Expert traces current U.S. struggles to unilateralist world view

Neoconservative approach idealistic, ineffectual for Iraq reconstruction


T he United States needs to re-establish itself as a team leader working with its allies if it wants to avoid going down the path of becoming an isolated, lonesome superpower, the head of a Washington-based think tank told a recent seminar in Tokyo.

America’s ongoing struggle through postwar reconstruction of Iraq is a product of the unilateralist approach of the administration of President George W. Bush, in particular the idealistic views of so-called neoconservative members of his government, said John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Is America going to be a lonesome superpower, or is it going to be a team leader? . . . This is a question that divides much of the world,” Hamre said during the March 31 seminar at Keidanren Kaikan, organized by Keizai Koho Center.

“If you would ask the average Americans, they think they are team leaders. If you ask almost anybody else in Europe, they think America has become a lonesome superpower. And if you ask people in other countries they think America has become a rogue actor — a dangerous player,” said Hamre, who served as deputy defense secretary under the administration of former President Bill Clinton.

According to Hamre, the root of the current problem can be traced to a time when a number of U.S. intellectuals and policymakers became disenchanted with various post-World War II international bodies, particularly the United Nations, that had functioned during the Cold War.

During the 1990s, the U.N. was considered by many U.S. politicians as “hostile territory for America” that had procedures and forces detrimental to U.S. interests, he said.

And the U.S. foreign policy under Bush is a backlash against what Republicans perceived as a “dangerous internationalism” under Clinton, Hamre observed.

“The 1990s was a period of heightened partisan tension inside the U.S.,” he said. “President Clinton was in many ways a polarizing figure in American politics. People either loved him or hated him, and usually it was along party lines.”

One of the biggest reasons Clinton was hated by Republicans was “their perception that he was willing to compromise American interests for the sake of a fuzzy international agenda,” Hamre said.

And when Bush came into office, the Republicans began systematically walking away from the results of Clinton’s internationalism, including the 1997 Kyoto Protocol for anti-global-warming measures, he said.

“That set the background” for the U.S. foreign policy under Bush, Hamre said. “It caused the world to divide into two camps — people that admired President Bush and people that did not.”

When the United States was hit by the terror attacks on its soil on Sept. 11, 2001, there was sympathy from around the world for America, Hamre said. But then much of the world did not follow Bush’s logic that Iraq must be attacked as a follow-on to the fight against terrorism, which caused deep divisions between the U.S. and the rest of the international community, he added.

“It became not only a crisis in relations between the U.S. and other countries but it became a crisis about the U.N.,” he said.

“President Bush went to the U.N. and challenged it to stand up to enforce its own rulings against Iraq, and said, if you are not prepared to do it, we are going to act unilaterally,” he said. “This was the point where many people in the world started to question: Is the U.S. now a dangerous superpower? Is it committed to working with other countries, or is it prepared to see these institutions destroyed for the sake of its political agenda?”

Hamre said the U.S. should have spent more time trying to build an enduring international consensus on what to do with Iraq. “Had we spent the time to develop that, we would have a broader base of support now for the postconflict reconstruction,” he noted.

The security mess

What was the basic mistake in the U.S. strategy in Iraq?

Last summer, Hamre visited Iraq as leader of a fact-finding team commissioned by the U.S. Defense Department to examine what needs to be done for the country’s reconstruction and security.

“In many ways, the situation in Iraq is better than is being reported in the press,” Hamre said, citing recent evidence of robust economic activity in certain areas and restoration of some public services like power supply.

However, the security situation remains so troubled that the process of planned transition from U.S.-led occupation to a new Iraqi government seems to be in doubt, he noted.

There is widespread criminality in the countryside due to insufficient efforts to rebuild the local police force, and while the U.S. forces have made progress in containing resistance from forces loyal to the deposed leader Saddam Hussein, they face an increasing violence from Islamic radicals who have entered Iraq, he observed.

Hamre said the U.S. did a very poor job of preparing for all these problems that have emerged after the war. One of the reasons, he said, is that Bush left that mission in the hands of people in the Defense Department “who did not think there was going to be a problem.”

“The people who were leading the war effort were of the view that Iraqis would be so glad to be rid of Saddam that a natural democracy would emerge as soon as he was gone,” Hamre said.

“Why did we do this? I think it was because we had a very superficial view about the nature of Iraqi society — that it would be easy to reconstruct a new, vibrant economy” once Hussein and his men were eliminated, he observed.

“In many ways it reflects the idealism of the neoconservatives. They have an almost religious view about democracy, and they were so convinced that it is so universally valuable that everybody would embrace it,” he noted.

In addition to the problems facing the U.S.-led occupation policy in Iraq, there are other reasons why America cannot maintain its current foreign policy, Hamre said. One of them, he said, is the contradiction between its national security strategy and its economic policies.

“Our national security strategy is based on the premise that America will remain overwhelmingly powerful forever. But our economic policies are producing current account deficits of half a trillion dollars a year,” he said.

