Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

January 24, 2001

Dubya’s Foreign Policy Could Depend On Us

In his surprisingly effective inaugural address George W. Bush spent only a nominal amount of time on foreign policy (as distinguished from military policy insofar as they can be distinguished) and filled it mostly with "we’re still engaged; terrorists don’t get any cute ideas" boilerplate. But it seems to me that a Bush administration foreign policy is still a work in progress, and a work that antiwar activists and critics of imperial interventionism can influence. We should do so.

Indeed, we’re already seeing a certain amount of preliminary panic from some of the keepers of the globalist tablets at places like the Weekly Standard and The New Republic. For these armchair warriors it isn’t enough that Secretary of State Colin Powell spent 35 years in the military, has a fair amount of experience in the world at large and has not questioned the overall framework of American foreign policy. He has shown alarming tendencies toward deviationism on certain standing commitments like Bosnia and Kosovo, and he is on record as being somewhat skeptical of "nation-building" and "humanitarian" military interventions. So he must be warned, taken down a few pegs or even excoriated, as Lawrence Kaplan recently did in The New Republic.

It just wouldn’t do to have a skeptic or even a hard-nosed realist as Secretary of State or at least not one who parlays doubts into inaction. It was better to have a Madeleine Albright, with zero military experience and almost no diplomatic experience trotting the troublespots and capable of shocking the bejabbers out of Colin Powell with her notorious offhand comment about what good it was to have a strong military if we didn’t use it a little more often.


This uppity former general, however, sometimes shows alarming signs of thinking independently and – even more alarming – viewing the military as made up of actual human beings called upon to face danger and possible death rather than pawns at the disposal of global big thinkers. The most recent evidence comes from his discussion of economic sanctions during his Senate confirmation hearings.

The pervasive use of trade embargoes and other forms of economic restrictions, Secretary Powell averred, "shows a degree of American hubris and arrogance that may not, at the end of the day, serve our interests all that well .… I would like to participate with you [the Senate Foreign Relations Committee] in discussing how to get rid of most of them." Powell also urged Congress not to impose any new economic sanctions before he had a chance to review prior sanctions and study new proposals:

"Stop, look and listen before you impose a sanction," he told the Senate committee. "Count to 10, then call me."

These attitudes should be encouraged, and we will have influential allies in doing so. Monday’s Los Angeles Times ran an extensive story on Powell’s attitude toward sanctions, noting that Republican Sen. Richard Lugar and Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd, both of whom have been around long enough and made enough allies to qualify as Old Bulls, have been vocal critics of sanctions. "In most cases, the issue is rushed to the Senate or House floor so that Congress can express its outrage at some perceived misdeed," Sen. Dodd said last week. "But there has never been any systematic effort by Congress to review sanctions once imposed, to consider whether they have achieved their objectives or have turned out to be counterproductive."


The United States imposes economic sanctions on about 75 of the world’s 200-odd countries, for misdeeds ranging from mislabeling tuna to violating human rights on a massive scale. By contrast the United Nations, which is hardly shy about sanctions as a gesture, enforces sanctions against fewer than a dozen countries.

Critics of sanctions have natural allies outside the State Department and Congress. There’s a coalition of about 600 American businesses called USA Engage, which devotes its full lobbying efforts to trying to ease economic embargoes and sanctions imposed by the United States. The organization estimates that the United States loses as much as $19 billion a year in lost exports and deprives itself of about 200,000 high-wage jobs as a result of economic sanctions.

This illustrates the too-seldom-mentioned point that while sanctions proponents generally speak of imposing sanctions against Saddam or whatever international bully is the flavor of the day villain, the limits are actually imposed on American businesspeople who might want to trade with people in the country being "punished." Sanctions are a way of one government saying to another government, "We don’t approve of the nasty way you treat your people, so until you stop we’re going to beat up on our people and deprive them of freedom to trade." Wouldn’t that persuade you?


As we’re encouraging Colin Powell to continue and to become more active in his questioning of past and present sanctions, it is prudent to remember that he has so far not been a model of consistency on the matter. Shortly after being nominated, he sent strong signals that he would favor stronger action against Iraq, which would almost certainly include tighter economic sanctions as well as diplomatic pressure and at least consideration of military force.

