Good Reads: GOP hopefuls debate new foreign policy. But easier debated than done?

Criticizing the Obama administration's handling of the "Arab Spring," the pullout from Iraq, and the US's response to a resurgent China is the easy part for Republican presidential challengers. 

Chris Keane/Reuters
Republican presidential candidates participate in a South Carolina Republican party presidential debate in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Saturday. Republican candidates for president debate among themselves about how to engage with a world that is changing so fast that even foreign policy experts are struggling to keep up.

Constructing a new US foreign policy is a complicated business – both for the present occupant of the White House and for anyone who would like to take his place.

As Republican candidates for president debate among themselves about how to engage with the world – or in the case of Ron Paul, whether to engage at all – the world is changing so fast that even foreign policy experts are struggling to keep up.

An “Arab Spring” sweeps North Africa and the Middle East, and what was once considered unthinkable – a government led by Islamists – is now a reality in Tunisia. And yet, perhaps that is the best hope for democracy in that country. The US begins to pull out its combat troops from Iraq, and the country most likely to benefit from that pullout and retain influence in a post-war Iraq is America’s rival, Iran.

James Traub, in this week’s Foreign Policy magazine, takes a look at the current foreign policies of Republican challengers. But history shows that firm ideals stated during a political campaign can quickly be abandoned, he points out.

"Bill Clinton thought he was a human rights-driven idealist until he found out how hard it is to do the right thing; Bush thought he was a hardheaded realist until the 9/11 attacks turned him into a true-believing democracy promoter. Who they are probably matters more than what they think, or what they think they think. As Elliott Abrams, the neoconservative ex-aide to Bush and Ronald Reagan, says, 'What really matters in the end is character.' "

Britain’s Economist magazine does the best job of looking at what may be America’s biggest foreign policy challenge, the rise of China as a new economic and political power. (And if you haven’t  yet read the Monitor’s cover story on what China wants, go here to read it).

Watching President Obama’s tour of Asia ahead of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu this weekend, the Economist writes that Obama praised Asian countries like South Korea, Indonesia, India, and Japan that had embraced both the free market and democracy. The “tacit theme,” the Economist added, was that “crudely put, the American model still trumps the Chinese one.”

Fair enough, but in many parts of the world, the US is seen as a has-been. It’s a view that some see reinforced by the fact that most of the more popular American TV shows shown abroad are re-runs.

What will the new democracies of Egypt and Libya think of the American model when new leaders are elected? Will it make them want to embrace democracy and the values of a pluralistic society, as Tunisia apparently has?

Elizabeth Dickinson, in today’s Monitor, writes that while most journalists have focused on the presence of Islamists in the new Tunisian government, the most important change in Tunisian society may be the explosion of new civil society groups, from women’s groups to human rights organizations, a sign of real engagement by citizens in their society.

"Simple as it may sound, this conversation is perhaps the most important change Tunisia has seen in recent months. For democracy to work in this small North African country of 10 million, it won’t just be about building the machinery to cast votes – there were elections, though flawed, under Ben Ali. Equally important will be citizens’ desire to remain engaged with the process."

For reporters based in Kabul, Afghanistan, it was once a given that the country that benefited the most from America’s twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was not America, but rather, Iran. After all, Teheran had swept into both Iraq and Afghanistan after America had removed the Iran-hating regimes of the Taliban and of Saddam Hussein, and Iran’s diplomatic charm offensive in both of these countries has been noticeable.

David S. Cloud, writing from the US military’s Central Command in Florida for the Los Angeles Times, says that the US military is coming up with strategic plans to limit Iran’s influence, at least in Iraq, possibly by stationing a few thousand troops in Kuwait.

"Why in the world would we abdicate presence and stability in the [region] to a malign Iran?" Army Maj. Gen. Karl R. Horst, chief of staff at U.S. Central Command, asked in an interview. "I'm just not sure those are good outcomes, from the U.S. perspective."

All of which adds up to a messy little world, doesn’t it?

America’s pull-out from Iraq appears to be more of a pull-back. The US goal of spreading democratic values seems to be succeeding, even though the world’s new democrats may not share America’s global vision. And US engagement with Asian emerging powers may be pushing America into ever-increasing friction with its strongest economic rival, China.

Foreign policy is hard work. Good luck turning any of that into a pithy sound-bite.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.