The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Hell in a Hand Basket


December 23, 2006

Where to start? About 2 years ago, Patrick and I did an event with the campus Debate Club, where he and I each teamed up with a student and debated “US Foreign Policy: Going to Hell in a Hand Basket.” It was great fun. I was on the side of hell in a hand basket (and won), though it helped to have reality on my side. Reality is back in force, and its not good for the Bush Administration and its not is it good for US foreign policy.

The Washington Post has a solid overview in today’s paper.

On three key flash points — North Korea, Iran and Sudan — the Bush administration confronts the possibility that its current diplomatic approaches have reached the end of their effectiveness, forcing it to consider potentially riskier “Plan B” alternatives, administration officials and outside experts said.

Six-nation talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear programs ended in failure yesterday, suggesting the format could be scrapped after more than three years of inconclusive results. Today, after months of negotiations, the U.N. Security Council may finally approve a relatively weak resolution sanctioning Iran for its pursuit of nuclear power, freeing the administration to try a more unilateral approach to punishing Tehran.

And Sudan faces a U.S.-imposed deadline of Dec. 31 to comply with demands that it allow more peacekeeping forces in the troubled region of Darfur — or else U.S. officials might move toward such options as imposing a no-fly zone over Darfur.

Now, on the one hand, these breakdowns aren’t exclusively the Administrations’ “fault.” The North Korea talks broke down after the North Korean delegation came with a limited brief–the removal of financial sanctions against Banco Delta Asia in Macao that have shut down a significant amount of the DPRK’s alleged illegal international financial activities. It shows that the Administration finally found a negotiating lever that has the North’s attention. But, it also shows how stagnant the talks are, if this is the only item of conversation. The UNSC sanctions did pass, a weaker resolution than the US originally sought, does represent a moment of agreement among the P-5. The question is, of course, what next– the ball is in Iran’s court, yet Iran can honestly doubt if the resolution has any teeth. The US and UN are being somewhat aggressive on Darfur, but the Sudanese government can still stall to its heart’s content.

Indeed, individually, you can explain away any one of the issues without too much spin. Its easy to fall into the notion that the US and the UN are dealing with some really “rogue” regimes, and its to be expected that they will be uncooperative. But, to do so misses the larger and more significant point. These are not individual failures, they are linked, and reflect a serious failing in US foreign policy over the past 4 years.

Ivo Daalder’s take

“Including Iraq, they have four real crises,” he said. “But they have less leverage and less capability and less credibility to deal with any in a diplomatic way.”

Ahhh, Iraq. The war we’re not winning, yet not losing. Its the 18 million ton elephant in the room. It reveals the extended price of Iraq–beyond the blood and treasure expended there, beyond the damage to US policy in the Middle East–it has paralyzed the US Government elsewhere in the world, damaging the US’s ability to credibly conduct diplomacy across the globe.

The shadow of the Iraq war hangs over all these issues, distracting the attention of top U.S. officials and limiting the leverage of the United States. “One of the challenges we face is that because Iraq is there, there is not a lot of oxygen in the room to think creatively about any of these problems,” said Derek Chollet, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Iran can rightly ask–why play ball on the nuclear issue, what are you really able to do to us? The US doesn’t have enough troops to keep its current levels in Iraq and lets not forget Afghanistan. The Baker-Hamilton commission recommended talking to Iran about helping out with Iraq, a plan Rice quickly shot down. Why wouldn’t Iran think it has the upper hand?

The cost of the debacle in Iraq is now rearing its ugly head. It dominated all discussion in US policy circles–domestic, military, economic, foreign. The financial cost prevents investment in other areas. The military cost has left the the US in a precarious position to respond to a myriad of other global threats. While it has always been the case that the US military can’t be everywhere at once, its overstretch in Iraq is so well known that threats now lack credibility elsewhere in the world. And, diplomatically, the US has burned so many bridges over Iraq, its hard to reconstruct those diplomatic ties to deal with other pressing problems. The benefits of unilateral action are its swiftness and decisiveness. The down side is that you weaken the institutions and alliances you need to deal with other problems down the road.

Its becoming a systemic failure, as the hegemon is losing its ability to manage the system it created, and worse, its losing its credibility as the provider of security and stability within the system. It creates a window of opportunity for states to get away with things that might have been unthinkable crossing of diplomatic red-lines a decade ago– case in point, North Korea. In 1994, building a nuke was grounds for war on the Peninsula, Clinton was listening to the war plan from the Joint Chiefs when Jimmy Carter called the White House to announce the deal he reached. Today, that is an empty threat, and no deal is in sight.

Alone, each crisis is a significant problem. But they are not isolated incidents. Linked by US involvement in Iraq, examined globally, this reveals a much more disturbing trend, and the wider and more profound cost of the war in Iraq. Its a foreign policy problem of the first order.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.