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The Loss Of American Influence


The news from Great Britain this morning is all abuzz about the Think Tank report that says that the new government after Tony Blair leaves office must distance itself from the United States and move more toward Europe as a matter of foreign policy survival due to the debacle that is Iraq.  Think about that for a moment. 

Britain and the United States have been staunch allies for decades.  In six short years, George W. Bush has managed to take the United States' staunchest ally and send it screaming into the arms of the rest of Europe.

"A distancing of the U.K. from the U.S. and a closer relationship with Europe are requirements of the post-Blair foreign policy," the London-based international affairs institute said in London today.

The report, by Victor Bulmer-Thomas, who steps down as director of Chatham House on Dec. 31, is aimed at stimulating debate about the direction of U.K. foreign policy after Blair retires. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, the ruling Labour Party's finance minister since 1997, is favorite to take over.

The report calls the invasion of Iraq a "terrible mistake" and says the root failure of Blair's foreign policy has been his inability to influence the Bush administration in any significant way. The absence of a United Nations Security Council Resolution authorizing the use of force drove a "horse and cart" through Blair's self-proclaimed doctrine of international community, it said….

The GuardianUK has much more on this report, and British reactions to it — both from within and from outside Blair's government.  And it isn't just with Britain where the US reputation and influence is in dire need of repair.  Consider this latest from Richard Haass in Foreign Affairs:

Just over two centuries since Napoleon's arrival in Egypt heralded the advent of the modern Middle East — some 80 years after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, 50 years after the end of colonialism, and less than 20 years after the end of the Cold War — the American era in the Middle East, the fourth in the region's modern history, has ended. Visions of a new, Europe-like region — peaceful, prosperous, democratic — will not be realized. Much more likely is the emergence of a new Middle East that will cause great harm to itself, the United States, and the world….

The end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union brought about a fourth era in the region's history, during which the United States enjoyed unprecedented influence and freedom to act. Dominant features of this American era were the U.S.-led liberation of Kuwait, the long-term stationing of U.S. ground and air forces on the Arabian Peninsula, and an active diplomatic interest in trying to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all (which culminated in the Clinton administration's intense but ultimately unsuccessful effort at Camp David). More than any other, this period exemplified what is now thought of as the "old Middle East." The region was defined by an aggressive but frustrated Iraq, a radical but divided and relatively weak Iran, Israel as the region's most powerful state and sole nuclear power, fluctuating oil prices, top-heavy Arab regimes that repressed their peoples, uneasy coexistence between Israel and both the Palestinians and the Arabs, and, more generally, American primacy.

What has brought this era to an end after less than two decades is a number of factors, some structural, some self-created. The most significant has been the Bush administration's decision to attack Iraq in 2003 and its conduct of the operation and resulting occupation. One casualty of the war has been a Sunni-dominated Iraq, which was strong enough and motivated enough to balance Shiite Iran. Sunni-Shiite tensions, dormant for a while, have come to the surface in Iraq and throughout the region. Terrorists have gained a base in Iraq and developed there a new set of techniques to export. Throughout much of the region, democracy has become associated with the loss of public order and the end of Sunni primacy. Anti-American sentiment, already considerable, has been reinforced. And by tying down a huge portion of the U.S. military, the war has reduced U.S. leverage worldwide. It is one of history's ironies that the first war in Iraq, a war of necessity, marked the beginning of the American era in the Middle East and the second Iraq war, a war of choice, has precipitated its end.

Other factors have also been relevant. One is the demise of the Middle East peace process. The United States had traditionally enjoyed a unique capacity to work with both the Arabs and the Israelis. But the limits of that capacity were exposed at Camp David in 2000. Since then, the weakness of Yasir Arafat's successors, the rise of Hamas, and the Israeli embrace of unilateralism have all helped sideline the United States, a shift reinforced by the disinclination of the current Bush administration to undertake active diplomacy….

Actions have consequences — both short and long term — as do inactions. And the long-term consequences of the actions and inactions of the Bush Administration are playing out before our eyes, as they ripple forth into the future of not just our lifetimes, but also those of our children and grandchildren.   Foreign Affairs has a roundtable discussion on the Baker-Hamilton Report (they could have saved themselves the trouble of the analysis by simply reading Scarecrow and Atrios, but I digress…) — and the conclusion essentially is that Iraq is a mess, and that there is no realistic plan from the Bush Administration for how to deal with it. 

The fact that newspapers and analysts alike are saying the same thing today — including a very bleak article with assessments from the Joint Chiefs and military commanders at the Pentagon — is painful reading.  The fact that it comes so late in this mess is all the more painful.  For example, from the WaPo:

But the Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House review is not public.