“It’s inconceivable that we can remain all powerful and still accumulate debt at half a trillion dollars a year. At some point America has to come to grips with the reality that we cannot stay on a unilateral path of military power if we have an economic policy undermining that position,” he said, adding that the U.S. will ultimately have to scale back on defense spending, raise taxes and find allies.

Hamre cautioned against expecting too much from the United Nations. if it is to be involved in the Iraq reconstruction process. He said without financial resources and troops of its own, there’s not much the U.N. could do that the U.S. could not do.

But the one thing the U.N. could do that the U.S. couldn’t do, he said, is “to give a larger sense of legitimacy to the political process to create a new government.”

“The rest of the world looks to the U.N. as a source of legitimacy,” he said, adding the Bush administration now realizes that.

Hamre emphasized that for the U.S. to become a team player again, the structure and workings of the U.N. need to be reformed.

“We also have to change the fundamental power structure of the U.N. If you look at the Security Council, China, Russia and France together contributed to the U.N. only half of the amount that Japan contributed to the U.N., and yet they are permanent members of the Security Council and Japan is not,” he said.

Although it may be extremely difficult to change it, the U.N. cannot go forward on the current structure if it is to be viable for the next 50 years, Hamre said, adding that Japan and the U.S. should become “aggressive partners” in seeking U.N. reform in this respect.

Neocons here to stay

What will be the direction of U.S. foreign policy — particularly after the November presidential election?

Hamre observed that influence of “neocons” in the administration may have diminished but will not disappear.

“The neoconservatives (constitute) a very small percentage of American intellectuals in the security and foreign policy field. . . . There are probably only 30 of them,” he said. But they currently happen to be all involved in the policymaking in Washington — half of them as members of the administration and the other half exerting influence from outside of it, he added.

“It is a very cohesive community. . . . They have been working very closely together for years and have a very integrated theory about how the world should work,” he said.

While Hamre said the neocons’ idealistic views have alienated many of the U.S. allies, he noted that the American public also has a strain of idealism in themselves.

“A fair number of Americans resonate — they agree with some of the theory inside the neocons, so the potential for America to slide into an aggressive idealism is always with us,” he said.

Describing himself as a registered Republican who has worked for a Democrat administration, Hamre said the presidential race between Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry will be “very close.”

If Bush is re-elected, the key internationalists in his administration — Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage — will likely not stay in his second term, Hamre said, adding that who will replace them will be a big question.

But Hamre said it will ultimately be Bush who makes policy decisions. He also noted that Bush himself has been neoconservative on some issues like Iraq but also an internationalist on others like North Korea.

Meanwhile, Hamre does not expect Kerry, should he win, to make much a departure from the current U.S. policy on Iraq.

“(Kerry) will try to encourage other countries to give greater support and probably (have) a more generous approach to working with the U.N. But I don’t know if that will generate a great deal more support,” he said, predicting that Iraq will continue to be a problem for the U.S. for years to come.

But policy toward North Korea may see a significant change under Kerry, he said.

“Right now we simply have an agenda to periodically hold meetings, but we don’t have an agenda to find a solution,” he said, criticizing the Bush administration’s position on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

“We don’t yet have a real solution to North Korea,” he said. “We’ve taken positions that don’t let you solve anything . . . that North Korea has to surrender before we sit down and talk. That’s not much of a starting point for negotiations.”

Hamre observed that Bush has approached the North Korean problem with three Nos — no negotiation, no concessions and no war.

“Those three together don’t (constitute) much of a policy,” he said. “I think we ought to have three Yeses — Yes, we will negotiate, Yes, we are prepared to consider concessions, Yes, we go to war. And we have to be clear on what we think is the cause of war. I think we should have drawn a line at the reprocessing of plutonium. I think it was a serious mistake not to say to the North Koreans that it is unacceptable.”

Hamre predicted that U.S. relations with Japan will not change dramatically either under Bush or Kerry. Although Kerry has taken a tough position on trade issues that affect U.S. jobs, today’s major target of such American complaints is China, not Japan like a decade ago, he observed.

He said Clinton had made a mistake of sending a wrong signal that he did not value the alliance with Japan by focusing his energy on China. “I think Kerry will change that, and I think the Democrats have learned a lesson.”

Hamre hailed Japan’s dispatch of its Ground Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq for the postwar reconstruction effort. “It helps to demonstrate that Japan is ready now to be a complete country in the international community. For so long, Japan limited its role to economic and diplomatic means,” he said.

He brushed aside concerns that the GSDF troops suffering casualties — or inflicting casualties among Iraqis — could develop into a political crisis for Japan.

“My personal view is that the public tends to be more mature than our politicians about this,” he said. “If your troops are disciplined, well-trained, behaved in an appropriate manner and properly-equipped, and if they either suffered or inflicted casualties, the public will accept that. . . . I think it’s very important for politicians not to react to try to score points against each other . . . and undermine the public’s confidence in the ability of the forces to handle the job.”