On the Record

Bush Foreign Policy: The Next Phase

Strobe Talbott

My congratulations to Dick Stanley and the organizers of this conference on its timing. It comes not only on the 65th anniversary of Pearl Harbor but at a time when the overall topic, “Leveraging U.S. Strength in an Uncertain World,” is on all our minds. I would actually suggest amending the topic a bit. It’s not just world that’s uncertain—U.S. strength is uncertain as well.

There’s an irony there. We’re the strongest nation on the planet, the strongest in history. Our military budget is about equal to that of rest of world combined. Yet that strength has not translated into an ability to get our own way in that part of the world that is of greatest concern to us in this period, the Greater Middle East.

Why is that? The answer goes to another word in topic of the conference: “leveraging.” Our strength is uncertain- that is, diminished, in our own eyes, and in the eyes of others -largely because our ability to leverage it is diminished.

There are two main reasons for that. The first is that the U.S. is held in such low regard these days. To get our way, we need a critical mass of the rest of world to want us to succeed. We don’t have that critical mass today. In my travels abroad, and in talking to foreign visitors the U.S., I keep hearing it said that many of our friends, not to mention others, see American power as a problem for them—a problem to be “contained,” not in the George Kennan sense, but with their own version of soft power. That is a profoundly disturbing development.

The second reason our leverage is diminished is related to the first. Many international institutions—including those of our own invention, and those on which we depend for leveraging our power—are in an advanced state of disrepair, demoralization, and disillusionment with our leadership of them.

As a result, we face a crisis both in American foreign policy and in the international system. The proximate cause of the crisis is the war in Iraq, which recently reached the point where it has lasted longer than the war we fought starting 65 years ago today.

The short story of what has happened over the past 3 ½ yrs is that we used our strength to topple a dangerous, dreadful totalitarian regime. Our intention was to replace it with it with a functioning, modern, democratic, friendly state. What we got instead is a failed state, a civil war, a security vacuum, and regional stability—all of our own making. To make matters worse, the deteriorating situation in Iraq is now mimicked by another one nearby in Afghanistan.

As a result, we are now facing what could be the most consequential foreign policy debacle in the history of the republic. The other contender for that dubious distinction is, of course, Vietnam. But Iraq may turn out to be worse because it, unlike Vietnam, is surrounded by dominos.

Looking backward, recounting the disaster—that’s the easy part. The hard part is looking forward, figuring out what to do next. That is hard for everyone, starting with the President. It’s hard for his National Security Adviser, Steve Hadley (just read his memo leaked to the New York Times). It’s hard for his former Secretary of Defense, Don Rumsfeld (just read his memo, written on his way out the door and also leaked). It’s hard for his new Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates (just read his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee). And it’s hard for the Baker-Hamilton Study Group (just read their report released yesterday).

Much of the advice the President is getting boils down to the following two points: 1) cut our losses by cutting our troop levels; and 2) “pressure” the Iraqis to pull up their socks by threatening them with an accelerated pullout. The logic of that pressure tactic—that is, why it should work with the Iraqis—is not clear, since most of them want us out. The logic on our own side, however, is very clear indeed: having preemptively invaded their country, let’s preemptively blame them for mess we’ve made of it.

We now face months of suspense. How will the Baker-Hamilton report, with input from Hill, affect the policy of the Executive Branch? And will that policy, even if altered, truly improve the situation on the ground in Iraq?

There are two grounds for skepticism: first, because the situation is so far gone, so out of our control; and second, because the search for new policy is driven so much more by our domestic politics than by an understanding of—or, frankly sufficient concern about—Iraq’s domestic politics, which, in the final analysis, are going to determine whether there’s a deepening and widening war or an eventual peace.

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The substance of these issues will be discussed at this conference throughout the day, by every panel, in every plenary. In the remainder of my remarks, I’m going to place Iraq in a larger context rather than focusing on it in isolation.

Both looking backward and looking forward, we must recognize—and the administration must recognize, and act on the recognition—that what has gone so wrong in Iraq has been symptomatic of what has been wrong with American foreign policy across the board. Therefore fixing Iraq means fixing what’s been broken more generally.

Let’s posit the debatable proposition that President Bush will take the advice that Jim Baker whispers into his left ear and Bob Gates whispers into his right ear, and that a policy based on that advice can rescue Iraq, and U.S. policy there, from catastrophe. For that to happen, we’re going to need maximum help, collaboration, participation, and trust from the international community, especially for the “diplomatic offensive” recommended by the Baker-Hamilton Study Group. Eliciting that help and restoring that trust necessitate convincing the world not only that we’ve learned lessons from Iraq itself, but that we’ve but learned the lesson from the failed experiment in unilateralism that President Bush conducted in his first term.

