Respond to this Article May 2005

Turns out diplomacy works

By Nancy Soderberg

There are hopeful signs of historic progress on foreign policy as President Bush passes the first hundred-day mark of his second term. Iraq is headed in the right direction; Israelis and Palestinians appear poised for the first real progress in four years; and there are signs of nascent Arab reform in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. The president's new focus on freedom could help reverse troubling undemocratic trends in Russia, Pakistan, and beyond. In light of these events, some critics of the administration are second-guessing their harsh appraisal of Bush's first term and are wondering whether Bush knew what he was doing all along.

Not so fast. The positive developments of the last few months are indeed encouraging and are to be embraced. They are not, however, a consequence of the Bush administration's harsh, unilateral foreign policy, but instead the result of a not-so subtle shift to a more realistic foreign policy favored by past presidents. It seems diplomacy--that much-maligned policy option--gets results.

For most of his first term, Bush was under the spell of the myth that, as a superpower, America could bend the world to its will, primarily on its own and through military means. The results of that muscle diplomacy are in. America is bearing the burden of rebuilding and securing Iraq essentially on its own, while Iran and North Korea have been pursuing their nuclear weapons programs unchecked. Because the administration has undermined myriad arms control conventions, weapons of mass destruction may be now more accessible to terrorists. Anti-Americanism has spiked to unprecedented heights, making the world less willing to act with us to share the superpower burden. Who could imagine student protestors in Tiananmen Square today building a replica of the Statue of Liberty as they did in May 1989?

While it has been loath to admit it, the Bush administration is quietly shifting back to the tough work of diplomacy. After the administration claimed America could protect itself on its own, and that it did not need "old Europe," working in partnership is suddenly back in fashion. And it is getting results--not, as some have claimed because of events in Iraq, but rather because American diplomats are seeking once again to return the United States to its rightful role as a persuader, not just enforcer.

Recent events in the Middle East demonstrate the case. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has called for free multiparty elections. But what precipitated this development? It turns out it was likely a good old-fashioned diplomatic threat--Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled her trip to the Middle East, with the State Department citing frustration over Mubarak's crackdown on political opponents. The speculation that Mubarak is also seeking ways to legitimize a possible transfer of power to his son most likely played another part in his shift.

In Lebanon, the United States will need wise leadership to help manage any transition there, as well as possible changes in Syria. The administration's response to the apparent Syrian role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri has not been to go it alone; rather, we worked with the United Nations, and particularly with the French, and called with one international voice for the removal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. The new hope for peace between Israel and Palestine had little to do with Washington's policies but rather was sparked by the death of Yasser Arafat and the rise of a new, more responsible Palestinian leadership. These developments have little to do with events in Iraq, but each will require sophisticated, nuanced American diplomacy--as will the management of the continuing transition to democracy in Baghdad.

Finally, the Bush administration is quick to point to Libya as an example of a situation in which the invasion of Iraq led a dictator to back down and give up his country's nuclear weapons. But the evidence is that it was diplomacy--and not the threat of force--that led to the desired result. For 15 years, following the 1988 downing of Pan Am flight 103, the international community pressed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to admit responsibility, hand over those suspected of the bombing, and pay compensation. While the Iraq war likely made an impression, Qaddafi's change of heart regarding WMDs was in fact the culmination of years of tough international negotiations, sanctions, and diplomacy by this president and his two predecessors, his father and President Clinton. President George W. Bush would do well to learn from this success and negotiate a deal to end the dangerous nuclear weapons programs in North Korea--despite the administration's derision of that same approach taken by President Clinton in 1994.

Despite these facts, neoconservatives will no doubt claim this progress occurred only because our diplomacy is backed up by the threat of force. Certainly, the threat of force can assist diplomacy--but only if it is a real threat, as it was in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. The truth is, with approximately 150,000 U.S. troops bogged down in Iraq for at least the next few years, any threat of invasion of Iran, North Korea, or Syria is a hollow one. Had the United States not fallen victim to the fallacy that we can go it alone, primarily through military means, we could have made more progress on addressing the threats from terrorists and proliferators over the last four years.

Let us hope that President Bush has seen the need to abandon this dangerous myth and shift America back to a more realistic role of engaging the world. Certainly, his new, ally-friendly rhetoric on display during his recent kiss-and-make-up trip to Europe indicates that some new thinking has been going on--although the nomination of John Bolton to be United Nations ambassador is a sign that the militant, unilateralist faction within the Bush administration still has significant clout.

If this is indeed a real change in policy, America is poised to serve as a catalyst for progress on a range of important issues, including Arab-Israeli peace, support for democracy, Arab reform, and a stronger world coalition against proliferators and terrorists. Such success, however, would stem not from the failed policies of macho preemption, but rather from a shift to a new, more realistic policy for the second term. Positive developments across the Middle East should rightly be cheered. But they should also serve as a reminder that diplomacy isn't something to be scoffed at.

Nancy Soderberg, a former senior Clinton official, is the author of The Superpower Myth, The Use and Misuse of American Might.


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