Foreign policy advice for Obama

Posted March 02, 2009, at 11:12 a.m.

As if they don’t have enough on their plate, the leaders of President Obama’s national security team are obliged to produce a new national security strategy by mid-year.

Administrations since Richard Nixon’s have prepared such documents – presumably an overarching strategy to deal with the wide array of threats and challenges faced by every government in Washington. But it was only after passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 that they became a mandatory, annual affair.

For the most part, the documents have been lengthy, broad statements of existing policy – almost brochures on the major themes of our nation’s values and commitments to international peace, democracy and freedom.

Under pressure of the terrorist attacks of 9-11, however, the Bush administration broke from the “laundry list” framework of national security strategies in 2002 to produce the most far-reaching, clear-cut strategy of any administration since World War II. It was misguided, unilateralist and instrumental in many decisions that squandered American power and respect in the world over the last decade. But it was bold.

The chief hallmark of the strategy was its endorsement of “pre-emption,” the notion of a right to preventive war against any possible threat – whether imminent or over the horizon. Ironically, the Bush Doctrine, as it is known, also embraced a blunt warning: “Nations should not use pre-emption as a pretext for aggression.”

The Bush Doctrine and the companion “war on terror” will now be replaced by a clear change of direction, one that will reflect President Obama’s determination to turn a new face and an open hand to the world. As events in Gaza and Afghanistan have already made clear, that will be an extremely challenging task.

Given the gravity of the economic crisis, the president has had few chances to address foreign policy, but signs of a new strategy are evident in initial actions such as his first televised interview with an Arab station and sending respected envoys to explosive regions to listen.

It’s quite possible Obama’s advisers will shy away from a far-reaching strategy that can be both coherent and flexible enough to address the complex challenges they confront: two wars, growing instability in key states such as Pakistan, and broader issues ranging from terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation (Iran, North Korea) to global climate change and international trade.

Without prescribing specific policies, I would urge three elements that were short-changed in the strategies and policies of past administrations.

1) A more long-term view. An ambitious objective, especially with presidential elections every four years, weak congressional oversight and fast-changing circumstances.

Now undergoing intensive review, policy on Afghanistan may well shift to a more realistic, longer-term approach that emphasizes counterterrorism over democracy-building, and employs more Afghan forces than lots more U.S. and NATO troops.

On terrorism in general, the administration will strengthen intelligence capabilities and be prepared to take swift action. But it also must broaden political and economic policies and try to build more legitimate and effective governments to “shrink the terrain” in which terrorism can flourish.

I suspect relations with Russia will be looked at through a longer lens – rather than expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders, installing missile defense systems in eastern Europe and the other erratic policies of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

2) A clearer sense of the national interest. It was definitely not in our interest to break away from our traditional role as a balanced broker in the Middle East. Despite Karl Rove’s political interests, it was clearly not in our national interest to invade Iraq – and ignore Afghanistan, help Iran, harm our military readiness, spend a trillion dollars, etc.

3. Aligning ends and means. Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s brilliant secretary of state, forced Truman after World War II to increase defense spending to match America’s new leadership role and ambitious goals. Today, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is playing that role in reverse. Gates has argued strenuously to bolster the State Department’s capacity to aid struggling countries and build up their weak institutions.

There are many other critical steps to improve our foreign policy – for example, coordinating behavior with rhetoric. For starters, if we’re going to encourage democratic elections, we better be prepared to accept the results!

The proof of any strategy will be in the specific policies and their implementation. But it is a fair bet that Obama’s national security strategy will lay out a far more balanced statement of American interests, a greater willingness to work with allies, and a readiness to show, as the Constitution notes, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Those steps alone would amount to a big improvement on the last eight years.

Fred Hill of Arrowsic, a former foreign correspondent, worked on national security issues for the State Department. His e-mail address is hill207@juno.com.

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