How to heal U.S. diplomacy.

Repairing some of the worst Bush administration screw-ups.
March 30 2008 10:46 PM

Foreign Policy

What it will take to heal U.S. diplomacy.

With President Bush's approval rating hovering in the 30s, just about everyone has an opinion on what George W. has done wrong in the past seven years. But not everyone can explain what the next president must do to fix it. So we've called in some experts to tell us. Fixing It is a 10-part series to be published over the course of this week with contributions from some of our favorite writers, offering detailed policy prescriptions for the next president, whoever that may be, on how to quickly undo some of the damage. One of our contributors wryly describes the series as "News You Can Use. If You Happen To Be President." Read the other entries here.

Fred Kaplan chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

The next president must repair our tarnished image in the world and restore some of our lost power. The good news is that, in some respects, the one goal goes along with the other. The bad news is that both are harder than they may seem, because our diminished condition stems not just from President Bush's policies but from our victory in the Cold War, which paradoxically made us weaker.

This seems odd at first glance (didn't we emerge as "the sole superpower"?), but for all its horrors, the Cold War was a system of international security. The world was dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union, and the countries in between often subordinated their own interests to accommodate—in the West by choice, in the East by force—the interests of their superpower protector. When the USSR evaporated, we didn't step into the vacuum; the vacuum expanded. Old allies realized they could go their own ways and pursue their own interests with less regard for what Washington thought. Other powers—China especially—moved up in the world, offering alternative alignments.

Bush accelerated this development by failing to recognize it. He and his top aides thought that since we were now all-powerful, allies were no longer necessary—when, in fact, they were more necessary, and harder to lure, than ever. The next president will have to do what Bush failed to do—step up diplomatic activity, renovate old alliances, devise new ones—not just because diplomacy is preferable to war but because we have no choice. In short, if handled shrewdly, the things the next president must do to repair our image will also enhance our power.

Here are some of the main things:

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• Travel to all the Middle East countries and leave behind a full-time envoy to the region. It is appalling that President Bush made his first trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories in his final year and, even then, did nothing—and that he assured the envoy whom he did (finally) appoint that the job was a part-time post. The real agenda at the Annapolis summit, just before then, was to corral the Sunni nations into an anti-Iran coalition. But that won't happen—the leaders won't ally themselves so openly with the United States—until we at least seem to get serious about the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Each of the region's problems has its own dynamic, but each is also linked to the others. Bush has always known this. In 2002-03, he thought that the road to Jerusalem went through Baghdad (i.e., that by toppling Saddam and transforming Iraq into a democracy, the neighboring dictators would fall like dominoes)—when, if anything, the road goes in the opposite direction. Bush's father and Bill Clinton employed Dennis Ross as a full-time Middle East envoy. His job was to douse the flame whenever anyone lit a match and to pounce on any opportunity for a strategic breakthrough. As long as Arafat ruled the PLO, such opportunities were perhaps illusory. Ross or someone like him should go back to do what he used to do—in a more fluid, intriguing setting.

• Iraq: Use the troops as leverage. Most Democrats realize that total withdrawal in the next few years is impractical. If John McCain is elected, the Joint Chiefs will inform him that his vision of a 100-year occupation is impossible. (If deployments continue at anywhere near current levels, the Army might break before the end of his first term.) The goal should be to withdraw as quickly as possible while trying to keep Iraq from going up in flames. Some believe Iraq's leaders won't get their act together until they see that we really are leaving. Maybe. But it's equally, if not more, plausible that there is no act for them to get together and that the prospect of our departure will drive each faction to retreat and prepare for the imminent civil war. The major parties want us to leave—but not now. One way to exploit this ambivalence: Start the withdrawal but attach benchmarks. (The old benchmarks, which Bush put in place but ignored when they weren't met, might still be suitable.) If the Iraqis meet certain benchmarks, we'll suspend the withdrawal and help consolidate the progress until the next benchmark. If the Iraqis fail to meet them, we will continue the withdrawal. The surge—in fact, our entire military presence—is a means to an end: an instrument to provide security while Iraq's leaders settle their sectarian feuds. If the feuds are irresolvable, we can do only so much; there is little point in keeping our thumbs (and most of our fingers) plugging up holes in the bursting dike. If Iraq were like South Korea or postwar Europe (or even Bosnia), that would be one thing; but no Americans died in combat after those wars were over and the long occupations began. That's not the case with Iraq.

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