is being written before this weekís presidential debate, but I suspect
it is not high-risk prognostication to suggest that the major-party
candidates will sidestep this opportunity determinedly, if not necessarily
in the Middle East over the past several weeks could open up the
possibility of a thoroughgoing discussion of the unnecessary risks
created by current American foreign policy (if you can call improvising
in search of a legacy a policy). While I suspect that more Americans
than are dreamt of in Beltway policy circles are ready for a frank
discussion of options, I would be pleasantly amazed if Gush and
Bore obliged them or went beyond the usual sanctimonies.
starters, both candidates are likely to believe (or to have had
suggested to them by their handlers) that they did quite well enough
with foreign policy questions during last weekís debate to satisfy
the most vocal foreign policy fans among the dominant media. Neither
of them tripped over foreign names or committed the gaffe equivalent
of liberating Poland before its time. Dubya might have outlined
a slightly more cautious or pragmatic approach to committing American
power to the resolution of foreign problems or disputes than did
Algore (though he gave few clues as to how he would be different
in concrete, specific policy matters), but both stayed well within
the bounds of establishment dogma.
two agreed that the United States has a responsibility to stay involved
with the rest of the world. The sole remaining superpower must be
willing to lead. Perhaps some branches of the established foreign-policy
church would be more willing to commit troops to solve foreign social
problems, while others would prefer to reserve the awesome power
of the indispensable nation for disputes involving oil supplies.
But this is the moral equivalent of churchmen disagreeing over whether
the service should feature organ music and a choir singing late-Renaissance
motets or electric guitars and Amy Grant or Jars of Clay covers.
Indeed, this particular church is probably able to accommodate both
persuasions on alternate Sundays, with a Folk Mass thrown in occasionally.
the preordained elders have few doctrinal differences, however,
I suspect that out in the pews are people quite ready, not necessarily
for a potentially paradigm-shifting discussion, but for some discussion
of whether current doctrine actually requires certain very practical
risks and missteps. The blowup in the Middle East doesnít necessarily
demand complete rethinking or even a schism. But it does suggest
a fruitful discussion could be held of whether doctrine is being
applied intelligently or consistently.
serious candidate for the presidency, for example, is unlikely to
say anything other than that the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole should
be met with serious reprisals if the authorities are able to determine
with a reasonable degree of certainty who was responsible for the
death and destruction. But events from the recent past demand attention
to precisely this question of accurate identification or perpetrators.
This administration has bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan
with (at the very least) thin and unconvincing evidence that the
target had anything to do with terrorism or (a substantially more
alarming but unfortunately not unlikely possibility) in the knowledge
that the factory had virtually nothing to do with terrorism.
Americans would object to the general proposition that terrorists
should be punished severely. But itís in the nature of the activity
that terrorists are not always easy to identify or to track down.
Is it then acceptable to lash out at an innocent target in the name
of diverting attention from domestic political embarrassments or
problems or looking tough and determined?
doesnít expect Demopublicans to muse over whether attacking targets
of opportunity whose proprietors have no connection to a terrorist
act is morally distinguishable from terrorism itself. But they might
be interested in whether such attacks are a waste of resources or
have a deleterious effect on American credibility abroad, or the
U.S. reputation for intelligence (in any sense).
would hardly expect either major-party candidate to discuss the
issue in depth, but it is worth noting that one of the reasons the
U.S.S. Cole was attacked was because it was on an inherently dangerous
mission. It was part of the fleet enforcing the trade embargo against
Iraq, and that embargo has created a good deal of resentment.
embargo against Iraq has come under a certain amount of criticism
in the United States, from Arab-Americans, human-rights organizations
and the occasional political figure, like California Republican
Senatorial candidate Tom Campbell. (When he was in private life
Cheney criticized the embargo as part of a piece criticizing
US reliance on embargos as a primary tool of foreign policy. The
embargo is objectionable both on humanitarian grounds Iraqi
figures are probably exaggerated but certainly at least some children
have died prematurely at least indirectly because of the embargo
and because it has not pushed Saddam Hussein from power but
has imposed suffering on the Iraqi people, about whom everybody
claims to care.
the mortal danger to the sailors on the U.S.S. Cole. In a paper
a couple of years ago Cato Institute foreign policy analyst
Ivan Eland noted that "According to the Pentagonís Defense
Science Board, a strong correlation exists between US involvement
in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks
against the United States. President Clinton has also acknowledged
that link." Mr. Eland concludes that "the United States
could reduce the chances of such devastating and potentially catastrophic
terrorist attacks by adopting a policy of military restraint overseas."
takes nothing away from the bravery of those who carry out their
assignments overseas to note, then, that the U.S.S. Cole was attacked
in part because it is part of carrying out a policy that has imposed
suffering on the Iraqi people, done little to advance US foreign
policy interests (whatever they are; itís tough to figure out sometimes)
and may well have earned this country the unnecessary hostility
of a wide variety of people, some of whom are willing to carry out
desperate and violent acts to express their hostility.
the aftermath of a hideous event like the bombing of the U.S.S.
Cole tends to be a time when more people than usual focus on the
side effects of US policy decisions, it is usually a bad time to
suggest pulling in our wings or reassessing our commitments. In
the short run it sounds like "cut-and-run" counsel, and
most Americans have a relatively negative reaction. But sooner or
later not just the Iraqi embargo but a number of US commitments
in the Middle East and elsewhere should come in for intelligent
THE PROCESS TOWARD VIOLENCE
wonít hear too many of the usual network talking heads saying so
for example although every so often a stray voice pushes itself
forward but any number of American citizens and a few foreign policy
experts are at least willing to entertain the possibility that President
Clintonís eagerness for a legacy or a record of peace-making has
contributed to the current violence. The Camp David meetings in
July, say some so-called experts, were useful even if they didnít
culminate in an agreement because they pushed a number of issues
that will eventually have to be resolved to the fore.
it could also be argued that by highlighting such emotional, historically
portentous and possibly irresolvable issues as the final status
of Jerusalem, the Camp David talks actually destabilized the Middle
East and led almost directly to the current violence. These are
complex phenomena with many contributing factors, of course, but
it is hardly an unsustainable position to suggest that if the United
States had shown a little less eagerness, a bit more restraint in
inserting itself into the midst of the situation, had not insisted
on a timetable that had more to do with US domestic politics than
with facts on the ground in the Middle East, the current unpleasantness
might have been avoided, postponed, or made itself felt with less
loss of human life.
lesson that might have been learned is that restraint in the future
might be useful, at least as an experiment for a few weeks. But
the desire to do something or at least to be perceived as doing
something is apparently too overpowering in the Imperial City. So
we have a forced and uncomfortable summit called by President Clinton
(and greased by promises of yet more foreign aid to the region)
with which almost none of the constituency groups behind either
Barak or Arafat seems pleased. One may hope it doesnít intensify
the violence and killing, but the early signs are less than auspicious.
would be nice to hear presidential candidates discuss such issues
with the frankness and openness they deserve. But style seems more
important than substance in these matters.