The Middle East and U.S. Policy The past few years have seen the United States become deeply involved in events around the globe. The Middle East, in particular, dictates much of U.S. foreign policy.
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The Middle East and U.S. Policy

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The Middle East and U.S. Policy

The Middle East and U.S. Policy

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

American foreign policy in the 21st century is starting to look a bit like a game of twister. The war in Afghanistan was America's first move after September 11th, right hand red if you will. Over the past few years, the U.S. became more assertive and deeply involved in other foreign policy pursuits - Iraq, left hand yellow; North Korea, right foot blue; Iran, left foot green. At risk of becoming overstretched and entangled, the U.S. now finds itself trying to repair damaged alliances and fight an ever-widening war on terrorism.

To more closely examine current U.S. foreign policy, we're joined by Thomas Bartnett. His article "The State of the World" appears in the May issue of Esquire magazine. Welcome to the show.

Mr. THOMAS BARTNETT (Author, "The State of the World"): Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: In the introduction to your article, you write - it's the first line - "Now that the Bush presidency is over…" Is it really over? It seems as though the administration is continuing to press ahead on its agenda despite opposition from the Democratic majority in Congress and the prevailing public opinion against the Iraq War?

Mr. BARTNETT: I guess I'd say it was over in two senses. One, it's over in the sense that the ideological impulse that this administration brought to international relations really has been shelled in the second term because of the ongoing tie down of our resources in Iraq.

And then in a more salient, how the world views us sort of way, I really argue that the Bush post-presidency began, for all practical purposes, with Katrina in New Orleans, when the world basically found out the double message of the Bush administration which is they can't do that kind of stuff abroad effectively, and guess what? They can't really do it at home very effectively.

And you've seen ever since Katrina, basically, a rising level of backtalk and a certain disrespect just, sort of, building in the system to the point where yes, in the last year, the Bush administration has rediscovered diplomacy. But it's not very effective now, because everybody remembers all the years of unilateralism and they've already begun the countdown to what comes next.

HANSEN: In your article, you divide things up - good news, bad news and wild card - as issues that are faced by the United States, but even in the good news, it doesn't really seem that good, I mean, maybe just the possibility of a less frightening outcome. In your opinion, did you think American foreign policy is really that hopeless?

Mr. BARTNETT: Part of it - the definitional aspect of, you know, how we define war, how we define peace - that's a big problem. How we define victory and how we define failure is a big problem. And think back to the Balkans. We went in and systematically dismembered, sort of, Monty Python's Black Knight and they'll say just idiotically fought on, taunting us to further combat as we, in effect, lopped off the limbs of his body politic, country by country and basically dismembered what we now call the former Yugoslavia.

I mean, can you remember the victory parade on that one? Do you remember the decisive ending, the conclusion, where everybody got their medals of freedom and wrote their books and we all had a big collective deep breath that said: boy, that was over, finally - that's the kind of reality we're in with the Middle East now. There's never going to be a culminating sense when, at one point in the process, we can look back with serious pride and say: Now, it's done, now, we're onto the next thing.

It's going to be a very consistent flow of sequential problems. What the Bush administration basically did by going into Iraq was - the best rationale is really to lay the big bang on the Middle East and set that part of the world down some pathway of change.

And they certainly accomplished that. And the cynic in me says basically the worse Iraq goes, sort of, the better the big bang goes because it's more realistic that Iraq was going to go badly as opposed to well in terms of our expectations and the breakup of Iraq really forces the fights that need to occur in the Middle East now that Saddam is gone and those fights are all going to be tricky. They're going to be overlapping, and there's not going to be an obvious conclusion to it.

Instead, it's going to be a long-drawn out evolutionary process where our sense of winning or losing really hinders our sense of imagination, and in many ways, it retards the dialogue we need to have in this country about what comes next.

HANSEN: Look at some of the challenges that American foreign policy faces - Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel and the Palestinians - where should the United States actually focus? Are there real solutions or is it just a matter of keeping the fires from burning out of control?

Mr. BARTNETT: My argument is what's really driving a lot of this tumult is the fact that globalization is finally penetrating the part of the world to which it hasn't found much purchase in the past. And you, know, when you add those three new billion capitalists in the East, you create impulses. You create the oil boon. You create all sorts of interests in that part of the world that's really discombobulating because these are still fairly traditional societies.

So we got to look at this as a process to be managed where there will be countries that come apart, and there will be countries that rise and fall, and there will be societies that are in some ways completely made over, just like they were in Asia for the last 20 years.

But what we don't have in the Middle East is basically some sort of regional security dialogue, which I would argue is the required diplomatic, political top-cover. We've had this tendency in the Middle East to assume that if we can find, sort, of the perfect peace plan for Palestine versus Israel or if we can find the perfect peace plan now or whatever you want to call the plan - surge - in Iraq, that we can take care of individual problems and on that basis create, sort of, oases of stability in that part of the world.

But what we found in the Middle East over the last 20, 30 years is that whenever there's an ongoing conflict, basically everybody in the region uses it to rough each other over. They take it as a venue for proxy conflict, and that's really, in many ways, what's going on right now in Iraq, which means Iraq can't be separated from everything else. And if you want to fix everything else, in some ways, you got to fix Iraq. And that was what the Iraq Study Group called for.

HANSEN: Do you think the U.S. should be restructuring - or structuring, actually - its international partnership, you know, such as NATO to fight terrorism, for example, which is something you call the long war?

Mr. BARNETT: Yeah, and that's a term from John Abizaid and, sort of, you know, you have to look at this as a decades-long process. And it really is about some larger international phenomenon like the spread of globalization in the Middle East, which means, in effect, we've got to connect the Middle East to the world on a scale and on a scope and on a breadth that's bigger than just oil.

I think we really are at a point in history where we need to move off definitions of old allies and into definitions of new allies. My big complaint with the Bush administration is, in a long war, you know, where you need a grand strategy, they very casually conflate enemies that shouldn't be conflated, like Shia versus Sunni. And they very casually add enemies without adding friends.

If you think about this requirement of doing post-disaster nation building and that kind of stuff, it's very labor intensive. And so think about the countries now who had just joined globalization who are demographically fertile, so to speak, have lots of bodies, or interested in making globalization work. It's India and it's China, first and foremost, and it's other emerging markets.

So we really have to get off definitions of who our friends are, and we really have to start reaching out far more to the Indians who think they are major players in the Middle East and the Chinese who are nervous about becoming that but really need to become that. Why? It's going to be India and China's oil, And we only take a fraction of what comes out of the Persian Gulf, about 15, 16 percent. Asia takes out about 50, 53 percent. Now, it's going up to maybe about two-thirds in the next 20 years. It can't just be our blood and their oil.

HANSEN: Thomas Burnett is a national security expert and a senior managing director of Entero Solutions(ph). His article, "The State of the World," appears in the May issue of Esquire magazine. Thanks so much for your time.

Mr. BURNETT: Thanks for having me.

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