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Wed. September 26, 2018
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Back to the (Policy) Future, Or: The Vagaries of International Relations
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Selling arms simultaneously to Egypt, Saudi-Arabia, and Israel, is hardly new in America's foreign policy. But critics of this White House wonder how this new plan by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice can be squared with the "Bush Doctrine" of supporting democracy above all. Has ‘pre-9/11’ thinking permeated the State Department?

Indeed, some perennial critics of the Bush foreign policy quickly aimed at this piece of (not-so-new) news, made more unpalatable by the fact that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are hardly "moderate" countries in any meaningful way, except in not being active military aggressors. If they are no longer the spawning grounds of the most dangerous hostility toward the US, it is only because other countries have temporarily out-done them.

Public discontent is understandable, of course. The Iraq war having failed of its objectives—yes, even considering the Surge, which has significantly stabilized things in the short run (what were they, beyond ‘Saddam out’?)-- is not disputable. Whatever genuinely positive results emerge post-surge,they will emerge so slowly (and after such cost) that the US can’t get credit, while the US will be blamed for anything that goes wrong.

The Iraq war's achievement so far: Iran has become the most powerful regional power in the Middle East. A bit simplistic? Perhaps, but an apt summary and certainly true today, as Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki goes to Tehran, not the other way around.

Undoubtedly, this was the last thing proponents of this war had in mind - indeed just about the opposite of what claimed they wanted. In this light, the newly-revived, equal-opportunity arms deals manifest a strategy to reign in Iran and bolster traditional allies as a security ring of moderate states in the region. We've seen this policy before - and might not be surprised to see it again, had it not been the same Ms. Rice who complained two years ago that, for 60 years, the US had carelessly "bolstered stability at the expense of democracy and gotten neither".

No spin-doctor can undo the impression that the White House is pulling a Foreign-Policy 180 degree turn: Back to the roots, you might say.

This turn gets more jeers than cheers, even from those who have previously accused Rice and Bush of naively seeking to force democracy on other countries. Perhaps this is because the two year old argument of Rice - and for that matter that of the "Neo Conservatives" – still carries much of the ring of truth.

In a 2006 interview with the International Affairs Forum, AEI's Joshua Muravchik pointed out that whenever the US has supported dictators, it has come out badly. "The most successful one was when we installed the Shah of Iran - which worked very nicely for a period of time. But then we’ve been paying the price for it ever since. We had about 26 good years with him in power but he’s been out for 27 years – which haven’t been that good. And that was the best we could do!?"

That may be an overstatement. US efforts to replace dictators actually have a mixed record (South Vietnam, bad; Philippines, first bad, then good). "Installing good government is simply not feasible", Muravchik continues, true but for long-term postwar occupations, as in Japan and Germany. Even there the governments were indigenous and deeply rooted or else would not have succeeded. "Demo- cratization is very risky and can lead to some bad things. But it seems a more a plausible and meaningful strategy than saying ‘let’s have good dictators’. That’s not a strategy."

But of course any strategy worthy of the name must link national interest with a vision of what a better world would be like. This latest ideological shift in Bush Strategery seems driven by a sour mistake, at least in the execution stage, in the case of Iraq. But the underlying idea of preferring democracy remains correct. Which explains why Rice's recent shift back is, symbolically, at any rate, so easily criticized. Still the old Bush strategy —indiscriminately offering US support to overthrow non-democratic regimes—doesn't strike one as the right thing to do, either.

We'd like to make a quick and easy point by just criticizing Rice, whether her original policy or the new slant, or - better still: both. But the dilemma is that it ain't easy.

The neo-cons, by now broadly derided for having dragged us into a war the West may never have really wanted, suddenly seem on the right side of the longer-term argument. And as a country we somehow seem damned if we do, and damned if we don't.

Perhaps if America should fail, it should fail on the side of freedom, not autocracy. And if we should err, we might also wish to err with tools of diplomacy not war. But for those who find that plausible enough, there remains Dante's warning of the special place reserved in Hell for those who stay neutral in times of moral crisis. It really ain't easy, is it?

Jens F. Laurson is Editor-in-Chief of the Center for International Relations. George A. Pieler is a Senior Fellow with the Institute of Policy Innovation.

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