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Mr. Bush in Europe — Leadership Primacy No More

Can U.S. and UK policymakers maintain their agenda-setting power after Iraq?

February 21, 2005

Can U.S. and UK policymakers maintain their agenda-setting power after Iraq?

Since the end of World War II, and especially during the Cold War, the United States — often with Great Britain as its junior partner — has been in charge of devising foreign and security policy for much of the world.

Nations from Europe to Asia were typically compelled to go along — if grudgingly at times — with Washington.

And for good reason: The underlying policies were almost always sound and pragmatic.

Even when close allies had grave doubts — such as during the re-armament debate of the early 1980s — Germans and other Europeans could look back on a long track record of U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. policymakers ultimately tended to act not out of narrow self-interest — but to further a greater common good.

In the end, it was this consideration that always tipped the balance in favor of following the U.S. lead.

But this paramount belief that the United States — and, to a lesser extent, Great Britain — used their policy primacy to benign ends no longer exists.

The global debate over the joint U.S.-UK undertaking in Iraq has profoundly changed the equation — and it is becoming readily apparent how lasting the damage will be.

The primary reason is that there is a growing sense around the capitals of much of the world — and among many countries' citizens — that the U.S. national security and policy apparatus, at best, allowed itself to be hijacked.

At worst, the U.S. national security establishment giddily participated in a crusade by ideologues lodged in the White House, Pentagon and elsewhere.

Admittedly, national security types everywhere may occasionally go overboard in their war games and worst-case scenarios.

But they usually have to contend with democratic checks and balances — such as the national parliament and the media — before they can unleash their plans on the real world.

Amazingly, the political opposition, the media and even the supposedly vibrant U.S. think tank industry all stayed mum — or at best offered muted and ineffective criticism — during the run-up to the Iraq War and the immediate aftermath.

Effective checks and balances are, of course, all the more important when a country's military power is so great that almost any kind of military operation appears realistic — that is, cannot be dismissed out of hand for an obvious lack of resources.

And this is where the United States displayed a particular failure within its systems intended to prevent ill-considered policies — especially in matters of war and peace.

In that sense, strategists around the world are concerned about the lack of internal democratization of the U.S. national security apparatus. To some, it is no less troublesome than the present lack of democracy in the Middle East.

One can question the lack of transparency and the self-serving policies of a small clique of people in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt or Syria.

But many analysts now worry that the way the United States reached its decision to go to war against Iraq — driven by a few powerful insiders in the national security establishment — was not truly democratic, either.

To a lesser extent, this phenomenon could be observed in London — with the addition of the almost panicky urge to stay in lockstep with Washington.

In part, this may have been prompted by the dislike of continental Europe that still features prominently among some British elites — much like some Americans harbor nothing but contempt for the rest of the world.

Over the Iraq issue, these negative British and U.S. tendencies were fused in a hollow sense of mutual superiority over the rest of the world.

What to do now? Nobody in the world stands to gain from the continuing bloodshed in Iraq.

But the true losers are the United States and Great Britain — in that their foreign and national security elites have to contend with the charge that, in picking Iraq, they ultimately chose conflagration over containment.

In the eyes of much of the rest of the world, they have forfeited their claim to being legitimate — and benign — world leaders.

That is a tragedy. Those two venerable democracies — with a proud tradition of checks and balances in their political systems — allowed themselves to be dragged into a risky foreign adventure by their leaders.

The memory of the past, successful U.S.-UK leadership is further diminished by the refusal on the part of those elites to acknowledge that they went to war for the wrong reasons — as is evidenced by their ever-changing rationales for the war.

For the United States and Great Britain, the Iraq excursion will — for the foreseeable future and especially with the current leadership — probably mean the loss of their traditional primacy in setting the global policy agenda.

This is a serious setback. Germany, France, Russia, Japan and China have all found in the past that the reputation of being a trusted international leader is very hard to rebuild once it is destroyed.

A change of global leadership like the one that is about to occur on the international arena is always an unsettling process.

Without the American and British moral authority to lead, the world could also become a more dangerous place — at least for a while.

Over the medium and long term, however, this process of broadening responsibility will in the end provide for a more stable world.

If just two nations no longer call the shots for the rest of the world, the process of defining the global policy agenda is bound to become more democratic, more balanced — and more prudent.

And, at the same time, it may lead to greater democratization within the policy setting mechanisms in the United States and Great Britain as well.

The Middle East region should be equally lucky.