Thursday, April 01, 2004

Not So Cornered 

In a recent piece in The New Republic (available to subscribers only, but worth your time to track down), Daniel Drezner observes that
“The main similarity between Kerry and Bush post-9/11 is that both profess an idealistic faith in the value of democratic nation-building, and, more specifically in the importance of the U.S. winning the war of ideas by implanting democracy in the Middle East. The main difference between the two is that Bush believes we can achieve these idealistic goals through unilateral (and often military) action; Kerry prefers to proceed multilaterally (and, while not averse to using American power, is clearly more of a dove)."
Drezner goes on:
“Because Kerry and Bush both favor democracy-building and remaking the Middle East, you won't hear a lot of debate during the upcoming campaign about the virutes (sic) of democracy-building. Most of the back-and-forth will focus on mulitateralism (sic) versus unilateralism, which makes sense, since that is where the candidates diverge. But while opponents of democracy-building--be they multilateralists or unilateralists--find themselves outside the mainstream of partisan political debate at the moment, they do still exist. Many voters won't think about it this way, but in choosing between Kerry and Bush, they're not just picking which side of the multilateral-unilateral divide to be on; they're also picking which actors--the Chiracs or the Rumsfelds--will serve as hidden constraints on the next president's stated foreign-policy convictions. For that reason, it's worth extrapolating forward and imaginging (sic) just how much influence either set of hidden actors would bring to bear on the next administration.”
You may be asking yourself: “Have they turned off the spell-checker over at TNR?” I don’t know. But hopefully you’re not as easily distracted as I am, and are wondering instead what Drezner is driving at. Me, too. I think his point about where the constraints on each possible President will lie is interesting, and I’m more than willing to believe that the election results will have a major bearing on the future of US involvement in the Middle East. But I’m not sure he’s identified what are likely to be determinative, binding constraints.

This shows up in Drezner’s piece itself: he is unwilling to imagine Bush walking away from the Iraq project altogether, but feels that Rumsfeldian antipathy to nation-building efforts will block “new foreign policy adventures.” He sees Kerry as being unable to harangue the French into overcoming their cynicism about prospects for Arab democracy without capitulating on Israel, and thus hamstrung in his efforts to promote democracy. Sounds like he’d expect the same ultimate policy outcome (stasis) no matter who’s elected.

I’d suggest, however, that there’s another, better way to look at the difference between the two candidates, one which Drezner’s 2x2 box obscures: both are probably willing to adopt their less-favored approach, be it multi- or unilateral, if they’re unable to achieve their goals with the favored instrument. We see this in Bush’s attempt to create a multilateral development bank at the UN-sponsored Madrid Donors’ Conference last year, and in the Kerry statement quoted in the Drezner article. The point I’m trying to make is that because Bush has squandered so much international good will already, the Chirac-types Drezner worries about are much less likely to be willing to negotiate with a Bush-led US, making them more of a constraint on Bush’s policy than Kerry’s.

That’s a big difference, and a real strength for any non-Bush candidate: Kerry can realistically claim a much wider set of options for US foreign policy in the Middle East, simply because Bush has created almost an automatic “no” from leaders around the world.

UPDATE: The New Republic has decided to make the Drezner piece available to non-subscribers here, and has corrected some, but not all of the typos.

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