US foreign policy retreat – why?

Just six years ago, U.S. foreign policy remained highly respected.  We were peacemakers and defenders of liberty.  Our allies trusted us and our record was unrivaled – and undoubted.   By way of example, the Colombian ambassador to the U.S. declared that the U.S. had saved her country, helped Colombia to restore order, deterrence and democracy to Colombia.  That particular ambassador declared Plan Colombia “the greatest U.S. foreign policy victory since World War II.”  Whether it is, leadership abroad was a bipartisan affair.  Today, we are in reverse mode.  The question is “why?”

Look at Colombia, example of a larger problem.  American leadership – particularly former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and then-President Bill Clinton – produced a consensus around commitments to rule of law, deterrence and not negotiating with terrorists.  Their resolve to defend a U.S. ally helped turn the tide of terror and lawlessness in Colombia into security and prosperity.   Colombians – and Americans — deserve credit for leading a comprehensive, unified push toward peace – with unabashed U.S. military and civilian support.  Strength came through idealism and commitment, collegiality and resolve.

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Now, wind the clock … to 2014.  Not only has America – under President Obama – lost foreign policy credibility by his failure to anticipate or adequately manage relations with Ukraine, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Venezuela and Chile, but he is now losing gains made in Colombia.  Our closest allies doubt our word; they are openly leery of this U.S. president.  Count the growing number, to include Israel and Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, Eastern Europe and all those near Russia.  There is deep-seeded doubt about what this president will do when push-comes-to-shove, as it already has.  Are all his reactions destined to be non-reactions?  And if so, why?

Consider the record.  The Middle East Peace process is now dead under Obama.  Iran, a totalitarian theocracy and sworn enemy of our closest allies, an overt detractor of U.S. Constitutional ideals, is fawningly coddled.  Iran’s nuclear program thus gets room to bloom.  Israel is told go along, Saudi Arabia withdraws from the United Nations Security Council in protest.  As allies doubt us, others press their advantage, autocrats from Venezuela and Cuba to North Korea.  Security gains of decades are slipping away fast, as are hard-won international norms.  U.S. leadership is silent.  Why?

Bulletin:  Mr. Obama, pay attention to places like Colombia, because your foreign policy apparatus and dearth of leadership are producing major losses for U.S. credibility, reversing gains for which Americans in places from DEA and State to Defense and the heartland paid dearly.  We have no “Status of Forces” Agreements with Iraq or Afghanistan. Will you not now work to sustain American-blood-secured security.  A fictitious “line in the sand” on Syrian use of chemical weapons allowed Syria’s dictator and Russia to laugh you to red-faced silence.  Forget the dozens of smaller missteps around the globe.  Return to Colombia.

Presidential disinterest in one of America’s strongest allies in our own hemisphere is triggering a measurable slide.  In Colombia’s prime drug growing region, the Putumayo, coca cultivation fell early this decade by nearly 100 percent year over year, as alternative crops replaced drug crops.  Homicides, terrorism, kidnapping and public fear were all halved or better.   Legitimate markets opened, and all but the most depraved terrorists gave up, rejoined civil society.    With U.S. congressional support, human rights improved.   Peace returned to this democracy.  

How?  Uncompromising U.S. vision, action and support for an ally promoted respect for rule of law, deterrence, drug eradication, counter-terrorism, alternative development, legitimate markets, human rights and security, that is, peace and order, pluralism with liberty.  Colombians believed we would stand by them, and we did. America’s commitment to free society was unquestioned.  

By contrast, today, terrorists are now active again, resurgent.  What we all had is drifting away. Colombia was no small victory.  Peace there translated into safer streets across South, Central and even North America.   International drug traffickers, insurgents and criminal gangs found themselves on defense, law was ascendant.  The reverse is now true.

Today, in place of American leadership and bold commitments, our leadership minces and parses words, plays fast and loose with commitments, and demonstrates an inveterate sense of practiced listlessness, that is, dodge, drift and hold a press conference, then encourage forgetting.  There is no roadmap.  Gone is fidelity to American ideals that have shined for more than two centuries.  On foreign soil, gone is the American commitment to championing free speech and religion, free markets and press, proportional use of force and non-political enforcement of laws, hallowed respect for legislative prerogatives and individual liberty. 

Why?  Could we be seeing abroad the mirror reflection of something happening at home?  Could a retreat from U.S. Constitutional ideals in our foreign policy reflect a concurrent retreat from individual liberties at home?  Look at the list of ideals abandoned abroad – for which we no longer fight – and then compare that to the gaping silences and disrespect for the U. S. Constitution at home. What you see in that mirror may be revealing, certainly unsettling.  I will say no more, but ponder the sources of America’s foreign policy drift.  The deficit and inexperience could be one, but a retrograde foreign policy – and spinning compass in places like Colombia – may reflect something bigger, and far closer to home.

Charles was an assistant secretary of State under Colin Powell, is author of the book Narcotics and Terrorism, and is principal of a Washington D.C. consulting group.