While scandals, failed military interventions, or public cynicism can characterize the terms of several Presidents in American history, few will stand out more than the two terms of George W. Bush. After September 11th, 2001, the president quickly went from a public approval rate of less than 50% to nearly 90%. No other president -- except for his father -- had experienced such a manic shift in the pendulum of public support. Because of this, some historians began to make claims that George W. Bush would go down in history as one of America's greatest presidents. However, these historians (not to mention politicians), caught up in the emotion of the time, overlooked the confrontational rhetoric and naïve idealism of the president and his close advisors. In classical Greek tragedies, the main character (usually an influential public figure) experiences a downfall as a result of hubris. This single word can sum up the two terms of Number 43's presidency.
"We're in a lot of trouble!", said Peter Finch's character Howard Beale from the 1976 film Network. And certainly, Americans aren't the only ones who are "as mad as hell." As an American currently living abroad, it is easy for me to see the growing cynicism toward the United States and its policies around the world. This is the byproduct of the last eight years, which have been the low point of our tragic modern diplomacy. There were many missed opportunities following the events of September 11th, including failure in renewing President Clinton's peace process initiative and maintaining close relationships with those who were sympathetic.
Instead, the exact opposite was done and now we are faced with two failed wars, an unstable Middle East, an empowered Iran, and no even-handed approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict (perhaps America's most key issue to regaining global respect). As a result of these failed policies, the president has managed to destroy the confidence of our allies and, equally as important, raised the level of mistrust in the Arab and Muslim world to an all-time high. It is frightening to imagine that our position in the world could get any worse.
The question is, which candidate will get us out of these quagmires, and more importantly who will engage in proper and smart diplomacy by making a departure from the current model of military force and regain the lost support from abroad? After having closely analyzed the speeches of the three 2008 and presidential candidates, the future doesn't look too bright.
Here is why:
McCain's fiery speeches make statements of the necessity for more than just a strategic bond between Israel and the United States, but also a "moral one." In a speech before United Christians for Israel, he called for American support to "intensify to include providing military equipment and technology and ensuring that Israel maintains its qualitative military edge," and to isolate Hamas. With regards to Iran, he maintains that diplomacy should be the first measure, however he has made it clear that a nuclear Iran will not be accepted.
He is committed to finishing the job in Iraq, which is no doubt sincere, but realistically doesn't seem possible to accomplish without the help from the international community. Also, McCain's approach to national security includes expanding the military, modernizing weapons systems, and developing and deploying missile defenses. Clearly, McCain's foreign policy will be a mere continuation of Bush's, and that certainly won't put the United States in better standing with the world.
Clinton has made it one of her top issues to bring American troops home as soon as possible. This message seems rather irresponsible. While a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the war, it would not be wise to make a rash decision to bring American troops home with little dialogue, just as it was not wise to rush into the war with little dialogue.
It has been made clear that Clinton would continue to give unconditional support to Israel. An interesting fact is that on her Internet Web site, there is barely any attention given to the issue. It is difficult to draw conclusions from this, but one thing for sure is that she has not demonstrated an even-handed vision during the debates and her speeches.
However, Clinton can be praised for her strong favorability towards diplomatic engagement with Iran. She has stated that this is the most pragmatic way to finding a solution. During the June 3rd debate, she made the point that the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in diplomacy with each other throughout the Cold War and just because Iran is an enemy doesn't mean their shouldn't be any engagement in diplomacy. Her stance on Iran is much different from her counterpart McCain, who makes outright references to conflict with Iran. But her 2007 vote to declare Iran's revolutionary guard as a terrorist organization was either simply counterproductive to future diplomacy or a crass attempt to shore up her image as a tough leader for the 2008 general election.
While she would be less confrontational and, therefore, might do better than McCain, she still does not possess a clear plan to heal the wounds created by our tragic diplomacy.
Regarding Iraq, Obama has a similar stance to that of Clinton. He also stresses an aggressive attempt to engage in regional diplomacy with both Syria and Iran. He resembles both of his opponents with the belief that the United States primary role in the Middle East must be to ensure the security of Israel. However, his speech to the Jewish community leaders in Cleveland offered a rare opportunity for new dialogue on the issue U.S. and Israeli relations. He stated,
"I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have a honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress And frankly, some of the commentary that I've seen which suggests guilt by association or the notion that unless we are never ever going to ask any difficult questions about how we move peace forward or secure Israel that is nonmilitary or non-belligerent or doesn't talk about just crushing the opposition, that that somehow is being soft or anti-Israel, I think we're going to have problems moving forward. And that, I think, is something we have to have an honest dialogue about."
Such a comment is rare in American politics and should be surprising because of his past statements from various speeches and debates. However, it demonstrates that Obama has the capability of envisioning an evenhanded approach to the issue. This could be due to his background; being the son of an African immigrant and having lived abroad in Indonesia. Therefore, Obama is likely to have a more global view than his opponents. This asset is something necessary for the future of American diplomacy. Right now, the only hope for a better foreign policy under the leadership of Obama is seen by his promise to closely communicate with allies and the recent remark made in Cleveland. That is still not enough. Conclusion
The reality is that so much can change between now and election day, including the foreign policy stances of McCain, Clinton, and Obama. However, one thing for sure is that the winner of 2008 will begin their presidency with a number of issues that are among the biggest challenges of the last few decades. But with well-informed decisions, a departure from the current model of confrontation, and a stronger emphasis on soft power, the U.S. can begin to improve its image while preserving its influence. This can only be done with engaging and listening to allies (for example: about how to deal with Iraq since it is in the interest of all.), and enforcing an even-handed policy with Israel and Palestine, which is in the interest of all three players. Equally as important, recklessly pulling out of Iraq without sufficient dialogue and careful planning, and engaging in confrontational rhetoric with Iran will only continue the tragic history of American diplomacy, a sure path to a whole new set of major issues.
Finally, special attention should be given to the most recent failed attempt at a peace process in Annapolis. During the Forum 2000 meetings in Prague, last year in October, Kishore Mahbubani, prominent author and scholar, stated that if there is one issue America should focus all of its attention on, it is the "silver bullet issue" of Israel and Palestine. Also, during an interview between Al-Jazeera's correspondent Mark Levine and a senior Hamas leader, Levine asked the anonymous leader about whether the violence works or not. He replied "We know the violence doesn't work, but we don't know how to stop." This reality is all the more reason why the next administration should dedicate a great deal of its foreign policy efforts to tempering its tendency to tip too far towards Israel, and play more of a just, rational, and diplomatically aggressive role in creating a two-state solution that is not influenced by interest groups in Washington.
Unfortunately, none of the candidates has proved they have the capability of doing this.