All Writings
January 11, 2003

Two Years Of Foreign Policy Debacles

In his forthcoming State of the Union address to the joint session of the Congress, President Bush will undoubtedly boast about his administration's achievements during the past two years. But, try as he may to put the best possible spin on a number of major foreign policy issues, he will be hard pressed to explain the government's many blunders.

In his speech, the president is likely to mention such domestic and foreign initiatives as the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, our gains in the war on terrorism, and the establishment of the Homeland Security Department. He will boast about our improved relations with China and Russia, and his ready-to-go roadmap for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. And of course, he'll talk tough about how he's bringing Iraq's President Saddam Hussein to heel. Republican lawmakers will stand up and cheer, hailing their leader for the remarkable job that he has done. The results of the mid-term Congressional elections, they believe, attest to his leadership and vision.

But do they? Although Mr. Bush's commitment to do the right thing and safeguard our national interests has shaped his foreign policy initiatives, these policies have been at best counterproductive, at worst, potentially disastrous.

Mr. Bush and his advisors came to the White House with an aversion against any major foreign policy objective or initiative supported by Mr. Clinton. Their personal distaste for the former president has blinded them from even seeing the merit in some of his soundest policies. To name only three of these instances: The administration has insisted that Mr. Clinton invested too much of his political capital on the failed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, did not stand up to North Korea when it became known that they had an active nuclear program under way, and allowed Saddam Hussein to amass WMD. Bent on correcting what it saw as grave mishaps, the administration shaped a different strategy to deal with these and other issues. The result is that two years later the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has intensified to where the two peoples are poised on the brink of disaster, the prospects of a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula are now very real, and the United States is about to initiate a war against Iraq, which may result in an incalculable damage to our friends and allies in the region.

No objective observer can suggest that the Clinton policies were perfect. Yet, imperfect as they were, they provided the basis on which a new administration could build. Every student of the Middle East, for example, knows that without direct, sustained, and forceful American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the two parties will be unable to achieve any agreement. History has shown that they simply cannot go it alone. Regardless of how faulty were President Clinton's mediating efforts at Camp David in the Summer of 2000, he succeeded in bringing Israelis and Palestinians closer to an agreement than ever before. Instead of embracing this accomplishment by appointing a presidential envoy to bring all necessary pressure to bear on the two sides to make the final concessions for peace, the new administration totally rejected Mr. Clinton's peace formula, virtually abandoning both sides to their own devises. Another choice would, I believe, have prevented the disastrous escalation in hostilities we have seen, and, in this respect, helped the war against terrorism by removing one of its major causes.

As for Mr. Bush's fixation on Saddam Hussein, it remains inexplicable. Yes, Saddam is a ruthless leader with unsatiated appetite for WMD, who must be disarmed. But now that the UN has passed a new resolution (1441) enforcing a much tougher inspection regime, we need to be clear about how we wish to achieve our objective, with war being an absolutely last resort. If Iraq's declaration about its WMD program is incomplete or inaccurate, we must show evidence of this before we accuse it of noncompliance substantial enough to justify our going to war. If the UN inspectors uncover no smoking gun, the administration must share its intelligence with them on the whereabouts of some of Iraq's forbidden weaponry. If the Iraqi leader is convinced that the administration is bent on waging war to oust him even though he voluntarily reveals his WMD, why should he cooperate with the inspectors? Our military buildup in the Gulf gives him no reason to believe that the administration will ever be satisfied, short of war. Indeed, the more we expend on war preparations (both in political capital and money), the harder it will be for Mr. Bush to change course without losing face. In the end, we may have to go to war with Iraq because we've painted ourselves into a corner. There must be, and is, a better way to achieve our ends. As opposition to war grows inside and outside America, we can exert sustained and insurmountable political and military pressure on Iraq that will by itself eventually bring about a change in regime there. Why is it impossible to be patient and wise enough to outlast Mr. Hussein without resorting to a major war, with unpredictable consequences?

