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Political Animal

Foreign Fallacy

By Brian Morton | Posted 8/15/2007

It's a testament to the way politics has completely changed from the way it used to be in the United States when the old axiom "politics stops at the water's edge" has been flipped completely in the new century. The genesis of this began in the middle of the 1990s, when intransigent North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms all but blackmailed President Clinton into shuttering the U.S. Information Agency and moving its remains into backwater policy jobs at the State Department.

USIA, a creation of President Eisenhower, took off under the administration of John F. Kennedy, who named legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow as its director. Its bailiwick was public diplomacy--a job that entailed showing, instead of telling, other nations about the wonders of the institutions of America, about what a free society can do for its citizens. In a world full of communism, totalitarianism, and cronyism, USIA took cultural expeditions overseas to the second and third worlds, and did its best to counteract the "bad" images propagated (often with good reason) by the black arm of the CIA and its covert activities abroad.

Sadly, the John Birch wing of U.S. politics never cared for the idea of public diplomacy. All foreigners were to be distrusted, and all that needed to be said around the world was a jingoistic "We're Number 1, and you better believe it." It was foreign policy by foam finger, backed up by the looming might of the U.S. armed forces, based all around the world from England and Germany to Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.

Helms and his nativist right-wing colleagues never believed in the idea that when it came to dealing with other governments and cultures, you can get more with the carrot than with the stick. That belief still lives on today, in the government of a president who never made a serious trip abroad before he ascended to the nation's highest office. When the Bush administration decided it wanted to take up the mantle of "public diplomacy," what did they do? First they hired one person, Madison Avenue marketing executive Charlotte Beers, whose sole accomplishment seems to be telling Islamic nations how good it is to be Muslim in the USA. When that effort failed, miserably and predictably, they brought back another person, a longtime Bush family consigliere and spokesperson with a background at the State Department, Margaret Tutwiler, who lasted barely a year before decamping for Wall Street.

This is why it is far more interesting to consider the policy positions of the top two Democrats seeking the presidential nomination than it is to listen to the entirety of the Republican contenders, whose idea of foreign policy is to see who can cite the most lines from 24.

In a recent debate, critics from the foreign policy establishment, as well as from Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign, assailed Sen. Barack Obama for saying two things: that his administration might go into Pakistan to attack al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden (over plausible objections of President Pervez Musharraf), and that the use of nuclear weapons for an anti-terrorist strike is "off the table."

It is incomprehensible to me that this same foreign policy establishment failed to speak up--or worse still, acted as cheerleaders--when a reckless president lied us into a war that had nothing to do with the perpetrators of Sept. 11. Yet, at the same time, when Obama says, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." Sen. Clinton and the other profiles in courage call Obama "naive" and attempt to paint him as inexperienced and "soft."

For starters, one would think that after more than 60 years without the need to ever use nuclear weapons, despite the fall of the Axis powers and communism, the statement that nuclear weapons are not to be used now would be the ultimate expression of sanity. "Terrorism" is not a rogue state, a country with aspirations, or a single leader with a bad case of megalomania. It's an abstract noun, people! To refuse the use of nukes isn't just a principled position, it's a mark of sanity in a world turned unreal by the constant use of Orwellian language made commonplace by six years of George W. Bush.

Musharraf isn't exactly a saint, either. Perhaps it's time to retire the "He may be a bastard, but he's our bastard" foreign policy. Obama is the first refreshing candidate to state it openly.

For half a century, U.S. foreign policy has largely been like a large ship that makes few and slight course corrections. In just six years, we've been thrown way off course, and the compass is spinning as a result. It would be nice, come 2009, if we could get back on an even keel again--and the language we use between now and then is a sign about how we'll get there.

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