Back in 2000, when Condoleezza Rice published her prescriptions for future US foreign policy in the influential Foreign Affairs magazine, we could perhaps have forgiven the soon-to-be US national security adviser for laying out a strategic blueprint that would later be partly responsible for the calamities that have become synonymous with the administration of US President George W. Bush.
After all, her article had been written before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that purportedly “changed” the world, and everything that followed, from the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 to that of Iraq in 2003.
Eight years have passed since that article was published, and once again Rice, now as secretary of state, is gracing the pages of the magazine (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2008), where she makes the argument for a “new American realism.”
In light of the disastrous eight years of the Bush administration, one would expect that Rice’s paradigms would have changed to reflect a humbler stance on her country’s policies abroad. Instead, her article is infuriating in its failure to grasp the extent of US deficiencies in foreign policy and, if applied, is a prescription for decades of costly failure.
Rather than a new departure, “Rethinking the National Interest” perpetuates the longstanding US policy, first implemented in the early 1940s, of hegemonism through a mixture of democratization abroad, US-led security alliances like NATO, and the expansion of the US military to every corner of the planet to act as a “stabilizing” force as part of a “global counterinsurgency” to forge a “democratic path.”
It is a policy grounded in American exceptionalism that brooks no opposition and leaves no room for other models of governance. American values are assumed to be universally applicable, and when they are not, the US is expected to shape the world — often through the use of force — to make it fit the model. It is a philosophy based on the theory that democracy and liberal capitalism abroad ensures security at home.
Rather than explain why it is so — it reinforces the US “Open Door” policy of equal access to all markets, and, as it expands, further integrates the world into a global economic system that benefits the US — Rice argues that the US must “bring” democracy abroad because it is the right thing to do.
“What real alternative worthy of America is there?” she asks, as if competing models of governance somehow had to “pass” the American test and be worthy of it.
While ostensibly accommodating to China and Russia, Rice’s blueprint for future relations with those states has at its core the magnetism of NATO, which, as it continues to take in new members, is increasingly encroaching on areas that have historically been of strategic interest, or “spheres of influence,” for Moscow.
The Atlantic alliance’s expansion, along with plans for the deployment of a missile defense shield in Europe, has embittered Russia, which for good reasons feels encircled and isolated in its own backyard. Still, Rice sees Moscow’s recalcitrance as unreasonable, as if the US should be given carte blanche to do as it sees fit, even when it involves areas that, for economic and security reasons, are of interest to regional states.
Rice also fails to note that NATO expansion has pushed Moscow and Beijing closer together, partly out of a desire to counterbalance what they perceive as US hegemony in Eurasia. This could also explain why Beijing, aware of the congealing effect NATO has had in Europe, has been reluctant to allow the US to participate in, or become a member of, nascent regional security organizations in East Asia.
Beyond this, the problem with Rice’s overarching strategy is that it sets the obstacles over which she later trips. First among them is the argument that while it is in the US’ long-term interest to promote democracy abroad, short-term exigencies in the “war on terrorism” have forced it to deal with the undemocratic (and oftentimes authoritarian and repressive) regimes of Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, to name a few.
Recognizing the paradox in this approach, Rice states that “[w]e must continue to advocate for reform and support indigenous agents of change in nondemocratic countries, even as we cooperate with their governments on security.”
Pakistan, Rice wrote, provides a perfect example of the US’ successful “balancing” of these concerns.
“[E]ven as we worked with President Pervez Musharraf in fighting terrorists and extremists, we invested more than US$3 billion to strengthen Pakistani society,” she wrote.
The problem with her argument, however, is that as Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid points out in his book Descent into Chaos, 90 percent of the US$10 billion the US has given Pakistan in aid since Sept. 11 has gone to the Pakistani military.
“As long as Musharraf pursued al-Qaeda,” Rashid wrote, “President George W. Bush declined to question his domestic policies or insist upon democracy,” allowing him to suspend the Constitution, sack the judiciary, imprison thousands of lawyers and advocates, and clamp down on the media.
