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Ambassador Chas Freeman's Speech to WIFA Annual Banquet--5/24/07

Can American Leadership Be Restored?*

Remarks to the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS. Ret.)
24 May 2007
Washington, DC

When our descendants look back on the end of the 20th Century and the
beginning of this one, they will be puzzled. The end of the Cold War
relieved Americans of almost all international anxieties. It left us
free to use our unparalleled economic power, military might, and
cultural appeal to craft a world to our liking. We did not rise to the
occasion. Still, almost the whole world stood with us after 9/11.

There is still no rival to our power, but almost no one abroad now wants
to follow our lead and our ability to shape events has been greatly –
perhaps irreparably – enfeebled. In less than a decade, we have managed
to discredit our capacity to enlist others in defending our interests
and to forfeit our moral authority as the natural leader of the global
community. There is no need for me to outline to this expert audience
the many respects in which our prestige and influence are now
diminished. Historians will surely wonder: how did this happen?

How our global leadership collapsed is, of course, a question our
politicians now evade as politically incorrect. It's also a very good
question and really deserves an answer. I don't plan to try to give you
one. Why deprive our posterity of all the fun of puzzling one out?

We are engaged in a war, a global war on terror; a long war, we are
told. It is somehow more dangerous than the Cold War was, we are warned.
So, to preserve our democracy, we must now refrain from exercising it.
And, to keep our ancient liberties, we must now curtail them. These
propositions may strike some here as slightly illogical, but I beg you
not to say so – especially if you have a security clearance and want to
keep it or are interested in a job in this or a future administration.
To many now in power in Washington and in much of the country, it
remains perilously unpatriotic to ask why we were struck on 9/11 or who
we're fighting or whether attempting forcibly to pacify various parts of
the realm of Islam will reduce the number of our enemies or increase them.

So, we're in a war whose origins it is taboo to examine, as the only
presidential candidate of either party to attempt to do so was reminded
in a debate with his fellow Republicans just last week. And this is a
war whose proponents assert that it must – and will – continue without
end. If we accept their premises, they are right. How can a war with no
defined ends beyond the avoidance of retreat ever reach a convenient
stopping point? How can we win a war with an enemy so ill-understood
that we must invent a nonexistent ideology of "Islamofascism" for it?
How can we mobilize our people to conduct a long-term struggle with a
violent movement once they realize that its objective is not to conquer
us but to persuade us to stay home, leaving its part of the world to
decide on its own what religious doctrine should govern its societies?
And how can a war with no clear objectives ever accomplish its mission
and end?

The answer is that no matter how many Afghans and Arabs we kill or lock
up in Guantánamo it can't and it won't. The sooner we admit this and get
on with the task of reducing the war to manageable proportions, the less
we will compound the damage to ourselves, our allies, our friends, and
the prospects for our peaceful coexistence with the fifth of the human
race that practices Islam. The sooner we decide and explain what this
war is about, the fewer our enemies and the more numerous our allies
will be. The sooner we define achievable objectives, the greater our
hope of achieving them. The sooner we stop rummaging blindly in the
hornets' nests of the Middle East, the less likely we'll be stung worse
than we have been.

The pain of admitting failure will be all the greater because this
disaster was completely bipartisan. Both parties colluded in
catastrophically misguided policies of militarism and jingoistic
xenophobia. We succumbed to panic and unreasoning dread. We got carried
away with our military prowess. Our press embedded itself with the
troops and jumped into bed with our government. We invaded countries
that existed only in our imaginations and then were shocked by their
failure to conform to our preconceptions. We asked our military to do
things soldiers can do only poorly, if at all. Our representatives
pawned our essential freedoms to our Commander-in-Chief in exchange for
implied promises that he would reduce the risks to our security by means
that he later declined to disclose or explain.

Not many among us voiced public objections. Those who did found the
press too busy demonstrating its patriotism to publicize dissenting
views. The issues were, as always, too complex for television. As a wise
commentator recently pointed out, television has the same relationship
to news that bumper stickers do to philosophy.

Perhaps that's why we decided to try out a made-for-TV approach to
international negotiation in which our leaders demonstrate their resolve
by refusing to allow our diplomats to talk to bad guys until they come
out with their hands up. When that approach produces the predictable
impasse, we fall back on the "shoot first, let God worry about what
happens next" neocon school of war planning. In the mess that ensues,
our primary concern is rightly to support our troops. But supporting the
troops is a domestic political imperative, not a strategy, and it
doesn't tell our military what it is being asked to achieve. As force
protection becomes our major preoccupation, we find we must pacify the
countries we occupy so that we can continue to station troops in them to
fight the terrorists our occupation is creating.

