November 30, 2008

Doing more with less

By: David Donadio

Chris Caldwell doubts Hillary Clinton’s coercive diplomacy will work after the U.S. has spent so much political capital in Afghanistan (and presumably, Iraq). He writes in the FT (free registration required):

Mrs Clinton tried to explain her vote in favour of the Iraq war by saying that she had expected President George W. Bush to exhaust all diplomatic options, and to use the authorisation of force to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq. (But if Mrs Clinton would not talk to Iran under any circumstances, on what grounds would she have negotiated with Iraq?) “I believe in coercive diplomacy,” she said. “You try to figure out how to move bad actors in a direction that you’d prefer in order to avoid more dire consequences.”

There is no coercive diplomacy without coercion. You cannot bluff on every hand. Threats of force lost their power in 1999 when Mr Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, tried to harangue Serbia into evacuating Kosovo. Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president, called America’s bluff, forcing a European war that Nato came within a whisker of losing. When September 11 happened two years later, the bank of credible threats was overdrawn. A threat of war meant a war.

That is the real worry about Mrs Clinton’s nomination. Her conception of US power is outdated. Hard or soft, it rests on a willingness to interfere in the internal workings of sovereign countries. That requires force, and it is doubtful whether the tools of force she plans to use are still effective. Peremptory US moral leadership was consensus policy the last time Democrats held power. Mr Bush campaigned against that policy in the name of a “humbler” one in 2000, but embraced it with a vengeance after September 11. Neither the world nor the country appears to be clamouring for a repeat.

I think the internal considerations of the Clinton appointment — namely, that she seems to need domestic enemies to survive, and with no Republicans anywhere in sight, that’s probably gonna be her own people — outweigh the foreign policy ones, but Caldwell has a point. I’ve long been an admirer of his, and I’m glad to see he recognizes that our power isn’t unlimited. I hope that’s contagious.

(Hat tip: JP)

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