Ask the expert: Bush’s foreign policy

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Danielle Pletka is the vice president for foreign and defence policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Her research areas include the Middle East, South Asia, terrorism, and weapons proliferation. She recently served as a member of the congressionally-mandated Task Force on the United Nations, established by the United States Institute of Peace.

In her opinion piece This new, gentler Bush is dangerous she says that the first four years of the Bush administration were characterised by assertive leadership but now the rudeness is gone and so has a sound security policy. Do you agree?

Here she answers readers’ questions on American foreign policy.


Is it true that the Iraq war is essentially the implementation of a grand strategy first published in an American Enterprise Institute paper by Richard Perle et al? If so, how’s that working out, in your opinion?

Oliver Corlett

Danielle Pletka: I’m not aware of any grand strategy paper authored by Richard Perle and disseminated by AEI. That being said, I hope that American foreign policy in the Middle East is indeed part of a larger strategy, what President Bush has labelled the “freedom agenda.” As to the question of how it is going, no snapshot in time can do justice to an enterprise that will take decades. (The question is a bit like asking in 1952 how the battle against the Soviet empire was going.) As you probably know, I believe the United States should have a more consistent application of its principles in implementing the freedom agenda. When we falter, dictators retrench quickly. We do live in a world of reality and there are times when core principles must be compromised in order to meet the diplomatic demands of the moment, but that compromise should be the exception and not the habit.


Why shouldn’t the US use the threat to withdraw or delay its foreign aid and weapons shipments to Israel in order to get it to use more proportionate force in its fight with Hizbollah?

Paul Ness, New York

DP: The conflict now going on between Israel and Hizbollah cannot be laid at Israel’s feet, and therefore it is irresponsible, in my view, to suggest that Israel be punished.

While it is true that Hizbollah, in its decision to illegally cross the border and kill and kidnap Israeli soldiers, brought this conflict to the Lebanese people without their concurrence, it is also true that Lebanon’s own failure to disarm Hizbollah and extend its military to the southern border made this possible.

It is very tempting to place yet another band-aid on the problem, hoping against hope that someday terrorists will learn to behave well. Hizbollah needs to be disarmed for once and for all - not just for the Israelis’ sake, but for the Lebanese.


Could you tell me how the American public can learn what is really going on the middle east when the American media does not report it. I just accessed CNN international - which mentioned Lebanese deaths - then I turned to CNN America - and not one mention was made of them. How can even the most open minded American make up their mind when there is such a news blackout? Shouldn’t the US Institute for Peace as a beginning monitor news broadcasts now?

Constance Blackwell, London

DP: I am not sure what you mean about the USIP, but to answer the broader accusation - that the American media are not covering the conflict: While I understand that the European press have a particular perspective on the conflict between Israel and its neighbours, those biases are not reflected in the American media. You may argue that other biases are present, and some are. This, however, is not one of them.

I have my television on in my office all day, and have seen no shortage of coverage of Lebanese casualties, Israeli Arab casualties and more. In addition, YouTube.com carries images from throughout the region of the price of conflict.


After decades of violence and revenge in the whole area of the Middle East, don’t you think it’s time to set up a new basis of multi lateral economic and social cooperation? More than 60% of the population in the Middle East region is under 18 years old and many see no future for themselves.

Alex de Novoa

DP: I think you hit the problem just right. The population of the Middle East has little real future to look forward to. Rather than focusing on the grander issues that seem to entrance the Arab League and too many Arab leaders, the time has come to address the worst youth unemployment in the world, an education system that does little to serve its people, rampant corruption and more.

It is no surprise that Islamic extremism has found a foothold among a population that has been offered nothing for decades on end by irresponsible leaders. Reform is what is needed - economic, political and more. And western countries should be willing to use their leverage collectively to push for those sorts of reforms sooner rather than later.


It seems to the world that, aside from blind support of Israel, the US has no foreign policy. This situation, seriously damaging to the US national interest, is without precedent in history. It also appears that american public opinion is oblivious to this strange state of affairs. Do you agree and if so what can be done to remedy this sorry state of affairs?

Philippe Marcq, England

DP: I do disagree, and not just with the hyperbolic statement. Israel is an ally of the United States, a democracy in a region where until recently there was no democracy. The United States has a multi-dimensional foreign policy, which includes relationships with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, and more - countries both at peace and at war with Israel.

It is not in the interest of any nation engaged in combat with Islamic extremism to suggest that tolerance for that extremism and the terrorists who implement it is a good idea. If in fact the United States were to suggest, as many have done, that there be an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah, that would be a victory for terrorism.

While military conflict is rarely the right answer or the best answer, sometimes, nonetheless, it is the only answer because without victory, you sow the seeds for future conflict that could be even more devastating in their scope.


