No Time to Go Wobbly, Barack

The international system isn’t broken, and you can lead it.


By Michael Hirsh


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Samantha Power is a tall, rangy redhead with the purposeful gait of the athlete she once wanted to be. She has a husky voice and often speaks in excited rushes of ideas, the words tumbling over each other. What animates Power more than anything else is her Cause, her “dream of American power being harnessed for good.” She was haunted by her experience during the Bosnia war in the early 1990s, when, stringing for the Washington Post, she reported on the Serb attack on Srebrenica before the massacre of Bosnian Muslims there, but failed to get a story in the paper. Later she discovered, to her shock, that the tepid and slow response to the Balkans slaughter was in fact our best humanitarian effort ever, “the most robust of the century.” The United States—the avatar of freedom, the beacon of human rights, the city upon the hill—“had never in its history intervened to stop genocide,” she later wrote.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%A sometime journalist, wonk, and professor of government at Harvard University, Power spent the rest of the 1990s propounding the idea that, under the leadership of the United States, the international system would soon advance to the point at which it would no longer tolerate atrocious human rights abuses, especially genocide. Her 600-page book on the subject, “A Problem From Hell,” was turned down by nearly every major publisher. But after it won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2003, Power became a celebrity, at least within that intellectual demimonde of policy makers, academics, and think-tankers stretching from Washington to Harvard Square, and points beyond.

Power’s Pulitzer was awarded in April 2003, just as the looting began to rage in the streets of Baghdad, providing the first glimpses of the nightmare that Iraq was to become. And as the months passed, Power watched her interventionist dreams turn to dust. In just a few years, she believed, President Bush had squandered the efforts of half a century, in which Washington carefully nurtured an international system and worked its way, fitfully, toward a vague doctrine of global leadership. While Bush talks of freedom, democracy, and human rights, most people see a savage, botched occupation, alignment with Arab autocrats against Iran, and waterboarding in secret prisons. Says Power: “Now we’re neither the shining example, nor even competent meddlers. It’s going to take a generation or so to reclaim American exceptionalism.”

As she watched the 2004 presidential election returns come in, Power found herself sunk in “despondency” over the prospect of another four years of the same. Almost as disheartening as Bush’s win was the fact that the Kerry campaign had shied away from forthrightly challenging him on the fundamentals of his “war on terror.” For Power, as for so many, the one spark of hope was Barack Obama, whose ringing keynote speech had electrified the Democratic convention. Power was so impressed that she downloaded the speech onto her iPod. “I said, ‘God, what does one do now?’ ” Power recalls. “I guess it’s one of three things. One can just accept that all this will continue, one can run for office, or one can become Barack Obama’s foreign policy adviser.” A friend knew Obama’s college roommate. “So I got a short e-mail in early ’05: ‘Barack likes your book and would like to meet with you.’”

Their first meeting, several months later at a D.C. steakhouse, did not begin auspiciously. “His body language was not good,” says Power. “He had no desire to be there at all. It was, ‘Who the fuck is this person, this lily-livered Harvard softy, and tell me why I am meeting with her again?’” Still, Obama warmed up—it was supposed to be a forty-five-minute chat, but they ended up talking for three hours. “We sat down, and we started dinner. I was on my best behavior: I didn’t, like, order my trademark Jack Daniels. And then we just started talking. It was vintage Obama: question after question after question, starting with, ‘Who are you? I don’t get it. Bosnia? Whaaa? That’s weird.’ It ended up being a very personal discussion, oddly enough, but everything led to policy. That’s the way he comes to policy: What’s your story, and why do you tick the way you do? ... He’s what everybody says he is.” Before long, Power says, she had “drunk the Kool-Aid” on Obama. “At the end of the dinner, we’re walking out, and I said, ‘I’d love to help you in any way I can.’ He said, ‘That’d be great, maybe we could do some big think on a smart, tough, and humane foreign policy.’ I heard myself saying, ‘Why don’t I take a year off?’”

