Sunday, March 09, 2003

A popular liberal opinion these days--voiced, for example, by Fred Kaplan in Slate, and by Joshua Micah Marshall--is that the Bush administration is messing up royally on the international diplomacy front, losing friends and allies with its ham-fisted, indelicate approach to Iraq, the rest of the Middle East, Europe, and the world in general. Meanwhile, it has become common on the right to blame America's current international troubles, from 9/11 to Saddam Hussein's longevity to European impudence, on the complacently accommodationist foreign policy of the Clinton era. Byron York and Reuel Marc Gerecht are two typical purveyors of this position.

These arguments, of course, are mirror images of each other. Bush is accused of poor technique--implicitly in the service of a good strategic cause--while Clinton is accused of putting his formidable diplomatic skills in the service of an ill-chosen strategy. Both criticisms, however, underestimate the degree to which even American presidents are constrained in their range of decisions by domestic and international political circumstances.

It is easy to complain in retrospect, for instance, that Bill Clinton should have recognized the growing threat of al Qaida and the likelihood that an Iraq freed of UN weapons inspectors would eventually have to be confronted militarily. But even had he been so inclined, Clinton would have had no hope of winning domestic political support for serious military action. In fact, he was bitterly excoriated even for the small-scale cruise missile strikes he ordered launched in 1998 on Osama bin Laden-related targets in response to the African embassy bombings of that year. And if George W. Bush intended anything like the current mobilization against Iraq during his administration before September 11th, there was little sign of it. (And no, I'm not convinced by after-the-fact claims of prior grand, secret plans; such plans are generated all the time for every contingency. Only when they're floated in public, to test their political viability, can they be considered serious.)

Likewise, it's easy to attribute the current administration's diplomatic travails to its own lack of finesse. One could argue, for instance, that the tactic of attempting to get UN Security Council approval for the American attack on Iraq was flawed to begin with, since it's (now) clear that even the most vigorous diplomacy would not have won French or German approval for toppling Saddam Hussein. (On the other hand, arguments that the administration should have been more conciliatory and multilateralist, in the hope of winning those countries' support for an attack, can be seen now, in retrospect, as clearly misguided.) However, the steadfastness of this "Old European" intransigence was hardly a foregone conclusion when UN Resolution 1441 was negotiated and passed. And it may be that in any event, without all this assiduous courting of UN approval, Tony Blair's domestic support would have collapsed to the point of actually forcing him to abandon his prowar position. If so, then the few weeks' wait, while expensive, would still have been less costly than the alternative.

Hindsight is always 20/20; neither Jacques Chirac nor Osama bin Laden is exactly a predictable actor. Moreover, the predictions of politicians in a democracy are useless unless embraced by their constituents. And as the European public is amply demonstrating these days, a free polity cannot be persuaded of that which it simply does not wish to believe.

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