Saturday, August 14, 2004

Election 2004 (Issue #4- Foreign Policy: America’s Role In The World continued)

Differing perspectives of America’s role in the world are central to this presidential election and to the decades ahead as we continue the struggle against Islamic-sponsored terrorism.

For those who believe that our long-term interests are best served by forcefully removing tyrannical regimes in the Middle East and spreading democracy, Bush’s decision to invade Iraq appears decisive and appropriate. His vision for transforming the region is radical, and he was willing to pursue his agenda with little help from the international community since he believed so strongly that it was the right thing to do. It is important to note, however, that Bush’s heartfelt belief in the wisdom of spreading democracy by force didn’t exist prior to 9/11. Bush campaigned on a largely isolationist platform and promised not to engage in “nation-building.” The events on September 11th may not have changed everything, but they had a profound effect on the President, radically altering his worldview (a Kerry supporter might point to this as one of America’s greatest “flip-flops”).

From his “Axis of Evil” speech to his invasion of Iraq, Bush has adamantly portrayed America as a beacon of democracy and freedom in contrast to the evil regimes of Iran, North Korean, and (formerly) Iraq. Bush has recently stated that even though we have not found WMD in Iraq, the invasion was fully justified because America is bringing democracy and hope to the heart of the Middle East, in place of one of the world’s most ruthless dictators.

Even those who agree with Bush’s foreign policy must recognize that it is extremely risky and dangerous, and that the way it has been carried out leaves much to be desired. The planning for the aftermath of the military operation in Iraq has turned out to be vastly insufficient, despite many early warnings from military experts, and this has resulted in more U.S. casualties, higher financial costs, and greatly hampered the reconstruction efforts. The security situation in Iraq is still dire, with no end in sight to the weekly bombings and uprisings. Many have commented that the planning was based on overly optimistic projections of the Iraqi response to the overthrow of Saddam and over-confidence in the effectiveness of large-scale military power. In addition, after almost three years since our invasion of Afghanistan the country is highly unstable and the Taliban are making a comeback (aided, no doubt, by the removal of significant U.S. troops to fight the war in Iraq).

Although Bush is often praised for his extreme confidence, this has come with a price. From the unconscionably lax rules on the treatment of prisoners, which resulted in the horrific Abu Ghraib prison scandal, to the no-bid contracts in Iraq that have showered billions on Haliburton and other major Republican donors (who are currently being investigated for corruption by the Pentagon), to the development of small-scale “tactical” nuclear weapons, one gets the sense that the Bush Administration knows no bounds. The Administration appears too eager to claim victory (e.g. the “Mission Accomplished” banner in May 2003) and to engage in posturing tough talk (e.g. “Bring ‘em on”) in circumstances when the American people would be better served by a reminder that we are in for a long struggle against a pernicious and adaptable enemy.

If 20 years from now Iraq and Afghanistan are both thriving democratic states with strong ties to the U.S., Bush’s foreign policy vision may fare remarkably well in the history books. If instead, these states enter periods of extended strife or civil war, and become even greater breeding grounds for terrorists, Bush’s policies will be considered colossal failures. Foreign policy is often a game of judgment, patience, and perseverance and it is too early to tell whether Bush’s bold gambles will ultimately make the world more peaceful and stable.

Just as no one can honestly question the sincerity of Bush convictions, John Kerry is undoubtedly a great believer in the goodness of America. After leading an extremely privileged life, he volunteered to fight in the jungles of Vietnam because he wanted to serve his country. What he saw was an unjust war being fought with unjust means, and upon his return, he became one of the war’s most vocal and eloquent critics. Some have tried to portray him as a traitor for this stance, but it takes extreme courage to criticize something you once believed in and spilled blood for. Kerry’s criticisms of American power continued through his Senate career, as he was one of the most outspoken senators against the illegal operations in Central America in the 1980’s. With Kerry, we get a man who is willing to sacrifice for his country, but who also is not afraid to challenge it if he believes its actions are wrong.

Some believe Kerry would be too hesitant to use American military force. They point out that Kerry opposed the first Iraq war, much of the core Democratic constituency has been opposed to the second, and that Kerry’s own military service has made him skittish to send men into the horrors of battle. In many of his campaign speeches Kerry has, in fact, adopted a more isolationist stance, saying that as president he would not fight wars of choice and that he favors stability over the promotion of democracy in the Middle East (eerily reminiscent of the Realpolitik of the 1970’s-1990’s). The main question is whether in the current context this is a liability. If Kerry were to win the Presidency he would inherit the two major military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have already over-stretched the American military and will require many more years of serious commitment. There simply will not be the opportunity to engage in future military operations of any significant size in the coming years, and Kerry has made it clear that he will see the current operations through to their successful completion. In addition, there is nothing to suggest that Kerry would hesitate to use American military power to strike terrorists if the threat were imminent.

In summary, with Bush we get a man with complete faith in American goodness, who has proven he will not hesitate to use American military force to further democracy when he believes it’s in America’s best interests. His confidence, however, has been excessive and has led to many instances of poor policy execution and serious mistakes that have cost lives, wasted billions of dollars, and compromised our moral authority.

We have no presidential record with which to judge Kerry, but it fair to assume that he would be more cautious than Bush, given his experiences with the abuses of American power. It is fair to ask whether his isolationist leanings would be a liability to U.S. security in the current foreign policy environment, just as it is fair to ask whether Bush’s radical vision for transforming the Middle East presents too great a risk and has included too many lapses of judgment in this complex and dangerous world.

J.S.

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