It wasn’t as if Power didn’t have other ways to spend her time. But for her, Obama represented nothing less than a chance to achieve her dream—to allow America to act as a force for good in the world—by rethinking the entire international security structure from the ground up. The Bush administration’s lethal mixture of arrogance and incompetence, she believed, had so squandered American credibility and alienated potential allies that the old system, based on a combination of American military dominance and deference to multilateral decision-making bodies, was no longer viable. With Obama, she might begin to figure out a new one.

Of course, Power is too smart and nuanced a thinker not to recognize what was valuable about the old system. “Obama and I talked a lot about the phenomenon of throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” she says. Power is finishing up a second book on a martyr to the dying dream of internationalism—Sergio Vieira de Mello, the rising United Nations star whose death by bombing in Iraq in August 2003 spelled another early disaster for the U.S. occupation. She says that one of the objects of her book is to “rescue the institutional memory” of successful international intervention efforts over the last twenty-five years of de Mello’s extraordinary career. “But we’re so despised around the world that when we show up at international institutions we’re not listened to, even when we now bring good-faith arguments, like on intervening in Darfur,” she says. “Whoever takes over in 2009 is inheriting this degree of contempt in the world. And that same person is going to be making a case for a wholly different approach to diplomacy and international institutions.”

Anthony Lake reached a similar conclusion from a very different place, and a different generation. In many ways, Lake is Power’s opposite: soft-spoken where she is impassioned, and so bland he seems to disappear into the woodwork. Lake went to Vietnam as a young Foreign Service official, and he describes himself as very like Alden Pyle, the dangerously idealistic protagonist of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, set in Vietnam during the 1950s. He was, in other words, a young proto-interventionist before the thirty-six-year-old Power was a gleam in her Irish mother’s eye. It was Lake who, as President Clinton’s national security adviser, conceived the closest thing the Clinton administration ever came up with to a post–cold war doctrine, declaring in a 1993 speech, “The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement—enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies.”

Lake first heard of Obama in 2002, when the former Clintonite was in Chicago giving a speech. “Afterwards one of the people there said there was a young guy running for the Senate. He probably had no chance, but could I talk to him?” Like Power, Lake was simply bowled over. “You can’t quote this, because it would sound like I’m gushing,” he told me, before proceeding to gush over Obama’s abilities (and later giving me permission to quote him). Most of all, however, he sees Obama’s “new face” as a way of moving to a more “fundamental” reordering of the global system. The UN-dominated structure that rose after World War II is “something we can live without,” he says. “We need to rethink the premises.”

There’s no doubt that Obama has the intellectual curiosity and self-confidence—not to mention the ideal public persona—to fundamentally reconsider American foreign policy. But at this point, for all his promise, he’s still, in some sense, a cipher. After eight years in the Illinois Senate and two in Washington, his foreign policy thinking, unsurprisingly, remains largely unformed. That Power and Lake—both hard-bitten political veterans, not starstruck newcomers—each found themselves gravitating toward Obama on the basis of a speech, a dinner, or a phone call suggests the level of despair to which both had sunk. Bush, it appeared, had so destroyed what was left of the existing system of international security that both Power and Lake, through their separate journeys, had reached a point where they sought a leader who might offer not a return to that system—as John Kerry cautiously did in 2004—but a wholesale reimagining of it.

In this impulse, they are far from alone. The last year has seen a slew of efforts by foreign policy thinkers, academics, journalists, policy wonks, and politicians to envision a new international security system, and a new U.S. foreign policy to go along with it. These varied proposals often have little in common except the assumption that, through some combination of the end of the cold war, the new threat of stateless terror, and the failures of the Bush years, the old system is dead, and an entirely new one must now be created. Intellectually, like the Khmer Rouge, we’re back at the year zero.

And yet, by assuming the need to go back to basics, many of these efforts, though not stinting in their condemnation of Bush’s unilateralism, unwittingly accept the underlying premise of his foreign policy. That premise, during the first term, was that the postwar system of international relations—a system that, since 1945, has helped give the world unprecedented peace and prosperity—was no longer an effective tool for dealing with the world of the twenty-first century, in particular the post-9/11 world. But what if that premise was just plain wrong? If so, then perhaps the international system, though already weakened when Bush took office, appears to be beyond salvation now not because of its own fundamental flaws, but because of the serious damage done to it by the unprecedented radicalism of Bush’s foreign policy.