This type of aid also characterizes the US’ relationships with other nondemocratic states.
As Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi explains in his book Resurrecting Empire, US support for repressive regimes in the intelligence and military spheres has allowed them to bolster their security apparatuses, smother dissent and thereby ensure their survival.
Given the heavy imbalance in aid destined for society on the one hand and the intelligence/military sector on the other — added to the fact that as long as the recipient serves US purposes in its “war on terrorism” Washington tends to look the other way — there is, contrary to what Rice claims, little hope in the mid- to long-term that democratization will occur. This in turn helps to further radicalize people (often Muslims) who continue to have no say in the destiny of their country. As Rashid wrote, such policies have helped fuel anti-US sentiment in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Rice also fails to recognize that US policies in the Middle East have been (and, if she has her way, will likely continue to be) disastrous. Sustaining the democracy line, she provides a series of examples — Iran’s support for terrorism and pursuit of nuclear power, Syria’s occupation of Lebanon and Palestinian extremism — to show how undemocratic regimes threaten stability in the region. Not once, however, does she mention Israel’s counterproductive actions in the Occupied Territories, or its invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s and its savage assault in 2006, which did more to delay democratic development in Lebanon than anything Syria ever did and helped legitimize Hezbollah’s existence as a resistance movement.
By putting the blame solely on Arab “extremists” like Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria, and omitting any mention of the principal source of region-wide grievances — Israel’s actions — Rice is ensuring a bleak future for the Middle East, even as she states the need for a Palestinian state.
On that question, Rice is even more inflammatory, as she argues that peace between Israelis and Palestinians can only be achieved once Palestinians renounce violence and are willing to make concessions. No mention is made of the need for Israel to make concessions of its own, nor are there any calls for an end to its violent occupation and illegal settlements. The onus is on Palestinians, the occupied people. They — not Israelis — must make concessions.
Rice also comes short on nations that have democratically elected leaders but whose policies have failed to dovetail with Washington’s. Here again, Rice picks on Hamas, whose failure to govern Palestinians, she claims, stems from its espousal of violence.
What she leaves out, however, is mention of the continued violence perpetrated by Israel in the form of targeted killings and collective punishment, the kidnapping of dozens of Hamas Cabinet members and the Israel/US-led economic blockade of the Palestinian government following Hamas’ election win. This blockade, added to Hamas’ own failings, has made it impossible for the group to govern and meet the needs of its people. Here again, Rice undermines her credibility by granting Israel immunity from accountability and by snubbing the democratic process when the outcome of Palestinian elections does not suit Washington.
Her argument, meanwhile, that the invasion of Iraq was — and remains — a good thing and that it has helped democratize the country also sets up traps into which her argument later falls. It is becoming increasingly clear that the “democratic” government in Baghdad is, by virtue of its geography and the ethnic composition of its people, seeking rapprochement with Tehran, about whose regime Rice is all paranoia.
One wonders if Washington’s enthusiasm for democracy will continue as Baghdad begins to chart policies that serve its own interests, rather than those of the US.
When this happens the US commitment to democracy will show its true colors, and we can bet that Washington will do everything it can to discredit and undermine the regime in Baghdad, just as it did with Taiwan under the Democratic Progressive Party administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). Chen’s pursuit of national interests that did not necessarily reflect Washington’s wishes prompted the US, with Rice’s State Department in the lead, to isolate (and sometimes humiliate) Chen, the democratically elected president of one of East Asia’s only true democracies, which perhaps not by accident Rice altogether fails to mention in her article.
In all, Rice’s article bespeaks a total inability to acknowledge, and learn from, the many mistakes the Bush administration committed over the past eight years. It proposes more of the same, a prescription that could only come from someone who has espoused the ideological fantasies of US neoconservatives and the Washington elite which, backed by powerful lobbies, have given the executive free rein and made a mockery of the democracy that — in Rice’s worldview — purportedly would empower people everywhere and make our world safer.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei and author of Smokescreen: Canadian Security Intelligence after September 11, 2001.
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