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Archive for November, 2008

The United States of America has no history beyond the beginning of the seventeenth century.  Starting with the Mayflower, thousands of ships have deposited free people, indentured servants and slaves on these shores.  We came here in waves from Britain, Ireland, Germany, Italy, China, Africa and just about every other place on the earth.

What has made us different from most other countries is that we had nothing in common with our fellow Americans other than our land and its short history.  That history has given us some exceptional roots like our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, a free press and the rule of law.  It also gave us some exceptional stories like our Revolution, our Civil War, our involvement in two World Wars and our halting attempts to make all Americans equal.

America does not have a national cultural heritage that traces our evolution here over the millennia.  We are no China, India, France or England.  All we have together is our common, exceptional experience.

We believe in American Exceptionalism. That is the notion that we have the most exceptional country and system in the world.  With all our faults, our history and our system have served us pretty well, well enough when compared with most of the rest of the world to persuade us that our democratic system is the best.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way, even though in recent years the bloom has come off the rose a bit. Our lack of a long, common history makes it important for our cohesiveness that we have those feelings in common.

When stacked up against all the countries, all the cultures, all the governmental and economic systems in the world, America’s democracy is quite simply the best.  That’s what they taught us.  That’s what we know and believe.

This fact is clear to Americans who have traveled and lived abroad and experienced the vagaries of Communism, Fascism, monarchies, Socialism, or religious absolutism.  When we make the comparison, it is crystal clear to any American that we are the exceptional people with the exceptional political, governmental and economic systems.

In the post World War Two era, we were the most promising, most powerful country in the world.  In the end, we saw the demise of our main competitor, the Soviet Union. It’s worth noting, however, that during the first twenty years after the war, none of our attempts to export our democratic system resulted in much good for this country.

Today, our attention has turned to the Middle East where we are involved in an extraordinarily risky process designed to bring democracy, our exceptional form of government, through force of arms to a number of Muslim countries.  We are now paying a price for that and our exceptionalism has caused us nothing but problems.

During the past eight years, we have tossed all our previously held beliefs about good foreign policy out the window.  We now practice unilateralism vs. international cooperation, preemption vs. negotiation, war vs. diplomacy and ideological absolutism vs. realism.

We are the best and to hell with the rest!

On the night of 9/11, the world offered us its sympathy and unstinting support.  We rudely refused and everything changed.  With those changes we have become one of the least respected nations on the planet.  Our national interests have been trashed, our reputation besmirched and our future clouded – all with the complicity of a majority of our voting population.  After all, Americans did re-elect George W. Bush in 2004.

American Exceptionalism served us pretty well for almost four hundred years, mostly when we used it intelligently. At our best, we have led by example.  We have simply tried to do the right thing here at home with our social, economic and political systems to show the world that we had a pretty good system that others could emulate if they chose to.  We have tried to be John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill”.

It’s when our American Exceptionalism prompts us to force our system on other countries, as we recently have in Iraq and soon will in Afghanistan, that we get into trouble.  Some people, most Muslims for example, are perfectly happy with their system, irrespective of how we feel about it.

Although any country in the world can voluntarily import our democratic system, it doesn’t export well, least of all militarily.  We really need to step back and learn.  Maybe we will be able to do that under President–elect Obama.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.  He lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

For Americans who closely follow U.S. foreign policy, the end of the Bush era cannot come quickly enough. The precipitous change in the world’s view of American policy between 2001 and 2008 has been absolutely terrifying for those of us who truly believe that given world realities America cannot now and never could “go it alone” in the post-Cold War world.

The future of this country and the world, for that matter, lies not in Bush’s pre-emptive unilateralism, which was so fiercely championed by the neocons, practiced in Iraq and yearned for in Iran, but in establishing and maintaining alliances with other countries for the purpose of dealing with common problems and threats. Issues like terrorism, Korean nukes and Iranian nuclear development do not lend themselves to unilateral solutions.

We now have the potential to put that all behind us. A quick look at the resounding and virtually unanimous approval of the rest of the world of Barack Obama’s election as president, shows clearly not only what the world thinks of Bush’s policy of pre-emptive unilateralism and its total disregard for and rejection of the ideas of other nations, but the yearning for a more cooperative planet.

None of this is to suggest that the United States should simply disregard its legitimate national interests. Quite the contrary, it is to say clearly that our national interests lie not only in the goals we pursue, but in the means we use to pursue those goals. Even though it may be in our interest to seek a nuclear-free Iran, it is not in our interest to accomplish that through unilateral military action. In today’s world, because of our own policies and activities, our importance and influence are daily becoming more marginal. The ramifications of such policies, as embodied in Iraq today and soon in Afghanistan, will continue to be so threatening to our national interests that undertaking them will weaken America, rather than strengthen it. Our Iraq adventure has diminished our influence in the world in general and the Middle East in particular, decreased our ability to maintain friends and allies and limited our effectiveness in combating terrorism.

In the foreign policy context, President-elect Obama has developed policies that are clearly designed to pursue our national interests – with a major exception: Afghanistan and Pakistan, two nations that are joined at the hip. That problem will ultimately prove to be more complicated and intractable than Iraq and has no military solution. There is real peril there for the new president.

The Obama administration will carefully wind down U.S. commitment in Iraq where, successful surge or not, the ethnically and religiously divided Iraqis are historically disinclined to live peacefully together. There is, in fact, no history of such reconciliation in the absence of a repressive hand to enforce it. The purpose of the surge was to create an environment in which reconciliation would be possible, yet there is little evidence today that the Iraqis wish to make that happen.

Without taking the military option off the table, Obama will search for a negotiated settlement on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This will be in direct contrast to the neocon mantra that military action is the first and only useful tool in the conduct of foreign affairs. Such negotiations have the potential to re-establish a group of nations in support of a new policy in contrast to the opposition we face in proposing any military solution.

Palestine is the central issue in the Muslim world that makes problems for the United States. That is because U.S. policy is viewed by Muslims as one-sided. The issues are clear. There are United Nations resolutions on the table. The Obama administration will need to carefully examine past U.S. policies, not to punish either side, but to mitigate a 60-year-old irritant to regional harmony.

In return for real peace, Israel will have to seriously consider a border approximating that which existed before 1967 and the West Bank settlements will have to go. Further, the Obama administration will need to get American troops off Arab soil and reconsider its political and military support of the region’s undemocratic regimes. That may mean that something other than democracy will come to the Middle East, but absent that, turmoil will reign in the region.

Most important, if the Obama administration really wants to have an impact in the region; it will need to stop exporting democracy through force of arms. That simply will not work. Better we get our own house in order, something clearly high on the Obama agenda, to re-create that “shining city on the hill” that has made America so attractive over the decades to the rest of the world. Let the world import our strengths, but only if they choose to.

There are pitfalls and opportunities out there for the Obama administration. Fortunately, many of the pitfalls are amply illuminated by the blunders of the Bush administration and therefore easily avoided. The opportunities are equally identifiable by observing what the Bush administration did not do.

Somewhere in that mix lies a foreign policy that can put America back in sync with the rest of the world.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who lives in Williston.

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