Fareed Zakaria

As George W. Bush’s term ended, he had few defenders left in the world of foreign policy. Mainstream commentators almost unanimously agreed the Bush years had been marked by arrogance and incompetence. "Mr. Bush’s characteristic failing was to apply a black-and-white mind-set to too many gray areas of national security and foreign affairs," The Post editorialized. Even Richard Perle, the neoconservative guru, acknowledged recently that "Bush mostly failed to implement an effective foreign and defense policy." There was hope that President Obama would abandon some of his predecessor’s rigid ideological stances.

In its first 50 days, the Obama administration has naturally been consumed by the economic crisis, but it has nevertheless made some striking shifts in foreign policy. Obama announced the closure of Guantanamo and the end of any official sanction for torture. He gave his first interview as president to an Arab network and spoke of the importance of respect when dealing with the Muslim world — a gesture that won him rave reviews from normally hostile Arab journalists and politicians.

Hillary Clinton has racked up more miles in a few weeks than many of her predecessors as secretary of state did in months, mixing symbolic gestures of outreach with substantive talks. The administration has signaled a willingness to start engaging with troublesome regimes such as Syria and Iran. Clinton publicly affirmed that the United States would work with China on the economic crisis and energy and environmental issues despite differences on human rights. She has also offered the prospect of a more constructive relationship with Russia.

These initial steps are all explorations in the right direction — deserving of praise, one might think. But no, the Washington establishment is mostly fretting, dismayed in one way or another by these moves. The conservative backlash has been almost comical in its fury. Two weeks into Obama’s term, Charles Krauthammer lumped together a bunch of Russian declarations and actions — many of them long in the making — and decided that they were all "brazen … provocations" that Obama had failed to counter. Obama’s "supine" diplomacy, Krauthammer thundered, was setting off a chain of catastrophes across the globe. The Pakistani government, for example, had obviously sensed weakness in Washington and "capitulated to the Taliban" in the Swat Valley. Somehow Krauthammer missed the many deals that Pakistan struck with the Taliban over the past three years — during Bush’s reign — deals that were more hastily put together, on worse terms, with poorer results.

Even liberal and centrist commentators have joined in the worrying.

Leslie Gelb, the author of a smart and lively new book, "Power Rules," says that Clinton’s comments about China’s human rights record were correct but shouldn’t have been made publicly. Peter Bergen of CNN says that "doing deals with the Taliban today could further destabilize Afghanistan." Gelb writes ruefully that it’s "change for change’s sake." Ah, if we just kept in place all those Bush-era policies that were working so well.

Consider the gambit with Russia. The Washington establishment is united in the view that Iran’s nuclear program poses the greatest challenge for the new administration. The only outside power that has any significant leverage over Tehran is Russia, which is building its nuclear reactor and supplying it with uranium. Exploring whether Moscow might press the Iranians would be useful, right?

Wrong. The Post reacted by worrying that Obama might be capitulating to Russian power. His sin was to point out in a letter to the Russian president that if Moscow were to help in blunting the threat of missile attacks from Tehran, the United States would not feel as pressed to position missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic — logical since those defenses were meant to protect against Iranian missiles. It’s also a good trade because right now the technology for an effective missile shield against Iran is, in the words of one expert cited by the Financial Times’s Gideon Rachman, "a system that won’t work, against a threat that doesn’t exist, paid for with money that we don’t have."

The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement. Other countries can have no legitimate interests of their own. The only way to deal with them is by issuing a series of maximalist demands. This is not foreign policy; it’s imperial policy. And it isn’t likely to work in today’s world.


The writer is editor of Newsweek International and co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues.



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