Washington would provide a far better service to the American people if it devised a foreign policy that followed standards based on principle than by arrogantly taking on the duty—far beyond its wisdom—of “awarding” the world’s societies the “right” to possess nuclear arms or have democracy. Washington can neither control the world nor make the correct decisions. A better course would be to set standards of behavior, observe those standards itself, and induce others to pass thresholds based on principle rather than obedience.
Mathew Levitt of the Washington Institute, an organization wedded to the Israeli right wing perspective,* exemplified in a recent article both the need for principled standards in U.S. foreign policy and the pervasive bias in Washington preventing Washington decision-makers from creating such standards.
Fatal Flaw. Levitt’s pointed call for the U.S. to make a distinction between those who pass an “appropriate threshold” for “partnering” with the U.S. and “participation in the democratic system would have established a logical long-term standard that Washington decision-makers could have aspired to and a route to a much improved American foreign policy if it were not for the profound bias that infects his argument. Levitt is quite right that U.S. decision-makers should observe and require that their foreign “partners” observe some standards. Furthermore, his implication that U.S. decision-makers generally fail to observe much in the way of standards and that this undermines U.S. national security (for as I read his piece, he does imply this as well, though in unfortunately muted tones) is also quite correct. Sadly, however, Levitt fails to rise above the typical bias of Washington actors and thus cannot draw from his principles much of any sound guidance to practice.
Assessing Current Partners. If one were to require attainment of the fine threshold of democratic behavior as a minimal requirement for being accepted as a partner of the U.S., then a country with a vicious and active security service employed in brutally repressing those citizens who chose to exercise their democratic rights would clearly not make the grade. That would have caused Mubarak’s Egypt to have flunked long ago, not to mention Saudi Arabia in the 1990s (though they could claim to have cleaned up their act a bit more recently). Physical attacks on demonstrators by police or soldiers would also clearly earn a failing score; so much for Bahrain: should we remove the U.S. Navy? Soldiers and police looking the other way while a favored ethnic group terrorizes neighbors of another ethnic group, e.g., by burning their olive groves, would just as surely cancel one’s membership in the elite group of U.S. partners; even more clearly would the crime against humanity of collective punishment of an entire population: no need even to mention the charges of ethnic cleansing or apartheid or the passing of racist legislation in order to flunk Israel.
Assessing American Adversaries. Moving from American partners to the rest, surely we must have a policy for those who, having formerly flunked out of democracy school, reconsider, hit the books, and ace the final. Without even addressing the fundamental issue of whether or not it is legitimate for a population subjected to forceful repression to defend itself (and, therefore, the question of which side truly deserves the epithet of “extremist,” in 2006 Hamas got an “A” for deciding to compete in a democratic election. Unfortunately for those who like to pick the winners, Hamas won. For playing by our rules, they were promptly overthrown and pushed out of the West Bank; fighting back, they retained control in Gaza. Like a bad student who reforms, hits the books, and embarrasses the teacher’s pet only to be kicked out of school for his impertinence, Hamas has not subsequently shown any particular fondness for democratic rules. An opportunity was lost because U.S. foreign policy was not being conducted on the basis of principle.
A Principled Foreign Policy. Levitt’s idea of standards of behavior in foreign policy would be a brilliant innovation with the potential not only to reestablish America’s tarnished global reputation (assuming, of course, that we followed our own advice) but to offer a powerful inducement to other countries to clean up their own acts. Unfortunately, his argument is so imbued with the traditional cherry-picking habit of U.S. decision-makers accustomed to deciding which states shall have the “right” to nuclear arms or democracy that he misses the implication of his own advice: principles are not prizes for the winners; they apply to all, to enemies and friends. Even us.
* In its most extreme version, the Zionist project calls for huge Israeli expansion.