In other words, it may be that what is most broken today is not the international system, but American stewardship of it. And that, at this pivotal moment for the nation and its place in the world, what’s needed is not an entirely new vision but, rather, something simpler: a bit of faith. Faith that with time, committed diplomacy, and—perhaps most important—some basic good judgment about the use of American force, the essential framework of international relations that got us through the cold war—and that almost any president other than Bush would also have applied to the war on terror—can be repaired.

IF IT AIN’T BROKE

Over the last year, normally stolid members of the foreign policy establishment have been seized by something close to intellectual panic. These thinkers, profoundly shaken by the depths to which U.S. prestige has sunk under Bush, have experienced their own version of Power and Lake’s impulsive flights to Obama. They’ve been falling all over themselves to propose sweeping new (and some not so new) foreign policy visions. Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School—headed by the energetic and talented Anne-Marie Slaughter, who could end up as the next female secretary of state—recently canvassed foreign policy experts and officials around the world, and concluded in a report that the United Nations is “in crisis.” “The system of international institutions that the United States and its allies built after World War II and steadily expanded over the course of the Cold War is broken,” wrote Slaughter and company. They proposed, among other replacements, a new “Concert of Democracies” that would “strengthen security cooperation among the world’s liberal democracies.”

Slaughter’s so-called Princeton Project is hardly alone in seeking to start from scratch, and the effort is not confined to liberals. In a new book, Ethical Realism, internationalist Anatol Lieven and conservative John Hulsman join forces to declare that “the situation facing America today resembles that at the beginning of the Cold War, and demands a similar revolutionary shift in structures and priorities.”

And in a February 2006 article in the New York Times Magazine called “After Neoconservatism,” neocon defector Francis Fukuyama acknowledged that what was distinctive about that school of thought—the push for regime change and preemptive war—had been irrevocably discredited. But then he echoed the Princeton Project authors and Lieven and Hulsman in his prescription: “The world today lacks effective international institutions that can confer legitimacy on collective action; creating new organizations that will better balance the dual requirements of legitimacy and effectiveness will be the primary task for the coming generation.” In response he proposed what he described as a fresh idea: “realistic Wilsonianism.” In so doing, Fukuyama came full circle: FDR and every subsequent president, including Reagan—Fukuyama’s favorite—pursued exactly that policy, creating the conditions for what Fukuyama himself declared back in 1989 to be a world close to the “end of history” of ideas, with democratic capitalism triumphant.

Robert Wright also seems to be starting over intellectually. The author of one of the most brilliant and underappreciated books of the post–cold war era—NonZero: The Logic of Human Destiny, which in 2000 made a powerful case that global society has inevitably advanced to ever greater levels of interconnectedness—Wright proposed in a recent New York Times op-ed a “new” paradigm he billed as “progressive realism.” The debate in Washington, he suggested, had been reduced to a bitter fight between those who advocated “chillingly clinical self-interest” (the realists) and those who still supported “dangerously naive altruism” (the idealists). Why not—mirabile dictu—bring the two sides together?

No one has gone further back to square one than New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who argued that since Americans are simply inept, we might as well just call the whole thing off. “Why are we so awful at foreign policy?” Kristof asked, as if the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank—all American projects—had never existed. He even invoked the realist urtext, the Melian dialogue in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, in which the Athenians assert that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Human history, in other words, is just an endless river strewn with the debris of mankind’s stupidity.

These efforts to rebuild American foreign policy from the ground up—or just to abandon the whole endeavor—occupy a broad ideological terrain. Some are unabashedly hawkish, some “realist,” some more isolationist, and some, like Kristof’s, just despairing. Like Fukuyama and Wright, many of these thinkers are trying to find “new” ways of combining “realism” with “idealism.” But they all go wrong to some degree because they proceed from the same questionable premise: that the international system that has existed since the end of the Second World War—one based on a tempered mixture of realism and idealism—is dysfunctional, or even obsolete.

