I was watching one of the "pundit shows" on a cable news network channel that shall remain unnamed, and, surprise! Surprise! The topic de jour was what to do in Iraq. After a few minutes of the expected clichéd phrases (phased withdrawal, victory, etc.) the host complained about the lack, in his opinion, of any good "plans" for Iraq.
While I restrained myself from shouting at the television screen, I nonetheless couldn't stop the tide of frustration welling up inside of me. There are plenty of plans for Iraq, many quite detailed. That is not the problem.
What frustrated the host is the absence of "no-cost" plans for Iraq, especially ones that do not require any hard choices.
In the forthcoming issue of The National Interest, publisher Dimitri K. Simes, after assessing the Iraq Study Group report, notes: "Realistically speaking, however, we cannot adjust our course in Iraq without adjusting the administration's approach to the Middle East and to international affairs in general."
This is not what people want to hear. Beltway pundits want a plan that will stabilize Iraq, turn it into a pro-American democracy, keep gasoline prices low, allow the U.S. to maximize pressure on other Middle Eastern regimes like Syria and Iran, without resorting to a draft and without requiring the U.S. to prioritize its commitments in 143 other countries. And having other countries foot more of the bill would be nice, too.
Let's take one of the most hotly debated items of the recent ISG report-the call for opening negotiations with Iran and Syria. David Zucker, of "Naked Gun" fame, has created a widely-watched satirical video comparing James Baker to Neville Chamberlain, suckered by the two-bit hustler from Tehran.
But, as Simes notes, "stability in Iraq on terms acceptable to the United States is unlikely without at least tacit cooperation from Iran and Syria. Accordingly, to disengage from Iraq without defeat, America needs either to compel Damascus and Tehran to cooperate or to make a deal with them."
To compel requires paying one set of costs; to compromise brings up another. So far, our political leaders in this country has done precious little to inform and convince the American people why bearing the costs associated with either option are necessary. Instead, we continue to see delusions about some sort of magical third way where we get cooperation from Iran and Syria without having either to concede much that is of importance to us or where the price to pay for increased U.S. pressure on both regimes is minimal.
And complaining about how ungrateful the rest of the world is for not recognizing the benefits of U.S. global leadership (and the sacrifices we've made to sustain our position in the world) doesn't help either.
Ray Takeyh and I have sustained a good deal of criticism for a recent essay we co-authored in the Boston Globe because we pointed out some unpleasant realities:
"America is increasingly disrespected by its adversaries and mistrusted by its allies. Gone are the days when the United States could almost single-handedly cut a recalcitrant country off from the global economy or raise a truly multinational coalition to take military action against a rogue state."
But many of the critics chose not to respond to the central point later on, and which I would re-iterate here:
"The Bush administration is gradually appreciating that there exists no consensus within the American body politic for further unilateral adventures abroad-especially if they send energy prices soaring sky high. The Bush administration has neither congressional nor public support for the most limited of strikes against either Pyongyang or Tehran, for intervention into Darfur, for undertaking a major new effort to bring peace to the Middle East, or for tackling a whole host of other problems."
If the United States is not prepared to pay the price to compel other states, then we have to return to the time-honored diplomatic traditions of negotiation and horse-trading. This means assessing one's priorities and calculating what items are essential and which are only preferences.
But we haven't reached that phase yet. And so what we will continue to see-repeated on endless additional editions of the talk shows-is this continued no-cost theatrics which will lead to muddled or ineffective policies in the field. While we try to convince ourselves that the no-cost solution just lies over the next hill, my fear is that 2007 will be marked by a United States increasingly reactive to international developments as other powers-including the rogues-increasingly take the initiative-ending up with a global order where other states seek to contain and impede, rather than support and enhance, the use of American power to reshape the global order-and to raise the costs for American action in the future.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.