What next? US foreign policy after Bush

Michael Lind
12 February 2007

This is a grave moment in the history of the United States and the world. The president has acknowledged that we are not winning the war in Iraq, even though he insists that we are not losing it either. If the war in Iraq were the only problem confronting the country, the situation would be grave enough. To begin with, there are the tangible costs - over 3,100 American soldiers dead, more than 25,000 casualties, and a financial price-tag which might ultimately reach $1 trillion. The "surge" or escalation ordered by George W Bush, over the objections of many military leaders, the majority in Congress and most of the US public, is likely only to cost more lives and money without producing the desired outcome.

And then there are the intangible costs. America's moral reputation has been hurt by the revelations of torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq and the world. The popularity of the US, not only in the Arab and Muslim worlds but around the globe, has been severely damaged. And perhaps most important from the standpoint of national security, the credibility of American military power has been gravely damaged by the fact that the conventional forces of the only global superpower can be thwarted by insurgents.

Beyond Iraq's borders, the middle east is in turmoil. America's ally Israel was defeated in July-August 2006 in what was, in effect, a proxy war waged by Iran and Syria via Hizbollah in Lebanon. The prospects for settlement of the Palestinian problem have been set back, by internal strife among the Palestinians, the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements and the Bush administration's abandonment of America's policy as honest broker. (The viability of the power-sharing accord between the Hamas and Fatah factions - announced in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on 8 February - remains to be seen.) And when we look beyond the borders of the middle east, we find other troubling trends, from the increasing assertiveness of the authoritarian and lawless regime of Vladimir Putin in Russia to low-key but real competition with China on both the military and diplomatic fronts.

Michael Lind is senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington. Among his many books are (with Ted Halstead) The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics (Random House, 2001), Made In Texas: George W. Bush And The Southern Takeover Of American Politics (Basic Books, 2003), and The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life (Oxford University Press, 2006)

Also in openDemocracy on US foreign policy after Iraq:

Stephen Howe, "American Empire: the history and future of an idea" (12 June 2003)

Anatol Lieven, "America right or wrong"
(8 September 2004)

Anatol Lieven, "Bush's choice: messianism or pragmatism?"
(22 February 2005)

John J Mearsheimer, "Hans Morgenthau and the Iraq war: realism versus neo-conservatism"
(19 May 2005)

Ivan Krastev, "The end of the 'freedom century'" (27 April 2006)

John C Hulsman, "Beyond the neocons: ethical realism and America's future"
(21 September 2006)

Godfrey Hodgson, "The US in Iraq: stay the course, pay the price" (12 January 2007)

Iraq: three views, three policy choices

One reason that the debate over Iraq is so frustrating is that different sides cannot agree on what the problem is, and how the war in Iraq is related to the rest of American strategy -- if it is related at all.

I would suggest that there are three interpretations of the war, each with its own implications for the policy that Washington should pursue. The first interpretation holds that the war is a purely local problem which can be solved within Iraq itself. The second holds that the war cannot be resolved without a broader regional settlement that includes the countries around and near Iraq, along with the US. The third is that neither a local nor a regional solution can succeed in Iraq without adequate diplomacy at the global level.

In recent weeks we have witnessed the debate between the Iraq-only and regional approaches to the conflict. The Iraq-only approach is identified with the Bush administration and its supporters on the American right, as well as some Democrats and opponents of the war. Those who hold this interpretation disagree about the best course to pursue: the partition of Iraq, power-sharing negotiations among the warring factions, an alliance of the US with the Shi‘a and Kurds to crush the Sunnis, or the present policy of using American forces to attempt to vindicate the feeble authority of the Iraqi government. The one thing they do agree on is that Iraq's neighbours can or should play little role in the resolution of the conflict.

The Iraq Study Group, headed by former secretary of state James A Baker and former congressman Lee W Hamilton, introduced the regional interpretation into American public discourse with the launch o its report on 6 December 2006. The basic idea is that the conflict needs to be addressed on two tracks: a political solution within Iraq, as well as negotiations among Iraq's neighbours, which must agree to support rather than subvert a new Iraqi order. As part of that effort, the Baker-Hamilton commission specifically called for US negotiations with Iran and Syria.

There is a third approach, which has received little attention until now, but which needs to be considered: just as an Iraqi settlement cannot succeed without a regional one, so a regional settlement cannot succeed without a global one. A regional settlement would require cooperation with Iran. But at the very moment that the Iraq Study Group and others are proposing to enlist Iran's aid, the US is trying to mobilise the United Nations Security Council in favour of strong sanctions against Iran for its pursuit of nuclear energy and possible nuclear weapons.

My colleague at the New America Foundation, Flynt Leverett, has been right to point out that piecemeal negotiation with Iran is unlikely to succeed. The US is unlikely to gain Iran's cooperation in Iraq while it pursues a hardline policy against Iran's nuclear programme. I wish to make a somewhat different point: that Iran's incentive to take part in a regional settlement involving Iraq and other issues will be limited to the extent that Iran's government is confident that it can play the world's great military and economic powers against one another.