It’s true that the system could use some serious fixing up. But are we to imagine that our leaders have learned nothing worthwhile about how to govern international affairs in the nearly 2,500 years since the Peloponnesian War? In truth, American presidents have been merging idealism and realism in practice—some deftly, some not—at least since Woodrow Wilson. Cast your mind back six years, to the relatively quiet end of the Clinton administration. America presided over a flawed but remarkably functioning global community, one that we ourselves had had the biggest hand in creating. The founding of the UN in 1945, with its Security Council designed around Roosevelt’s Four Policemen concept—the United States, Russia, Britain, and China each overseeing stability in their regions—was itself a major attempt to combine idealist international law with realist armed might. And it was created as a conscious effort to fix Woodrow Wilson’s mistakes with the League of Nations. Progress! And after a shaky start, Clinton used that system deftly to stop a civil war in Bosnia, end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and usher China into the WTO.

The UN has rarely worked as it was designed, but neither is it irreparably broken; indeed, one ironic outcome of Bush’s unilateralist overreaching in his first term was that he was forced to resort to the UN Security Council in his second term more than most presidents had ever had to. Even this most distrusted of presidents managed to muster a slew of important UN resolutions that have been critical to addressing, or at least containing, crises from Lebanon to Iran to North Korea. The Security Council is still the main source of international legitimacy for intervention of any kind, and despite repeated failures at reforming its musty, World War II–era structure, every nation still wants to get on it.

Compared to previous periods of imperial rule, this international system was—and still is—unmatched by any other in history in the depth and breadth of its reach. As James Richardson, an Australian scholar of international relations, has pointed out, the global economic order policed by institutions like the World Trade Organization is “without historical precedent; earlier attempts to establish international order relied mainly on political and military means.” The overall prosperity provided by this worldwide system has created, despite the inequities of globalization, a powerful and enduring motivation for nations to become part of it. In order to gain power and influence, countries must prosper; in order to prosper, they must join the international economy. Everyone inside the system gets richer and stronger, while everyone outside it grows relatively weaker and poorer—one reason why the Bush administration’s campaign to cut off bank financing to Iran and North Korea has been its single most successful pressure tactic, surprising even Washington. The system is still secured by American power, which is the global control rod that stifles belligerent states and arms races from East Asia to Latin America, making globalization possible in the first place—and allowing other governments to spend little on defense.

Every president until Bush understood the absolute imperative of preserving this system in facing any challenge. In 1953, Eisenhower took office after a campaign in which hard-liners had pressed to replace Truman’s containment strategy toward the Soviet Union with one of unilateralist “rollback.” The new president convened the top-secret “Project Solarium” (named after the room where Ike decided on the approach) to hammer the issue out—and opted for containment. Eisenhower, remembering his days as supreme allied commander during World War II, was acutely mindful of the need to maintain a broad-based alliance against the Soviets, says his granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower. Even in 1962, during that most “realist” of foreign policy tests, the Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy still sought the moral or Wilsonian high ground by worrying what the reaction in the UN and the international community might be if he launched a preemptive strike on Cuba. (Adlai Stevenson’s characterization of the Security Council as “the court of world opinion” during his famous confrontation with the Soviet delegate in 1962 remains the best definition of that body yet.) George H. W. Bush, in strategizing over the Gulf War, spent long hours with top aides like National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft worrying about winning support at the United Nations. And even after the cold war, Clinton frequently fretted over winning consensus in NATO.

A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

The international system that nudged every postwar president toward moderation and multilateralism (whenever possible) continues to function today, if imperfectly. What failed, at least in Bush’s first term, was American government, on whose steady leadership that system depends. Indeed, the most important thing to understand about the Bush years was that his foreign policy was not just a matter of runaway unilateralism and arrogance in response to 9/11. Senior officials of the Bush administration actually had a proactive agenda to upend the international system, to roll back what they saw as ninety years of run-amuck Wilsonianism, and to unleash pent-up conservative and nativist impulses they believed had been held in check for too long by the cold war consensus.