If you believe that there can never be peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, then what is the solution?

Rex Wempen, Washington, DC

DP: I do not believe that there can never be peace between Israelis and Palestinians. To the contrary, I believe firmly that such a peace is possible; the questions are when and how. In the past, the United States and others have believed that imposing a peace between Israel and any leader who happens to be in place in the Palestinian Authority is the right idea. While doing so may actually result in a signed piece of paper, it will not be based on a substantive peace that will last.

Peace between Israel and Palestine will come when the Palestinians have a leadership that is neither interested in conflict nor sustained by it. They need (and deserve after all these years) a genuine government, with serious governance ability, that cares about people, institutions, and prosperity, not suicide belts. Once such a government is in place - and I believe we can all do more to ensure that such a government can indeed come to power - then peace will be a simpler proposition for all.


Would you not agree that the situation in Lebanon has been stirred by the Iranians, in an attempt to divert attention from their nuclear programme. Moreover, on a higher level, they are being used by another power China, as a spearhead in the middle east to dominate the region?

James Garner, London

DP: The Iranians are clearly behind much of what is going on between Lebanon and Israel. It is no coincidence that the conflict was sparked at the very moment the US, UK and our G8 partners were discussing Iran’s unwillingness to respond to the generous package deal offered it in exchange for suspension of uranium enrichment.

Too little attention has been paid to the Chinese role in the Middle East. China, hiding behind Russia, has been a major obstacle to concerted UN action on the Iranian nuclear weapons program. In addition, China, because of a perverted understanding of international oil markets, has decided that building firm political and economic relations with the likes of Iran and Sudan is in its national interest. This will surely lead to more trouble down the road.


What limits Washington’s strategic options is simply that its armed forces are stretched beyond their capacity. You seem oblivious to the fact that the reason why the US today is so restricted in its ability to respond to emerging crises is entirely due to its unwise decision to invade and conquer Iraq. The changes in the policy climate that you describe are not simply a matter of preference at the NSC or Foggy Bottom; they reflect reality, and the Administration is gradually learning that while the realist school of Foreign Policy might be unfashionable, it remains operative.

Mr. Donovan, Hong Kong

DP: I’m not oblivious to the challenges that face our military (though I confess to enjoying hearing about them from Hong Kong). But the truth is that the United States remains the world’s largest military and economic power, and while we may not be able to deploy 150,000 troops to a ground war with Iran, we have plenty of options available to us militarily.

In any case, the availability of lack thereof of troops is not the question, because in nine out of ten cases, we do not need to use our military. Rather, we need to exercise our considerable political and economic leverage to confront the many challenges that face us all.


Shouldn’t the basis of US foreign policy be to bolster the position of moderate muslims around the globe and make them feel that they share more of the values of western liberal democracy than they do of the fundamentalists who yearn for a return to the simple certainties of life in 7th century Arabia? Surely we are up to that task, aren’t we? Above all, the one thing we must not do is to encourage the idea that we are somehow at war with Islamic fundamentalism. It’s their crisis of faith, not ours, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be hoodwinked into playing the fall-guy.

Damon Holliday, Horsham, UK

DP: You make an interesting point regarding the battle with Islamic extremism, and how to characterize it. This is a great debate within most Western governments - how do we talk about the fight with extremism, how do we talk about Islam, and how do we effectively come in on the side of the good guys in what is essentially a crisis within the faith?

One way, as you suggest, is to throw our weight behind moderate Muslims and the leaders - Wahid in Indonesia, for example. It’s a good call, but one that is very hard to implement. Let me pose a question back to the readers: When the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which has (for the most part) abandoned violence, scored extremely well in quasi-free elections, was that OK? Or should the US, UK and others sign off on a retaliatory crack down on the Brotherhood (and other democracy advocates) by the Egyptian leadership?

When we say democracy, what do we mean? In my view, we mean equal opportunities for all parties as long as they adhere to established rules. But not everyone agrees...


Will our policy in Lebanon drive a wedge in our relationship with the Iraqi Shi’ite population and make it more difficult to win the hearts and minds of the people?

Jim Dorsey

DP: Surely our bona fides with the Shi’i of the Middle East are good enough, having liberated Iraq and aided the Shi’i there to enjoy representative government for the first time in their history...

An untold story inside Lebanon is the antipathy felt by moderate Shi’ites to Hizbollah and the extremism it represents. Lebanese television has broadcast denunciations of Hizbollah by senior Shi’ite officials.

For too long we have all talked about the Sunni, the Shi’a and others as if they are indistinguishable sectarian blocs. Many are sophisticated people with views, like the rest of us, uninformed by the shape of their church or mosque.


