Much of the world has greeted the transfer of power from President George W. Bush to President Barack Obama with sighs of relief if not shouts of joy. Although President Bush won a few friends in a few countries – his administration aided India and Israel and kept good relations with China, for instance – most people in most countries were happy to see him go. Despite his administration’s late turn toward diplomacy, President Bush was seen as too militaristic, unilateral, and arrogant in his approach to the rest of the world.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have voiced their intention to follow a very different strategy. Diplomacy is back in vogue, with Secretary Clinton planning to rely on "smart power." No longer will the message from Washington be: "You’re either with us or we’ll bomb you." A new age has dawned, when international relations, if not the planet, have begun to heal.
Unfortunately, while the personnel have changed in Washington, the policies have not. The U.S. is still determined to micro-manage affairs around the globe. It just plans on ordering people about more nicely.
Dramatically illustrating the new administration’s plan to adjust means, not ends, is the appointment of special envoys for Afghanistan/Pakistan and the Middle East. Richard Holbrooke, slated for the former, is a talented diplomat – who had hoped to be secretary of state in a Hillary Clinton administration. George Mitchell, covering the even more troubled Mideast, made the switch from politician to envoy in helping to midwife the peace settlement in Northern Ireland.
But their skills will be wasted unless Washington adjusts its policies. The problem in Afghanistan is that the U.S. and its allies are attempting to build a centralized state where none has ever existed. The Bush administration quickly achieved its goal of defenestrating the Taliban regime but was too enamored of starting another war in Iraq to consolidate its gains. There appears to be no military solution today, yet President Barack is preparing to send 30,000 more troops to this "graveyard of empires."
Pakistan has suffered from too much U.S. attention for too long. Throughout the Cold War Washington underwrote and armed whatever regime, civilian or military, was in power in Islamabad. To weaken the Soviet Union, Washington funneled aid to the Afghan resistance through Pakistan – which supported the most extreme Islamist factions. Corrupt democracy alternated with repressive autocracy with no obvious impact on U.S. policy.
Even when democracy reemerged last year, Washington was unwilling to give up on President Pervez Musharraf, a dead man walking politically, loathed by most everyone except his own family. Even as he was being eased out the U.S. government lectured the Pakistani people about his virtues. His successor faces multiple crises, made worse by continuing U.S. strikes in Pakistani border territories. Even when American missiles hit their targets, they kill innocent as well as al-Qaeda, further stoking hatred of the U.S. and the impotent U.S.-supported regime in Islamabad.
So just what is Richard Holbrooke supposed to do? Invite everyone to circle a fire in the wilds of northwest Pakistan and sing "Kumbaya"?
The Middle East is even worse. For 40 years the U.S. government has backed Israel and a toxic mix of Arab dictatorships, irrespective of circumstances. The Palestinian people have suffered through Israeli occupation, Arab indifference, brutal misgovernment, material poverty, and constant conflict. Despite occasional professions of humanitarian concern for the plight of people living without political rights and economic opportunity, Washington steadfastly backed Israel as it colonized the West Bank and inflicted needless death and hardship on the peoples of Lebanon and the occupied territories, most recently in Gaza. Highlighting who holds the leash, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently claimed to need just one phone call to President Bush to force Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to abandon the United Nations Security Council resolution on Gaza that she helped author.
So what is George Mitchell supposed to do? Invite everyone to a church retreat to share their feelings?
Naturally, the usual journalists and analysts in Washington are focused on the usual inside baseball. To whom will the emissaries report? Will they escape Secretary Clinton’s control? And who is the first person that Holbrooke, known to be anything but the demure personality many people associate with diplomacy, will offend?
The Bush administration’s confrontational mien obviously undercut administration policy. But the greatest flaw of the Bush era was substantive, not procedural. George W. Bush apparently believed that the U.S. could dictate to the rest of the world, transforming distant countries and disparate peoples into America’s image. This extraordinary hubris would have guaranteed failure even had the administration not adopted ignorance and incompetence as its handmaidens.
Unfortunately, in few important areas does the Obama administration different significantly from its predecessor. Some troops may come home more quickly from Iraq. Diplomatic dialogue may open with Iran and Syria. The embargo against Cuba might be moderated. Sweet nothings likely will be whispered in the ears of European leaders.
But military exertions in Afghanistan will increase. Economic relations with China may become more contentious. Battles over trade may intensify.
In short, America’s foreign policy remains deeply flawed. No amount of improved diplomacy will make a difference: the Obama administration is attempting to put lipstick on a pig, to coin a phrase that the president knows well.
The end of the Bush administration is an undoubted plus for America and the rest of the world. But without a change in policy, the benefit is likely to be more atmospheric than substantive.
It is time for a serious debate over foreign policy. Should the U.S. continue to act as the globe’s dominatrix, irrespective of cost and risk? Should Washington continue to sacrifice domestic prosperity, liberty, and security in order to impose its will around the world?
So long as the Obama administration answers yes to these questions, the world is going to look about the same as the last eight years. Which means that the tragic results will be the same as well.