That was why Bush and his senior advisers were so ready to repudiate NATO, the UN, and even the Geneva Conventions in his first term. A great deal of what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their minions did was payback, not just to Clinton but to FDR and Woodrow Wilson (though in W’s case when he thought of Wilson he may have seen his own father’s face). No Bush official embodied this agenda of demolishing liberal internationalism better than John Bolton. Here, a man whose writings and speeches had embraced a policy of delegitimizing the UN and international law was made steward of those very institutions. (And that was in the second term.)

The presence of this other agenda is why so much of what the Bush team did seemed to have so little to do with 9/11 and the direct challenge of al-Qaeda. It was the antipathy of Bush and his senior officials to liberal internationalism that drove the president to address a challenge that mandated the most judicious use of the international system—al-Qaeda-style terrorism—by spitting in the face of that system. And to commit the essentially irrational act of invading Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, at a moment when the chief culprits of 9/11 were still at large (and after Bush had won a 15–0 Security Council vote giving him complete inspection access to Iraq: a great triumph, had he stopped there).

Let’s confront facts. Most other presidents have understood that, once elected, their only priority was to govern well, and that the most passionate ideologues who made up their political base had little place in decision making. Eisenhower, for example, kept the fiery right-wing John Foster Dulles in check during testing moments like the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Later in the ’50s, when the rollbackers reasserted themselves, urging a preemptive strike to prevent Moscow from getting long-range-missile capability, Ike again showed them the door. He wrote in his diary that a preemptive strike was “impossible,” and would “violate national tradition.” That was pretty much it for the extreme right, which found its only solace in McCarthyism and the nuclearization of containment.

Of course, some GOP true believers disdain “Eisenhower Republicanism.” But Ronald Reagan, Bush’s putative model, acted more like Ike once he found his footing in office. People mainly remember the “evil empire” rhetoric from his first term and the overreaching of Iran-Contra from his second. What they forget is that Reagan outraged his right-wing China lobby by phasing out arms sales to Taiwan in 1982, and that he angered anti-Soviet hard-liners by moving from rhetorical brinkmanship to genuine negotiations with the Kremlin (prompting none other than Richard Perle to resign in protest in 1987).

Our government, by contrast, was choked by ideology during the early Bush years. The interagency process was destroyed in the first term, as Cheney and Rumsfeld set up what was effectively an alternative government—the veep’s shadow national security council, and Doug Feith’s Office of Special Plans. They frequently bypassed then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and all but ignored Colin Powell. So dysfunctional did things get that at the same time, for example, that State Department official Ryan Crocker (soon to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq) was secretly negotiating with the Iranians in Paris to stabilize Afghanistan, Rumsfeld was dispatching the neocon operatives Larry Franklin and Harold Rhode to the same city to meet covertly with Manucher Ghorbanifar and other Iranian opposition figures who wanted to topple the regime. Crocker and his colleagues didn’t even know about the Ghorbanifar meeting until it was later reported in the media. “This was worse than Iran-Contra,” says Hillary Mann, a National Security Council official in Bush’s first term who was part of the Crocker team, “because in Iran-Contra many senior officials didn’t know. Here they were part of it.”

Congress, meanwhile, was treated like an interloper, to the seething frustration of many Republicans as well as Democrats. Ideological junk science infected the policy-making apparatus on key issues of importance to our allies in Europe and Asia, like global warming. The glorious experiment in checks-and-balance governance that was once the envy of the world began to function like a Third World junta.

