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.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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.

• Prevent Iraq's internal violence from spreading into neighboring countries. One can imagine Iran intervening to help the Shiites; Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Jordan stepping up to aid the Sunnis; Turkey moving in to crush the Kurds—in short, the civil war morphing into a regionwide conflagration. The next president, working with the United Nations, the Arab League, or whatever entities are suitable, should convene a regional conference. There should be no utopian aspirations. It should be a businesslike office where delegates of the interested nations regularly meet, so that if the violence does begin to spread, there will already be a forum for trying to contain it. This measure would save many days or weeks—which could mean all the difference in the world.

• In certain neighboring countries … In 2006, Condoleezza Rice was asked why she wasn't talking with Syria. She replied, "The Syrians know what they need to do." Maybe, but they didn't know what was in it for them if they did—what they would get for walking away from the Iranians and coming over to our side. Spelling out the trade is what diplomacy is about. Maybe there's nothing we can reasonably offer that they'd accept; but there's no harm in trying.

• Separately, open up talks with Iran with an eye toward negotiating a "grand bargain." These talks should cover all issues—including Western capital investment and the end of sanctions in exchange for concessions on enriching uranium and supporting terrorism. This effort may not go anywhere. But Bush's hostile rhetoric has only bolstered Ahmadinejad's domestic support. Diplomatic overtures, if made openly and (by all appearances) sincerely, may undermine his resistance to reform.

• Work toward new Pakistani alliances. In Pakistan, the situation is so fluid and uncertain, it's hard to know at this point what policies ought to be pursued 10 months from now. But backing away from Musharraf and moving toward whatever coalition of parties the Pakistani people support (as long as the Taliban or al-Qaida aren't involved) would be a smart move. In these kinds of situations, it's wise to invoke the Realist's slogan: Nations have interests, not friends. (In this case, our hardheaded security interests and our moral aspirations—to create conditions for the survival and, if possible, the spread of democracy—coincide.)

• Pursue public diplomacy. What we do sends a more potent signal to the world than the cleverest PR campaign. But once we start doing smarter things, we should also be smart about promoting our efforts. For instance: Revive the U.S. Information Agency—a once-vast independent entity that (though lecture programs, libraries, concerts, etc.) promoted not American policy but American values. Send as emissaries abroad people who understand the language and the area (not well-meaning provincials like Karen Hughes). Expand the Foreign Service. Offer scholarships for intense study in crucial languages. Train customs officers to treat foreign visitors more courteously at embassies and airports. It should be possible to be vigilant about security without assuming that every tourist is a terrorist.