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Thinking Ahead to Election 2008: The Need for a Foreign Policy Heavyweight


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With more than a dozen political leaders having either established exploratory committees or declared their intention to seek the U. S. Presidency in 2008, it is not too soon to consider some of the qualities the next President should possess. Considering the eroding American geopolitical standing and major international challenges confronting the nation, the next President will likely need to possess extensive knowledge of foreign affairs. Election of a candidate with little or no meaningful foreign policy knowledge would be a risky proposition.

The next President will likely need to resolve or make significant progress in a number of major foreign affairs matters. These issues include:

The ideological struggle with Islamist extremists: Ultimate success in this long-duration ideological struggle will likely rest on the development of a strategy that would bring together the United States, its allies, and moderate Muslim states. Unless the world’s Muslim community is given an incentive and means to isolate the extremists who lead the terrorist effort, progress will likely remain far more limited. Implementation of such a strategy will likely require frequent personal diplomacy by the President among the world’s major moderate Muslim states and a willingness to engage diplomatically hostile states such as Iran and Syria. The burden of refusing to work toward building a better relationship between the world’s Islamic states and the West should rest with the rejectionist states. Continuation of the present policy of refusing to pursue diplomacy to its fullest extent spreads the blame to all the parties who refuse to collaborate on such an important cause.

Stabilizing Iraq or limiting the fall-out from a fragmented/failing state: The proposed “surge" strategy faces numerous substantial barriers that could preclude success. It provides too little manpower for a purely military solution, it places heavy reliance on an overly-sectarian and less-than-competent Iraqi transitional government to pull the country together, it does little to address Sunni political and economic disenfranchisement, and it is at the mercy of violent sectarian militias and outside states whose interests are not aligned with achieving a stable multi-ethnic/multi-religious Iraq. If the U. S. strategy is continuing to fail, the United States will need to limit its geopolitical losses and rebuild its regional credibility. It will also need to promote stability in moderate states such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and provide protection from possible Iranian domination. In short, if a bad outcome is realized in Iraq, the next President will need to know from the onset how he or she will address it.

Iran’s quest for regional hegemony: Iran’s nuclear program, military modernization, active role in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and increasingly active diplomacy outside the Middle East gives every indication that Iran is seeking regional dominance. By the time the next President takes office, the difficulty in overcoming this rising challenge will likely have been exacerbated on account of the current U. S. refusal to directly engage Iran, along with clumsy efforts that do little to accommodate Russia’s and China’s critical interests even as the U. S. seeks their cooperation with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. In an environment in which direct diplomacy is non-existent and the major interests of key players are ignored, little progress can be expected. Interests, not unabashed idealism, set the framework for foreign policy. The next President will need to reverse the current diplomatic stance, develop an approach founded on common goals that safeguard or enhance the critical interests of all the players, and aggressively reach out to moderates within Iran’s political, academic and economic communities to promote gradual but unmistakable change. At the same time, the U. S. will need to demonstrate through words and actions that it will not sacrifice the wellbeing of its key regional allies, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

China’s rising military power: China is a rising economic, political, and military power. Already, its economy is the world’s second largest. As it continues to grow, it has embarked on a vigorous campaign not only to modernize its military, but also to push the frontiers of technology. Toward that end, it is working to establish leadership in Space. At present, it is expanding both its civil and military capabilities in Space. How China continues to evolve will be of global importance. China’s recent destruction of one of its aging weather satellites offers the possibility of a new military rivalry. If China is able to gain a major capacity to control or dominate Space, on-the-ground advantages currently possessed by the U. S. Military would be rendered obsolete or useless. The present decisive U. S. advantage from smart weapons, communications capabilities, and other information-based capacities would cease to be relevant. That could make it far more difficult and costly for the U. S. to safeguard its critical interests. The next President will need to engage in regular, robust and personal diplomacy at the “President-to-President" level with China and initiate a strong U. S. research effort to assure that the United States would not lose its advantages in Space. The possibility of holding regular summits along the lines of those undertaken during the Cold War with the Soviet Union may also be necessary to manage this issue. Given China's need for internal stability and sustained economic growth, the U. S. is in a good position to bring about a diplomatic agreement that ultimately precludes a Space-based arms race and strengthens the larger bilateral partnership between the two countries.

Rebuilding the U. S. -Russia relationship: Russia has been engaged in a policy of counterbalancing the United States. Such a stance raises the costs to secure and promote U. S.interests abroad. The weak United Nations Security Resolutions concerning Iran’s nuclear program and limited Russian assistance regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program are just a few of the consequences. With Russia becoming increasingly assertive in its “Near Abroad” and its oil resources giving it greater leverage on the world stage, a policy that distances Russia from the U. S. is counterproductive. The next President will need to offer Russia whole-hearted support in its own struggle with radical Islamist extremists, full partnership in NATO, and initiate discussions over a free trade agreement that would bring Russia closer to the U. S. and West.

Reinvigorating trans-Atlantic relations: The trans-Atlantic relationship is among the most important U. S. relationships. The fundamental disagreements over the Iraq War have weakened this relationship. Those disagreements have not broken it, as the shared interests between the United States and its European allies are too great to bring about such an outcome at this time. Still, this relationship will need to be re-strengthened if the U. S. is to maximize its global leverage. This would entail more of a partnership than has existed in recent years. A partnership, of course, does not preclude U. S. freedom to act when critical interests are at stake. It does mean more collaboration and greater willingness to listen to other viewpoints. Indeed, hindsight is golden, but had the U. S. perhaps waited a little longer, the reality of no WMD in Iraq might have been established. More importantly, the extra time might have allowed for the development of an effective post-war strategy that could have resulted in a very different situation in Iraq than what exists today.

Re-engage Latin America: The next President will need to visit the region and personally re-engage the major players including Brazil and Argentina in order to minimize the slow fracturing of the Continent in which several states are drifting toward a Venezuela-Cuba anti-United States. /anti-free market orbit. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the region just recently. The U. S. President should be doing so on a regular basis. However, U. S. policy has amounted to little more than neglect. Such an approach undermines U. S.interests in the region. The increasingly assertive anti-U. S. policies being undertaken and expanded in parts of Latin America are, in part, more appealing and more readily-advanced on account of continuing American neglect.

When it comes to the campaign process, the news media should vigorously probe the candidates’ understanding of foreign policy. The Media should thoroughly test their assumptions, understanding, and calculations. For example, during the debates, the candidates should be asked questions along the lines of what in a country's history, political or economic framework, or culture gives them confidence that a proposed approach might work. The questions should not be provided in advance to the candidates. Otherwise, it would difficult to determine whether the candidates have merely crammed for the debates or are truly prepared to lead. The next President needs to be truly prepared to lead, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

Don Sutherland has researched and written on a wide range of geopolitical issues.


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