Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Strength Is In The Results

In a recent post, I briefly discussed the phenomenon that Americans tend to view violence as a manifestation of strength. This of course is almost the opposite of what is true - violence is the act of a desperate, threatened and frightened being, believing that no other recourse exists. It is also one of the least effective means of achieving the desired outcome. Violence begets violence, a cycle of revenge, and a poisonous atmosphere not conducive to the resolution of conflicts. As an example, compare the approaches of leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King with the recently infirmed Yasser Arafat. It is hard to argue with the comparative results.

In foreign policy terms, this concept is translated into the belief that being "strong" on issues of national security means possessing a hawkish willingness to use the military over "weaker" diplomatic options. Again, this interpretation is misguided and exclusionary of the vast amount of evidence detailing the enormous successes of diplomacy. Despite all the public bluster and macho image, the "strongest" thing that Reagan ever did was agree to engage Mikhail Gorbachev in a paradigm shifting series of summits that culminated in the end of the Cold War.

Building on the success of this approach with the former Soviet Union, American foreign policy has made great strides with other erstwhile enemies like China, Vietnam and many of the nations of Easter Europe. By opening diplomatic ties, and establishing an economic and cultural exchange, we have helped to spur the democratic progress in countries that were previously entrenched in Communist totalitarianism.

Ironically, as I
have argued before, we have taken the obsolete belligerent posture with Cuba, and have thus strengthened the hand of the intractable Castro. Instead of weakening his control over thought and ideas through economic and cultural relations, we have consolidated his grip on power by cutting off the Cuban people from our sphere of influence. Our policy vis a vis Cuba has more to do with the desires of a single issue voting bloc in Florida than on the accepted wisdom of the strategy of engagement.

There are obviously scenarios that call for military action, but such situations are not laudable for the strength they afford the actors. Military might is an example of a breakdown in diplomacy, a failure of better means, and the loss of options. The dearth of viable alternatives is a weakness, not a strength, because wars almost always have unintended consequences that spiral out of the control of the primary actors. Lack of choice and lack of control are the realities, strength is the illusion.

Iraq is the perfect example of the limitations, risks and weakness of elective warfare. Far from securing our objectives through this display of strength, we have hindered our progress on almost every front. Instead of dealing a blow to al-Qaeda, we have improved their position, influence, recruitment, popularity and appeal. Instead of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East, we have undermined the reformers and moderates, while strengthening the hand of the fundamentalists and zealots. We ourselves have lost much respect and esteem.

Recent revelations about looting at nuclear facilities and weapons depots bring home the realization that dangerous materials that were under seal prior to the invasion, are now dispersed to unknown locations and could end up in the hands of terrorists in an unfortunate twist of irony.

Contrary to the claims by certain Bush supporters, our involvement in Iraq has not served as a deterrent or warning to other regimes - in fact it has exposed the limitations of our manpower, economic capacity, and ability to control and pacify a target country. Instead of retreating in fear, Iran is emboldened by the knowledge that we could never attack them at this juncture. In essence, we squandered the perception of our strength fostered by the lightning quick toppling of the Taliban accomplished through minimal ground presence and use of resources. Now we look like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians.

Finally, despite the claims by
certain right-leaning bloggers, Iraq did not help us regain "the geopolitical momentum," nor is a policy of shaking things up in as volatile a region as the Middle East a wise approach. War has a way of triggering events beyond what is intended, and attempting to stir the pot in such a manner is ill advised if not foolhardy.

Given this track record of over-eager hawkishness, it is understandable why
many are not as sanguine as Gregory Djerejian about the future makeup of a potential second term George Bush foreign policy apparatus. Middle East expert Ronald Bruce St John made the following observations of current Bush policy in terms of pursuing diplomatic solutions to problems:

The Bush administration does not appear to have learned any lessons from the Iraq imbroglio. The White House is now busy pursuing the same bellicose policies in Iran and Syria that led to the invasion of Iraq. While some commentators argue that the results of the Iraq War invalidate the preemptive strike strategy, this may prove to be more a reflection of wishful thinking than of Bush administration practice...

The Bush administration's current policy toward Iran, like its policy toward Syria, mixes condemnation, threat, and intimidation. The overall aim of the policy is isolation, not engagement.
As I pointed out above, the lessons of the past half a century lean strongly in favor of engagement over isolation, negotiation over brinksmanship. Communism is undermined by the exchange of commerce, ideas and ideology. Similarly, sensitive foreign policy aims should be pursued vigorously in such a manner, saving the more war-like tactics for the last resort.

The recent breakthrough signified by Libya's agreement to abandon its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction is the quintessential example of the success of the diplomatic approach of negotiation and engagement over military action. Under the pressure of sanctions, Libya has inched closer to the world community over the past 15 years, including, among other things, renouncing terrorism and accepting the role of its operatives in the Pan Am 103 bombing.

The prolonged negotiations which eventually led Libya in December 2003 to renounce unconventional weapons of its own "free will" offer a more productive model for dialogue with Iran and Syria than the "take no prisoner" approach being pursued by the Bush administration. Talks with Libya began in mid-1999 at a time when the United States was indicating it sought policy change but not regime change in Libya. In this initial stage, the involved parties agreed to tone down the rhetoric and begin a meaningful dialogue in pursuit of a step-by-step process.

