Saving Face in the Washington-Insider Pissing Match
Foreign policy is no longer about how America should react to events in the world. It has become a matter of ‘branding,’ a chance to hang a presidential catch-phrase on history and put the opposition party in a semantic box. “You’re either with us or against us” is so mindless a statement when made by the planet’s only remaining super-power, it’s hardly a surprise it brought down two hundred and fifty years of international reputation.
Terrifying the world is not the same as having a defined foreign policy, but it worked elegantly against any shred of moral opposition within Congress that might have saved us from the disaster of George Bush’s Middle East ‘policy.’ The world wasn’t the only entity terrified by terrorists and 9-11 rhetoric. The Democratic Congress curled into an eight-year fetal position, unable to raise a single objection for fear of being seen ‘weak’ on terror. Gotcha-politics raised to a new and unprecedented level.
(WashingtonPost, Kennan Had a Vision, by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier) . . . the Clinton team came to embrace the view that deeds mattered more than words. During the 1999 war over Kosovo, Clinton officials rebuffed pressures from the media and the foreign policy cognoscenti to couch the conflict in terms of a new foreign policy doctrine -- which senior administration aides referred to dismissively as the D-word. "We tried to establish common law rather than canon law," then-national security adviser Sandy Berger told us. "We set out to build a new role for the U.S. in the world by experience rather than doctrine."
The results were rather good -- the United States entered the 21st century with significant global support and respect -- but some conservatives argued that avoiding doctrinal vision showed indecision and weakness. When George W. Bush took office more than seven years ago, his new administration believed that Clinton's failure to define a clear foreign policy framework had helped squander U.S. influence.
Those were the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) guys, and a hell of a project it turned out to be. Its alumni include Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby and Don Rumsfeld. They all hungered for the old days of presidential power and confrontation. Of what benefit was it to enjoy global support and respect if you couldn’t set the rules?
(PNAC Statement of Principles) As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world's pre-eminent power. Having led the West to victory in the Cold War, America faces an opportunity and a challenge: Does the United States have the vision to build upon the achievements of past decades? Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests?
A better question might be, does America have a historic mental image of dominance over other nations? We certainly didn’t used to and the annoying (and constant) reference to America’s defeat of communism merely adds to the tinder. We did not defeat communism. The wheels merely came off the European version because it was a total and complete failure in sustaining itself. Ronald Reagan happened to be the occupant of the Oval Office when that event occurred.
A clearer view of communism’s current condition can be drawn from China, where commercial activity and consumer gains are leading the word in percentages—a great deal of which is due to the rock-bottom point from which they began. Communism failed to evolve in the Soviet Union. In China, it may evolve itself out of existence.
Over the almost 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, foreign policy experts have all aspired to be the next Kennan.
Even Kennan wasn’t happy with what he believed to be an overstatement, over reaction and over reluctance to revise his original theory of containment. What ensued was fifty years of brinksmanship, war (Korea and Vietnam), arming of every dictator and miscreant who was bribable to our cause and the seeding of vast areas of the world with the discontent and armed conflict we are witnessing today.
Just because America is the last power left on its feet doesn’t mean the half-century of squandered treasure might form a useful template for our entry into the millennium. It certainly doesn’t predict that a foreign policy so wrongheaded and opportunistic might still work as states unravel to stateless insurgencies.
Witness Israel, witness most of Africa, witness (if you have the stomach) the Middle East today.
The Bush team (PNAC members all—my parenthetical) set out to speak explicitly about doctrine, emphasizing U.S. dominance of the world system, a willingness to go it alone and an insistence that Washington was entitled to take preemptive action to fight emerging threats. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, offered Bush a historic pretext for articulating this set of ideas, which were trumpeted in the administration's now infamous 2002 National Security Strategy. Influential commentators and historians (such as Yale's John Lewis Gaddis) swooned, calling the Bush doctrine a major innovation in national security thinking. Many liberals were cowed, believing that opposing it would seem weak.
A classic pissing match, an absolute failure of the ‘loyal opposition,’ as the party out of power is known in England. When either branch of government becomes ‘cowed,’ government itself is no longer possible except by dictate. The evidence of that, these past eight years, breaks the hearts of both parties and has destroyed Republicans while exposing Democrats as without either courage or conviction. Saving face has become the enemy of saving the conscience of our nation.
In this circumstance, we find it more interesting and headline-grabbing to dissect what Barack Obama’s preacher spews from the pulpit, than to listen to the first candidate since Kennedy (Robert) to actually talk to us. We denigrate the many virtues of John McCain into a forced-marriage between the candidate and Mr. Bush and blame him for the one thing of which he is blameless—his age. We are as a nation no longer able to sustain a vision of ourselves.
It’s become gotcha politics at a moment in world history that makes the Cuba-missile-crisis look like a walk in the park. America, within the confines of a single misguided administration begun to come apart at the seams.
And thus we stagger, unsure, unloved and unconvinced of our direction, into the opening decades of what was to have been the American Millennium. Probably it’s a good thing, this undoing of single-power-politics—for us and the world we occupy.
But it’s going to be a very tough road.