U.S. should shape its policy for world, not just Iraq
By MICHAEL VARGA (U.S. Diplomatic Corps from 1985 to 1996)
Hillary Clinton’s arrival as the 67th Secretary of State is an opportunity for the Obama administration to re-think the goals of today’s foreign service. Clinton inherits a mess unlike any we have seen since the United States had to wrestle with how to stop Hitler from attaining his domination of Europe.
The singular focus on the war on terror and the battle for a new Iraq after Saddam has created a U.S. Foreign Service that is so weighted toward one country that the U.S. has largely abandoned the role it needs to play on the world stage. Having built the largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, and staffed that monstrous entity, the Bush foreign policy fixated on Iraq. And the Foreign Service grudgingly went along with it, allowing embassies in many other nations to go understaffed.
When I was in the Foreign Service, I remember how diplomats from other nations were always anxious to hear what steps the United States was willing to take first before discussing what they might do. Everyone looks to the United States for leadership. But when our talking-points memos and our guidance from Washington were only about Iraq and al-Qaida, other nations eventually stopped listening to what we had to say.
Funding for the Foreign Service has to take a “big picture” approach that recognizes that for eight years so many diplomatic positions were abolished in other nations because of the gargantuan needs of Baghdad’s embassy.
We need more money committed to diplomacy in Asia, South America, Africa and other regions we’ve ignored. This is hard in a weak economy and mounting unemployment and deficits. But it is smart diplomacy to recognize that in the long term, rebuilding the U.S. diplomatic corps will pay rich dividends for this nation. When future crises arise in other parts of the world, rather than resorting to a military option we will have the expertise in our own embassies to tell us what is truly in the U.S. national interest.
Our departure from Iraq can be smooth, but there is going to be some chaos, violence and killing, no matter how or when we withdraw. We need to understand that the enmity built up over centuries among the Kurds, the Shia’ and the Sunnis will continue to cause repercussions as scores are settled for wrongs committed against so many prior generations.
When I was involved in Middle East peace talks after the Madrid conference of 1991, the chief of the Lebanese delegation used to reply to my nudges toward making confidence-building measures with Israel with the soft reply, “In due time, we’ll make peace. But only after the horrors we have endured have been addressed. We owe that to our ancestors.”
But the smart foreign-policy choice is to allow Iraq “to stand up,” so long promised by the Bush administration, so that we can “stand down.” Smart diplomacy calls for Iraq to no longer rely on U.S. troops for its stability. We can make that transition easier for Iraq by beefing up civilian assistance provided to Baghdad through the Foreign Service, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and funding non-governmental organizations.
Clinton needs to see that an Iraq-centric diplomatic corps only perpetuates the notion that we’ve drawn a line in the sand in Iraq, and nothing else matters as much. This is the mistake the last administration made. We should not repeat it. Our unique position on the world stage demands that we not. #
Note: This piece was first published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution