Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Speak loudly and punish 'em with a huge stick

Speak softly and carry a big stick.

That was President Theodore Roosevelt's advice to the U.S. government in dealing with foreign countries, and for all intents and purposes, it was the foundation of U.S. foreign policy for the bulk of the 20th century. It was a plan that called for our leaders to put negotiation and diplomacy -- "speaking softly" -- at the center of foreign relations and to use overwhelming force -- the "big stick" -- only as a last resort. It was a plan that won the Cold War without a single American or Soviet city getting vaporized. It was a plan that won us dozens of loyal allies that offered largely unquestioning support for our decisions. In short, it worked.

Now I worry that the Bush administration is casting aside the "speak softly" proviso to pursue newer and larger and more garish sticks. Secretary of State Colin Powell, respected around the world as an eloquent spokesman for the importance of maintaining strong, lasting alliances as a key to America's national security, has announced his plans to leave an administration where his voice was consistently drowned out by officials calling for a far more aggressive and situational approach to foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. His likely replacement is National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, an Alabama native and former Stanford University professor who has been one of Bush's most trusted confidants since 2000.

Rice's nomination sends numerous signals to our allies, and the resulting message is a mixed one indeed. On the positive side, Rice's status as a black woman helps to show any remaining international skeptics that our country has come a long way in overcoming its history of racial and gender discrimination. Rice may also have a practical advantage Powell did not: Her friendship with Bush could enable her to convince him to give more serious consideration to diplomatic options for dealing with crises than he apparently did during his first term.

The biggest potential negative, of course, is that Rice's track record indicates she may not really care much for diplomacy. She was active in lobbying Bush to go to war in Iraq, and many foreign leaders seem much less comfortable with the prospect of dealing with her than with Powell. Maybe that has something to do with her widely publicized advice to her associates last year that the United States should "punish France, ignore Germany, and forgive Russia" for their decisions not to join the Iraq war coalition. When we already have strained relations with many of our allies, making a woman who has suggested punishing or ignoring them our chief diplomat isn't the optimal way to assuage the hurt feelings.

Thanks to a 10-vote GOP advantage in the Senate, Rice will sail through her confirmation hearing. The big unanswered question -- the one that will affect our national security for generations to come -- is whether Rice can rebuild the bridges that our country has burned in the last few years.

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