October 25, 2004

Fighting the Last War in Foreign Affairs

Sometimes I read a long article, vehemently disagree with it, but know that the huge length of the thing means that it's quite likely that I won't be able to effectively grapple with it in all its glorious idiotariansim. Such is the dilemma I face with The Sources of American Legitimacy in Foreign Affairs.

It looks, has the length, and appears in the proper outlet to be a serious look at the problem of US legitimacy but it is no such thing. It is a hatchet job that assumes facts not in evidence, promises more than it actually delivers, is completely blind to new solutions being necessary for new (for us) problems and like a little lost child takes comfort in old, worn rag dolls.

The big fact not in evidence is that the US war in Iraq is illegal. Iraq was in a very strange state of legal limbo as the Safwan Accords were signed and the UN took up the task of disarming Iraq and defanging it of its horribly poor habit of killing innocent people. The state that we were in was the same state that we have been at with N. Korea, a state of cease-fire. To declare that cease-fires, by simple virtue of a decade of longevity become binding peace is ahistorical childishness. One example should suffice to explain how such a legal position would open up cans of worms that simply should not be opened.

The 1877 Russian theft of half of Moldova from Romania during a war which Romanian forces were on the same side as Russia was later undone in the terrible chaos of the Bolshevik revolution when the people of Moldova petitioned for reunion. Romania did not conclude a final border treaty during the inter-bellic years so, when the correlation of forces was right and the only power who could intervene would not do so, Stalin simply took it back.

To argue that the inter-bellic defacto borders were equivalent to de jure borders (the interlude between violent episodes was longer than in Iraq) is to give support to Romanian irredentism to land that is the present state of Moldova and some segments of Ukraine. I have no doubt that there are plenty of other irredentist passions that would be furthered by such a ruling which is why nobody ever dares make the charge formally. It would make such a hash of things that such anti-Bush polemics are only deployed for effect, stated as conclusion without too much examination of how that would really affect the international system if applied as a matter of law and not just ad-hoc justification to restrain US action.

The US, UK, Australia and all the rest of the major Coalition powers, withdrew from the preceding cease-fire of the UN sanctioned war started in 1991 but never ended. In fact, one of the early activities of the Iraqi foreign ministry after elections will be to conclude peace treaties with countries who fought in 1991 but did not take part in the concluding round of the war. Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, all will spend a significant amount of time negotiating treaties on the very real fact of international law that Iraq is still technically at war with Egypt et al.

So if we were already at war, the hurdle for restarting combat operations becomes the much lower "did they break the cease-fire" instead of "are they an imminent threat". The precedential value becomes much lower too as the number of states with which we're still technically at war is pretty much limited to N. Korea.

At one point, the idea is mooted that the strategy of preemption (nastily labeled preventive war, a big no-no in current international law) has prevented us from working out a grand bargain with North Korea. We already had a grand bargain. It was called the 1994 framework agreement. North Korea was cheating on it before the ink was dry on the signatures.

So preemption is supposed to be preventing a new grand bargain. But what evidence do we have that this treaty will be any better than the one a decade ago? There is none, so other than a distinct shortage of canapes and diplomatic soirees that surround such grand bargain efforts, the downside seems distinctly limited on the N. Korean front. Keeping them terrified that they could be next allows the PRC, S. Korea, Russia, and Japan to play good cop to our very, very bad cop. And really, given the imbalance in military force structure, who could play bad cop if we decided to take the good cop role? We are the only potentially unrestrainable actor in the world today so we're destined for bad cop roles.

A huge gaping hole in the article is the focus on the idea that the only way to become legitimate in the international system is the methods used in the Cold War period. Once the US is out of the occupation business in Iraq, it will become more and more clear what the point of the whole exercise was and how it is a good thing. The benefits of an arab democracy that threatens all the old lies about arab incapability to live successfully in the modern world will not only vastly improve the Middle East but will also improve our position in the world as anti-american lies are revealed for what they are and the truth of US good deeds comes through to anybody with eyes.

In this alternate model, legitimacy will not be reclaimed by returning to old tactics for a new world but by demonstrating that our deeds regarding freedom match our long-standing words in support of our ideals. Those words had been empty for decades when it comes to the Middle East and it is our 60 year lack of legitimacy in supporting our words with deeds that is the big legitimacy deficit that we have to make up.

Would the suggested tactic of returning to the strategies of the past solve this 60 year legitimacy deficit? Clearly it would not because our past behavior is what created the legitimacy deficit in the first place.

Oil-for-food has been exposed as a bribery program, designed to buy support in world capitals in order to stymie any sort of multilateral application of force for a definitive solution in Iraq. We already know that UN multilateralism was doomed by the extensive bribes paid to stop such actions. The details have yet to be formed into indictments but the broad outline is already clear.

Who is naive enough to believe that Iran, Syria, Libya, even N. Korea are more honest and upright in their dealings with the international community? Who doesn't at least suspect that there are other bribes being passed to keep effective action from reaching out and deposing other rogue regimes?

Legitimacy, in the end, is not only a question of the US measuring up to the international community, but also a question of which parts of the international community do we want to measure up to? We never were legitimate in the eyes of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, or Fidel Castro. But do we want to be? This aspect of legitimacy is completely unexamined here in Foreign Affairs. Perhaps it is oversight, perhaps it is a welcome bit of shame but it certainly is important to pick your enemies as well as your friends and we have, for too long, been too unselective. The article's authors seem to wish that we continue the trend.

A France that allows itself to be bribed into supporting Saddam is a France that does not deserve our consideration regarding Iraq because, on this matter, they decided to be on the other side and we do no service to our own legitimacy or the legitimacy of the international system to go along with the farce that Saddam's coalition of the bribed deserved any consideration in their role as undercover paid mouthpieces for evil.

But even in the case of France, they are not bribed on all subjects. They defend their interests honestly in many cases and, a fair examination of the record of this administration indicates that outside Iraq, France is not being stymied at every turn when it is advancing its own interests positively and not just seeking an excuse to engage in US ankle biting. It is this Bush nuance that is unremarked by so many of the President's critics. Since nuance isn't included in the narrative they've chosen for his administration, every time nuance shows up it is underplayed or completely ignored in their accounts.

So we are on a different path, new strategies and new rules for a new strategic situation. The rap on the military is that they always want to fight the last war. This piece shows that the foreign affairs brahmins are just as stubborn and hidebound. They do what all fossilized relics of a past system do, pound away at the standard bearers of the new order in order to unjustifiably prolong their own dominance in the field. This is why you see so many distinguished elder statesman from so many foreign policy schools act against the Bush administration's foreign policy. They all are too comfortable with the old battlegrounds and are very unhappy with the prospect of accepting the fact that 9/11 did really change everything.

Posted by TMLutas at October 25, 2004 09:23 AM