We're All Multilateralists Now


Nov 13, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on November 13, 2004.

George W. Bush's electoral victory promises continuity in foreign and security policy, but continuity with what? With the unilateralism that overthrew the Taliban and Saddam Hussein? Or with the more recent multilateralist efforts to stabilize both Afghanistan and Iraq?

A year ago the Bush team hit the limits of unilateralism. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, scattered resistance had morphed into broader insurgencies with nationalist as well as radical religious elements. Violence was increasing. So were U.S. casualties. International participation, never very strong, was diminishing.

The administration recognized this, even if it was not prepared to acknowledge the limitations of its unilateralist approach, and began a series of major course corrections. It dramatically accelerated plans to return sovereignty to a new Iraqi leadership. It asked the United Nations to form the new Iraqi government. It asked NATO to take over peacekeeping in Afghanistan. And it shifted responsibility for promoting the political, economic and social transformation of Iraq from the Pentagon to the State Department.

One reason John Kerry had such difficulty differentiating his intentions for Iraq from those of Bush was that the president had co-opted so many of his critics' proposals. It was, after all, Jacques Chirac who had first argued for returning power more quickly to Iraqi leaders. It was leading Democrats like Senator Joseph Biden who had argued for greater UN and NATO roles. In the end, Kerry was reduced to criticizing Bush's earlier approach to Iraq while maintaining that he himself would be better able to implement the president's current approach because he would receive more international support.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, the moderate, conservative and neoconservative elements of the Bush administration's policy had been in rough balance. The 9/11 attacks changed all this. They stimulated an immediate and understandably unilateralist impulse to retaliate. Americans had been hit; they wanted to strike back, and they were in no mood to wait until a larger international posse could be formed.

The attacks also shifted the balance between the Defense and State Departments. The country was at war; Defense became the pre-eminent, while State was relegated to a largely supportive role.

By last November, more traditional American notions of burden sharing and multinational leadership began to reassert themselves. The administration began to register the staggering costs of stabilizing and reconstructing Iraq and Afghanistan and to recognize, if not admit, the inadequacy of American resources for these tasks.

Campaign rhetoric obscured this policy evolution. Bush was reluctant to acknowledge earlier shortcomings in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Kerry was equally reluctant to credit the administration's more recent move back toward multilateralist approaches in both cases. The campaign compelled both candidates to emphasize consistency over common sense, leading Bush to maintain that he would have invaded Iraq even had he known that we would find no weapons of mass destruction, while Kerry insisted that he would still have voted to authorize a war even knowing that it was the wrong war in the wrong place.

With the election over, Bush can face the unenviable choices before him in Iraq freed of the need to defend every prior decision. Over the past year, as noted, a new course has been shaped and new players have emerged. In Baghdad, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Ambassador John Negroponte and General George Casey Jr. are now the key decision makers. In Washington the State Department and National Security Council staff are playing a much more influential role in Iraq policy than was the case even a year ago. In Iraq, it is the United Nations that is organizing national elections. In Afghanistan, the U.S. administration is urging NATO to expand its operation beyond Kabul and to take over responsibility for both peacekeeping and counterinsurgency for the country as a whole.

Whether the second Bush administration sustains the turn toward multilateralism will depend on the response it receives from America's traditional partners, who have been holding back from making any new commitments before digesting the U.S. election results. It will also depend on the composition of the second term's national security team. And finally, it will depend upon the United States not being struck again by catastrophic terrorist attack.

James Dobbins is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state.

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