The chiefs have taken a firm stand, the sources say, because they believe the strategy review will be the most important decision on Iraq to be made since the March 2003 invasion.

At regular interagency meetings and in briefing President Bush last week, the Pentagon has warned that any short-term mission may only set up the United States for bigger problems when it ends. The service chiefs have warned that a short-term mission could give an enormous edge to virtually all the armed factions in Iraq — including al-Qaeda's foreign fighters, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias — without giving an enduring boost to the U.S military mission or to the Iraqi army, the officials said.

The Pentagon has cautioned that a modest surge could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq to attack U.S. troops, the officials said.

How many more years will it take before we get "a plan"?  Honestly, how many more?  And why aren't all Americans standing up and asking that same damned question? And beyond that, why aren't more people asking this:

Will anyone get beyond the view that "we have to succeed" to actually ask the question as to whether it is possible or likely?

Because not asking it makes us weaker — at home and in the eyes of everyone outside the United States.  Oversight, accountability — this makes us stronger.  Learning from our mistakes so that we are not doomed to repeat them over and over again — this makes us stronger.  Rubber stamping things for this President — that is what I call failure of leadership.

Iraq is a mess — and the failure of planning and the failure of even coming to terms with this mess on any level within the Bush Administration, leaves us stranded in a quagmire of our own making, floundering for all the world to see, to shake their heads, and then plan how they should best move forward.  Without us.

The myth of American superiority has been punctured, most likely irreparably, by the idiocy of George Bush's policies and failures.  Nations which once worked with us — not just because we were working on issues of import to them, but also because it was in their long-term interest to do so with a nation which controlled so much of the economic and military and other resources throughout the world, as well as had its finger on the pulse of so many spheres of influence at once…all of these nations have learned to get by without having to rely on any favor from the United States whatsoever.

Diplomacy is not just negotiating for what you want.  It is also maintaining a balance of relationships, a level of trust, and a constant stream of ties that bind one nation to another.  This ensures a long-term level of relationships on which we ought to be able to rely when problems — both big and small — crop up, be they in individual nations, regionally, or globally. 

The Bush Administraiton's disdain for such diplomacy has wrought a whole series of changes to the global system of interdependence and ties — and the web has re-woven itself.  But instead of including the strands that the United States had for some many, many years assiduously guarded and jealously built and re-built time and time again, the Bush Administration has allowed many of them to fray, some of them to break — and all of them to become redundant to other lines that have now been built as detours around us.

And because of this, we are weaker.  The United States has lost influence, not because it lacks strength, but because under George Bush it has lacked the wisdom and the courage to know when there is a need to bend.

We must acknowledge that this is a problem — because the hubris, the bluster and the "yee haw" attitude of the Bush Administration is not working.  It is not working in the broader range of international diplomacy, and it is certainly not working in Iraq.

Shiite militias, the Pentagon report said, also received help from allies among the Iraqi police. “Shia death squads leveraged support from some elements of the Iraqi Police Service and the National Police who facilitated freedom of movement and provided advance warning of upcoming operations,” the report said.

“This is a major reason for the increased levels of murders and executions.”

What we are doing now is not working, and pretending that it will work if we just keep doing the wrong thing over and over and over again is lunacy. Plain and simple.  And no amount of semantics games played by the Pentagon or the Bush Administration gets around that point — it simply makes them sound ludicrously out of touch.  Last night, I read back through the intense, wonky discussion that we had with Amb. Wilson, and in light of all of the news of this morning, it is an especially painful read to contemplate all of the turns we could have made.

Walk back with me for a moment to those weeks after 9/11/01, at a time when the unprecedented support for the United States from around the world offered us an opportunity — had we but seized it at the time — to forge even stronger alliances, stronger threads,on which our foreign policy, influence and ability to work with other nations around the world could have rested for years and years to come.

Instead, we must face the reality of what did happen.  And the fact that this long series of poor decisions and failures to even address issues of consequence through diplomatic means has made our nation all the weaker — at a time when we can ill afford it.

The incoming Congress must, for all our sakes, provide oversight on these issues and demand accountability.  It is only in the process of examining this mess and beginning to demand that these wrong decisions by the Bush Administration be righted that we begin to regain any credibility as a nation.  Unfortunately, that myth of the shining city on the hill, which guarded human rights and liberty and freedom for all above all else has been lost…perhaps forever.

The only way to earn back trust is by a long series of actions to right the wrongs done which caused the loss in the first place.  We will all be paying for the Bush Administration's failed policies for generations to come. 

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com