U.S. foreign policy and Canadian responses to it will enter a new stage post-Iraq. The tremendous mistakes of U.S. decision-makers vis-à-vis Iraq were not based on their bad intentions as so many would like to argue. They were based on a tragic mix of obsolete assumptions (Cheney and Rumsfeld formed their views in the 1970s) about the post-Cold War arena and U.S. lack of self-awareness about its rule as the sole superpower. Fueled by a narrow view of U.S. “exceptionalism”, U.S. foreign policy ignored the virtues of America and emphasized its weaknesses.
The U.S. spirit makes Bill Gates a role model and a hero in Hanoi or Africa , and made Gorbachev seek the managerial excellence of McDonald’s as he tried to overhaul the Soviet Union . This spirit was replaced by the same blundering U.S. foreign policy which had made mistake after mistake in trying to manage South African democratization in the 1980s, Iranian democratization in the 1950s and the Middle East forever. Instead of relying on the things that the U.S. does well (marketing, economic growth-oriented economic strategies, the celebration and promotion of entrepreneurship), the United States responded to the post 9/11 world with the things its does badly: a reliance on technology for things that technology is ill-suited to solve, a reliance on military strategies for complicated political situations, an ahistorical “New World” approach to human relations which made U.S. democrats look, at best, naïve.
Throughout the post-1945 world defined by the process of decolonization when viewed from places other than Washington , the United States has developed a track record for backing the wrong horses. Samantha Power’s superb recounting of the story of U.S. foreign policy toward genocide lists a series of inconsistencies and self-defined contradictions by American decision-makers. The U.S. supported either weak local leaders in Cambodia in the 1970s or the discredited warlords of Mogadishu in the 2000s with catastrophic consequences. In Iraq , it backed Hussein before it didn’t back Hussein and looks hypocritical, and even more damaging, incoherent around the world. The U.S. consistently misses the paradox of “American-backed” regimes. If groups with a democratic backing are seen to be pro-U.S., they lose nationalist legitimacy. In Vietnam , nationalist anti-American regimes with strong domestic support are inevitably drawn into a Citicorp-Microsoft world because stable regimes aspire to global standards of living. But U.S. foreign-policy makers keep on missing this point. The America which works and is admired is an America of commerce and enterprise. The America which consistently fails is one which believes it has an “exceptional” democracy and a unique role as the world’s only superpower. (The replacement of the notion of U.S. self-interest with the idea that the U.S. has a special role to “create” democracy is at the core of the tragedies of the Bush Administration. In most of the world, Finnish or Icelandic democratic practices have as much claim to “exceptionalism” as American habits. We can debate in legal theory classes forever whether a politicized judiciary is “democratic” as the Americans believe. But in a world where the effectiveness of the delivery of social welfare and the notion that a democratic state does not condone capital punishment, the U.S. argument for a special role, superior to Finns or Germans, is difficult to sustain.)
When it is pointed out to American decision-makers that their involvement transforms a situation, that being pro-American discredits actors in Persia or Somalia or Iraq, they view this all too often as a statement of European anti-Americanism. However, if one looks at the French, German and many Canadian views on the Iraq war in 2002-3, the warnings and predictions made by many who were not anti-American and certainly not anti-democratic have proven to be correct. A staggeringly unpopular regime in Tehran has been strengthened by being seen to “stand up to America ”. A terrible situation in Somalia has been made worse by the failure of the U.S. to support the democratically-oriented Baidoa government, or more effectively, to let the Swedes and Europeans do it.
The United States often succeeds when soft power in used. It is better at making 20something Filipinos or Bengalis excited about Microsoft than it is about making the preconditions for democracy work in Baghdad or Mogadishu . U.S. foreign policy has now been reduced to being a casual observer of scenes around the world, missing the big story of Somalia , while hundreds of billions are spent on Iraq . Let us ask the counterfactual: if the U.S. and Dubai had spent 10% of the expenditures on the Iraq war on building a Somali ports facility and infrastructure for the economic development of northeast Africa , would the U.S. be more or less secure from the rise of Middle Eastern fundamentalisms? Then let us ask the academic question, why was this argument not possible within the current U.S. decision-making model, a model, which incidentally still wants to discuss issues like an anti-ballistic missile system for continental defense. To use the overused expression, paradigms shift and when one is caught on the wrong side of a paradigm shift, one ends up looking as complete a failure as Cheney and Rumsfeld now do.
The mistake of the Democrats and the European opposition to the Iraq war is to see the individual practitioners of the Bush Administration as evil or flawed instead of seeing them as trapped within an obsolete paradigm. The successes of Sierra Leone and Kosovo had convinced the world community that rule of law could be established, genocidal regimes or warlords could be contained and that the nightmares of Srebrenica and Kigali need not be repeated. Liberal interventionism became fashionable as a political short-cut without really being understood in the overall context of post-Cold War international politics. In both cases, U.S. involvement had been either non-existent, or minimal. A new framework for a post-Cold War world had been etched in draft form. Iraq permanently changed this calculation, making interventions in Burma or Dar Fur even more difficult than they would otherwise be.
In nation-building exercises, Canadian and other non-American democrats have to understand the rules of nation-building. A Turkmen dissident, Yovshan Annagurban, is quoted in the New York Times as saying: “He (Niyazov) corrupted everything and everyone around him. People at the top as well as ordinary people do not trust anyone and everyone”.