The best proof of how far overboard Bush went in his first term is how much he’s retreating from those extreme policies, and re-embracing the international system, as he enters the final two years of his presidency. Many of the neocon ideologues of the first term are gone, or marginalized. Bush’s current effort to isolate nuclear-minded Iran—including a very effective policy of asphyxiating Iran’s economy by pressuring international banks into cutting off dealings with it—depends entirely on the UN Security Council resolution passed last year, which legitimizes sanctions. And in mid-February, the president endorsed a fuel-for-nukes accord with North Korea, under which Pyongyang will immediately get 50,000 tons of emergency fuel oil with nearly a million more tons to come in return for shutting down its nuclear program. The agreement is plainly a betrayal of the administration’s previous principled stand against the “nuclear blackmail” that it accused Bill Clinton of succumbing to, and represents a 180-degree turnabout from Bush’s previous refusal to negotiate with a regime he viewed as illegitimate—so much so that its fiercest critic was none other than John Bolton, who had just resigned as UN ambassador. And it reportedly took the White House’s most senior neocon, Elliott Abrams, by surprise. Former senior administration members told me the pact could have been concluded only because several key hard-liners—including Rumsfeld and Bolton—had left, and because Cheney’s influence had waned.

Another significant sign of the shift in Bush’s attitude came the day before the agreement, when, in an interview with C-SPAN, he was asked who he thought were the most underrated presidents. “Well, George H. W. Bush is one of them,” the president said. For Bush watchers who had long seen the son as an overzealous Reaganite in a state of rebellion against his father’s internationalist administration, this was a striking statement. Six years into an administration marked by a reluctance to negotiate its way out of trouble—most recently when Bush rejected the advice of his father’s secretary of state, James Baker, about sitting down with Iran and Syria—Bush seems to have developed a new appreciation for Bush 41’s moderate views about “talking to the enemy.”

It is largely because of the wrongheadedness of the first term’s radical agenda, and the arrogance with which it was pursued—not because something has gone terribly wrong with the international security system—that we have squandered the world’s trust, and today find ourselves unable to use American power as a force for good. The current state of play over the issue of Darfur illustrates this. Many foreign policy experts—including Lake, haunted by his own failure, as Clinton’s national security adviser, to stop the genocide in Rwanda—are calling for aggressive intervention. Power, by contrast, was among those calling for action on Rwanda, but now thinks, along with many others, that Bush would do more harm than good by sending U.S. troops into another Muslim region of the world, even with the best of intentions.

RESTORING THE EMPIRE OF LIBERTY

Defending an existing system of international relations presents some obvious challenges for politicians and their vision crafters. Though the system still functions, trying to appreciate it is, to the average voter, like grabbing at air. You can’t feel it or touch it—you’ll only know it was ever there when it’s gone. And the vague idea that what we need is to get our hands on the tiller of that global system hardly lends itself to a campaign sound bite, as Kerry found out in 2004 when he tried to make essentially that case. But one reason Kerry sounded incoherent was that he didn’t attack Bush’s approach explicitly enough (at least until the last six weeks of his campaign). That’s what candidates for 2008 must do, not just to win the White House, but to restore American prestige once there.

What’s needed is not a new birth of liberalism or of conservatism—or cleverly titled ideological mergers of the two—but just one good Democrat or Republican with the courage to say, repeatedly, that invading Iraq was irrational, that the entire war on terror has been misconceived, that the last six years have been such an aberration as to constitute the most disastrous foreign policy in the nation’s history, and that reason will now rule again. I think that person will win.

And he or she will find that restoring American prestige may be more achievable than many think. Almost every government understands that if Al Gore had gotten those 537 votes in Florida in 2000, we wouldn’t be in this situation. No one begrudged us the invasion of Afghanistan. Imagine the payoff in prestige if Bush had brought into the international community a pariah country that had defeated two previous imperial powers—Britain and Russia—in the last two centuries. Contrary to what you might hear, this was possible. The Afghans themselves, in stark contrast to the pent-up Iraqis, were so desperately tired of twenty-three years of civil war that most of them welcomed us with open arms. Virtually every warlord was up for sale at knockdown prices. (As Ismail Qasimyar, head of the loya jirga commission, told me when I was there in 2002, war-weary Afghans saw that “a window of opportunity had been opened for them” and that Afghanistan had become “a baby of the international community.”) What an exercise in the judicious use of our great power that would have been, and what a trophy to place on the shelf after Germany and Japan following World War II! Instead we made up a new war.