Rather than consider the possibility that the witless application to
foreign societies of military pressure, no matter how immense and
irresistible it may be, is more likely to generate resistance than to
make states of them, we prefer to blame the inhabitants of these
societies for their ingratitude and internal divisions. So we threaten
to withdraw our political and economic support from them, while piling
on more American troops. Asked when our soldiers may be able to declare
their mission accomplished and to leave Iraq and Afghanistan, our
Commander-in-Chief replies that this is a policy question that the
generals in the field should decide, and that he's not going to decide
for them. Think about that for a minute. Since when are generals
responsible for making policy decisions? They are conditioned to focus
on implementing policy and to avoid making it. Whatever happened to
civilian control of the military or "the buck stops here?" Why should
our military be left to hold the bag in this way?

How we got into this mess is, however, far less important than figuring
out how we can get out of it. Much more has been destroyed than just the
social and political orders in Iraq and Afghanistan. The term
"collateral damage" was invented to denote the undesirable side-effects
of actions on the battlefield. But it certainly applies to the
consequences of our confused and counterproductive conduct and the
misdirection of our armed forces since 9/11. We have greatly devalued
our political and moral standing with our allies and friends and
foolishly degraded the deterrent value of our military power. The world
now fears our savagery but has lost confidence in our fair-mindedness,
judgment, and competence. What are the consequences of this and how can
we overcome them?

A common concern about the belligerent unilateralism of the world's
greatest military power is driving lesser powers to look for political
and economic support from countries who are distant, unthreatening, or
unlikely to back American agendas. So, for example, Venezuela, Brazil,
Saudi Arabia and key Africans are courting China; Europe is flirting
with Asia; and all are seeking the affections of the oil and gas
producers of the Middle East as well as of Russia and India. In most
countries, politicians now see public spats with the United States as
the easiest way to rally their people and enhance their prestige. The
result is the progressive displacement of our previously indispensable
influence and leadership in more and more areas of the world.

Sagging demand for our leadership may be a good thing to the extent it
relieves us of the burdens of our much-proclaimed status as the sole
remaining superpower. But we're clearly bothered by being seen as less
relevant. Our answer to this seems to be to build an even more powerful
military. Some of you will recall newspaper reports that our defense
spending is only about 3.6 percent of GDP, reflecting a defense budget
of only – I emphasize – only $499.4 billion. But a lot of
defense-related spending is outside the Defense Department's budget.
This fiscal year we will actually spend at least $934.9 billion (or
about 6.8 percent of our GDP) on our military. Outside DoD, the
Department of Energy will spend $16.6 billion on nuclear weapons. The
State Department will disburse $25.3 billion in foreign military
assistance. We will spend $69.1 billion on defense-related homeland
security programs and $69.8 billion for treatment of wounded veterans.
The Treasury will spend $38.5 billion on unfunded military retirements.
We will pay $206.7 billion in interest on war debt. Other bits and
pieces, including satellite launches, will add another $8.5 billion.
Altogether, I repeat, that's about $935 billion. But there's no sign
that all this military spending – though it is vastly more than the rest
of the world combined – and the power projection capabilities it buys
are regaining international leadership for us.

In Latin America, Brazil is assuming the mantle of regional leader, even
as Hugo Chávez Frías and other defiant nationalists seek to build
influence at our expense.

In Europe, transcontinental integration is proceeding without reference
to us or our views about the roles of strategically important countries
like Turkey and Ukraine in the Eu. New relationships are being forged
with Russia. European policies toward such problem states as Iran, Iraq,
and Israel increasingly diverge from our own.

Asia is returning to its pre-modern status as the center of gravity of
the world economy. Events there are being driven not by us, but by the
restored wealth and power of China and India, a once again assertive
Japan, strategic repositioning by both parts of Korea, growing
partnerships between Muslim nations in Southeast Asia and the Arabs and
Persians, the de facto reintegration of Taiwan with the rest of China,
and a bloom of pan-Asian political and economic arrangements from which
we are absent.

In the Middle East, Iran has been empowered by our blunders in Iraq,
Palestine, and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has awakened from its traditional
risk-averse passivity to fill the diplomatic vacuums we have created.
Israel is even more despised and isolated than we are, and together with
the Israelis we are rapidly multiplying the ranks of terrorists with
regional and global reach. And so it goes.

The world before us is both unfamiliar and unanticipated. Our
military-industrial complex, securocrats, and pundits keep arguing for
more carriers, submarines, and fighter bombers. This is good for the
defense industrial base but, in terms of stopping terrorists, it is, I
am afraid, an American equivalent of the Maginot Line: the building of
an impregnable deterrent to the threat of the past, not the future. Like
the French generals, our defense planners are preparing for the return
of a familiar enemy – some new version of our sadly vanished Soviet
adversary that will rise to compete with us for global hegemony and that
we can hold to account for failing to constrain attacks on us by lesser
enemies. But it is not what is happening and it must now be doubted that
it ever will.

