- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Reagan conservatives and devotees of George Washington’s admonition against unnecessary foreign entanglements must, these days, be scratching their heads. What guides our foreign policy in 2006?

While at war, what guardrails define our diplomacy? Certainly none that big thinkers, like our Founding Fathers, Montesquieu, Metternich or even Churchill would recognize.

When do we intervene privately and when publicly with a nation we aim to persuade? Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush moved adversaries privately as often as they did publicly. Is that now passe?

The bully pulpit and bull horn were used for shaming intransigent outliers, not embarrassing errant members of a common civilization. Is the public roundhouse more effective? Is it gaining us any ground? Is public judgment and excoriation the new hallmark of U.S. diplomacy? When has that ever been?

Winston Churchill in 1938, appealing to errant European allies, did not disavow prior acknowledgement of their common bonds, diminish their national leadership or sit in judgment of them, even as he lined up against Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Yet today, we seem caught in a time warp, feeling anger as a reflex toward all who do not follow in lock-step. Consider: If the virtuous “us” is shrinking and the ubiquitous “them” is growing, are we on the right diplomatic track? One must wonder.

We find ourselves at war with terror and terrorists — the only place to be. But precisely who is the enemy and when shall we prevail? Have we permanently erased the infrastructure of one or two “foreign terrorist organizations?” Are they forever deposed, making drawdowns and a climb-down from war-footing imminent? Are we 70 percent home, or just 30 percent? Do we know?

If not, what distinguishes our position from perpetual military build-up and engagement at an up-tempo that, for starters, will become unaffordable? How would Ronald Reagan assess our planning for the out-years, our balancing of combat deployments against diplomatic overtures, our commitment to winning hearts and minds?

Remember: He did not do it by force — Reagan balanced an unrestrained commitment to military supremacy with an unmitigated commitment to private and public persuasion. His legacy is as much the latter as the former.

To what principles are we still wedded with unbending resolve, and from which are we divorcing ourselves without pause? For example, on what authority do we find a democracy exists when an election has occurred, without the training, history commitment to nonviolence or infrastructure necessary for such a designation or conviction? How do we justify blurring the line between terrorist state and elected terrorist state?

Looking to the start of 2006, if four weak Fatah candidates were running against one terrorist Hamas candidate in every local election in the Palestinian territory, what principle animated us to publicly condemn Fatah and assume anything but a Hamas victory? Missing: foresight, focus and planning.

More recently, by what reasoning did we publicly applaud the “right” of Muslims to “protest” the United States and Europe by tearing down and attacking our embassies, when the object of such violence was offense at the exercise of free speech?

How did we allow days to pass before reversing that view, when the initial acts would have been seen as criminal in this country? Is the Middle East really at all like the Soviet Union, or is it quite different in nature?

Is the human spirit not also held captive across the Middle East by resentments and regional beliefs, some of which do not melt away after an election? Who is answering these questions?Who is thinking about them? Anyone?

This year already, we have witnessed a remarkable succession of reversals. A longtime promoter of drug crops has been elected president of Bolivia, and we assess this as “problematic.” A strongman in Venezuela goads us into responding on his terms, while threatening to hold us hostage with the oil card. A terrorist state emerges in full flower directly beside Israel, funded by U.S. tax dollars. Iran goes from difficult to impossible, flush with new anti-American sentiment, just when the populace was tiring of 30 years of economic misery. Our stock is low, and now — at home — we quietly sell control of East Coast seaports to the United Arab Emirates and Western seaports to China.

The question again: What guides our foreign policy in 2006? In what way are these principles anchored in history? In law? In diplomatic or military doctrine? By the big thinkers on democracy over the last three centuries? In short, how did we get here so quickly, and where is the nearest door?

Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, 2003-2005, is president of the Charles Group. He worked in the Reagan White House, 1981-83, the elder George Bus’s White House 1992-93, and for the Republican Congress, 1995-99.

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