Bush’s early failure to retain his focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan—which at the time were truly the last refuges of al-Qaeda—points up how fundamental his error was in spurning, rather than embracing, the international system. At bottom, his misunderstanding of the al-Qaeda menace and the international system were the same mistake. The transnational terror threat that al-Qaeda represents is a creature of that system, and cannot be properly understood outside of it. The threat of such groups stems from their ability to use the tools of the international system as weapons against us (open trade, jet travel, and information networks) and to hide in the system’s hardest-to-reach cracks (in other words, failed states). By contrast, the Bush team devoted most of its energy to supposed axis-of-evil “state sponsors,” like Saddam Hussein, who in truth were little more than interested onlookers and were usually deterrable. The Bush administration’s own National Security Strategy of 2002 said it plainly enough: “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.” We’re learning this again as al-Qaeda sets up shop anew in the quasi-failing Afghanistan and in the uncontrolled regions of Iraq. But Bush was so busy portraying the contained and increasingly doddering Saddam Hussein as a potential conqueror—indeed, the next Hitler—that he didn’t follow his administration’s own sage advice.

Had the al-Qaeda threat been properly handled after 9/11—in other words, had the focus remained on its last harbors, Afghanistan and Pakistan—that small, fractious terror group could very well have been wiped out early. (Just ask Gary Bernsten, the CIA officer in charge of the “Jawbreaker” operation at Tora Bora, who implored Rumsfeld, in vain, for more U.S. special forces while bin Laden escaped.) Such an approach could also have supplied numerous opportunities for reviving the stature of the UN, and even restoring U.S.-Iran ties. Jim Dobbins, Bush’s former special envoy to Kabul, says the cooperation between Washington and Tehran in setting up the Hamid Karzai government, including Iran’s help in neutralizing dangerous warlords under its influence, was extraordinary. “What was unprecedented here was the degree to which this blossomed into a genuine partnership,” Dobbins says. But in January 2002, a week after Iran pledged $550 million to the Afghan effort—the largest amount of any non-OECD country—Bush decided to lump Tehran in with Iraq and North Korea as part of the axis of evil.

This is not to gloss over the menace that Iran represents today. But there are still many moderates in Tehran who are eager to remain part of the international system. Hence the growing rebellion of Iranian elites against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the UN Security Council labeled Tehran, in effect, a rogue regime under Chapter VII last year. Bush and his top advisers were very late in understanding how to exploit this—what it really means for a self-respecting state to be a pariah in the international system. As the Bush team has come belatedly to recognize, the episode bears out a reality that his administration once denied: that there is indeed a functioning international community. (The Condoleezza Rice who repeats ad nauseam these days that Iran has been isolated by the international community is the same woman who pronounced that community to be “illusory” in the first term.)

For too long, the Bush administration pursued a chimera of a worldview composed of equal parts Hobbesian darkness (Cheney), and utopian remake-the-world grandiosity (Bush). The president took far too long to look beneath his feet and see that he was standing on the shoulders of giants, the American leaders and their allies who built the postwar system, a system whose treaties and common values had worked fairly well to contain and shrivel the ambitions of rogue actors like Saddam, and to force bin Laden to operate from the darkest corners of the earth. Understanding this now will show us the way forward as well. Only a president who acknowledges all these missed opportunities—that is, the full extent of America’s foreign policy disaster under Bush—is likely to have the courage and integrity to do what needs to be done, starting on January 21, 2009.

First, end the war on terror. Just declare it over. It is a historical cul-de-sac, an ill-defined conflict without prospect of end on the terms Bush has laid out. Having gradually expanded his definition of the war on terror to include all Islamic “extremists,” among them Hezbollah, Hamas, and radical political groups yet unborn, Bush has plainly condemned us to a permanent war—and one in which we are all but alone, since no one else agrees on such a broadly defined enemy. So let’s replace the war on terror with the kind of coordinated effort that the fight always should have entailed: a hybrid covert-war-and-criminal-roundup confined to al-Qaeda and its spawn, conducted with deep intelligence and special forces cooperation among states within the international system. Only if the next president focuses narrowly on true transnational terrorism, and wins back all the natural allies we’ve lost, can he or she finally achieve America’s goal of making the tolerance of 9/11-style acts as anathema to the international community as support of slavery. No state, no matter how marginal, would dare harbor al-Qaeda-type groups any longer, or even be able to look away if the terrorists tried to settle within its borders. This is the only way to finish off al-Qaeda once and for all.

