Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock
Antiwar.com

December 6, 2000

Making Lemonade

Given how odd and virtually unprecedented the Florida Follies are in a presidential election, any prediction should be guarded and qualified. But at this point – and the stock market seems to agree – it almost looks as if it is all over but the whining and Dubya will be the next president. Even though the Florida Supreme Court could modify Florida Circuit Judge Sanders Saulís decision not to grant Team Gore an official contest, even an official contest is not guaranteed to find enough votes to turn the tide.

Some commentators and some of Mr. Goreís lawyers have warned that with open records historians and activists will be poring through the original materials and could easily come up with the decision that Mr. Gore won more votes in Florida after all. That may be, and certainly many in the Gore camp sincerely and with only minimal partisan self-spinning believe it will be the case. But it seems unlikely that this would happen without at least some dimpled or pregnant chads being counted, which would be controversial. It is probably best to think of this as a tie to be decided by the rules in place at the time or a coin flip, won by Mr. Bush – or, though the odds seem increasingly lengthy, Mr. Gore.

Either way, the legitimacy of the new president – or at least his ability to claim anything resembling a mandate from the people or even the voters (remember that half the eligibles couldnít bring themselves to participate in the vulgar electoral sweepstakes) – will be severely limited. That is the most fundamental fact to emerge from such a tight election: that neither candidate stirred enough enthusiasm or loyalty to win, so that in a real sense both lost. One will have the levers of power but something far short of the confidence of the people.

CURBING IMPERIAL POWER

This is very good news for those who believe the United States should move toward a less aggressive and more peaceful and sensible foreign policy. In the absence of a clear-cut crisis – Russia declaring war and lobbing a missile, China trying to take Taiwan by military force or firing a missile at Los Angeles, Osama Bin Laden organizing a major paramilitary action rather than a discrete terrorist strike against a key strategic target or against U.S. civilians – a president needs a certain base of secure support before undertaking a military action or initiative in another country.

Given the bitterness engendered on all sides by the current denouement to November 7, a president of either party is likely to face a significant level of organized opposition in Congress to almost any foreign adventure short of response to an attack. The opposition might not be enough to vote down an administration plan or to deny funding, but it is likely to be enough to make almost any move controversial and therefore somewhat more politically risky.

BUSH MARGINALLY LESS DANGEROUS?

If Mr. Bush is president the situation is likely to be better for supporters of a noninterventionist foreign policy. The kind of bitter-ender Democrats in Congress who will feel cheated for years are also likely to question foreign adventures; indeed, some of them have already been mildly vocal in questioning the Clinton administrationís intervention in Colombia (a bit more on that later and a lot more in a future column). Congressional Democrats questioning a Bush administration initiative are more likely to find sympathetic ears and sounding boards in the media than congressional Republicans questioning Gore initiatives, so it will be easier to organize both the reality and the appearance of solid opposition to almost any initiative a Bush administration might attempt.

The bottom-line reality, however, is that the next president will have less flexibility in foreign affairs than has been the case in recent decades. It is finally sinking in that the Cold War is over and that global engagement is optional rather than mandatory (weíre talking general perceptions, not necessarily mine) for the United States. What thoughtful critics of the right, left and center have dubbed the Imperial Presidency was closely tied to the perception that the United States was engaged in a global struggle from which it could not afford to withdraw, and that the president as chief foreign policy officer needed a great deal of freedom of action (regardless of quaint relics like the US Constitution) to manage that engagement on a day-today basis.

Dubya has some experienced people around him, but he simply doesnít give off the aura of an engaged global strategist who needs to be given his head to assure US success in the international arena. Algore doesnít either, of course, but in terms of foreign policy the deer-in-the-headlights look is more subversive of imperial power than the air of a kindergarten teacher speaking slowly so his less-than-bright class will get it. The good news is that neither looks like a Master of the World in the imperial mold. The better news is that Dubya fits the mold even less than Algore.

