Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Future of US Foreign Policy: A debate rages in Washington | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

Is the Bush Doctrine dead? Has the United States, chastised in Afghanistan and Iraq, decided to move beyond neo-conservatism? Where should one look for a new doctrine to guide US foreign policy?

These and similar questions are all the rage in the US foreign policy circles, especially in the scores of think-tanks that, together, provide the backbone of a veritable industry based on intellectual speculation. And as if often the case many academics, scholars and policy wonks are adjusting or readjusting their positions so that they can swim with the tide of opinion that seems to be moving away from key aspects of foreign policy under President Bush.

Many academics who had joined the war bandwagon with as much zeal as any one else have now switched to the anti-war side and, in some cases, even issued book lengths mea-culpae. As for politicians, with the mid-term elections approaching fast, their eyes are on opinion polls rather than on what is actually happening around the world. American foreign policy has always been shaped by domestic politics, something which the 9/11 attacks failed to change.

Let us set aside the neoconservative bit of the debate for the time being because I have not been able to define the term to my own satisfaction.

The rest of the debate evolves around a couple of assumptions often made without testing them against reality.

The first assumption is that the US has failed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The second is that the US can change foreign policy the same way we lesser mortals might change our shirts.

Both assumptions are false.

To show that the US has failed in Afghanistan and Iraq one must first provide a yardstick against which success or failure is measured.

In what way has the US failed in those two countries?

The US intervened in both Afghanistan and Iraq with the aim of changing the regimes in Kabul and Baghdad, which was achieved with remarkable speed. The machinery of terror and war built and maintained by the Taliban and the Ba”ath has been shattered. And whatever happens in Afghanistan and Iraq one thing is certain: Mullah Muhammad Omar and Saddam Hussein will not return to power.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq the remnants of the terrorist regimes, now joined by their ideological kindred from elsewhere, are still waging a vicious war, mostly against civilians. But neither country is a safe haven for terrorists plotting attacks against other nations, including the US.

To be sure, critics might say that the aim of the intervention was to transform Afghanistan and Iraq into modern democracies. While this is true any judgment as to the success or failure of the democratisation project must take into account the element of time. No, Afghanistan and Iraq are not Swiss-like democracies at this precise moment in time. Both may suffer years, if not decades, of violence and terror. The terrorists in Egypt fought for a quarter of a century. Turkey took almost 20 years to defeat its terrorists. In Algeria the terrorists fought for 12 years before they were crushed. Colombia has been fighting terrorists for 40 years and the Philippines for 30. Right now 22 nations across the globe suffer from the plague of terrorism as an almost daily fact of life.

The real question is not whether or not Afghanistan and Iraq have already become model democracies. The real question is whether or not they would have had any chance of even forming such a dream under Mullah Omar and Saddam. Anyone familiar with Afghanistan and Iraq would know the answers.

If the sole yardstick for determining a nation”s success of failure were to be its ability to contain and then eliminate terrorism, many nations other than Afghanistan and Iraq would also have to be put on the list of failures.

Regime change in Kabul and Baghdad has altered the six decades” old balance of power in the Middle East.


Telling the future should be left to soothsayers but one thing is certain: the region”s democratic forces now have their first opportunity in almost a century to make a real impact.

The last time these forces were in a position to set the agenda was in the first decade of the last century which witnessed the victory of constitutional movements in Iran and the Ottoman Empire. Now, these democratic forces may fail because of their mistakes or may be defeated by Islamist and secular despotic opponents. But they also have a chance to win. And that, seen from the United States which should be supportive of democratic forces everywhere, is certainly a success.

Now let us examine the second assumption in the current debate- that the US can change its foreign policy at will and instantly.

There are those who preach a return to the bankrupt hotchpotch that Henry Kissinger sold to the Americans under the label of Realpolitik for almost a decade. But would Osama bin Laden or Abu-Mussab al-Zarqawi agree to play the role of Brezhnev in a new version of the Kissingerian detente? Would the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and Ba”ath learn the Treaty of Westphalia by heart and play their role in a new version of balance of power scripted by good old Henry?

Richard Haass, a more intelligent student of international affairs than Kissinger, offers a new &#34doctrine&#34 presumably to replace the Bush Doctrine. But all that Haass ends up with a long recent article is an admission that the US will not be safe for as long as there are despotic regimes likely to breed and then sustain terrorism.

Also looking for a new &#34doctrine&#34 is Francis Fukuyama who had started by announcing the end of history and thus the superfluity of any foreign policy doctrine. More than a decade later he offers a new book- &#34America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy&#34- in which he returns deep into the history of the last century to find an alternative to the Bush Doctrine. He labels this &#34Wilsonian realism&#34, after President Woodrow Wilson who first brought hopes of democracy to the Middle East in the aftermath of the First World War.

In a sense the US foreign policy, even in periods of isolationism has always had a certain Wilsonian accent in the sense that American policymakers were aware that democracies were unlikely to provoke wars and that any threat to the US came from despotic regimes.

But why does Fukuyama need the adjective &#34realistic&#34 to make his neo-Wilsoniaism credible? The reason is that Wilson made a lot of promises which then failed to uphold. His idealism appealed to oppressed people everywhere. But his failure to back it with action brought death and desolation on a vast scale for numerous nations across the globe.

The only realistic version of Wilosonianism is the Bush Doctrine which, put starkly, is prepared to back words with deeds in the context of enlightened self-interest. The spread of democracy is good for American safety and security, not to mention trade and economic interests. And that, in turn, is also good for nations who wish to enter the mainstream of global life.

During much of the Cold War the US, both by choice and necessity, on occasions acted against character by supporting despots in the context of a global power struggle against the Soviet bloc. There is no longer any justification for that. Bush seems to have understood this. And that, whether Kissinger, Haass and Fukuyama like it or not, is the most realistic matrix for American foreign policy in the 21st century.