Bismarck for President: Redux

Everyone was so surprised by Beijing’s reaction to the reception given to the Dalai Lama in Washington last year. But common sense should have left everyone without doubt—and now that the State Department has announced that President Bush’s specia

In a presidential-primary season when voters are clamoring for "change," it is striking how little debate there is among leading candidates or their advisors about the direction of U.S. foreign policy. Some argue that this should not be a surprise and that the next president will be too constrained by objective realities-deep U.S. involvement in Iraq, the need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and the challenge of Middle East peace, among others-and will not have sufficient flexibility to change America's foreign policy. This is partially true and there are obviously many continuities in U.S. policy from administration to administration. But it is also profoundly misleading. With one major exception: George W. Bush faced many of the same constraints in 2003 that he faces today, and he decided to invade Iraq. It is not clear that a different president would have made the same decision, much less implemented it in the same way.

Objective realities do create constraints or, more accurately, they impose costs. And our decisions today can also create constraints tomorrow, often unintended. But at a time when so many key assumptions about the world have been proven wrong-in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the blooming of democracy in the Middle East, and in the willingness of other major powers like Russia and China to follow American advice-how can we fail to examine the policies that have flowed from those assumptions? How can we afford not to consider making changes? Whatever the constraints some may see, nothing will be more costly to America than continued self-deception.

A new conventional wisdom has emerged after the U.S. victory in the cold war in which history no longer matters and we no longer need to understand others' interests or perspectives so long as we remain on the side of righteousness-and, of course, so long as we can count on overwhelming military and economic power. And in this spirit of vain self-congratulation, we have increasingly lost the ability to look squarely in the mirror before judging others and taking them to task.

After all, despite being on the right side of history, American leaders have taken their own share of ruthless, and even brutal, decisions. Each had its own logic, and most seem strategically justified in retrospect, but few continue to play a role in our public debates. Remember that the United States was the first and only nation to use atomic weapons-and used them against cities. Washington used napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam. American leaders supported known-thug Saddam Hussein at a time when his regime used chemical weapons not only in its bloody war with Iran but against its own people.

Such decisions, while obviously regrettable, were the result of the types of difficult choices that great powers must often make. But then it behooves us not to preach too loudly about our own sense of morality. It also means that, in crafting an effective foreign policy, we shouldn't be blinded by our own rhetorical claims to ethical perfection-or to fail to recognize that many states see us as a "normal country"-one that pursues its own interests by any means necessary and often makes moral judgments about others that appear influenced by those interests.

So those people who expressed disgust and outrage over the use of Russian airpower against civilian targets in the Caucasus were prepared to overlook Israel's use of cluster bombs and other indiscriminate bombardment in southern Lebanon. They loudly condemn Tehran's disregard of the United Nations Security Council one day, but feel it is perfectly appropriate to ignore this body to secure independence for Kosovo.

Supporting one's friends while condemning one's opponents is nothing new; but when that is combined with a messianic predisposition to view the world as divided into the children of light and the children of darkness-with no need to compromise with, understand the motives of or address the concerns of those deemed opponents-this becomes truly dangerous. The refusal of most politicians to acknowledge the clear connection between U.S. conduct in the Middle East and the hatred of the United States among Islamist extremists that motivated the September 11 attacks is a case in point. The United States has had serious reasons for pursuing the types of policies it has-but it is foolhardy to ignore the evidence that there are costs. The Arab-Israeli dispute is clearly a key litmus test of American policy for many Muslims-but this fact has not been a subject of discussion, even after being raised in the Republican presidential debates. And while plenty of experts on the region have made this argument, it is not reflected where it counts: among political leaders or even most of the mainstream media.

There is a similar inability to develop a serious approach to China, which is likely to be the paramount U.S. relationship of the twenty-first century. China is an emerging superpower whose dramatic growth and rapid technological progress could rival America's economy in just a few decades and is already an important driver of global growth. Moreover, it is becoming clear that no major international initiative-such as imposing meaningful sanctions on Iran-can take place without Chinese involvement.

Yet there is no discussion outside academic circles of the consequences of Washington's unwillingness to settle for anything short of unquestioned global military dominance, something former-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was by no means alone in expecting Beijing to accept, even in their own neighborhood. But major powers are rarely prepared to count on someone else's goodwill to protect their interests, especially when their relationship with the other party is not trouble free. So why is it unexpected that China has responded by increasing its defense budget?