A False Quiet

 One of the weaknesses in the American system is the degree to which the "electoral imperative" sucks up all of the political oxygen once campaigning starts.

 One of the weaknesses in the American system is the degree to which the "electoral imperative" sucks up all of the political oxygen once campaigning starts.  It appears that the end of the Second Gulf War has marked the true beginning of Campaign 2004.  The attention of the President and his Democratic rivals is increasingly focused on fund-raising and securing the allegiance of domestic voting blocs, a process abetted by the apparent lull in the world. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the world does not structure itself according to the American electoral calendar.  The superficial calm on the Korean peninsula, the fragile cease-fire in the Middle East, the overt reconciliations achieved at St. Petersburg and Evian--none of these are indicators that it is now safe to devote the bulk of the nation's attention to the election campaign.  In fact, there is a real risk of doing serious damage to vital U.S. interests if the advantages gained by the quick overthrow of Saddam Hussein are frittered away. 

Certainly, we at In the National Interest editorialized against what we thought were ill-conceived and rash calls for U.S. forces to go "on to Damascus" or "on to Tehran" following the fall of Baghdad.  Nevertheless, we argued that Washington should use the momentum generated by the swift conclusion of large-scale military operations in Iraq to press forward on other issues.  (See, in particular, "The Realist" of May 7, 2003, at http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol2Issue18/vol2issue18Gvosdev.html

But the impression being sent, both friend and foe alike, is that U.S. foreign policy will consist mainly of "holding actions" from now until the results are in of the November 2004 elections.  This, in turn, slows down the forward momentum achieved by the war in Iraq--why should other governments move ahead with proposals to settle outstanding issues with the United States, if Washington is distracted by election fever?  After all, the President of the United States is the main global agenda-setter.  If the President and his staff, therefore, are primarily focused on domestic issues, a vacuum is created in the international sphere.

Some of this could be avoided if both parties could make clear those areas where a broad, bi-partisan consensus exists, sending clear signals that in these areas the principle contours of U.S. foreign policy would not change.   

The "roadmap" for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is one such example.  So is continuing to institutionalize our partnership with Russia.   Both of these affect vital American interests, and both need to continue regardless of who sits in the White House or who controls Congress. 

Yet, to pursue both of these agendas, leaders have to be prepared to offer concessions or to undertake painful compromises--precisely the things that make easy fodder for one's political opponents in campaign ads and debates.   Without a clear endorsement from all segments of the political spectrum to support either the roadmap or the direction of U.S.-Russia relations, therefore, the political instincts of the President (and his challengers) to avoid providing any grist for the mills trumps any chance of decisive steps being undertaken. 

What's the rush, one might ask?  It is increasingly clear that the next six months will be decisive for the fate of the road map.  The Palestinians, like the Irish in 1921, will have to come to terms with a compromise settlement and the need to deal with their own radical rejectionists.  Israel will have to dismantle settlements and withdraw its military positions.  Without consistent U.S. leadership--and more concretely, U.S. aid--this process will falter.  Yet, the President's domestic political advisors worry about possible fallout from the administration's Middle East peace efforts on voter blocs such as evangelical Christians, and may urge him to moderate his efforts--precisely at a time when American engagement is necessary. 

Russia will have its Duma elections this December and presidential elections next summer.  And while most Russian voters--like their American counterparts--tend to cast ballots based on domestic considerations ("It's the economy, durak!" applies no less in Russia than the United States), the general mood in Russia is that the United States has offered little to Russia.  The administration has been reluctant to engage even in symbolic gestures, sending the message that the Congress and the Executive Branch are more concerned with placating specific lobbies here (steel producers, religious groups, ethnic lobbies) rather than making any real concessions to Russia.   

I believe that the European constituency within the Putin Administration will continue to gain ascendancy, especially if, in an election season, putting the Russian relationship "on hold" occurs.  To the extent that Russia continues to be integrated into European economic and political structures and thus develops a community of interests the West is a positive development; but the end result may be that this occurs primarily between Russia and the "Eurozone" countries as opposed to solidifying the Moscow-Washington connection. 

One can point to other examples--U.S. relations with Korea, both North and South; repairing the trans-Atlantic bond; and so on.