Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

October 18, 2000

Another Missed Opportunity?

This 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 with agility.

Events 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.

For 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.

The 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.


While 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.

Any 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.

Few 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?

One 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).


One 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.

The 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 even Dick 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.

Add 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."

It 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.

While 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 criticism.


You 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.

But 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.

The 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.

It 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.

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