Turning to North Korea, we see that whether the administration admits it or not, the situation has now boiled over into a crisis. However much it misbehaved by flagrantly violating its 1994 agreement with us, Mr. Bush has poured oil on the flames by including North Korea in his infamous "axis of evil" club. Mr. Bush's remarks have underscored our incredible immaturity in dealing with rogue states that operate according to values, historical perspectives, and views of their place in the international community, far different from our own.

At the outset, the administration basically severed all contact with this isolated nation, thinking it can teach its reclusive leader, Kim Jong II, a lesson about the norms of international conduct. North Korea did not back down, but raised the stakes. First, it revealed that it had secretly resumed the production of uranium in violation of its agreement with the United States, then it evicted the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, followed by the more ominous steps of withdrawing from the Nonproliferation Treaty and announcing that it will soon resume missile testing. From their perspective, the North Koreans see these measures as deterrence against a preemptive attack by the United States. They are not entirely paranoid. For why should the North Koreans not assume that after we settle our score with Iraq, we will turn our guided bombs and missiles against them? Having witnessed our preparations for war against Iraq, they take Mr. Bush at his word when he says he wants to get rid of Saddam and other members of the axis of evil club that are stockpiling WMD. President Bush may repeat until he is blue in the face that he has no intention of attacking North Korea, but he has put it on the defensive, and its leaders have responded with the only card they possess–nuclear brinkmanship.

Nothing can justify North Korea's reckless behavior. But refusing to negotiate because we do not want to appease or be blackmailed by Pyongyang, deprives us of the very leverage that negotiation offers. How can a relatively small and underdeveloped nation blackmail the most powerful country on earth? Who can possibly suggest that we can be intimidated or coerced into action by a third-rate military power, even if it possesses one or two nuclear weapons? In any negotiation with North Korea, we must make our position and our expectations consistently clear: One way or another, North Korea must disassemble its nuclear program. If we have no ill intentions toward North Korea, we should also state this in face-to-face talks. Why is it okay to negotiate through Governor Bill Richardson–a Democrat, with the acquiescence of Secretary of State Powell–but refuse to enter into substantive and direct talks that could defuse the crisis fairly quickly? To do so, this administration might have to swallow its pride, settle on a firm policy in regards to North Korea take bold and comprehensive steps befitting the world's greatest power to defuse the situation. Those inside and outside the administration–including Vice President Cheney and Senator John McCain–who advocate a tough stand against the North Korean challenge are flirting with a disaster. Pyongyang has very little to lose. Neither threats nor sanctions nor political pressure will work. The country is in dire need of economic help, and nothing will persuade him to give up its only leverage. Moreover, under the protection of its nuclear weapons, Pyongyang–when we are on the verge of war with Iraq–can engage us in a conventional war, even with the knowledge that defeat is the most likely outcome. The North Koreans hope that if they do this or threaten to, they can exact from us even more concessions. The late President of Egypt Anwer Al-Sadat achieved just that when he waged war against Israel in 1973; Egypt ended up being compensated with billions of dollars to make peace with Israel. North Korea wants our attention; it despairs of receiving it, including any significant aid. Pyongyang needs to see that a prospect for serious relief exists for its people. It is in our best interests, and those of our allies, especially South Korea and Japan, to neutralize the crisis before it spins completely out of control, as happened between Israel and the Palestinians.

The administration must get its act together and quickly develop a cohesive strategy to deal with North Korea on a permanent basis. At various stages of negotiations between the two countries, we should involve other powers, especially China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, not just because they all have a stake in the outcome, but because we must avoid bi-lateral agreements and internationalize any new arrangements. Only in this context can we reaffirm our nonbelligerent intentions and willingness to work hand-in-hand with South Korea toward reunification.

President Bush and his national security team have their work cut out for them. How they will end the dual crises in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula will have tremendous impact on our moral leadership in the ever-changing global geopolitical landscape.