Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Final Campaign Thoughts II

Yesterday I wrote about why I am supporting Obama on social issues (basic recap- he is a liberal Democrat and while he may not implement everything he says he'll work for, at least I can expect him to not actively sabotage or oppose any of them as a McCain administration would). Today I'll talk about foreign policy.

First, my ideological background: I think that I am like many Americans in that I don't fall into either extreme of either isolationism or extreme interventionism. Pure isolationism amounts to callous selfishness which, particularly in cases of genocide or humanitarian crisis, could accurately be described as evil. Reading about the various massacres of the twentieth century, be they the millions of Ukrainians starving under Lenin to the brutalities of King Leopold in the jungles of Congo, to the gas chambers of Auschwitz or the killing fields of Cambodia makes the idea of standing by while innocents die repugnant to me.

Yet at the same time, policing the world is no small matter. Contrary to the Neo-Conservative view, the mere political system of democracy cannot solve deep-seated issues of culture or civilization. We associate democracies with pluralism and tolerance, but there are many places in the world that do not share these values, and merely giving such people the power to vote will not solve their problems, or ours. Neither can we avoid considering the tremendous costs of invading another country, subjugating its armies, destroying its infrastructures, and then trying to rebuild it all from scratch. (That's even assuming we were at a point where we could sustain yet another invasion/war with a third country, which we're not.)

We all know that the world is an ugly place, and as a nation with power our job should be to use that power wisely and fairly on behalf of those that need us. Of course, we should consider our own priorities in any foreign policy situation but should not let our self-interest be our only motive. One of the most important things we have learned under the Bush administration is that no matter how powerful you may think you are, allies are crucial to winning a war. Our foreign policies have alienated many countries that formerly supported us and as a result, we are more likely to carry future burdens alone. For a nation with any possible motivation to help improve the world, whether motivated by altruism or self-interest, the consequences of this are clearly disastrous. We cannot solve every problem ourselves. We do need allies, we do need the rest of the world, we do need to remember that our view is not the only one that matters-- and also realize that we are stronger if we can convince others of the moral or strategic advantages of supporting us in whatever efforts we undertake.

What I am trying to say is that, particularly as we attempt to regroup and refocus the War on Terror, we need to be particularly aware of how we are going to fight and win it. Our military resources, both in manpower and equipment, are strained if not depleted. Our country is deeply divided, and our morale, well our morale seems to vary depending on the day and the time. Some days the news seems to make it look like we will be able to leave Iraq in a few years, other days it looks like we'll be stuck there for generations. In the meantime we have other dangers that need our attention as well: Russia trying to regain its power and influence over Europe, China using amoral economics to pursue its will towards supremacy, North Korea testing nukes, Iran probably close to acquiring them, Syria and Lebanon financing and supporting terrorism, and of course the ongoing mess that is Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Taliban. The list goes on.

Most people in America recognize that the use of force is a necessary evil, even if only as a threat or deterrent. But the question is how do we make our policies work for us and help us? How do we fight smarter? Take another look at that list above: Russia and China are on their way towards being Super Powers and are very eager to get there (and are not likely to play nice when they do). Iran and North Korea, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan. That's six countries, six hot spots, from memory, without even doing so much as a Google Search. The world is too big for us to police it alone. The issue is not whether America is weak, it is whether it is supported. Think of the supporting beam of a house. You might think that if you only have a single pillar that you'll be ok, that you can hold up any weight, but you can't. Eventually if enough weight is placed on it, you'll buckle and fall. But if you have many pillars, many supports, you have a better chance of holding up under the weight. Our enemies understand this, why can't we?

One of the commonalities of the past Empires that collapsed is not only that they were overextended, but also that their size and power had alienated others who either stood by and watched their decline, or actively helped in destroying them. America did well during the two World Wars not only because of its military but also because it was not the only one carrying the burden. You don't need all of your enemies to launch a unified attack on you in order to fall; if there are enough of them and you're all alone, it will happen all on its own.