These early negotiations with Libya were based from the outset on an explicit quid pro quo as Ambassador Martin Indyk, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State who opened talks with Libya in mid-1999, later indicated in a Washington Post op-ed article. The talks aimed at Libya satisfying all of its obligations under applicable UN resolutions and were predicated on two conditions: Libyan agreement both to keep the negotiations quiet and to cease lobbying to have the UN sanctions permanently lifted. The Clinton administration elected not to pursue the unconventional weapons question at this time because its priority remained resolution of the Pan Am flight 103 issue.

As the prolonged negotiations with Libya suggest, the United States needs to engage Iran and Syria on a broad range of interrelated issues, taking one step at a time. Narrow contact on the highly charged nuclear issue in the case of Iran or Syria's occupation of Lebanon, tied to the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights and Israel-Syria peace talks, is unlikely to work. On the contrary, Washington needs to engage Teheran on a basket of related issues, like Iranian fears of regime destabilization, a regional security architecture that includes Iran and its neighbors, and Iranian support for radical groups in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. In turn, U.S. talks with Syria need to expand to include border and water issues with Israel and support for militant Palestinian groups as well as alleged unconventional weapons programs, support in stabilizing Iraq, and ongoing cooperation in the war on terrorism.
But the Bush administration seems bent on using the rhetoric of isolation to support the stature of disengagement. Far from a change in strategy from the handling of Iraq, the Bush administration seems intent to travel the same path, as evidenced by statements made by senior officials as recently as two months ago.

In a Hudson Institute speech on August 17, 2004, Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security John R. Bolton said "Iran's actions and statements do not bode well for the success of a negotiated approach to dealing with this issue." He then quoted National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice who had remarked two weeks earlier on Fox News: "The Iranians have been trouble for a very long time. And it's one reason that this regime has to be isolated in its bad behavior, not quote-unquote 'engaged'." Not surprisingly, the Bush administration's approach sparked a strong reaction from Iran, prompting more bellicose rhetoric all around.[emphasis added]
As St John points out, the issues entangled with Iran and Syria are not insignificant, nor do they require light treatment. Military options might be required at a certain point in time, but only after an exhaustive attempt to explore other options. That effort is lacking.

This is not to suggest that many of the policies of both Iran and Syria are not cause for concern. Damascus needs to withdraw from Lebanon, cooperate in the stabilization of Iraq, support the war on terrorism, abandon alleged unconventional weapons programs, and cease its support for militant Palestinian groups. Syria should also be encouraged to pursue much needed domestic economic and political reforms.

Teheran needs to cooperate in the stabilization of Iraq, support the war on terrorism, and abandon any unconventional weapons programs. Most especially, any Iranian efforts to build a nuclear weapon must be stopped. Consequently, its recent announcement that it intends to process 37 metric tons of raw uranium into uranium hexafluoride is a special concern. Uranium hexafluoride, when spun in centrifuges, produces enriched uranium which can be used both to generate power and to make nuclear warheads. This issue of enrichment is a highly sensitive one for an international community seeking to determine if Iran is using its nuclear program for peaceful purposes, as Teheran insists, or building nuclear weapons, as the United States maintains.

There is general agreement on the need for policy change in Damascus and Teheran. The contentious issue is how best to encourage and foster the desired change. Reminiscent of the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration has been strong on rhetoric but absent a comprehensive, coherent plan to shape future events in either Iran or Syria. The United States has also failed, once again, to secure the full coordination and support of interested allies, like France, Germany, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union.
Just like the invasion of Iraq itself, our current policy posture with respect to Iran and Syria is having the opposite effect of what is intended. Far from bringing these two nations closer to meeting our demands, we are increasing the resistance. This is not an encouraging sign in light of the many assurances these days that the Bush team has realized the error of their ways and are on the verge of a major transformation in worldview.

The Bush administration seems intent on polishing its macho image in the final weeks before the November presidential elections. Occasional reports of a lack of policy consensus within the administration on either Iran or Syria, which might suggest future room for engagement, lack credible foundation. White House policies toward both Iran and Syria, reflecting a failure to learn from the Iraqi experience, remain closely tied to Israeli interests in the region, specifically its policy of not allowing any Middle East neighbor to challenge its nuclear monopoly.

Where a process of engagement with Tripoli led to its renouncing unconventional weapons and rejoining the international community with no loss of life, Washington's belligerent policy of isolation is provoking the opposite reaction in Damascus and Teheran. Both states have hunkered down under the verbal onslaught from the White House and shown little inclination or ability to cooperate on Washington's terms. Unfortunately, if such pre-election antics prove a reliable guide, meaningful dialogue with either Damascus or Teheran would also appear unlikely in a second Bush administration. That brings us to the frightening prospect of a return to the Bush Doctrine and its preemptive strike strategy if President Bush is reelected.

Strength truly lies in the results of one's policies, not their tendency to include violence and warfare. This is one lesson that the Bush team does not seem to get.

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