheran to back down. He allowed his State Department to pursue a lowest-common-denominator policy designed around what Europe would agree to, not what had a chance of working. European, not to mention Russian or Chinese, myopia is no excuse. A major part of the job description of being leader of the free world is to have the inclination and ability to persuade free nations to join the US in collective self-defense, and others to at least not stand in the way. The Iranian debacle derives from the US leaving itself with only two options: military action or doing nothing. Creating the option of meaningful non-military action requires a Democratic-style commitment to diplomacy combined with a non-"realist," Republican-style determination to win, not just "deter" or "contain." Bush's foreign policy has been discredited, while the Democrats have not offered a substitute that can be taken seriously. McCain needs to show how he would do things differently from his predecessor, while Obama and Clinton need something that Americans will feel addresses the rising threat from totalitarian Islamism. Accordingly, the next president should hit the ground running with two goals, one immediate and the other longer-term. The immediate goal should be to convince Europe to end the 1 percent of its trade that is with Iran, which is 40% of Iran's trade with the world. The wider goal should be to ensure that any nation that supports terrorism is punished by UN Security Council sanctions. Together, these goals require a new foreign policy synthesis that infuses diplomacy with muscle in order to achieve concrete objectives. The West has no shortage of economic, diplomatic and military power. Yet the refusal to deploy these tools in an integrated way has rendered the West impotent in the face of a highly vulnerable, third-rate power. A post-Bush foreign policy - championed by either a Democrat or Republican - can transcend standard categories and end Western helplessness. [email protected]

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11