President Bush’s surprise trip to Baghdad last week was stunning in its conception and execution. It showed the kind of discipline and chutzpah that are hallmarks of this White House. It was great for troop morale and undoubtedly good politics.
But as the administration struggles to find an effective strategy to advance reconstruction in Iraq, the president missed a potentially historic opportunity to use the trip to reach out to the region and the international community for support. At a time when members of his national security team have been calling for new salvos in the “war of ideas,” the president demonstrated an acute lack of interest in public and global diplomacy.
To be clear, the trip was the right thing for a commander-in-chief to do. Time is something no president ever has enough of, and his willingness to devote a day to the troops – with considerable risk attached – is a gesture the troops clearly appreciated.
But as a world leader, the president needed to use the trip to advance a broader agenda. He met no regional leaders while in their backyard; briefly visited with only four members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council the administration is trying to abolish; and said all of 116 words to the Iraqi people.
Nor did the president take a message to the Arab world on the eve of Id al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, a traditional opportunity to reach out to Muslims around the world and call for mutual understanding, tolerance and peace. Legitimate security concerns restricted what the president could do, of course, even for a trip planned in secrecy for months, but the the president could have taped a message specifically for the people of Iraq and the region who didn’t know he was there until he was gone.
This should not, however, surprise any of us. President Bush, in contrast to his predecessors, continues to keep the world at arm’s length. His father built an authentic coalition for the first Gulf War by engaging the world face-to-face. Presidents Reagan and Kennedy stood before the Berlin Wall and helped the world understand what was at stake in the Cold War. President Clinton went to places like Northern Ireland and Bosnia and appealed directly to the people to rise above religious conflict and hatred.
This lack of engagement is not for want of an appropriate message. In his Whitehall
speech during his recent state visit to Britain, the president acknowledged that the U.S. had been willing to “tolerate oppression for the sake of stability” in the Middle East. As a result, the region “remains a place where freedom does not flourish” and “a place of stagnation and anger and violence for export.”
The president called for a renewed “commitment to the global expansion of democracy, and the hope and progress it brings, as the alternative to instability and to hatred and terror.” He pledged that the United States would “expect a higher standard from our friends in the region” and he challenged them to pursue a course where “governments are just and people are free.” This is in fact part of what’s needed to help the Middle East chose democracy over theocracy.
Al Qaeda and other fundamentalist groups understand the battle for “hearts and minds” all too well and keep us isolated through a systematic effort to inflict pain on our allies, as the recent terrorist attacks in Turkey illustrate so well.
The battle to convince the people of the Middle East that we are in Iraq to empower the people, and not to occupy the nation, will be far more decisive in the war of terrorism over the long run than military force. Yet, the president’s trip reinforces the one-dimensional aspect of our current strategy, employing military force without the complementary political, diplomatic or cultural elements. And as long as the administration remains unwilling to engage the region and the world and offer them a meaningful role in Iraq, we will continue to fight this war of choice and bear its burden alone.
P.J. Crowley, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, is a retired Air Force colonel and served on the National Security Council staff and in the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration.
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