Under the Bush years America's image abroad has been significantly damaged. While initially we may have been admired for our willingness to defend ourselves in Afghanistan, and (perhaps) even in our successes in bringing freedom from a brutal regime in Iraq, as these conflicts have gone on, we have lost much of our support. Right or wrong, every mistake of these wars have haunted us, being stored up as ammo for our opponents. And as our allies in our War have decreased, so too has our ability to fight it.

McCain seems to think that we do not need world opinion, that it is inconsequential as long as we are in the right (or think we are). There is truth in the idea that something does not become wrong even if everyone else says it is. But we also need to remember that we do not exist, or act in a vaccuum, and that we ignore our would-be allies at our peril. Going it alone makes us weak; it makes us a target, and it makes us vulnerable.

As President, we need someone who is willing to confront threats to our and the world's security, be they Islamist, Nationalist, or other. I do not doubt that McCain would be a capable bulldog President. But I think that we are stronger when we have others supporting us. I think that Russia and China are less likely to try to openly oppose us or to go behind our backs if we have the ability to confront them with not only American sanctions or American forces, but also those of the European Union and friendly countries in South and Latin America. I think Obama has more of an understanding of how a global or regional alliance can work, and how to rebuild the coalitions that have suffered under a Go-It-Alone-President. I don't see McCain being able to do that, especially given that internationally he continues to be identified, through party affiliation if not ideology, with Bush.

I think that many of the candidates' responses on foreign policy would be similar- if there is a legitimate threat, both would act to neutralize or contain it. The key difference is in tactics and approach. For instance, at this point the debate over Iraq is mostly arguing over semantics; neither candidate would be interested in leaving an Iraq that would be likely to incinerate as soon as we left. Thanks to the Surge and the Sunni Awakenings, it looks like the standard operating procedure will be to gradually turn over security to provinces as they get their acts together. The question is whether the focus will be on improving security regardless of how long it takes or pressuring the Iraqis by letting them know that we're on our way out. I'm not sure that somewhere between the two positions wouldn't be best.

The bigger issue in Iraq, and one that conservatives touting the Surge have consistently avoided, is that security is only part of the equation- as long as Sunnis and Shiia are at each other's throats, Iraq will continue to be a divided and unstable state. There is no question that security is important- but without political cooperation and unity, we won't be able to leave. The Sadrists seem to have calmed down for the time being, but it remains an open question as to what they will do should the Americans leave or the government doesn't give them their way. As long as there are Shiite militias (some which have infiltrated the Iraqi army) and armed Sunni Awakening Councils, the country is still a tinderbox. If we don't pay attention to this component, we aren't getting out of there. Period.

What should our priorities be in a new administration? Keeping China honest about its economic policies (which includes making sure we don't fall any more in debt to them). We should encourage fledgling democracy movements in countries like Cuba (the Castro brothers are on their way out and everyone knows it). We must show Russia we mean business and will not allow them to intimidate their neighbors. And we need to reach out to the people of Iran and North Korea (and Syria and Lebanon) while letting the government or terrorist forces dictating their policies that we intend to stand firm by our red lines. And we need to re-engage with the Israelis and Palestinians, an area sorely neglected by the Bush administration for most of its first term and then, as if trying to make up for it, using a one-two-punch of hyping up impossibly high standards with little to no follow through. This was sort of like trying to cure cancer by giving someone some Ace bandages and then instead of addressing the obvious weaknesses with the treatment, paying an ad agency to promote just how awesome Ace bandages are. (More on Israel specifically in a later post.)

My gut feeling is that, especially post-Bush, both McCain and Obama will be paying attention to foreign threats, both military and economic and will try to do their best to respond appropirately to them. Unfortunately I don't see McCain as being a personality that will help us move away from the world's impression of America as a self-centered bully. We need to reclaim our image and conscience, and I think that when it comes to winning the war of perception, which will strengthen America's resolve and shore up support among our allies to help us present a united front to our opponents, Obama is a much better candidate. If we pick McCain the warrior we may have a man that understands the military and how to present "a hard line" very well but we run the risk of being left out in the cold internationally for another four to eight years- something we and the world cannot afford.

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