The beginning of history

The next president faces the challenge of reshaping America's world role.

Immediately after the Cold War ended, Francis Fukuyama wrote the famous essay, “The End of History.” In it he proclaimed that Western liberal democracy had triumphed over Communism, and humanity had finally found the ideal form of government to carry it into the future. As it happens, Fukuyama at the time identified himself as a neoconservative. The devout belief that democracy was the key to world peace led President George W. Bush’s neoconservative advisors to make overthrowing Saddam Hussein a priority even before the 2000 election. The consequences are present.

Now that America and the rest of the world have largely shunned the “Bush Doctrine,” one wonders what the next president can do to pick up the pieces of America’s image. It is largely assured that America will be in Iraq until at least 2010, Afghanistan still burns, the shadow of Guantanamo will lurk, and the war on terror will continue. Indeed, hardly an enviable burden.

Some consider Sen. John McCain to be “McSame” as Bush, but that is unfair. Aside from being outspoken against torture, the initial plans in Iraq and more concerned about climate change, McCain has also voted against U.S. military intervention multiple times in his career. It is true he is more military-oriented, but on many issues he is little different from his Democratic challengers (campaign casuistry aside).

Some critics on the left flew into apoplectic rage over McCain’s slip where he failed to make the distinction between al-Qaida and Shiite extremists trained in Iran. While disconcerting to be sure, Sen. Barack Obama mistook Iraq for Iran when questioning Gen. David Petreaus about insurgents. Both are intelligent men, but they are still able to make mistakes like any other person.

The war on terror will likely continue under McCain’s direction. But his views on nuclear non-proliferation and cooperation with allies are a welcome change from Bush. Neoconservatives long thought of America’s allies like “teenagers who bitch about their parents, but enjoy living cost-free at home.” McCain and his advisors flout that view, proposing a League of Democracies where America cooperates closely with its allies. This organization would supplement, not replace, the UN and would allow nations with similar principles to take action against humanitarian crises.

Of course, there are reservations to be had about McCain. He is known for his temper, views citizenship with a military-perspective and lets American “exceptionalism” guide his justification for military action. Barring any major mistakes, however, this election is the Democrats’ to lose. The war in Iraq is one thing, but rarely does an incumbent party survive an election during an economic downturn.

Overall, both Democratic candidates have similar foreign policy beliefs. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who in all statistical fairness will not win the nomination, has taken a pretty bold approach as of late. While overall her policies are very centrist, she recently commented that if Iran attacked Israel, America would respond with “massive retaliation.” While her advisors quickly backtracked on the statement, she nevertheless suggested the use of nuclear weapons.

Her statement has not been given enough attention, as it represents a major shift in U.S. nuclear policy. Furthermore, she pledged to extend a nuclear umbrella over any Middle East nation so long as they forego their own nuclear programs. In obscure politico-speak, she essentially seeks to contain Iran. Of course, her comments may have just been a sop to the Israeli lobby.

Staying consistent with his message of change, Obama’s foreign policy represents a fundamental change to a system he considers flawed. Dubbed the “Obama Doctrine,” it focuses on dignity promotion as opposed to Bush’s democracy promotion. It essentially is a plan focused on humanitarian aid and development, because democracy does not feed stomachs. Obama and his advisors think this more than a philanthropy agenda; it is an “anvil to bring down on al-Qaida.” Essentially, it is a more elaborate version of the “drain the swamp” counter-strategy (based on the assumption that higher living standards dissuade terrorism).

Much of his policy is laudable, but also ambiguous and highly idealistic. International development is a long, complex and lavishly exorbitant process. To date, the process has met many troubles. Plus, there is no great evidence that terrorists become so from material want per se. It should be the policy of every president to help global development, but it should not be the core of his or her foreign policy.

The Obama Doctrine is built around humanitarianism and, to an extent, humanitarian interventionism. Both are guided by principled morality, which likely speaks to many Americans. The trouble is, focusing on humanitarian ends creates pressure to use force if the situation cannot be ameliorated. Like neoconservatives, many humanitarians view military action guided by their principles in a far too romantic manner – as if only good can come of it. Regardless of whether the war is “just” or not, war is destructive and often exacerbates humanitarian suffering.

Still, the Obama Doctrine can do no more harm than the Bush Doctrine, same goes for the other two candidates. Next year, America will face two wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan), a more assertive Russia, a recalcitrant Iran and the need for greater international cooperation. An innovative approach will be needed if America is to address those challenges and reassert itself. Will it be a new beginning of history? Now that the limits of American power have been exposed, it just might.

Those at St. James’ Street welcome comments at [email protected]