In the world of the early 21st Century, the major ideological contest is
between those who share our past faith in the rule of law and the new
American contempt for the notion that we should, like others, respect
the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and other elements of
international law. In some senses, we have met the enemy and he is who
we used to be. We can count on no common threat to rally the world
behind us. In the new era, there are no blocs and no clear battle lines.
Those who are our allies for some purposes may be our adversaries in
respect to others, and vice versa. For all of our military strength, the
demands on our diplomatic skills will be the greatest in our history.
The stakes are high and the margins for error of our foreign policies
are steadily narrowing. We are, however, training our diplomats for the
transformative tasks of imperial administration. Like our military
planners, our diplomatic leadership has it wrong. Our empire was
stillborn. We just didn't notice.

Our post Cold War global hegemony is being undermined not by a peer
competitor but by a combination of our own neocon-induced ineptitude and
the emergence of countries with substantial power and influence in their
own regions. These regional powers distrust our purposes, fear our
militarism, and reject our leadership. Distrust drives them to reaffirm
the principles of international law we have now abandoned. Fear drives
them to pursue the development or acquisition of weapons with which to
deter the policies of preemptive attack and forcible regime change we
now espouse. (If the weak think the powerful consider themselves above
the law, the only protection for the vulnerable is to arm themselves. So
scofflaw behavior in the name of halting or reversing the proliferation
of weapons of mass destruction actually promotes it.)

All this is creating a world of regional balances in which we play a
lessened role, some of these regional balances – as in South Asia today
and the Middle East of the future – involving dangerous nuclear
standoffs between two or more middle-ranking powers.

As new centers of economic and political power emerge around the world,
global institutions designed to include countries whose participation is
essential to problem solving are no longer in alignment with the actual
distribution of either the world's power or its problems. They reflect
past rather than present international pecking orders. Since they
exclude key players, they can't contrive workable solutions or buy-in to
them by those who must support them or refrain from wrecking them if
they are to succeed. The problem is most obvious in organizations
devoted to economic matters.

Take the G-7, a self-constituted Euro-American-Japanese club of
democracies plus Russia. The G-7 once played a central role in managing
the global economy. It still discusses global trade and investment
imbalances. But, without Chinese participation, this amounts to little
more than ineffectual whining.

Or consider energy and the environment, other issues of broad concern.
With the fastest growing new energy consumers like China, India, and
Brazil outside the OECD and its affiliated International Energy Agency,
there is no way to coordinate an effective international response to
energy shortages or crises. And when the United States absents
ourselves, as we have from the Kyoto regime and from some parts of the
UN system, even less can be accomplished.

The same pattern of growing misalignment between power and institutions
exists throughout the international system. The membership and voting
arrangements of the UN Security Council, for example, reflect both the
colonial era and the outcome of World War II far better than they mirror
current realities. A body charged with the management of global security
and other vitally important issues is obviously handicapped in its
ability to make, legitimize, and enforce its decisions if it overweights
Europe, inflexibly slights India and Japan, and includes no Muslim
nation or group of nations among its permanent members. The UN's
difficulties are compounded by the contemptuous treatment it now
receives from Washington, and by the effects on its image here and
abroad of our using it primarily to fend off international condemnation
of outrageous behavior by Israel. We can and must do better than this.

To regain both credibility and international respect, we Americans must,
of course, restore the vigor of our constitutional democracy and its
respect for civil liberties. But that in itself will be far from enough.
The willingness of others to follow us in the past did not derive from
our ability to intimidate or coerce them. Instead, we inspired the world
with our vision and our example. Now, we know what we're against. But
what are we for? Whatever happened to American optimism and idealism? To
be able to lead the world again we must once again exemplify aspirations
for a higher standard of freedom and justice at home and abroad. We
cannot compel – but must persuade – others to work with us. And to lead
a team, we must rediscover how to be a team player.

When President Roosevelt first proposed what became the United Nations,
he envisaged a concert of powers that could foster a harmonious and
largely peaceful world order, increasingly free of both want and fear,
and respectful of individual and collective rights as well as of the
cultural diversity of humankind. That vision remains both relevant and
compelling. The bipolar struggles of the Cold War strangled it at birth.
But the Cold War is over and the world that is emerging, though it
contains multiple strategic geometries, needs a common architecture that
can flexibly address its problems and sustain its peace and development.
As currently constituted, the UN does not serve these fundamental
purposes well. It is time to admit that it has lost the confidence of
many of its members. We need to update it, as we must reform other
institutions – like the G-7, the World Bank, and the International
Monetary Fund – to be able to manage the challenges before us. And if we
cannot bring these organizations into alignment with emerging realities,
we should not shrink from starting over by creating alternatives to them.