Thereís also the fact that while the differences were relatively slight, in terms of policy the Bush team showed evidence of being slightly more skeptical of foreign adventures than the Gore team. If Gore beats the odds and gets in he may still have his utopian vision that the United States should be proactive in areas like environmental degradation and political economic stability overseas and get involved even before trouble breaks out, but it will be politically difficult for him to put this vision into action, if only because of Republican bitter-enders in Congress who will oppose his every move. And it will be easy to make fun of the vision.

If itís the Bushlet, however, critics of interventionism will be able to emphasize areas they have in common with "realists" of the Wolfowitz or Rice stripe. A Bush team is unlikely to rush into "humanitarian" interventions and might even be drawn into discussions of pulling back current commitments, perhaps in Kosovo and perhaps even in intensity of involvement in international organization like NATO.

POSSIBLE DANGER SIGNS

It may not be all smooth sailing for foes of US over-intervention, however. Machiavelli was not the first, though he may have been the most explicit and memorable of the writers who recommended to a Prince facing opposition, trouble or hostility at home to get involved in some manageable foreign adventure as a way of uniting the country, neutralizing opposition, occupying public attention and justifying more controls on political activity. Either a Gush or a Bore looking at deadlock in Congress, constant sniping from the opposition and the media, lukewarm support from allies and the general impression that he went to all that trouble and self-denial only to be treated with disrespect, might well look longingly at some foreign conflict where a resolution or even involvement might buy him surcease from sniping or even a dramatic increase in the esteem in which American hold him.

Among the most likely temptations for a President Bush might be Saddam Hussein. He is and remains a handy target for American presidents of the sort that might have to be invented if he didnít exist. And for the Bush team, both advisers and family to different degrees, the notion that Saddam is still standing still rankles. Some dramatic action against Iraq, probably short of a new Gulf War but more intense than the low-level daily overflights and occasional bombing might seem like a good way to establish Team Dubya as a force to be reckoned with in the world, and settle some personal scores.

It seems important, therefore, to continue to remind US policymakers that the embargo against Iraq is on the verge of disintegrating, with grey-market goods increasingly finding their way through and countries like France and Russia working actively for formal lifting of the embargo. Among the questions to be raised in that context are whether it is more important to maintain decent relations with major powers like Russia than to punish a brutal but minor dictator. It will also be important to emphasize arguments against embargoes and sanctions in general, especially those that point out the relative ineffectiveness of economic sanctions.

Dick Cheney, while in the private sector (working for a company that profited from oil commerce, to be sure), contributed to a Cato Institute seminar on sanctions, arguing a bit more than a year ago that it was time to rethink sanctions against Iraq. He might or might not agree when in power in government, but those words should be resurrected and repeated as often as possible.

QUESTIONING COMMITMENTS

If proponents of a less aggressive US foreign policy are smart, questioning sanctions will not be simply a way to avert action against Saddam and Iraq, but woven into a larger fabric of questioning US commitments overseas. Part of the reason military morale is low, for example, is because of ill-defined, under-financed social-worker commitments overseas that are potentially dangerous but not what most people join the military for. Some Republican strategists are already questioning how smart it is to keep troops more or less forever, on imperial rather than military missions, in Bosnia and Kosovo in the aftermath of Madeleine and Billís unnecessary and unsuccessful war. We should encourage such questions and work to expand them into a more thoroughgoing reassessment of the proper role of the United States in a post-cold war world as a question that ought to be resolved before the matter of whether the military is underfunded can even be considered intelligently.

Although certain Republicans are unregenerate and unreflective drug warriors, the new intervention into the ongoing Colombian civil war in the name of drug control should also be subject to questioning. Perhaps Republican – or even Democratic if it goes that way – big-picture thinkers can be brought around to the idea that a president without a solid mandate might do better to preside over a period of reflection and reassessment of current domestic and foreign commitments to establish a record of thoughtful, realistic and constructive action before facing election again.

Thereís much more to be considered, but for those seeking a new approach to foreign policy the current stalemate and new stalemates to follow offer unusual opportunities to have real influence on future policies. We might blow it or events might torpedo the opportunity. But if we donít recognize the opportunity and seek intelligently and persistently to exploit it we will have to answer to our grandchildren.

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