Nation-building starts with the invention of trust. If one likes the expression building social capital or civil society, then this is a necessary condition of the rule of law. One must be prepared to delay gratification (invest/save) and trust others (delegate/collaborate) or there can be no democracy. There has to be peace (the restoration of order in Sierra Leone or Liberia ) before there can be markets. The tremendous challenge of nation-building becomes the philosophical exercise of building trust, decision by decision, event by event.
What applies to Turkmenistan applies to Iraq . The United States (and its friends) has now a crossroad. The strategies which have the least chance of not working (given where we now start from) are the ones which allow oases of trust to build.
The first responsibility of the democratic world is to protect pockets of democracy. Therefore, the first foundation for a new Middle east is to protect the democratic Kurdish revolution. To do that, U.S. troops will have to be committed indefinitely to the Kurdish area where they will reassure understandably nervous (and democratic) Turks about the sanctity of their borders. From a Korea-type presence, the U.S. will, at minimum physical risk to the courageous and disciplined U.S. military, whose sacrifices have to be acknowledged by all of the U.S. friends and allied, significantly increase the chances for stability in the Middle East . Market-oriented and democratic Kurds will establish a prototype of an Islamic democracy.
The second task is to create a financial vehicle for the management of Iraq ’s oil wealth. The Clinton-Ensign proposal for an Oil Trust Fund, similar to those that have been proposed for the Gulf of Guinea oil revenues, provides the chance for an economic partnership between the market-oriented elites of Shia and Sunni Iraq and the Kurdish zone. Turning oil revenues into pensions and productive long term investment instruments is a critical need for the entire global economy from Central Asia to Angola , from Madagascar to Brunei . It is essential that this be one of the positive consequences of the Iraqi misadventures.
The third step is to remove the U.S. presence as rapidly as possible from the zones of conflict, following the new rule of post-Cold War national building, insulate and incubate democracies. If Shia cities in the south can build and manage sewage and power systems, they have taken the first step toward democracy. The Americans and the British can no longer be blamed for things that go wrong.
The fourth step is the security issue for the remaining, predominantly Sunni Arab parts of Iraq . This is obviously the most complicated of issues, but one where boldness of vision is required. If Sunni states ( Palestine , Jordan , Saudi Arabia ) want to have a role in policing this area, then so much the better. This is, of course, the de facto partition of Iraq along the lines that Peter Galbraith and others have advocated. If partition is a democratic choice, then it should be encouraged and it will provide a framework for the development of democratic cultures (societies of trust and effective management) that cannot exist in a fragmented and conflict-ridden society. This is a difficult step and one which creates many complexities as the continued role of the Saudi state should cause more concern to the next generation of foreign policy makers than the Iraq state. For decades, decision-makers have made the calculation that a flagrantly undemocratic Saudi state was a price worth paying for some kind of regional security. That calculation needs eventually to be revisited in the new paradigm before another complicated set of military decisions has to be made in the future. (For the goal of building democracies in the Islamic Middle East, it should have been addressed first. That is water under the bridge, but another word for water under the bridge is a lesson learned). In the short term, however, Saudi commitment to policing Sunni Iraq might be a necessary byproduct of a removal of U.S. forces.
The United States is brilliant at many things, but struggles with the complexities of dealing with post-decolonization nationalism. Its unwillingness to focus on the role the Americans had in the construction of the Saudi state and its role in administrating all of Islam’s holiest sites is a form of naiveté which is more than simply ignoring the elephant in the living room. Its inability to see that its involvement weakens democratic nationalist forces (in Persia , in Somalia and elsewhere) because of its less-than-stellar (however understandable) track record in “promoting democracy” during the Cold War are all features of the old paradigm.
Friends of the U.S. can hope that the next U.S. President will be able to bring to the international table an instant credibility in multilateralism. The next U.S. President must have a perspective on the world which is formed not from inside the worldview of American “exceptionalism” or military-based foreign policies. The next U.S. President must be prepared to frame a world view which is based on effective incubation and insulation of democratic individuals and groups around the world. It will be a 20-year project to create a political culture of trust in Turkmenistan . It took that long in Korea and Japan , for the record. Barack Obama, because of his heritage and life experience may be best positioned to provide this leadership. His challenge is to turn his brilliance and charisma into a coherent foreign policy view that others in the United States and around the world can work with. If not him, then one of the other Presidential contenders will have to grow into this role in the arena of the Presidential campaign. From this a new approach to U.S. foreign policy must emerge.
It starts with understanding the limits of U.S. power, in criticizing not the intentions of the people who wanted to make Basra as safe as Monrovia, or Kabul as free as Sarajevo , but in their assumptions which trapped them in the wrong policy frameworks. It will be easier for Obama, or whoever the U.S. electorate chooses in 2008 if the Bush Administration achieves a limited success in Iraq : a democratic Kurdish area, a Shia state moving towards governability, and an international presence in providing police and security for Sunni Arab Iraq. This wasn’t the right route to get here, but if the lessons are learned about the new world in which we are all learning to act, the sacrifices of U.S. families will not have been in vain.
The role for Canada (and other non-imperial democratic states) is to understand our role in building cultures of trust and incubating democratic cultures wherever people choose to make them happen. Canadian foreign policy cannot evolve in a vacuum. To be a good friend to the United States and a strategically-relevant smaller county, Canadians need to specialize on our competitive advantages, like nation-building skills. Canadian foreign policy, like all foreign policies, needs to be predicated on our interests, but we have to be prepared to assist the U.S. in developing a new role for itself in the world, which makes it more secure and more popular.