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Election 2008 Foreign Policy Iraq McCain National Security Obama Politics The War on Terrorism

Bush-McCain Refuses to Make Tough Foreign Policy Choices

Last night, Barack Obama said:

You don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in 80 countries by occupying Iraq.

Joe Biden, in a 2004 interview with Joshua Marshall of the Talking Points Memo, made a similar point, but in a more roundabout way that encapsulates some portion of the difference between the two men and their approach to speaking:

No, I really mean it, ask Norm [communication director Norm Kurz]. I mean Norm’s had to sit through, listening to me in all these things. This is the point that I was trying desperately to make to my colleagues and I tried to articulate it on Stephanopoulos’ show. The fundamental flaw in the neo – forget flaw, the fundamental difference between Joe Biden, John Kerry on the one hand, and the neoconservatives on the other is that they genuinely believe – I’ll put it in the negative sense – they do not believe it is possible for a sophisticated international criminal network that will rain terror upon a country, that has the potential to kill 3,000 or more people in a country, can exist without the sponsorship of a nation state. They really truly believe – and this was the Axis of Evil speech – if you were able to decapitate the regimes in Iran, Iraq, North Korea, you would in fact dry up the tentacles of terror. I think that is fundamentally flawed reasoning. If every one of those regimes became a liberal democracy tomorrow, does anybody think we wouldn’t have Code Orange tomorrow in the United States? Rhetorical question. Does anybody think we don’t have to worry about the next major event like Madrid occurring in Paris or Washington or Sao Paulo? Gimme a break. But they really believe this is the way to do it. [My emphasis.]

Richard Haas, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, has been making the point in broader terms – explaining that we have moved from a unipolar world in which America’s power in every sphere was unrivaled to a nonpolar world in which power is decentralized – and many large corporations have more power than states and local power often trumps world power. Haas sees America as the single greatest power on earth – but rather than understanding the entire world as a system of countries, he sees a vastly more complicated power structure – where a loosely organized band of a few hundred can change the course of the world, and corporations operate according to their own interest rather than national interest; and large countries can exert influence in their backyard without American retaliation (as China and Russia proved recently).

McCain and Bush just don’t get these two realities of the world we live in today – a world in which power is decentralized and not exclusively held in nation-states and a world in which America cannot impose it’s will everywhere all of the time. They act as if we have the power to force our will upon every nation and organization. They do not believe we need to choose between Russia’s cooperation on terrorism-related issues and expanding NATO to Georgia and the Ukraine. They believe we can do both. They do not believe invading Iraq took away resources from Afghanistan – because we can do both. Their is an unreality in these positions, a determined insistence that refuses to make the tough strategic choices that foreign policy is about. That cowardice is at the heart of the Bush-McCain foreign policy. They do not acknowledge the central truth that drove America’s greatest foreign policy successes – in World War II and in the first years of the Cold War:

We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimized.

They insist instead on our absolute power and on our moral purity. Coupling this with a mistaken view of the nation-state as all-powerful, a view substantially at odds with the titular Republican position of focusing on the power of individuals and corporations over that of government, they led us into Iraq, and now they are playing games of brinkmanship with Iran and Russia, in the vain hope that neither sees how weak our hand has become since we invaded Iraq.

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