Foreign policy will be front and center in this Presidential election. Not since the Vietnam War has it been so crucial to a campaign. Iraq, of course, is the reason. We now know that the reasons justifying war were largely untrue. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There were no significant ties to al Qaeda. There was no imminent threat. While we did get rid of a bad dictator, the results are hardly encouraging.
Further, the U.S. has paid a high price for its failed diplomacy. By acting unilaterally in Iraq, we failed to amass a multinational military force large enough to secure the occupation. By acting preemptively, we failed to attain legitimacy in much of the world. And in our arrogance, we failed to prepare for the difficult aftermath of an easy invasion.
Democratic candidate John Kerry is proposing a different foreign policy that would be more multilateral, multinational, and pragmatic. His approach is given strong support by the recent 9/11 Commission Report, which faults the Bush Administration for relying on a narrow military response to terrorism without deploying a broad political and economic foreign policy to curtail Islamic extremism.
Kerry's approach holds promise. But Kerry should realize that a multilateral U.S. foreign policy that aims to make America safe requires multilateral institutions that work, allies that cooperate, and a Middle East foreign policy that at least allows the U.S. to be seen as an honest broker of peace. Right now it is clear that the machinery of the U.N. is broken, the willingness and ability of allies to help is uncertain, and America's disengaged Middle East policy isn't doing much to produce a lasting peace in the region.
The strength of Kerry's approach is that it returns the U.S. to the internationalist path that served it so well during the decades of the Cold War. The battle against Islamic extremism may very well last as long. Allies will be needed to ferret out terrorist cells abroad. With the U.S. mistrusted in the Muslim world, the U.N., troubled though it is, can help in nation-building and providing secular schools for millions of poor children to compete with Islamist madrassas that turn out suicidal fanatics. The need to boost economic growth in places like Pakistan may require sharp cuts in agricultural subsidies, and that can't be done without Europe's help. And pressure on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to democratize will have a greater chance of success if it comes not just from Washington but from Ankara and New Delhi, where Muslims already vote in free elections.
Kerry has not yet addressed how he plans to make multilateralism work. The Security Council in particular needs major changes if the U.N. is going to play a significant role in fighting Islamic fanaticism. It failed miserably in stopping ethnic extremism in Bosnia. Kerry has not said much about revitalizing NATO, either. Right now, NATO has little to offer on the battlefield or in the air. If multilateralism is to work, Europe needs to find the resources and the will to be full military and diplomatic partners with America. Kerry has to promise not only to chat up old allies but also to urge them to take on expensive new security obligations.
America will have a much harder time being persuasive in the Middle East. The latest Pew Research Center polling numbers show that even in countries with pro-American governments, such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco, nearly 100% of the population holds an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. The 9/11 Commission says that America must battle radical Islam as it fights stateless al Qaeda terrorists. It needs the public support of Arab countries to do both.
Like it or not, the price for this support is a good faith effort to broker a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Here Kerry needs to explain how he is going to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table and to the principles established by the Oslo Accords. Kerry says he would appoint an envoy to get the process going. But it will take a lot more for talks to succeed.
The Presidential campaign is taking place at a time when U.S. military prowess is unsurpassed, yet its actual influence has waned to unprecedented lows. U.S. executives traveling overseas in the past two years could not fail to be shocked at the widespread anti-Americanism -- and fearful of its possible impact on their companies and the U.S. economy. Unilateralism isn't a good fit with globalization.
John Kerry is offering voters a more traditional multilateral foreign policy. But he will have to be more explicit in showing how he can make the machinery of multilateralism work better than it did in the recent past.