May I say that I regard the AEI Institute as a wonderful organisation with really thought provoking ideas. It seems that in the UK, we only have one similar organisation, The Henry Jackson Society that promotes an assertive liberal interventionist UK in the World. My question is that there is a real chance of a defining moment in the Middle East for Israel and her allies to defeat the jihadist-terrorist axis of Syria-Iran, Hamas-Hizbollah. Do you not believe that ‘This new, gentler Bush’ is due to Condee Rice having greater sway in this administration? It seems that diplomacy, or rather speaking for speaking’s sake has become the mantra of this second episode of the Bush administration. Where have all the Reaganites, and dare I say neocons gone?

Adam Leviton, London

DP: Thank you for the compliment to AEI. We are very proud of our scholars and our work. The Henry (Scoop) Jackson Society is terrific - good for everyone who supports it! The principles of liberal internationalism are under assault by the EU and many others, and we need to stand up for what we believe in.

As I said in the article, I am not certain why the US has veered off course. There are some who suggest that the Secretary of State is to blame; but let’s remember she answers to the President. There are others who suggest that the lack of debate within the administration (remember the State-Pentagon-White House wars?) has allowed the bureaucracy and its affection for status-quo-ism to resurface. Hard to know. Fundamentally, the problem is the gap between the rhetoric and implementation of policy. Is it fixable? Everything is fixable, but only if those in charge perceive a problem and wish to rectify it. The jury is still out on that question.


Iran is already so thoroughly sanctioned that little more can be done, and what can be done won’t make a meaningful difference. While the no-nonsense Bush administration spun its wheels asserting repeatedly that ‘not a single centrifuge will spin in Iran’ and brandishing about empty threats that it would attack Iran’s nuclear sites, the Iranians continued to spin-up their centrifuges in artful brinkmanship. You lament the loss of Bush’s ‘signature issue - democracy promotion.’ Perhaps you think we should try the Iraq approach for North Korea and Iran?

R. Scott Kemp, Princeton University NJ, US

DP: Iran is sanctioned by the US, but not in any meaningful way by European or Asian nations. The regime will pay more attention when it pays a price for its illegal nuclear weapons program - and that price, at the outset, should be international financial, military (ie no arms sales) and nuclear sanctions.

I’m not sure if the writer is being snide or serious in suggesting that democracy promotion for North Korea and Iran is a good idea. But either way, the answer is that of course it is the right thing to do. Is it right that we observe without comment the starvation of a million North Koreans by the loony Kim Jong Il regime? Is it right that we observe the wanton assassination of regime opponents by the Islamic Republic of Iran without trying to aid those dissidents?

I believe it is both in our national security interest and in our moral interest to seek a better future for those who are oppressed by tyranny. And in the case of nations that seek to menace the US with WMD, it is all the more urgent that we explore a variety of avenues to defang, destabilize or otherwise depose these tyrants.


Michael Scheuer, 22-year CIA veteran, Bush supporter, author of Imperial Hubris, stated on BBC and C-SPAN recently that Americans are not being told the truth about Islamic terrorism. America and the West is not the target, but we are currently in the way because of our support for corrupt regimes. The real targets are the repressive governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Pakistan, the UAE, Algeria and Jordan. He claims that bin Laden does not care that we have elections every 4 years. Scheuer insists that our current foreign policy including our unconditional support for Israel must be brought to an open debate before the American public. He claims that we are losing the war on terror and that America will be bled to death unless we change our policies. Is he right?

David Strand, Minnesota, US

DP: I am not a fan of Michael Scheuer, and believe his analysis is thoroughly confused. His implication is that were the United States to abandon relations with most Middle East countries, Israel included, then bin Laden would have no beef with us.

As with all such confused analyses, there is a grain of truth at the heart of the argument. Many in the Middle East question why the United States has been willing to support Arab dictators for so long. The President of the United States addressed that issue in a famous address to the National Endowment for Democracy in November 2003.

In addition, many Arabs question American support for Israel. There’s no problem with that. The question is whether it is then appropriate to go and blow people up, or advocate that people be blown up because of objections to our policies.

Reading bin Laden’s lengthy treatises, it is clear that while he does not think deep thoughts about America’s electoral process, he does think deep thoughts about the corruption of western liberalism. To suggest that feeding the beast by supporting a limited caliphate in the Middle East while we continue to barbecue hamburgers over here with impunity is the height of silly. I suggest you go and read some of the writings of Sayyid Qutb to see how these extremists feel about the West.


Background:

Why Bush should go to Tel Aviv - and confront Iran - by William Kristol

While Bush and Blair fumble, Beirut burns - By Chris Patten

When reality no longer matches rhetoric - by Michael Fullilove

One bout for which Bush is not to blame - by Jacob Weisberg

US foreign policy needs ‘liberal realism’ - by Martin Wolf

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