Miriam Pemberton is the Foreign Policy In Focus peace and security editor at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.
The scene inside the Capitol tonight for this annual occasion will be more surreal than usual. The leader who has led us into the worst foreign policy disaster in our history will stride punctually into the chamber, bathed in thunderous, ritual applause.
His immediate audience will hear about his plan to solve this foreign policy problem by compounding it, knowing, most of them, that the plan makes no sense; that he replaced his military commanders—the ones he claims to have been deferring to all along—because they told him it made no sense; that the Iraqi government this plan is designed to defend doesn’t want it.
For his part, the president will go through with the speech, and the hand-shaking, back-slapping and smiling that will frame it, knowing that much of this audience has been spending the past week devising bills and resolutions to stop him, and that the rest of them have been caucusing around damage control.
Those in the electronic audience outside the chamber, and beyond, outside our borders, will know all this too. The president will talk of many things in his speech, but the state of the union is consumed by one thing. The Iraq War has become the face of the United States around the world. As the centerpiece of a military-led, our-way-or-the-highway foreign policy, this war is creating new terrorist recruits day by day—according to our own intelligence agencies—and new levels of anti-Americanism in the vast majority of the world’s peoples who would never resort to terrorism.
For our safety, membership in good standing in the world community and self-respect, the U.S. must begin immediately to tackle the long-term challenge of turning a different face to the world. The Iraq Study Group (ISG) pointed in the right direction with its call to make diplomacy rather than military force the key element of our Iraq strategy, and to substitute engagement with Iran and Syria for the Bush administration’s toxic strategy of provocation mixed with isolation.
Following the release of the ISG report, polling by worldpublicopinion.org showed strong support for this policy change from both Republicans and Democrats, averaging at 75 percent. Other recent polling fleshes out this consensus on Iraq policy with the broader outlines of a U.S. foreign policy sharply at odds with the one the president will be promoting tonight. The 2006 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey found similarly strong majorities rejecting a unilateral role for the U.S. in policing international conflicts, while supporting a U.S. role “do[ing] its share to solve international problems together with other countries.” Seven out of ten would restore U.S. participation in a wide range of international agreements and treaties such as the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Treaty.
The Bush administration’s posture of suspicion toward such frameworks has been an obstacle to effective international cooperation in policing terrorist networks and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. While the U.S. has been busily dividing the world into those with us and against us, it has turned its back on cooperating with other nations to solve the problems that should be uniting us all, like averting climate catastrophe, preventing an arms race in space and ending the killing in Darfur.
Repairing the state of our union in the world it shares with others will involve attending to the root causes of terrorism and global instability in poverty, disease and resource scarcity, through debt cancellation and increases in aid for sustainable development in the poorest countries. And it will involve renouncing such radical corruptions of American values as permission for unlimited detentions and torture of detainees.
If our Framers had designed us a parliamentary system, a president espousing a foreign policy this far at odds with the wishes of his constituents would by now have been removed by a simple vote of no confidence. As it is, a profoundly different direction for U.S. foreign policy will be harder to come by.
The first step will be turning out in the streets in massive numbers to get our troops out of Iraq and say "no" to a new war with Iran. Next weekend, everyone who can get to Washington to march needs to do so. And we must convince our legislators to use their power of the purse to deprive this President of the funds to conduct his war.
Congress’ budgeting power will also be needed in the coming weeks for broader tasks of repair. Since Congress managed to pass only the defense and homeland security accounts last year, funding for the tools available to turn a less militarized face to the world, including diplomacy, nonproliferation, development and post-conflict reconstruction all lost ground. If the president’s budget this year is like its predecessors, this pattern will continue. Members of Congress who are serious about the speeches they give lamenting their country’s eroded standing in the world community will need to work to close the huge and widening gap between spending on defense, homeland security and non-military international affairs.
Otherwise, they’re just talking.