Foreign policy: while America dozed

Without getting our economic house in order, we can't be safe or effective in the world. Here are some of the most pressing security and foreign policy challenges obscured by all the attention to health-care reform. They are doozies.
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Sally Jewell accepting Interior Secretary nomination

Without getting our economic house in order, we can't be safe or effective in the world. Here are some of the most pressing security and foreign policy challenges obscured by all the attention to health-care reform. They are doozies.

Our highest foreign-policy, national-security priority right now is to get our American financial and economic houses in order. If we fail on that count, we will be unsafe and ineffectual in the world.

There are, however, some things ongoing internationally that have been somewhat obscured during our year-long immersions in bailout and health-care debate. Some bullet thoughts about them:

  • Nuclear policy: The United States, as the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons against another, has consistently attempted since World War II to contain the nuclear genie. President Obama's recent recommitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons is a noble objective. The reduction of U.S. and Russian arsenals can be safely undertaken.

    But abolition will be a non-starter so long as many other nations, including North Korea and, soon, Iran, and rogue movements maintain or seek nuclear-weapons capabilities. Deterrence is the thing. "Walking softly but carrying a big stick," as President Theodore Roosevelt put it, must continue for now to be at the heart of our nuclear policy.
  • Iraq-Afghanistan-Pakistan: Al Qaida in Iraq appears to be behind the recent wave of bombings hitting Sunni, Shiite, and foreign targets in Iraq. The objective: to destabilize the country during the interim period between national elections and the formation of what, by necessity, will be a coalition Iraqi government. Thus far the present Iraqi government has managed the disorder on its own; wisely, diminishing U.S. forces in the country have not been called on for help. The Iraq endgame is not far off. Will our remaining troops be able to depart in 2011? The answer will depend on the success or failure of Iraqi factions to put together a popularly supported governing coalition, which can run the place on its own. I am betting that will happen. But it might not.

    In Afghanistan, we are engaged in a nasty to-and-fro with Afghan President Karzai, in which American political leaders keep questioning publicly his capacity to govern and he, in turn, suggests we butt out of Afghan internal politics. Put me down as perplexed by all of this. U.S. and NATO troops are trying to reduce the strength and reach of Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Karzai is trying to govern a place traditionally run by warlords and tribes.

    Down the road, it is clear, the "political solution" to the Afghan problem will involve giving the Taliban at least part of the governing action — perhaps in return for their pledge to stay out of the game in neighboring Pakistan. We hurt ourselves by publicly criticizing, and therefore weakening, Karzai. We have found ourselves allied over the years with many a rogue or incompetent. We are best served right now by ending our public grandstanding and letting our troops and quiet diplomacy do the talking. The odds against success in Afghanistan are longer than they are in Iraq.

    Pakistan is the country most important to our interests in the region. It has nuclear weapons. Its intelligence service has long ties to Al Qaida and Taliban leaders, and there is good evidence that a double game continues to be played wherein a) we are assured Pakistan stands with us against Islamic fundamentalists and, thus, must send more money; and b) fundamentalists continue to be tolerated, and even supported, because many Pakistani intelligence, military, and political leaders believe fundamentalist ties will give them greater regional influence and, moreover, assets for use against hated India.

    Pakistani national leadership is weak. Worst-case situations could evolve in either Iraq or Afghanistan, which we would deplore but which, nonetheless, would not cause us to commit new forces and assets. But, in Pakistan, we simply cannot tolerate a worst-case situation, which would involve a collapse of the current government and the ascendancy of fundamentalist leadership. We would have to do whatever was necessary to avert that. Pakistan is the main game and we must play it to win.

  • Iran: Another place where we would be well-served to do less public posturing and to extend more quiet support to younger-generation leaders who want to get rid of the current regime as much as we do.

    Threats of tightening sanctions will be scorned by present Iranian leaders. They only provide them with a handy excuse to stir up anti-western sentiment domestically ("The Americans, Israelis, and European imperialists want to keep us weak so they can dominate us"). Fact is, just about any nation with the money and technical means to do so can develop a nuclear-weapons capability. The only sure way to stop it is to go to war (or, as Israel did with Saddam Hussein's nuclear capability, to take it out with lightning strikes).

    Iranian facilities are decentralized and could not be taken out with one-time aerial strikes. Unless we are truly prepared to launch war against Iran, we have little option but to let its nuclear program go forward — as such programs have gone forward with other nations of the region — and to encourage a successor regime, which will not use the weapons or export the technology.

    We keep counting, apparently, on Russian and Chinese support for sanctions, which will cause Iran to back off its nuclear program. Their talk is cheap. Both Russia and China enjoy seeing us weakened and embarrassed in the region. Watch what they do, not what they say.

  • Israel: We are engaged in another nasty public exchange with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Here, too, we would be well-served to shut up and to work behind the scenes toward a settlement of Israeli-Palestinian issues. It may well be that this is fated to be a permanent tragedy and that a final settlement will never be made. Grievances built over generations are not going to be resolved because the United States wills them resolved.

    Our continuing involvement will be required. But our hand needs to be much lighter and less public. Special U.S. envoy George Mitchell's style is to operate in exactly that way. He keeps being overriden, apparently, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the White House.

  • China: Both public and private American strategists keep seeing China as a global rival. There is no question that China seeks global power through every means available. It has established economic and commercial relations, for instance, with African countries much as the old Soviet Union did in Cold War days — attempting to gain political influence in places far distant from its own traditional spheres of influence. China is modernizing economically but continues to run a tight ship domestically, censoring and punishing critics of the regime. It has enormous leverage over us because of the American debt which it holds. It continues to build military capabilities which, down the road, it hopes will equal ours. It continues to worry Japan and its other neighbors.

Our financial vulnerability to China should be our most immediate concern. The only way to reduce it is to get our own house in order (see above). In the meantime, however, the Chinese are unlikely to undertake a financial-economic offensive against us. It would hurt China as much as the United States. China needs a stable American currency and a stable American trading partner. It must run a domestic growth rate of 8 percent annually just to hold steady internally.

China is a huge, populous country. Its people are talented and industrious. There was a time when it dominated its region. China is moving to restore itself in that position. Its industrial and economic modernizations have been stunning.

Should we worry about China's thrust toward regional ascendancy and global influence? Does China want war with us? Do its major interests collide directly with ours? No. Do we have mutual interests that should cause us to collaborate? Yes.

The United States and China must remain closely engaged. We should not hesitate to make our views known to China when we believe our own and others' legitimate interests are being threatened by China. But expect no Chinese strikes against Pearl Harbor, Tokyo, or even Taiwan. These guys have been around for centuries and play a very long game.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of