Like our own country, the UN was founded on the belief that liberty,
tranquility, and the general welfare are best secured by the rule of law
– universal adherence to rules that provide predictable order and
protect the weak against the strong. That concept, like parliamentary
democracy, is a unique contribution of Western culture to global
civilization. It has been embraced, though not yet implemented, almost
everywhere. Achieving its implementation and embedding it firmly in the
structure of the emerging world order should be at the very top of our
foreign policy agenda. It must be at the center of any reaffirmation of
the UN's purposes through its reform or replacement.

But, if America and Europe, which originated and sponsored the idea of a
tolerant, rule-bound international order as an alternative to the law of
the jungle, are no longer united in support of the rule of law, it is
unlikely to survive, still less to prevail as the international system
evolves. And as European arrest warrants for American agents engaged in
officially sanctioned kidnappings and torture attest, the Atlantic
community is now seriously divided. If we Americans renew our adherence
to the rule of law at home, as I believe we must, we would find the
European Union ready to work closely with us in promoting it abroad.
Nowhere has the utility of consultative processes been more convincingly
demonstrated than in Europe, where a democratic common political culture
respectful of human rights has spread across a continent. A club of
democracies like the G-7 may now be unable to manage the world's
economy, but regular meetings at the summit of such a grouping could
have a major impact on the world's political evolution if they focused
on harmonizing and promoting global standards for the rule of law and
parliamentary democracy. The groundwork for such an effort is already in

Finding common ground with Europe and Japan will also be key to curing
our default on leadership with respect to the climate. China is about to
overtake the United States as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse
gases. The prerequisite for persuading China to behave responsibly is to
join the other industrial democracies in behaving responsibly ourselves.
Only then can we insist that China and other newly industrializing
nations do likewise

Let me conclude. I have been talking about how to reassert our
leadership on the global level. But, in the end, we face the paradox
that the world, though globalized to an unprecedented degree, is made up
of a series of regions in which regional powers increasingly call the
shots. And all diplomacy, like all politics, is local. We face
perplexing choices in every region of the world. But the policies that
have brought discredit upon us center on one region – the Middle East.
To restore our reputation we must correct these policies. And the
problem of terrorism that now bedevils us has its origins in one region
– the Middle East. To end this terrorism we must address the issues in
the region that give rise to it.

Principal among these is the brutal oppression of the Palestinians by an
Israeli occupation that is about to mark its fortieth anniversary and
shows no sign of ending. Arab identification with Palestinian suffering,
once variable in its intensity, is now total. American identification
with Israeli policy has also become total. Those in the region and
beyond it who detest Israeli behavior, which is to say almost everyone,
now naturally extend their loathing to Americans. This has had the
effect of universalizing anti-Americanism, legitimizing radical
Islamism, and gaining Iran a foothold among Sunni as well as Shiite
Arabs. For its part, Israel no longer even pretends to seek peace with
the Palestinians; it strives instead to pacify them. Palestinian
retaliation against this policy is as likely to be directed against
Israel's American backers as against Israel itself. Under the
circumstances, such retaliation – whatever form it takes – will have the
support or at least the sympathy of most people in the region and many
outside it. This makes the long-term escalation of terrorism against the
United States a certainty, not a matter of conjecture.

The Palestine problem cannot be solved by the use of force; it requires
much more than the diplomacy-free foreign policy we have practiced since
9/11. Israel is not only not managing this problem; it is severely
aggravating it. Denial born of political correctness will not cure this
fact. Israel has shown – not surprisingly – that, if we offer nothing
but unquestioning support and political protection for whatever it does,
it will feel no incentive to pay attention to either our interests or
our advice. Hamas is showing that if we offer it nothing but unreasoning
hostility and condemnation, it will only stiffen its position and seek
allies among our enemies. In both cases, we forfeit our influence for no

There will be no negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, no
peace, and no reconciliation between them – and there will be no
reduction in anti-American terrorism – until we have the courage to act
on our interests. These are not the same as those of any party in the
region, including Israel, and we must talk with all parties, whatever we
think of them or their means of struggle. Refusal to reason with those
whose actions threaten injury to oneself, one's friends, and one's
interests is foolish, feckless, and self-defeating. That is why we it is
past time for an active and honest discussion with both Israel and the
government Palestinians have elected, which – in an irony that escapes
few abroad – is the only democratically elected government in the Arab

But to restore our reputation in the region and the world, given all
that has happened, and to eliminate terrorism against Americans, it is
no longer enough just to go through the motions of trying to make peace
between Israelis and Arabs. We must succeed in actually doing so.
Nothing should be a more urgent task for American diplomacy.

Thank you.

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