A crucial test of new theories
By Morton Kondracke
Ukiah Daily Journal
A fascinating theoretical debate is under way on the future of American foreign policy, but the urgent practical question is: What should we do about Iran's nuclear program?
The theoreticians want to find an alternative to President Bush's first-term foreign policy -- variously dubbed "neo-conservatism," "conservative unilateralis," or "democratic globalism" -- while Bush's second-term team seems to be defining an alternative by putting multilateral pressure on Iran.
Even though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is pursuing a diplomatic track to stop Iran from going nuclear, Bush's liberal critics are demanding an even more generous (or "realistic") stance: A U.S. offer of direct negotiations and a possible "grand bargain" including security guarantees. Right-wingers, for their part, advocate preparations for military strikes.
I come down thinking that Bush ought do it all vis-a-vis Iran: Unleash the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to explore openings with Iran for a grand deal, while also keeping up the diplomatic drive for stiff economic sanctions and preparing to bomb (or let Israel bomb) if nothing else works.
The theoretical foreign policy debate was kicked off by columnist Charles Krauthammer in February 2004, in the last year of Bush's first term, in a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute in which he advocated "democratic realism" as an alternative to Bush's "democratic globalism" -- specifically, promotion of democracy everywhere, but the use of American military force only where vital U.S. interests are at stake.
Krauthammer, usually considered a "neo-conservative," supported the Iraq war, advocates perseverance there now and favors economic sanctions against Iran as a first resort. He favors bombing as a last resort, though, inasmuch as Iran is ruled by an Islamic fanatic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is seemingly bent on destroying Israel and, perhaps, bringing on an apocalypse.
This year has produced a small avalanche of theoretical tracts, of which I've read three: Francis Fukuyama's "America at the Crossroads," the Progressive Policy Institute's "With All Our Might" and "The Good Fight" by New Republic Editor-at-Large Peter Beinart.
Fukuyama and Krauthammer agree on next to nothing except a listing of the traditional schools of American foreign policy thinking: "isolationism" (now represented by the likes of Pat Buchanan), "realism" (the view of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former President George H.W. Bush), "liberal internationalism" (the outlook of most Democrats) and "neo-conservativism" or "democratic globalism" (the first-term Bush policy).
Isolationists argue that the United States should stay clear of foreign entanglements as much as possible. Realists favor intervention to secure U.S. interests, but not to do "social work." Liberal internationalists, heirs to President Woodrow Wilson, advocate working through multilateral institutions to secure peace and foster development.
In his book, Fukuyama declares that Bush's Iraq misadventure has discredited neo-conservatism, which he defines as a preference for force over diplomacy, a belief in American cultural superiority, unilateralist "arrogance" and advocacy of pre-emptive war.
He concludes that an alternative is necessary, and he calls it "realistic Wilsonianism," emphasizing reliance less on military force and more on instruments of "soft power," such as diplomacy, alliance-building, democracy promotion, economic aid and trade. This, he says, would rebuild American legitimacy, something that he doubts can be done without a change of administrations.
Much the same case is made by Beinart and by the editor of the PPI book, Will Marshall, both of whom also are doing battle with the Michael Moore/MoveOn.org/Howard Dean left-wing of the Democratic Party, which wants to pull out of Iraq quickly and almost never wants to use force to protect America's interests.
Both Beinart and Marshall want Democrats to return to the "Cold War liberalism" or "muscular progressivism" pursued by presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy.
It's a sad commentary on the polarized state of American politics that the New Democrats' tract, even though it opposes hasty withdrawal from Iraq, is suffused with venom against Bush, giving him little credit for trying to advance democracy in the Middle East or for distinguishing jihadist Muslims from the moderate masses.
In fact, there's lots of evidence that Bush and Rice have changed policy in the president's second term. The Wall Street Journal, in fact, coined a label for Rice's policy -- "neo-realism" -- pointing out diplomats have gained ascendancy and that several top neo-conservatives associated with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney have left the administration.
In particular, the U.S. is working with European allies France, Britain and Germany through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program -- a definite exercise in multilateralism -- and is offering Iran the choice of help with a civilian nuclear energy program or economic sanctions.
Asked on "Meet the Press" last Sunday about a military option, Rice replied: "The president is not going to take any option off the table, but we believe that this is something that can be resolved diplomatically. We have many steps yet to take and Iran cannot stand the kind of international isolation that could be brought to bear if they don't find a way to change course."
Liberal internationalists such as President Bill Clinton's former National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, and some realists think the administration should go further and offer Iran a "grand bargain" to get it to not only stop its nuclear program, but also its terrorism and destabilizing activities in Iraq. In return, the Iranians would receive guarantees that the United States won't use force against their nation or try to destabilize the Islamic regime.
Rice has ruled out such guarantees and appears to have pulled Khalilzad back from direct talks with Teheran.
One realist, Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, says it's not clear that Bush has truly changed foreign policies, suggesting instead that his mind is "out for bid" and that neo-cons might yet convince him to bomb Iran before the end of his second term.
Berger wrote in The Wall Street Journal that military options shouldn't be ruled out, but the difference between Bush and most Democrats is that the threat of military action in his case is more credible and can be used to make diplomacy more muscular.
Nuclear weapons in the possession of a fanatic like Ahmadinejad would destabilize the Middle East. A U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iran would, too. So diplomacy is clearly the preferred option. All theories aside, we need to hope that Rice carries the day.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)