Saturday, May 24, 2008

Rebuilding US foreign policy

The new president come 2009 will be faced with a monumental task in rebuilding America's role as a significant player in Middle Eastern developments, not to mention international relations in general, thanks to Mr. Bush and his pals. On the other hand, much of the world may welcome a new US approach that stresses global cooperation over Bush's unilateralism (which boiled down to US-firstism, as it were) especially in a new era blooming with possibilities of massive instability that may have global repercussions: global warming, the threat of food shortages, intense (potentially violent?) competition over increasingly scarce and costly resources like petroleum and natural gas, as well as the ongoing threat from groups like al-Qaeda.

But what will the US be able to bring to the table if the world wants to sit down and work out consultative, cooperative means of dealing with crises? Because of the world's awe of the US's military might, trust in the stability of the US economy (and dollar), and confidence in the efficacy of the US's diplomatic outreach and experience, the US had traditionally been counted on as both leader and ultimate enforcer - the "backstop," as it were, to keep crises in the ballpark. But now, the US economy is being pummeled onto the ropes: foreclosed mortgages, plummeting dollar, skyrocketing fuel prices (which, in my own home area, are contributing to a new round of teacher layoffs and possible school closings), US automobile manufacturers on life-support (Ford Motors just yesterday announced a cutback in US production; nobody's buying those Explorers and Expeditions anymore), national assets being gobbled up by China and the new "sovereign wealth funds" of petrodollar-rich nations.

As Strobel's essay (below) suggests, the confidence in US diplomacy is toast - thoroughly scorched toast, at that - thanks to the idiocy and arrogance of Mr. Bush's policies (and the sense of divine mission that impelled them), with a major assist from Condi Rice, who (as Elizabeth Bumiller's recent biography of her makes clear) has likely been the least qualified, least substantive (as opposed to stylish), and least effective national security advisor and secretary of state in the modern era. As for its military might, the US still possesses overwhelming firepower and technology-based weaponry, as well as a massive nuclear deterrent. But its land forces are in crisis: overstretched to the point of recruiting undereducated social and psychological misfits (and worse) to fill its ranks, and demoralized by the effects of multiple combat tours, stop-loss measures by its Pentagon commanders, and the refusal of increasing numbers of the Army's field and non-commissioned officers to re-enlist. Meanwhile, residents of Iraq's cities and villagers in Afghanistan and Pakistan (and now the world, thanks to the testimonies of "Winter Soldiers" and countless journalists) have learned that soldiers and contractors from the United States of America - a country long respected around the world for its democratic, humane values - have the prerogative of inflicting on them and their families sudden, indiscriminate murder, be it by an overreacting Marine patrol, the cowboys of a Blackwater security squad, an Air Force pilot in his (or her) F-16, or even a soldier, in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee at the ready, obliterating them and their families with a drone-borne Hellfire missile by pushing a button on a console on an air base in Colorado. The brutal termination of their lives is chalked up as "collateral damage" in the fight to eliminate the "bad guys" (many of whom are, after all, nationalist resistance fighters whose chief aim is simply to expel foreign occupiers - and their allies - from their homeland); their killers remain unknown or, if identified, largely unpunished. The US military is indeed still feared, and because of that fear, respected, but the larger point is that, where it once was seen as the agent of a nation that used its military might to fight for the Good, it now is perceived across much of the globe (and increasingly, here at home) as that nation's avatar of wanton destruction and domination.

As the world faces a terribly uncertain future as a new president is inaugurated in 2009, then, what reason has it any longer to look to the US for leadership, even with the promise of a new president in January, 2009?

Analysis: In week of dramatic Mideast developments, Washington was largely reduced to watching

By Warren P. Strobel - McClatchy Newspapers
Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, May 24, 2008

WASHINGTON – In a week of dramatic developments in the Middle East, the most dramatic of all may have been the fact that the United States, long considered the region's indispensable player, was missing in action.

As its closest allies cut deals with their adversaries this week over the Bush administration's opposition, Washington was largely reduced to watching.

More painfully for President Bush, friends he has cultivated – and spent heavily on – in Lebanon and Iraq asked the United States to remain in the background, underlining how politically toxic an association with the United States can be for Arab leaders.

Over the past few days:

• The Lebanese government, which has received $1.3 billion and political support from the Bush administration, compromised with the Hezbollah-led opposition, giving the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim group, which Washington considers a terrorist organization, a greater role in running the country.

• Israel ignored U.S. objections and entered indirect peace talks with Syria through Turkey, another longtime U.S. ally.

• The U.S.-backed Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deployed military forces to Baghdad's Sadr City slum under an agreement that specifically excluded U.S. troops.

• Saudi Arabia, a crucial oil supplier and long a major buyer of U.S. weapons, is quietly closing what could be a multibillion-dollar arms deal with Russia, according to a U.S. defense official.

State Department officials scoffed at the notion that the United States has been relegated to the sidelines.

Private analysts and some foreign diplomats, however, said leaders in the Middle East, both friend and foe, are now calculating with an eye to the era after President Bush – who visited Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt this month with little visible effect.

Others said that by refusing to talk to adversaries and using bristling "with-us-or-against-us" rhetoric, Bush has cut his administration out of the game. Under Bush, U.S. diplomats have had few substantive discussions with Iran, Syria, Hezbollah or the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which in 2006 won elections that the White House had pushed for.

"In that sense, we've dealt ourselves out of the picture," said Richard Murphy, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria and an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration.

Three years ago, Lebanon was a symbol of the kind of Arab democracy the Bush administration envisioned. A Western-backed reform movement, spurred by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, drove out a generation-long Syrian military presence and made electoral gains against Syrian-backed factions such as Hezbollah.

But every year since Hariri's death, America's sway in Lebanon has diminished and Hezbollah's has increased.

An 18-month political stalemate erupted in violence this month, with Hezbollah and its allies taking over much of Beirut but stopping short of laying siege to the government.

The strategy paid off this week, when Arab mediators in Doha, Qatar, negotiated a peace agreement that fulfilled Hezbollah's three main goals: keeping its vast arsenal intact and untouchable; winning veto power over all government decisions; and tweaking election laws to better reflect the growing Shiite population.

U.S. and European powers could do little but watch. Murphy, referring to Lebanon, said: "Maybe we didn't do quite enough, and said too much."

Similarly, in the talks between Israel and Syria, it was Turkey that stepped into the role of "honest broker" once played by the United States.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Bush were aware of Israeli-Syrian contacts in recent months, U.S. officials said. But they made little secret of their deep skepticism about the worth of talking to Syria, which Bush has shunned far more than any of his recent predecessors.

"It's like I'm from Missouri. … Show me," the State Department official said.

Israel, though, appears to have decided that it's worth trying to peel Syria away from its larger patron, Iran, which is also Israel's principal adversary. For its part, Syria seeks to retrieve the strategic Golan Heights, which it lost to Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.

Into the vacuum stepped Turkey, a large, pro-Western Muslim nation that has strong ties to Israel and Syria. It gained credibility in the region for refusing to allow U.S. troops to use its territory to invade Iraq in 2003.

"Turkey has carved out the middle ground," said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. "It's a success story."

The proposed arms deal between Russia and Saudi Arabia is yet another example of a country trying to make inroads on traditional U.S. turf. Russia's state-controlled arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, has been marketing aggressively in the Arab world, according to a senior State Department official. News reports from Moscow value the deal at $4 billion, although U.S. officials said it might be smaller.

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