Now, granted, Iraq became a debacle for reasons having to do with way in which the invasion was managed: “going in light,” without sufficient force to ensure security and stability; the precipitous dismantlement of the Ba’ath Party, the police, security services and army; the reliance on exiles for what turned out to be bad information and bad leadership; the use of Saddam’s prisons to torture our prisoners.

But contributing to that failure was the buildup, over two years before the invasion, of resentment around world over what was seen as American disregard for international law, international institutions, treaties, and alliances. Remember that in its first 8 months in office—pre-9/11—the administration withdrew from, nullified, spiked, or backed away from a whole range of agreements. The most prominent were the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It also virtually suspended diplomacy in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula.

Then, after 9/11, the administration failed to draw on the instant, worldwide reservoir of goodwill. Instead, it tried to use the attack on our country as a pretext for the run-up to an attack on Iraq, in part by making a connection between 9/11 and Iraq that did not stand up to scrutiny. The invasion of Iraq was the high-water mark of Bush unilateralism and the low-water mark of the U.S.’s standing in eyes of world.

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To its credit, starting in 2004, even before President Bush’s re-election, he took some positive steps that were reassuring both at home and abroad. Early after his second Inaugural, he sent Secretary Rice to Europe and then made a trip of his own to Brussels and Berlin. Instead of following up, as many feared he would do, on the implications of his “Axis of Evil” rhetoric—that is, having the military juggernaut roll right on from Baghdad to Tehran and Pyongyang and change the regimes there—he outsourced diplomacy on Iran to the European Union and on North Korea to China.

The reason President Bush changed approach was, quite simply, that Iraq was going badly, Afghanistan seemed stuck, and support for his foreign policy was eroding at home. The administration also belatedly recognized how much help it need from rest of world. That was the backdrop for a trend toward restoration of more moderate, multilateralist foreign policy in the second term.

But there has been a sense of tentativeness, of tactical fine-tuning rather than strategic readjustment, a sense of course-correction rather than course-reversal. We saw evidence of that in recent days in the reluctance with which President Bush gave up on his determination to keep, as his ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who has been the personification of in-your-face unilateralism.

Let me give you my own view on what it would take—not to “solve,” perhaps, but to manage—the foreign policy problem from hell. Let me also be clear: this is not a prediction of what the administration will do; rather, it’s a prescription for what I believe it should do.

What’s needed now is nothing less than a broad-gauge overhaul of American foreign policy commensurate with, necessary to, supportive of a change in policy on Iraq itself.

It should start with recognition—and this is not a matter of semantics; it’s a matter of political realism—that we’re enmeshed in a civil war in Iraq and civil wars, by definition, require political solutions.

The greater reliance on diplomacy that everyone seems to agree is necessary must include negotiation with regimes we don’t like for good reasons, especially Syria and Iran, because we need them to rein in the militias. It must also include repairing relations with allies and friends.

We must strengthen international institutions we have weakened, starting with the UN. Now that Mr. Bolton is out, the President should appoint someone who would personify respect for what is good and admirable and supportive of U.S. interests in the UN’s legacy, its potential, and its utility—I’d even say its indispensability to us in the years ahead. It should also not be someone closely identified with Iraq policy to date. The administration should conduct the earliest possible meetings at the highest possible level with new Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and help him establish the best possible relationship with the Congress.

These are steps of immediate relevance to the challenge we face in Iraq and the Middle East. No less important is a range of other steps we should take to restore American leadership of the international system.

We should do so in arms control and nonproliferation by strengthening treaty regimes which, like UN, we have weakened. I would stress the importance of the Strategic Arms Reduction process, the Nonproliferation Treaty, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. That would be: reducing our strategic arsenal as soon as possible to the limits set by the so called Moscow Treaty and returning to negotiations with Russia on significantly lower levels of nuclear weapons and the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons. As for the NPT, we should work to get India, Pakistan, and the five Treaty-approved nuclear-weapon states to join in a moratorium on the production of fissile material pending verifiable Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.

Let me give extra attention to the CTBT. The refusal of the Republican-controlled Senate to ratify the CTBT in October 1999 was a dark day in the history of this country. That was seven years ago. Much has been written lamenting the irony and the folly of what happened then. But nothing is more eloquent or astute than what Johnny Apple—whose memorial service took place two days ago—wrote for the front page of the New York Times at the time:

“The Senate’s decisive rejection tonight of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was the most explicit American repudiation of a major international agreement in 80 years, and it further weakened the already shaky standing of the United States as a global moral leader. Not since the Versailles Treaty was voted down in November 1919, an action that was repeated in March 1920, has so far-reaching an accord been turned down.”

