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Can Realists Redirect US Foreign Policy?
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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 experiencing.

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 recognition.

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 principle.

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 mind.

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 Peace.

(China Daily January 25, 2007)

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