Tuesday, February 18, 2003


Bad Diplomacy, Worse Results

Tom Friedman's column in today's New York Times says something I've believed for some time-- Even if the Bush Administration has justified reasons for going to war with Saddam Hussein, it has played its hand particularly badly. Its parochialism, chauvinism, and truculence have seriously undermined its case diplomatically. As Friedman points out:

I side with those who believe we need to confront Saddam — but we have to do it right, with allies and staying power, and the Bush team has bungled that.

The Bush folks are big on attitude, weak on strategy and terrible at diplomacy. I covered the first gulf war, in 1990-91. What I remember most are the seven trips I took with Secretary of State James A. Baker III around the world to watch him build — face-to-face — the coalition and public support for that war, before a shot was fired. Going to someone else's country is a sign you respect his opinion. This Bush team has done no such hands-on spade work. Its members think diplomacy is a phone call.

The flip side of the Bush Administration's vision of strong leadership-- i.e., its aggressiveness-- is that it is not particularly good at diplomacy, and diplomacy is what you need to put together an effective coallition. Friedman also points out, I think correctly, that by trying to link Saddam Hussein with Osama bin Laden, the Bush Administration is being neither particularly honest or persuasive. "There is simply no proof of that," Friedman writes, "and every time I hear them repeat it I think of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. You don't take the country to war on the wings of a lie."

Finally, the Administration has continually overplayed the immediacy of the threat and simultaneously downplayed the costs and dangers of an occupation of Iraq that may last many years. As Friedman (who supports a war) puts it, if you are going to war, you have to be honest with those you wish to convince, and, equally important, honest with yourself:

Tell people the truth. Saddam does not threaten us today. He can be deterred. Taking him out is a war of choice — but it's a legitimate choice. It's because he is undermining the U.N., it's because if left alone he will seek weapons that will threaten all his neighbors, it's because you believe the people of Iraq deserve to be liberated from his tyranny, and it's because you intend to help Iraqis create a progressive state that could stimulate reform in the Arab/Muslim world, so that this region won't keep churning out angry young people who are attracted to radical Islam and are the real weapons of mass destruction.

That's the case for war — and it will require years of occupying Iraq and a simultaneous effort to defuse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to create a regional context for success. If done right, such a war could shrink Al Qaeda's influence — but Al Qaeda is a separate enemy that will have to be fought separately, and will remain a threat even if Saddam is ousted.

In the United States, the Bush Administration can get away with suggesting that Saddam and Al Qaeda are linked without any real proof. At home it can also spur sufficient patriotic fervor, moral disgust with Saddam, and overt disdain for our allies the French and Germans, to keep most Americans from asking the truly hard questions about the costs and duration of the occupation that will follow a war, and the dangers of destabilization and destruction that may well attend our bold adventure. But overseas, where Bush is regarded as a bit of a bully and not at all a straight shooter, these failings in the case for war are particularly glaring.

If Bush had done things differently, if he had started with diplomacy, as his father did in 1990-91, and not treated our allies, and the U.N., with barely disguised contempt and with accusations of cowardice and irrelevance, he might not be in the situation he currently is in. He might not have to go to war with a "coallition of the willing," but might truly be leading the world to pressure a rogue state to disarm. But because he has treated our allies so roughly and disrespectfully, he has squandered the best opportunity he might have had. This is an Administration that prides itself on being tough and domineering. But its pride and its aggressiveness are its greatest limitation. Great leadership is more than being overbearing and forceful; great power is more than making threats and accusing those who don't blindly follow you of betrayal and subversion. Great leaders do not merely threaten, they also persuade; they do not simply accuse and denounce those they wish to bring to their side, they make it possible for others to agree with them and work with them. It is time for our leaders to stop behaving like a casting call for a "B" Western. As someone famous recently put it, all of this strutting and posturing is like a bad movie, and I've seen it before.


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