It is also why the next president, while denouncing the Iraq War as irrational, needs to advocate a continuing U.S. presence in that country. The fight against al-Qaeda must focus on failed states, and whether Iraq has become one by our own doing no longer matters. We have no choice but to be there.

The next president will also need to cut a deal with Tehran, one that freezes its nuclear program short of the weapons stage. The diplomatic leverage is there—and getting stronger—and Iranian diplomats have even now signaled they would accept an international consortium overseeing the program. Here again, Bush’s man-on-the-moon neocon dreaming about regime change needs simply to be thrown out, in the same way he disposed of similar views of Kim Jong Il in February. So far this hasn’t happened. As Hillary Mann, the former Bush NSC adviser, told me, describing the president’s first-term view of Tehran: “The argument was that the regime is weak, and if you talk to it, and, God forbid, enter into a grand bargain with it, then you legitimize forever a regime that is rotten to its core. They analogized it to what would have happened if the U.S. had made a comprehensive pact with Mikhail Gorbachev. It would have solidified the Soviet Union.” This way of thinking is gibberish (as everyone now knows, the Soviet Union was going to collapse no matter what deal Gorby cut with Reagan). The radical, possibly crazy, Ahmadinejad needs to be marginalized, and the only way to do that is to find common ground with the many moderates in Tehran who are as eager to negotiate now as they were a few years ago.

Finally, the moment will be ripe for the president to embrace reform of the UN in a genuine way, now that the American people have experienced profoundly the pitfalls of unilateralism. The next president will discover that many of the democracy-promotion projects the Bush administration has tried to get off the ground—the latest is out of the shop of Stephen Krasner, the State Department chief of policy planning—are already under way at the UN and just require quiet U.S. backing. Some key Bush administration officials like Krasner now concede it’s quite impossible to replace, from the ground up, the global institutions, like the UN, that they once dismissed as relics. “No one is talking about redoing what we did in the late ’40s,” Krasner told me.

Samantha Power herself takes hope from the Bush administration’s halfhearted intervention in Darfur through the UN—the high-level attention shown by former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, and more recently by envoy Andrew Natsios. She also welcomes the administration’s reluctant acceptance of prosecutions of war criminals by the International Criminal Court. “Things are happening, but the messenger is wrong,” she says.

If the next president follows through on all these things, he or she may just find that the old system is still there, along with the old hunger for American leadership. The rest of the world knows it suffers from the lack of an alternative great power to lead the global system. Other nations are too weak or distrusted (think China, which has never had a political reckoning with its ruling mandarins; or Russia, which seems to be building its reputation on greed and assassination; or the European Union, which remains a cacophony of voices). If there is any hope for us, it is that our destiny as the empire of liberty is still there to be grasped anew, wobbly and fuzzy though it now may seem. We remain the only great nation that governs itself, if badly, by the same universal principles that most of the rest of the world wants to embrace.

For all his openness to rethinking first principles, there’s reason to believe that this is something Obama understands better than any other leading candidate. “I don’t oppose all wars,” he declared in 2002, while Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were triangulating their way toward authorizing the Iraq invasion. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war.” Perhaps, ultimately, this is his real value right now. Not as the perfect vessel for a shining new world order. Though, of course, he is just that: Who could better reassure a jittery and suspicious world that America is ready to resume global leadership than a new young president who is the son of a black African father and a white Kansan mother, with a Muslim middle name who grew up in Asia? Rather, Obama’s value is as someone with the courage, independence, and basic common sense to declare, without equivocation, that America’s loss of global leadership is a result not of the inevitable breakdown of the existing structure, but of the Bush administration’s radical and disastrous policy decisions. And that, with the right mix of patience, wisdom, and common sense, we’re not as far from reclaiming that leadership as it might appear.

   

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Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek, based in Washington, and the author of At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World.

 
 
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