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War and diplomacy after Iraq

By Joseph Bressano
web posted April 28, 2003

There are many reasons to be happy about the resounding US military victory in Iraq. Perhaps the most important one is that in the aftermath of this victory, the US is in a much better geopolitical and strategic position vis-à-vis the Islamic world than it was before the war.

The perception of a "weak" United States unable or unwilling to respond to its enemies that was prevalent throughout the Islamic world, and which contributed so strongly to the strengthening of Islamist terror, has in the course of a little more than one month been completely shattered.

After the 9/11 attacks, destroying this perception of American weakness became a key strategic goal of the Bush administration, and, I would argue, was an unstated but more important goal than the hunt for weapons of mass destruction or the liberating of the Iraqi people, as necessary and noble as those goals were and remain.

It's true that we still have a long way to go, and that the positive strategic outcome flowing from the military victory does not mean that terrorism is any less of an imminent threat. There's also a good argument to be made that the war was in fact the easy part and that the real challenge will be the post-war reshaping of Iraq -- a challenge which cannot be solved militarily but must be solved politically and diplomatically.

But it's indisputable that in order to break the backs of the Islamist terror networks, massive military action and a clear victory in the Islamic world was absolutely necessary. In this sense, one could call the war the "mother of all psych-ops" in that an elemental part of the Islamist terrorists' world-view, American weakness, has been destroyed. For this reason alone Operation Iraqi Freedom is a massive victory that should be hailed by us all.

That being said, it would be counter-productive to create a panacea out of military action. While it may sometimes be necessary to use force, and while this use may sometimes be successful, as indeed it has been (at least so far) in the case of Iraq, it's a much more tenuous position to say that it will always and in every case be necessary to use it.

Clausewitz wrote that war is the continuation of politics by other means, but let's not forget that it can work the other way too: politics (diplomacy) can be the continuation of war by other means. The key as always is identifying and accomplishing one's political and strategic goals. If these goals can be accomplished without the use of military force, then clearly, except in the eyes of the most die-hard of militarists, that remains the better choice.

Denigrating diplomacy in the wake of the military victory would therefore be a major error. This is especially true now that America's strategic vision appears to be strong and clear, and now that military victory has created the opportunity for major political breakthroughs, and, granted, the chance of massive political failure as well. I would argue that chief among the political breakthroughs would be the solving of the Israeli-Palestinian question as a necessary component of the war against Islamist terror.

In this new post-war geopolitical context, a policy of aggressive state-to-state diplomatic offensives with force as a last resort would not be a sign of weakness (although I agree that in other contexts it can be), nor would it be perceived as such.

In fact, now more than ever a diplomacy reflecting a strong political will and strategic vision would be a powerful tool in dealing with neutral and hostile states -- especially since the option of military force remains real and open. When all of these underlying conditions are present and are perceived by others to be present, as is the case right now, the threat of force can be very persuasive indeed. This is something the Syrians are starting to discover first hand.

George Bush to his credit fully understands the crucial role that diplomacy and political skill will play in dealing with other states in the post-Iraq war period. (As well as the role it will play in the rebuilding of Iraq itself). Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Newt Gingrich, who recently criticized Colin Powell for getting ready to talk to the Syrians as the president requested, and also accused the State Department of, of all things… undermining Bush's foreign policy.

There has certainly been sloppiness at the State Department. Richard Armitage referring to Iran as a democracy comes immediately to mind. But Gingrich's attack is completely disingenuous, particularly when one looks at recent examples of diplomatic skill coming from the Pentagon, where he is an adviser. Who can deny that Rumsfeld's approach in this area, (think of his infamous "old Europe" comment and the lumping together of Germany with Cuba and Libya), while satisfying in a let's-get-back-at-them sort of way, has been less than spectacularly effective.

What is called for is a more focused approach from State -- a department that by definition must operate with a different emphasis from that of the Defense Department. What is definitely not called for is a State Department that simply parrots Defense, as Gingrich seems to want.

Implicit in Gingrich's criticisms of the State Department is the type of blinkered militarism that we need to avoid as we enter the post-Iraq war period. The recent anti-American muscle flexing by the Iranian-backed Shia in Iraq, and the attempted nuclear blackmail by the outlandish Kim Jong Il, are both substantial challenges and precursors of challenges to come. A vigorous and skillful diplomacy, that includes a projection of strength and a very real threat of force, is what's needed for the US and the west to succeed in this new period.

Joseph Bressano is a freelance writer and a former trader for one of Canada's major banks.

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