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Can American leadership be restored?

COMMENTARY | July 27, 2007

An iconoclastic former ambassador writes that our undefined, seemingly endless 'war on terror' needs to be reassessed from top to bottom.

By Chas Freeman

(Adapted from a speech to the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs)

When our descendants look back on the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of this one, they will be puzzled. The end of the Cold War relieved Americans of almost all international anxieties. It left us free to use our unparalleled economic power, military might, and cultural appeal to craft a world to our liking. We did not rise to the occasion. Still, almost the whole world stood with us after 9/11.

There is still no rival to our power, but almost no one abroad now wants to follow our lead and our ability to shape events has been greatly – perhaps irreparably – enfeebled. In less than a decade, we have managed to discredit our capacity to enlist others in defending our interests and to forfeit our moral authority as the natural leader of the global community.

Historians will surely wonder: how did this happen? How our global leadership collapsed is, of course, a question our politicians now evade as politically incorrect.

We are engaged in a war, a global war on terror; a long war, we are told. It is somehow more dangerous than the Cold War was, we are warned. But it is a war whose origins it is taboo to examine. To many now in power in Washington and in much of the country, it is perilously unpatriotic to ask why we were struck on 9/11 or who we're fighting or whether attempting forcibly to pacify various parts of the realm of Islam will reduce the number of our enemies or increase them.

And this is a war whose proponents assert that it must – and will – continue without end. If we accept their premises, they are right. How can a war with no defined ends beyond the avoidance of retreat ever reach a convenient stopping point? How can we win a war with an enemy so ill-understood that we must invent a nonexistent ideology of "Islamofascism" for it? And how can a war with no clear objectives ever accomplish its mission and end?

The answer is that no matter how many Afghans and Arabs we kill or lock up in Guantánamo it can't and it won't. The sooner we admit this and get on with the task of reducing the war to manageable proportions, the less we will compound the damage to ourselves, our allies, our friends, and the prospects for our peaceful coexistence with the fifth of the human race that practices Islam. The sooner we decide and explain what this war is about, the fewer our enemies and the more numerous our allies will be. The sooner we define achievable objectives, the greater our hope of achieving them. The sooner we stop rummaging blindly in the hornets' nests of the Middle East, the less likely we'll be stung worse than we have been.

The pain of admitting failure will be all the greater because this disaster was completely bipartisan. Both parties colluded in catastrophically misguided policies of militarism and jingoistic xenophobia. We succumbed to panic and unreasoning dread. We got carried away with our military prowess. Our press embedded itself with the troops and jumped into bed with our government. We invaded countries that existed only in our imaginations and then were shocked by their failure to conform to our preconceptions. We asked our military to do things soldiers can do only poorly, if at all. Our representatives pawned our essential freedoms to our Commander-in-Chief in exchange for implied promises that he would reduce the risks to our security by means that he later declined to disclose or explain.

Not many among us voiced public objections. Those who did found the press too busy demonstrating its patriotism to publicize dissenting views. The issues were, as always, too complex for television.

Perhaps that's why we decided to try out a made-for-TV approach to international negotiation in which our leaders demonstrate their resolve by refusing to allow our diplomats to talk to bad guys until they come out with their hands up. When that approach produces the predictable impasse, we fall back on the "shoot first, let God worry about what happens next" neocon school of war planning. In the mess that ensues, our primary concern is rightly to support our troops. But supporting the troops is a domestic political imperative, not a strategy, and it doesn't tell our military what it is being asked to achieve. As force protection becomes our major preoccupation, we find we must pacify the countries we occupy so that we can continue to station troops in them to fight the terrorists our occupation is creating.

Rather than consider the possibility that the witless application to foreign societies of military pressure, no matter how immense and irresistible it may be, is more likely to generate resistance than to make states of them, we prefer to blame the inhabitants of these societies for their ingratitude and internal divisions. So we threaten to withdraw our political and economic support from them, while piling on more American troops. Asked when our soldiers may be able to declare their mission accomplished and to leave Iraq and Afghanistan, our Commander-in-Chief replies that this is a policy question that the generals in the field should decide, and that he's not going to decide for them. Think about that for a minute. Since when are generals responsible for making policy decisions? They are conditioned to focus on implementing policy and to avoid making it. Whatever happened to civilian control of the military or "the buck stops here?" Why should our military be left to hold the bag in this way?

The Consequences of Belligerent Unilateralism

The world now fears our savagery but has lost confidence in our fair-mindedness, judgment, and competence. What are the consequences of this and how can we overcome them?

A common concern about the belligerent unilateralism of the world's greatest military power is driving lesser powers to look for political and economic support from countries who are distant, unthreatening, or unlikely to back American agendas. So, for example, Venezuela, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and key Africans are courting China; Europe is flirting with Asia; and all are seeking the affections of the oil and gas producers of the Middle East as well as of Russia and India. In most countries, politicians now see public spats with the United States as the easiest way to rally their people and enhance their prestige. The result is the progressive displacement of our previously indispensable influence and leadership in more and more areas of the world.

