With the US presidential contest in full swing, it is prudent to reflect on what the 44th US president will inherit in terms of foreign policy.
This context will have a significant bearing on how the US chooses to deal with potential challenges, conceivably even tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
The next US president, regardless of his or her political party or particular world view, will confront a stark set of global challenges that defy easy characterization or remedy.
From international frictions to flights of fiscal foolhardiness, the totality of the inheritance is daunting and deeply troubling. Too often, the new occupants of the West Wing -- and indeed global allies of the US -- do not have a clear grasp of the world their decisions affect.
So a full appreciation of the strengths and particularly the weaknesses of the US position in the international community provides an indispensable context for how the US will subsequently act when confronting new challenges -- particularly the drama that is playing out in Asia with a rising China, a more assertive Japan, a nuclear North Korea, and a more militarized Taiwan Strait.
Any full discussion of the inheritance from the administration of US President George W. Bush must begin with Iraq.
The tragedy and chaos of the Iraq War provides the context for a host of foreign policy and domestic choices that will require a unique blend of political will and strategic acumen to successfully negotiate.
The decisions surrounding the Iraq invasion and the cascading calamities of its aftermath will have a deeply negative and possibly an enduring impact on the US worldview and its national capabilities.
There are worrisome signs in Afghanistan as well that suggest the mission there is far from complete.
The unilateralist tendencies of US policy decisions of the recent past have also alienated close international allies and partners. The US military -- particularly our ground forces -- has been stretched to the breaking point.
The global shock and concern over extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, Guantanamo and Abu Graib have undermined the US' global standing and its "soft power," making it more difficult for the US to wield moral indignation over the cruelties of extremist organizations.
There are also worries over the security of our energy supplies and the absence of a national strategy to cope with a disruption of foreign oil.
There is an inkling -- with our national preoccupation on Iraq and the larger manifestations of the "war on terror" -- that other important matters, most specifically the rise of China, have received short shrift. The body politic is deeply divided and thoroughly suspicious of US government capabilities and intentions, from intelligence functions to nation building.
There is also increasing uncertainty over the essential meaning, political uses and longer term implications of the public mantra, the "war on terror," which has passed for a national strategy since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Many if not all of these problems will transcend the next president's term.
But it is essential that the next president break with this immediate past and offer a new plan to restore our global political balance.
Although there is no rioting in the streets as we approach next year's election, not since the 1968 presidential contest has an election been so bitterly contested.
Not since 1952, in the early days of the Cold War, has the strategic situation in the international realm been so uncertain.
Not since the administration of former president Jimmy Carter have anxieties over energy insecurity risen to the level of national policy.
Not since the end of the Reagan administration has the issue of an exploding federal deficit, runaway spending and questionable tax policies consumed the attentions of leaders in both parties. Not since the rejection of the League of Nations by a disillusioned US Congress at the end of president Woodrow Wilson's term has there been such skepticism about the strain of missionary zealotry in US foreign policy.
An increasing majority of US citizens are now "through" with Iraq -- but it's clear that Iraq is not through with us.
The enduring violence there will likely pose severe challenges to US interests in the region for years to come regardless of immediate decisions over combat troop deployments.
And as the Iraq War enters its fifth year and politicians argue about how and when the dominant US role in it should end, another debate is just beginning: what kind of "Iraq Syndrome" will take hold over US foreign policy in the wake of this war, and how will the lessons of the past four years shape future decisions about how to use US power?
Each major foreign policy event casts its shadow over future political debates, policymaker calculations and public perceptions. Iraq will be no different. The effects of the Iraq Syndrome will likely provide an enormous challenge to the immediate successor to Bush in ways not yet apparent.
Many expect Iraq's legacy to be unambiguously and even dangerously negative. They predict a deep public distrust of government and the defense intellectual community that provided the strategic case for the intervention; concern over both the motives and competence of those who govern us; a profound skepticism about the veracity of US intelligence and an unwillingness to accept future assertions about security threats; a public aversion to use force or submit to the major costs in terms of troops and treasure for missions; and a tarnishing of the idea that promoting democracy is a bedrock goal for the US.
To Asian friends, this contemporary foreign policy legacy and inheritance may seem somewhat peripheral, but nothing could be further from the truth. Asia is entering an extraordinarily dynamic period and will confront many of its challenges with a US arguably distracted and not at full capacity -- not a welcome reality for those committed to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
Kurt Campbell is the CEO and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security.
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