Will the Next President Be Any Better?

by , November 04, 2008

U.S. voters will elect a new president on Tuesday who will at least not be George W. Bush. Whether he will be wise enough to adjust to emerging realities in the world at large is another question. Despite its importance – do you think the financial crisis would have emerged so soon (though it was bound to come, one supposes) without the waste of treasure and blood in Iraq? – foreign policy has not loomed as large in the campaign as most observers once thought it would. But it will certainly be important.

Neither Barack Obama nor (especially) John McCain seems prepared to entertain the notion that now would be a good time to reconsider the empire of military bases, ill-defined interests, and commercial ventures by the politically connected that the U.S. has put together over the last century of war and expansion. But while a wholesale revamping of policy along lines I might prefer seems unlikely, there may be a certain amount of pulling back and a recognition that America’s "unilateral moment" has passed and things must change.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has been supervising agency analyses of the security challenges the U.S. will face in the next two decades and giving speeches highlighting some of the preliminary findings. News accounts have generally been burying the lead, as we say in the business, seldom touching on the most important aspects of what he has been saying until toward the end of the stories, fixating on the predictions that the next couple of years will be unstable and see increased terrorist attacks.

Potentially much more important is the forecast of declining U.S. dominance in decades to come. As the Washington Post story put it, "Intelligence analysts see China, India, and perhaps Russia ascending to new positions of power, a shift being driven by a massive transfer of wealth and manufacturing capability from the West to Eastern countries, particularly China."

"’China is posed to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country, he [McConnell] said. ‘China will also start becoming a major military power by 2025 [and] will likely be the world’s largest importer of natural resources and the largest contributor to pollution.’"

If U.S. dominance is slated to decline anyway, due not only to the foolishness of the Bush administration in getting us tied down in Iraq but to larger trends over which the U.S. has little or no control (a severe recession in the U.S. could reduce Chinese exports for a while and delay its emergence as a true economic superpower, but a president’s influence even there is indirect and comes with a long lead time), why not start disengaging gracefully and purposely?

Why not announce that the U.S. has learned important lessons from decades of trying to influence and dictate outcomes in the rest of the world and will henceforth focus on military defense only of its territory and the rest of North America from actual invasion? This would not mean disengagement at the level of economic, cultural, or even ordinary political relations, but simply a recognition that trying to run the world through military force hasn’t worked out so well and tramples on the dignity of people who ought to have the freedom to work out their own destinies, for good or ill.

The Bush administration’s recent cross-border attack in Syria, a country with which the U.S. is not at war and which U.S. officials have actually praised recently for trying to stop foreign fighters infiltrating into Iraq, is revealing. While the attack may not quite mean the end of international law, as some have feared (not that international law was all that real or lawful anyway), it represents a yet more aggressive stage in the misnamed "War on Terror." To the self-designated indispensable nation, the sovereignty of others is optional, to be violated whenever the "sole superpower" decides it needs or wants to do so. Such arrogance has long been implied, but the Bush administration has made it explicit and clearly wants to plant it so deeply that a McCain or Obama administration will have little choice but to continue to live by the Bush rules.

Of course, at a certain level one can understand a rationale for the U.S. Special Forces raid on a farm four or five miles inside Syria. The U.S. says (or at least anonymous officials say) that an al-Qaeda leader in charge of smuggling fighters, money, and weapons into Iraq was at the farm near the village of Abu Kamal, and the Syrian government has not been effective in stamping out this smuggling activity, which leads to Iraqis and U.S. soldiers being killed. So you conduct a swift cross-border raid with helicopters and several dozen Special Forces personnel, kill or capture the bad guy, and disrupt the smuggling operation, perhaps for weeks or months.

This raid is similar to the kinds of cross-border raids conducted from Afghanistan into the tribal regions of Pakistan, where al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters are said to be holed up and where they prepare raids into Afghanistan. At least 18 raids by drones carrying missiles have been conducted in Pakistani territory, as well as one that involved boots on the ground that may or may not have encountered resistance from the Pakistani army.

A secret executive order issued in July is said to have authorized such raids at the discretion of local commanders; previously they presumably had to be authorized by the president himself.

While one can see a rationale for such "hot pursuit" raids, they raise troubling questions. The Pakistani raids have not only increased anti-American sentiment among ordinary Pakistanis, they have also prompted angry denunciations from the Pakistani government, without whose cooperation any chance of neutralizing insurgents in Pakistani territory is virtually impossible.

After the Syrian raid, not only the Syrian government but the nascent Iraqi government, with which the U.S. is trying to negotiate a status of forces agreement to go into effect when the current UN authorization for U.S. troops to be in the country expires at the end of the year, protested the use of Iraqi territory to launch an attack on one of its neighbors.

In addition, as Richard Falk, a visiting professor at the Chapman University School of Law told me, such cross-border raids run a severe risk of "feeding an extremist mentality in the countries affected, and doing more harm than good" in the effort to weaken al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Then there’s the larger question of whether the Bush administration, as its time in office winds down, is purposely pursuing aggressive policies that run the risk of disrupting an international system based on the principle that countries are sovereign within their own borders. Setting a precedent that sovereignty can be violated at will if the U.S. suspects a given country is not being effective enough at certain tasks could be even more destabilizing to the world at large than the Iraq war has been to the Middle East.

Pardon me if I hold my applause.

Barack Obama, who appears poised to win the presidential election, might start the process of distinguishing himself from the Bush years by rescinding the July executive order on cross-border military incursions. Of course, he has explicitly endorsed the idea when it comes to the possibility of nailing Osama bin Laden if reliable intelligence pinpoints him in Pakistan. One may hope, however, that once Obama faces the changing nature of the world in office rather than on the campaign trail, he will think more realistically.

But then great power seldom induces a sober sense of reality in those who hold it.

Read more by Alan Bock