Sagging demand for our leadership may be a good thing to the extent it relieves us of the burdens of our much-proclaimed status as the sole remaining superpower. But we're clearly bothered by being seen as less relevant. Our answer to this seems to be to build an even more powerful military. Some of you will recall newspaper reports that our defense spending is only about 3.6 percent of GDP, reflecting a defense budget of only – I emphasize – only $499.4 billion. But a lot of defense-related spending is outside the Defense Department's budget. This fiscal year we will actually spend at least $934.9 billion (or about 6.8 percent of our GDP) on our military. Outside DoD, the Department of Energy will spend $16.6 billion on nuclear weapons. The State Department will disburse $25.3 billion in foreign military assistance. We will spend $69.1 billion on defense-related homeland security programs and $69.8 billion for treatment of wounded veterans. The Treasury will spend $38.5 billion on unfunded military retirements. We will pay $206.7 billion in interest on war debt. Other bits and pieces, including satellite launches, will add another $8.5 billion. Altogether, I repeat, that's about $935 billion. But there's no sign that all this military spending – though it is vastly more than the rest of the world combined – and the power projection capabilities it buys are regaining international leadership for us.

The New Global Landscape

Our post Cold War global hegemony is being undermined not by a peer competitor but by a combination of our own neocon-induced ineptitude and the emergence of countries with substantial power and influence in their own regions. These regional powers distrust our purposes, fear our militarism, and reject our leadership. Distrust drives them to reaffirm the principles of international law we have now abandoned. Fear drives them to pursue the development or acquisition of weapons with which to deter the policies of preemptive attack and forcible regime change we now espouse. (If the weak think the powerful consider themselves above the law, the only protection for the vulnerable is to arm themselves. So scofflaw behavior in the name of halting or reversing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction actually promotes it.)

All this is creating a world of regional balances in which we play a lessened role, some of these regional balances – as in South Asia today and the Middle East of the future – involving dangerous nuclear standoffs between two or more middle-ranking powers.


Rediscovering How to Be a Team Player

To regain both credibility and international respect, we Americans must, of course, restore the vigor of our constitutional democracy and its respect for civil liberties. But that in itself will be far from enough. The willingness of others to follow us in the past did not derive from our ability to intimidate or coerce them. Instead, we inspired the world with our vision and our example. Now, we know what we're against. But what are we for? Whatever happened to American optimism and idealism? To be able to lead the world again we must once again exemplify aspirations for a higher standard of freedom and justice at home and abroad. We cannot compel – but must persuade – others to work with us. And to lead a team, we must rediscover how to be a team player.

Start by Making Peace Between Israelis and Arabs

We face perplexing choices in every region of the world. But the policies that have brought discredit upon us center on one region – the Middle East. To restore our reputation we must correct these policies. And the problem of terrorism that now bedevils us has its origins in one region – the Middle East. To end this terrorism we must address the issues in the region that give rise to it.

Principal among these is the brutal oppression of the Palestinians by an Israeli occupation that is about to mark its fortieth anniversary and shows no sign of ending. Arab identification with Palestinian suffering, once variable in its intensity, is now total. American identification with Israeli policy has also become total. Those in the region and beyond it who detest Israeli behavior, which is to say almost everyone, now naturally extend their loathing to Americans. This has had the effect of universalizing anti-Americanism, legitimizing radical Islamism, and gaining Iran a foothold among Sunni as well as Shiite Arabs. For its part, Israel no longer even pretends to seek peace with the Palestinians; it strives instead to pacify them. Palestinian retaliation against this policy is as likely to be directed against Israel's American backers as against Israel itself. Under the circumstances, such retaliation – whatever form it takes – will have the support or at least the sympathy of most people in the region and many outside it. This makes the long-term escalation of terrorism against the United States a certainty, not a matter of conjecture.

The Palestine problem cannot be solved by the use of force; it requires much more than the diplomacy-free foreign policy we have practiced since 9/11. Israel is not only not managing this problem; it is severely aggravating it. Denial born of political correctness will not cure this fact. Israel has shown – not surprisingly – that, if we offer nothing but unquestioning support and political protection for whatever it does, it will feel no incentive to pay attention to either our interests or our advice. Hamas is showing that if we offer it nothing but unreasoning hostility and condemnation, it will only stiffen its position and seek allies among our enemies. In both cases, we forfeit our influence for no gain.

There will be no negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, no peace, and no reconciliation between them – and there will be no reduction in anti-American terrorism – until we have the courage to act on our interests. These are not the same as those of any party in the region, including Israel, and we must talk with all parties, whatever we think of them or their means of struggle. Refusal to reason with those whose actions threaten injury to oneself, one's friends, and one's interests is foolish, feckless, and self-defeating. That is why we it is past time for an active and honest discussion with both Israel and the government Palestinians have elected, which – in an irony that escapes few abroad – is the only democratically elected government in the Arab world.

But to restore our reputation in the region and the world, given all that has happened, and to eliminate terrorism against Americans, it is no longer enough just to go through the motions of trying to make peace between Israelis and Arabs. We must succeed in actually doing so. Nothing should be a more urgent task for American diplomacy.

Saudi Pockets
Posted by Doug Dobney -
08/26/2007, 05:04 PM

I have read a number of times that ex-Saudi ambassadors are in the Saudi's pocket. Should we take this post with a grain of salt?

Watchdogs, meet a gadfly
Chas Freeman raises questions that otherwise might never get answered -- or even asked -- because they're too embarrassing, awkward, or difficult.

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