By Pang Zhongying
It is widely agreed that the biggest threat to the United States
comes from the Middle East, which is the central focus of US
foreign policy. Yet, it is exactly in the Middle East that the
United States finds itself deeply mired in a strategic limbo.
The United States has not won the war in Iraq and American
voters are not happy about it. But the Bush administration, whose
reign will end in the first month of 2009, has decided to send more
troops to Iraq rather than pulling out as demanded by a growing
number of Americans. It will take some flexible measures for the
United States to drag itself out of the Iraq trap.
Take a closer look. The Middle East is but the epitome of an
overall foreign strategy setback the United States is
Some have said the "Bush Doctrine" revolutionized US foreign
policy over the past six years by dumping many of the practices in
place since the end of World War II. I believe there have been
grave consequences for these actions.
A growing number of voices inside and outside the United States
are saying the only superpower in the world today is "lost", "badly
hurt" and "exhausted". Some even bemoan "the end of the American
era" and "the decline of American domination". One thing for sure,
Bush's hard-charging foreign strategy has hit a dead end.
During mid-term election campaigns last year, the Democrats
called for changes in US foreign policy guidelines, with Iraq and
the Middle East as the focal point. In fact both parties and
American society in general have begun to debate the entire
direction of US foreign policy.
According to this writer's own observations and exchanges with
various foreign policy institutions in Washington, there is a
common understanding that US global strategy is indeed at a
crossroad and three foreign policy options are vying for
First, although the "Bush Doctrine" has been widely criticized
as a failure, Bush has refused to concede defeat. Instead, he is
picking up the pieces for another try at victory through some
tactical fine-tuning. He has decided to send more US forces to Iraq
and once again used the time-proven scare tactic: Iraq will face
the danger of disintegration if US forces pull out and the US risks
wasting everything it has achieved in Iraq and even the entire
Middle East if it leaves Iraq now.
This shows the "Bush Doctrine", or the neo-conservative foreign
policy to be more precise, is very much alive and kicking.
Second, a growing number of people want realism back in the
decision-making process. Many Republicans and think tanks are
trying to revive such ideas as "Nixonism" to change Bush's global
vision. And many analysts have hailed the call for returning to
realism. A prominent example of this view can be found in the
Becker-Hamilton Report on Iraq.
Third, some Democrats think the United States should bring back
"Wilsonism", which trumpets freedom and rule of law. Look no
further than the study by Princeton University's US national
security project, titled "US National Security in the 21st Century:
Building a Free World With Rule of Law". The report has grabbed
attention in Europe and in China.
This ambitious paper (self-described as the 21st-century version
of the celebrated "X" report that led to containment of the Soviet
Union during the Cold War) intends to provide a way out for US
foreign policy, which currently lacks a unified organizational
In fact, close scrutiny of the debate over current US foreign
policy reveals that neither the ideas of the ruling
neo-conservative administration nor the newly emerging alternative
solutions are free of self-contradiction.
Fighting terrorism by force, pre-emptive strike and a unipolar
world all look intimidating, but many inside and outside the United
States have concluded this foreign strategy has not only been
unsuccessful but also is close to bankruptcy.
Nevertheless, without another superpower such as the former
Soviet Union to counterbalance the United States, the current state
of mind of the neo-conservative preachers and policy makers is that
America must push on toward the goal no matter how doomed the cause
appears. They want the victory they have envisioned at all costs
and no one can change their minds.
Meanwhile, returning to realism seems to be the second best
option, though realism may not be able to help. Realism means
pragmatic interests come before everything else and the United
States must rely on its allies and friends anywhere in the world to
share its burdens and solve its problems. This will force the
United States to make compromises. Even more serious is the
prospect that by returning to realism the United States will have
to sacrifice a bit of its indispensable superpower prestige.
Some observers have compared the current war in Iraq to the
Vietnam War, saying the United States has no problem conceding
defeat in Iraq, pulling out and marking it as a mistake never to
repeat, as it did in Vietnam. But the Vietnam War was a Cold War
episode, when the United States had no other choice but change its
Today, it is almost impossible for the United States to admit
defeat, while returning to realism means just that. How can this be
conceivable? And how can the hawks accept it?
While the first two options are either too costly or
unacceptable, the third appears more workable in that it calls for
the United States to overhaul its foreign strategy according to the
changing world, return to liberalism under the rule of law,
emphasize soft power (persuasion) as much as military power
(coercion), adopt multilateralism and join multilateral
institutions. The Princeton University project is one of the voices
favoring such a policy change.
But these approaches lack new ideas. They are mostly old tunes
rephrased for today's ear. For instance, the "democratic alliance"
centered on the US today reminds people of the "free world" during
the Cold War; and by making "cross-Atlantic union" its strategic
focus and continuing to control Asia, the United States has ignored
the profound changes in Europe and Asia. These ideas are too
obsolete and confusing to replace the "Bush Doctrine" and free the
United States from worldwide frustrations.
Pang Zhongying is a research fellow with the Joint Program
on Globalization under the CRF-Carnegie Endowment for International
(China Daily January 25, 2007)