The Bush administration made clear, soon after coming into office, that it would let the CTBT languish. I realize the administration is, to put it mildly, unlikely now to embrace the treaty. But at least it should back off hints of that the U.S. may break out of the CTBT—that is, begin testing again—in order to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. And the new Congress, along with the NGO sector, should do everything possible to lay ground work for ratification of the CTBT early in next administration. That is a goal that I believe would have bipartisan support, since there are plenty of Republicans who recognize the importance of the treaty and the self-destructiveness of what the Senate did seven years ago.

There should also be an unambiguous American endorsement of international law—not later, but now. With regard to the International Criminal Court, the best thing would be to return to the U.S. position of September 2000. That would mean re-signing the Rome treaty that Clinton signed and Bush “unsigned”—a gratuitous insult to many of our friends around the world whose help we are going to need. Again, that’s unlikely to happen. But there should be no doubt about the damage we do ourselves by remaining outside the ICC. At a minimum, we should abandon efforts to negotiate immunity for U.S. forces, especially since we have, in those negotiations, little “leverage”—to return to that word in the conference topic—for getting our way in that regard, as in so many others.

Another salutary step would be to engage actively and constructively with the new Human Rights Council at the UN. We’re in the position now of not even having a delegate on the council. The country of Eleanor Roosevelt is on the sidelines of the effort to breathe new life into the Human Rights Commission that she was so instrumental in establishing. This is not just a shame—it’s an absurdity.

Speaking of international law and human rights—and coming back to Iraq—there’s the question of treatment of prisoners. We should make a commitment to adhere to the Geneva Conventions and move affirmatively to restore habeas corpus rights to terrorist detainees.

And since we’re so focused on exit strategy for Iraq, let’s have one for Guantanamo as well: either make it Geneva-compliant or close it down in way that ensures its inmates aren’t sent to places, like Syria, where the conditions will be even worse.

I’m now going to put one more issue on the table: climate change. That may seem extraneous to dealing with terrorism and Iraq and the meltdown of U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East. I include it on the list for two reasons: first, because a new policy on global warming is important in its own right; second, it’s important as evidence of a new foreign policy in general. The Bush administration’s obstructionism and obscurantism on global warming has become symbolic of what much of rest of world resents and resists about the substance and style of leadership. We can’t launch an effective “diplomatic offensive” in the Middle East if a key aspect of our global diplomacy is offensive to much of the world—and, by the way, to many of our own citizens.

We all understand that the administration doesn’t like Kyoto. But you can’t beat something with nothing, and at the national level, our policy on this issue is almost wholly negative. There should be an active search for successor to the Kyoto Protocol—maybe the Mumbai Protocol, or the Shanghai Protocol. It would be a step in a negotiated international agreement with binding limits for the administration to support, here at home, legislation to limit heat-trapping gases. It could do so by taking a page from what Governor Schwarzenegger is doing in California and what Senator McCain and Lieberman were able to get majority support for in the Senate with the GOP in control.

Again, I realize a dramatic transformation of Executive Branch policy is not likely in this administration. But movement in the right direction, with more push from the Legislative Branch and less resistance from the White House, will help the next administration make the U.S. a leader—indeed, the leader—in the search for a solution to the problem of global warming rather than continuing to be part of the problem. The next President of the United States, whether a Democrat or a Republican, will want to be so seen by the world, not least because he or she will be stuck with a horrendous problem in—and around—Iraq and therefore all the more needful of those things now so woefully in deficit: international respect, support, good will, and trust.

That is really the main point I’ve wanted to convey this morning—and will end by reiterating. Like all of you, I’m well aware how daunting—some would say impossible—it is to steer Iraq policy away from the precipice toward which it is now heading at breakneck speed. Also, like all of you, I’m well aware of how hard it would be—politically, psychologically, ideologically—for President Bush to change course—not just in Iraq, but across the board in his foreign policy. But if there’s anything Mr. Bush wants more than to stick by his guns, surely it’s to avoid having his presidency end in total failure. If he can be persuaded that there has been a vicious cycle between the unilateralism of his first term and the trouble he now faces in Iraq?. and if he can be persuaded of the positive corollary—i.e., that there might be a benevolent connection between the restoration of traditional American internationalism and the rescue of his presidency from ruin—then maybe, just maybe, he’ll do it. Or at least take more steps in that direction. And maybe, just maybe, it will work, or at least help. And even if it doesn’t work in terms of Iraq, then at least we—the country, led by Mr. Bush’s successor—will be somewhat better positioned to deal with challenges facing country on Jan 20, 2009, which is 774 days from now.

While U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East will have suffered a severe and lasting setback, we will have laid ground for fallback strategies to contain Iraq’s ongoing civil war. And, more generally, American foreign policy will be back on the right track. I, for one, would settle for that, although I’d hope we could do better.

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