Foreign policy is normally formulated in terms of interests and threats. Since the dramatization of the terrorist threat by the al-Qaida attacks on the United States in 2001, the order has been reversed and analyses emphasize threats over interest. Yet threats are many, and interests -- vital interests that concern the security of a nation -- are by nature limited. When the two are confused, it is easy to fail to discriminate among necessity, prudence and advantage in making policy -- and beyond that, to risk losing your grasp on what is feasible.
The New York Times published an editorial last week demanding that the American presidential candidates debate what they intend to do about "a swift and orderly withdrawal from Iraq." Such a withdrawal surely is desirable, and is what Barack Obama has promised, but is it feasible?
What about a disorderly withdrawal? What if that is the only available withdrawal? In that case, is it the larger American interest to stay indefinitely in Iraq, fighting on for the sake of staying, or to leave in disorder?
What if the Iraq government tells the United States to leave, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has threatened in his negotiations with Washington on what terms the United States would be allowed to stay beyond the U.N. mandate that ends Dec. 31. He has refused the U.S. demands originally made -- for total extraterritoriality and sovereign freedom of action, together with authority to seize and imprison Iraqi individuals.
The Defense Department and this administration are ferociously committed to staying in Iraq, in order to hold onto the huge military bases constructed there, and for Iraq's oil. They will pay a lot for that, but if Maliki should stick to his demand for Iraqi sovereignty over the U.S. military, they would look for an alternative. Perhaps a new Iraqi government? Maliki himself might gamble on a new government-a new one in Washington.
But actually how important are the U.S. bases? Edward Luttwak, an astute and unsentimental commentator, recently wrote in Britain's Prospect magazine that the Middle East is no longer important enough to fight over. He said the Arab-Israel conflict has been largely irrelevant strategically since the Cold War ended, and "global dependence on Middle Eastern oil is declining" -- which despite the speculation-driven run-up in the oil price is still true.
In any case, oil's availability does not, and never has, depended on military domination of the region. Oil sells on an international market to those who can buy it, and no significant producer can afford to boycott the biggest purchasers, the U.S., Japan and Western Europe. As Charles Glass (a former prisoner of Hezbollah in Lebanon) comments, Luttwak's conclusion logically should be that the U.S. stop giving $5.5 billion in aid annually to Israel and selling billions of dollars worth of jet aircraft, heavy armor and other weapons to Saudi Arabia, a country that has never fought a war.
It should also get out of Iraq, whether in orderly or disorderly fashion, since what happens afterward is surely the business of the Iraqis, who in the past -- before the 2003 invasion -- have always managed in one way or another to settle their own affairs. What happens to Iraq now can pose no serious threat to the United States.
"It could become a terrorist training ground" is the witless objection usually heard regarding a departure in disorder. But surely the terrorists have no need of even more "training grounds" than they already have. An isolated farm or ranch in Utah could serve just as well as a training ground, and the training comes without cost via the Internet.
A very senior figure in the Washington policy community, Simon Safarty of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently listed what are "increasingly agreed" to be the "non-traditional" threats Europeans and Americans should worry about, in addition to the threat of "terrorist groups of global reach and potential access to weapons of mass destruction." These other threats are: "WMD diversification and proliferation, failed states, organized crime, access to energy, climate change, pandemics, and more."
Well, yes. But suppose this is a list of life's problems that neither the Americans nor the Europeans are likely to solve, even using the "complex mixture of military and civilian capabilities along with a combination of institutional tools, both national and multilateral," that he recommends. Maybe we have to live with them. Or maybe, like Luttwak's Middle East, some of them are just not very important.
The New York Times editorial congratulated Obama on his intention to have the U.S. "withdraw from Iraq so it can finish the fight in Afghanistan," where the Allies' situation is deteriorating and more U.S soldiers are being killed than in Iraq. But just how will President Obama (or President McCain) "finish off" the Taliban?
Early in the election campaign, Obama suggested doing it by invading Pakistan, an American ally, where al-Qaida and the Taliban take refuge. Then the United States could simultaneously fight the Pakistan army, the Taliban, al-Qaida and the tribal warriors of Waziristan. Where's the vital American interest in that?
Visit William Pfaff's Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
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