Global, regional, national

Already China and Russia are seeking to weaken possible sanctions designed to punish Iran for its pursuit of nuclear energy. The two countries are unlikely to intervene militarily to protect Iran against direct attack or subversion by the US or Israel. However, China and Russia can use their vetoes in the UN Security Council to weaken or prevent actions against Iran.

America's bargaining position with Iran, the most recalcitrant and dangerous state in the middle east, will be strongest if China and Russia cooperate with us and, conversely, will be much weaker if Tehran can play Beijing and Moscow against us. According to this interpretation, then, it is not enough to use diplomacy to address the regional context of the Iraq war; we must use diplomacy shrewdly to address the global context of the regional context of the war.

This sounds very complicated, and perhaps I can clarify it by means of an analogy from another conflict, the Vietnam war. The administrations of John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson pursued the war in a way that could be compared to the way in which the Bush administration has pursued the Iraq war - as a problem within the borders of North and South Vietnam that could be resolved by a combination of military force and political reform. Richard Nixon and his chief foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, took another approach. They sought to enlarge the definition of the problem to include both the region and the world.

The strategy that Nixon and Kissinger adopted was intended to defeat the North Vietnamese at the regional and global level, by persuading China and the Soviet Union to cut off support for the government in Hanoi. While the US made concessions to China and the Soviet Union, it failed to persuade either power to cut off support for North Vietnam, which conquered South Vietnam after the US abandoned Saigon. And the Soviets interpreted détente as proof of US weakness and increased their military build-up and support for anti-American regimes and insurgencies around the world.

I offer the Nixon-Kissinger approach not as a model of success, but as an example of how American policymakers in the past have tried to deal with wars by trying to change the variables at the regional and global level.

Another analogy might be helpful. Some of you may recall three-dimensional chess. As I understand it, the point of the game was not simply to play three unrelated chess games on three boards stacked one above the other. It was to play a single game on three levels, with moves on one level affecting moves on the other two.

We can restate the debate about Iraq in terms of this metaphor. One school, which seems to include the US president, thinks we are playing three different and unrelated games on three different levels - that the Iraqi game will be won or lost on the Iraqi game board, and what happens on the regional and the global boards is not terribly relevant.

The regional school, associated with the Iraq Study Group report, thinks we have to play simultaneously on two levels - the Iraq board and the regional middle-east board. Finally, the global school believes we are unlikely to succeed on the Iraq board or the middle-east board unless we also make the right moves on the global game board.

To put it another way: the first school argues that the road to peace in Baghdad leads through Baghdad; the second contends that the road leads in part through Tehran and Damascus, as well as other regional capitals; and the third says it leads in part through Beijing, Moscow and other global capitals, as well as through Tehran and Damascus and other regional capitals.

When it comes to policy in the greater middle east, it is far from clear that Iran would be willing to cooperate in a regional settlement, or that China and Russia would prefer to act as US partners rather than as opportunistic spoilers. Even our allies have interests that sometimes clash with ours and lead them to oppose us.

Iran is both a revolutionary regime and a revisionist state. Russia and China are no longer revolutionary states, but they are moderate revisionist states which seek to increase or restore their influence in their own regions and in the wider world. And, as Nixon's Vietnam strategy showed, sometimes the US can reach out to other powers in an attempt to enlist their aid and find its efforts rebuffed - because those powers would like the see the US fail.

A missed opportunity

So it is not my intention to promote a "blame America first" theory of recent history, attributing the problems we face solely on missed opportunities by the US. Still, I think the US has missed an opportunity in the last decade and a half to integrate China and Russia into a new post-cold war international system. We are now paying the price for that failure in the form of a lack of cooperation by China and Russia in our policies toward, among other things, the middle east.

In my recent book The American Way of Strategy, I criticise US policy since the end of the cold war. In essence, I argue that when the cold war ended, the US had a chance to revisit its policy of dual containment, which meant the direct containment of Russia and China and the indirect containment of Japan and Germany, which were demilitarised American protectorates.

The goal of American intervention in the two world wars, according to presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D Roosevelt, among others, had been to replace a dangerous global balance-of-power system with a "concert" of power, in which the great powers collaborated to preserve international peace.

When the cold war ended, however, the concert-of-power strategy was hardly discussed. Centrist liberals as well as conservatives, over-impressed by American military power, sincerely believed that the US could and should be the world's policeman indefinitely. In this vision, shared in different ways by the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W Bush, there was no room for the two most powerful states of Europe (Germany and Russia) or the two most powerful states of Asia (Japan and China), except as American satellites. Germany and Japan would continue to be economic but not military great powers, dependent on the US for protection.

And under both Clinton and Bush, Russia and China were frozen out of the US-centred international system. Clinton expanded the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) to the very borders of Russia and refused to let Russia join the club. The European Union also admitted east-central European states, such as Poland, while shutting Russia out. The Bush administration declared that China was a "strategic competitor", and its neo-conservative allies talked of a US-Japan-India alliance against China, even though China had not fought another country since its 1979 war with Vietnam.

The way that the US froze out Russia and China following the cold war contrasts with the way West Germany was welcomed - in the decade following the second world war - into Nato and the European economic bodies that would became the EU. Our behaviour toward Russia resembles the harsh treatment meted out to Germany after the first world war, not the generous and enlightened response to West Germany decades later.

And we have claimed that China is aggressive because it wants to increase its influence in its own region. But China is an east Asian power. The US is merely a borth American power with interests in east Asia. America's military hegemony in east Asia was a temporary result of the second world war and the cold war, and our attempt to make it permanent inevitably will create a conflict with a rising China that the US is unlikely to win.

Already we are suffering the effects of a backlash by China and Russia. The two countries have combined with central Asian states to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) - in effect an anti-American military exercise. The SCO has pressured central Asian countries to expel US troops and has engaged in joint military exercises that were clearly meant to send a signal to the US.

Within the UN Security Council, China and Russia repeatedly act as spoilers when the US and its allies try to apply pressure to states such as Iran and North Korea. And China has alarmed many in Washington by its willingness to deal with anti-American regimes, particularly those with oil, which China's rapidly modernising economy needs in abundance.

What is the alternative? It is, as I argue in The American Way of Strategy, to abandon our ill-conceived post-cold-war policy of unilateral world domination. The world is, or soon will be, fully multipolar, thanks to the rise of China and other power centres, including India and the EU.

We have a choice between competitive multipolarity (in the form of endless arms races and balance-of-power struggles among the US, China and other great powers) and cooperative multipolarity (in the form of a concert uniting the US, China, Japan, India, Russia and the major European powers). A concert-of-power strategy need not depend on the Security Council. Nor need there be a single global great-power concert. There can be regional concerts, in which the US participates along with local great powers.

In my opinion, the next US president should move quickly to create such regional concerts, thereby ending the exclusion of China and Russia from security institutions in which the US takes part. The six-power talks about North Korea could be converted into a permanent northeast Asian concert-of-power uniting the US and Japan with China and Russia.

There also needs to be a pan-European security concert in which Russia and the US take part. This could take the form either of Nato with full Russian membership, or the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). At present the OSCE exists chiefly on paper. But unlike Nato, it includes Russia and all of the post-Soviet republics, so is a genuine pan-European security organisation.

While I think that the US should abandon the hegemony strategy for a more enlightened concert-of-power one, I do not think that the leadership in either US political party is likely to do so in the near future. Many liberal Democrats, as well as Republicans, are committed to the idea that the US has both the power and the obligation to police the world without consulting the other great powers - although it may sometimes need to get them on board to provide cover for what are essentially unilateral US policies.

Three predictions

I will conclude, therefore, with my predictions about what the US will do in the next few years, rather than what it ought to do:

Prediction One: At the local level, the Bush administration will not pull US troops out of Iraq in any significant numbers. Instead, it will hand the problem over to the next president. And the next president will be politically unable to pull out quickly, for fear that American conservatives will denounce him or her as giving up when we were about to win. It follows that the president who follows Bush, whether a Republican or a Democrat, will need to make some show of force in Iraq, to prove that he or she is not weak, before pulling out most or all American troops.

If I am right, then, we will be fighting in Iraq until 2010 or 2011 or even beyond. Remember, Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 to get us out of Vietnam, and we were not out until 1975.

Prediction Two: At the regional level, neither this administration nor its successor will engage in meaningful dialogue with Iran. By threatening the destruction of Israel, hosting a Holocaust-denial conference, providing Hizbollah with rockets to rain down on Israel and alarming its regional neighbours, Iran has reinforced its status as a pariah state.

It is difficult to imagine any US president, of either party, engaging with Iran as long as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the face that the Tehran regime presents to the world. Iran could be pressured to moderate its behavior, but this would require a united front by the great powers beyond the middle east, including China and Russia.

Prediction Three: On the global level, in the next two years and beyond, relations between the US, China and Russia probably will continue to deteriorate. In the American press, and in the rhetoric of neo-conservatives and some liberals, China is being portrayed as a giant rogue state, out to lead a global axis of oil-rich dictatorships including Iran, Russia and Venezuela against the US. This is nonsense, of course. (The US has good relations with autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.)

But this simple-minded vision provides the American right with a storyline in which we will be fighting the third world war or the fourth world war against an axis of evil that unites China and Russia at the global level with Iran and its clients (such as Hizbollah) in the middle east. Because of our failure in Iraq, America's hawks will be looking for new enemies, and they may well find them in an imagined axis of China, Russia and Iran. Their case will be strengthened if, as seems likely, China and Russia continue to use their diplomatic influence to weaken international efforts to pressure Iran.

It would be pleasant to predict that peace in Iraq, the middle east and the world soon will be at hand. I am afraid, however, that the near-term prognosis is for more conflict at all three levels of world politics. Many of these conflicts would exist, no matter what the US does; some of them are caused, or exacerbated, by unwise US policies. Whatever their origins, the conflicts that will continue through the end of the Bush presidency into the term of his successor will challenge America to respond with creative and bold statesmanship. Let us hope that the response in the near future is better than that of the recent past.

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