For whatever reasons, then and the possibility of feeling a certain emotional commitment to continued pressure/hostility toward Iraq. He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the elder Bush’s splendid little war in the Persian Gulf, after all, and most historians believe his advice was crucial to the then-president’s decision to declare victory after 100 hours, rather than marching toward Baghdad or even undertaking systematic destruction of Iraq’s military infrastructure. He may feel that he has unfinished business in Iraq so long as Saddam is still in power and acting out.

On the other hand, it is just possible that he could be persuaded, as part of a systematic review of existing sanctions, to rethink sanctions against Iraq. So he should be encouraged to sponsor and encourage such a comprehensive review, by both State Department and congressional committees and staffers. If such a review produces a conclusion that sanctions have been ineffective against Iraq, foreign policy gurus might just consider relinquishing them. Starving Iraqi children don’t seem to have moved too many hearts, but an image of bumbling U.S. ineffectiveness might do the trick.


Other pressing foreign-policy issues will demand attention not only from the new administration but from the antiwar community as well. American commitments in Bosnia and Kosovo, which look to be semipermanent in the absence of a serious review and thoroughgoing critique, drain American resources. The Clinton administration, largely at the behest of "drug czar" and former General Barry McCaffrey, has made a large-scale commitment to fighting narcotraffickers in Colombia, a battle that is virtually certain to impact the ongoing civil war in that country. The recent assassination of Laurent Kabila in Congo, combined with the fact that some American businesspeople are engaged there, could lead to more US government concentration on Congo and (since the conflict Kabila tried ineffectually to manage involved six other countries) on Africa in general.

Former President Clinton’s last-minute legacy-building efforts to impose a made-in-America peace between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have failed, but they have left a legacy of heightened tension and increased bitterness on all sides. The Bush administration, whether through the president or through Secretary Powell or through back channels, would do well to inform all interested parties that while the United States remains concerned, it will refrain from the kind of manic peace processing that characterized the last days of the Clinton administration. The parties should be informed that they bear responsibility for settling disputes among themselves, that the United States will be available if and when a peace agreement is imminent and needs a little push from an ostensibly neutral power but the US won’t push and has no intention of buying an agreement through promises of subsidies or foreign aid.


Fortunately, a Bush administration considering new foreign adventures or the expansion of existing ones can almost certainly count on more opposition from what might loosely be called the "left" the academic-media-interest axis than a Clinton administration did. For various reasons, in part because he knew how to manipulate language and rhetoric skillfully, President Clinton managed to get something of a pass on his foreign adventures from groups and individuals who, in a previous era, had been inclined to be suspicious of imperialistic activities overseas.

Although such opposition is likely to be more for reasons of cultural affinity (or lack thereof) than bedrock principle, it is likely to emerge if a President Bush decides to expand US involvement in the war in Colombia, for example. Some of these elements might even be ready to reassess the ongoing Balkan intervention. We should welcome and encourage these doubts, eager to make alliances and form coalitions around specific issues. It might seem megalomaniacal, given the relatively small numbers of people in the United States truly committed to nonintervention and war-avoidance (unless you count the American people, most of whom have no desire to run an empire but don’t see reining it in as a top priority). But we should start to consider ourselves as the hub of a network of alliances encouraging anyone who opposes or even doubts almost any US intervention overseas.

We have sympathy on certain issues from prominent elected politicians and even from top appointed officials, from certain businesspeople, and from the semi-permanent floating coalition of quasi-leftist groups, and on certain issues from some in the mainstream media. With that kind of aggregation it is possible just possible to let the Bushies know that if they expand interventions or propose new interventions they are likely to pay a political price. Combine that with a somewhat more modest approach to intervention on the part of most of Bush’s foreign policy team coming in, and there’s just a chance we can reduce foreign intervention during the coming administration.

I think we should make at least that much a goal. Then we’ll have time to introduce more theoretical and philosophical arguments to shape the debate for the future.

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