The US faces in Iraq what could be the most consequential foreign-policy debacle in its history. The only other contender for that distinction is the war in Vietnam. But Vietnam was a unitary state that had been artificially—and therefore temporarily—divided, while Iraq was an artificially united state that perhaps has now been permanently divided. Moreover, Iraq, unlike Vietnam, is surrounded by dominoes.
The origins of the looming catastrophe in and around Iraq go back to the beginning of George W. Bush’s presidency. In his first nine months in office, the administration virtually suspended diplomacy in the Middle East and weakened or nullified a range of multilateral agreements.
The result was mounting resentment around the world over US disregard for international law, institutions, treaties and alliances.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, the administration squandered an instantaneous, international outpouring of goodwill. It rejected an unprecedented offer from Nato to deploy troops alongside US forces in Afghanistan and used the 9/11 attacks on the US as a pretext for attacking Iraq, in part by “connecting the dots” between Afghan-based terrorism and Iraqi totalitarianism, even though the two phenomena were separate and hostile to each other. The Iraq invasion was the high-water mark of Bush unilateralism and the low-water mark of America’s standing in the world’s eyes.
In the months and years ahead, the US will need maximum participation and trust from the international community, especially for the “diplomatic offensive” recommended by the Baker-Hamilton Study Group on Iraq. That will require not just a new approach to Iraq but an overhaul of US foreign policy. Yet the reluctance with which Mr Bush gave up on his effort to keep John Bolton as US ambassador to the United Nations suggests either that he does not understand the extent to which Mr Bolton personified the administration’s contempt for the world body—or, worse, does not care.
Whatever course the president chooses in Iraq, he will need the UN. He should appoint a new UN ambassador who is both inclined and empowered to strengthen an institution that the US has systematically undercut in recent years. With this in mind, Mr Bush should early in the New Year meet Ban Ki-moon, incoming secretary-general, and help him establish, on behalf of the world body, the best possible relationship with the Congress.
Another welcome step would be for the US to stop boycotting the new Human Rights Council at the UN, a successor to—and improvement on—the old Human Rights Commission that Eleanor Roosevelt helped establish.
The administration needs to find other ways of making clear that it respects international law. Mr Bush insulted many friends around the world by “unsigning” a treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. At a minimum, the administration should abandon efforts to flout the Geneva and torture conventions and deny habeas corpus to detainees. Having used Saddam Hussein’s prisons to torture some prisoners captured by the coalition, and having sent others to countries where they were likely to be tortured, the US should close its detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, or make it Geneva-compliant.
Along with the UN and other international institutions that the US played a key role in building after the second world war, the global arms control and nonproliferation regime is in jeopardy—again, in large measure because of Bush administration policies. Since 2001, the US has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, watered down the strategic arms reduction process, allowed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to languish unratified and done considerable damage to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
Remedial steps could include: returning to negotiations with Russia on significantly lower levels of nuclear weapons; actively seeking a moratorium on the production of fissile material; and backing away from its flirtation with the idea of developing new bunker-busting warheads that would require testing—and therefore breaking with the CTBT.
The fate of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change—which Mr Bush pronounced “dead” in 2001—might seem extraneous to challenges such as dealing with terrorism, Iraq and the meltdown of US policy in the greater Middle East. In fact, however, the administration’s obstructionism and obscurantism on global warming has, for more than five years, come to symbolise what much of rest of world resists in the style and substance of US leadership. Vigorous administration support for US legislation to limit heat-trapping gases would be a step towards a negotiated international agreement.
Even the most determined optimist (and such are hard to find in Washington these days) realises that the challenge of Iraq and its region will be with us—all of us—for years. Any steps Mr Bush can take to restore a form of American leadership that others are prepared to follow will not just be doing his successor a favour, but also the American people and his own legacy as well. Surely, if there is anything Mr Bush wants more than to stick by his guns, it is to avoid having his presidency end in unprecedented failure.
The writer, president of the Brookings Institution, was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration and is writing a book on global governance.