Seeking a Super-policy

It appears that U.S. President George W. Bush has reconciled himself to playing the role of scapegoat, of both the Democratic presidential campaign and that of his fellow Republican, John McCain.

It appears that U.S. President George W. Bush has reconciled himself to playing the role of scapegoat, of both the Democratic presidential campaign and that of his fellow Republican, John McCain. Someone close to Bush wrote recently that he is even being blamed for not anticipating China's economic growth, asking a bit irritably what he should have done - try to stop it?

But perhaps Bush is saying to himself: Let's see how you do in the White House.

The next president will have to deal with many complicated challenges, which he will presumably be compelled to try to resolve while bound by the same restrictions that constrained his predecessor. (It seems it will be harder ifi it's McCain, because the House of Representatives is expected have a Democratic majority.)

The two candidates have defined what appears to be a clear mission: to revive the American dream at home and improve the United States' standing abroad - or in simpler language, to make the rest of the world stop hating America. Putting this ideal into practice will be the hard part.

The attempt to cast this goal in the form of a catchy slogan, "American realism," used by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in what The Washington Post described as "a foreign policy, in two words," has been a total failure among the Republicans as well as the Democrats. This was not meant to be a successful campaign slogan, but rather a short expression that would not just explain the U.S. change in doctrine for the history books, but also clarify for the American people what their task is. This assumes that a superpower needs some kind of super-objective greater than the desires of its parts.

Cautious isolationism, Thomas Jefferson's "empire for liberty," Franklin D. Roosevelt's "international cooperation," the need to halt Communism - all were attempts to create an all-inclusive outlook dictating policy areas from defense to the economy to culture.

When Communism collapsed, George H.W. Bush spoke of a "new world order," but had difficulty filling the vacuum created in the absence of the previous policy slogan. Bill Clinton fit well into the rapidly changing world, mainly due to his personal diplomacy, but even he wasn't able to find the right way of defining the dizzying change.

After 9/11, Bush, Jr., reduced the super-policy to a "global war on terror" that emphasized a dark side of globalization. In light of the pessimism that settled over America then, it seemed justified at first, but the war in Iraq wore out the phrase. Attempts to supply a more positive concept, like the "freedom agenda," were mocked by a large part of the international community. Hybrid creations like "ethical realism" and "progressive realism" safely reached the library bookshelves where they were filed away in collections of political science journals.

In the frenetic agenda of the current election, which has gone from the crisis in Georgia to Hurricane Gustav and back again to mortgages and the gas pump, it's tough to cultivate a super-policy, aside from good old pragmatism. It's not clear whether it's even possible to do so in light of the many problems facing the next president. But pragmatism is not a sufficiently attractive campaign slogan and is too primitive to describe a foreign policy.

So far, both presidential candidates have stuck with the slogan "change" and are fighting over whose change is more genuine. They have also managed to delineate their positions, with some fluctuation, on more specific issues. Barack Obama plans to use all means at America's disposal, especially diplomacy, in the international arena. McCain promises to give America back its dignity, as part of which he wants to stay in Iraq for as long as it takes to win.

Both say they have not taken the military option off the table when it comes to Iran - as a last resort, of course. Both think Afghanistan will remain a major project and are wracking their brains trying to figure out what to do with Russia's muscle flexing. But to get to a super-policy, one of them will ultimately need to set clear priorities.

Israel's limited role in the campaigns is no accident. This time as well, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not going to be at the top of America's foreign policy agenda - not any time soon, and not just because America is busy with other problems. The population that will ultimately decide in favor of one of the versions of "change" will rapidly be making demands in return.

Clinton ended his term by going all out in a last-ditch effort to reconcile Israel and the Palestinians, which made Bush uninterested in taking an active role in the Mideast peace process, for seven years.

This time, Bush, and primarily Rice, will try to leave the next president a peace process that is still alive, even if anemic. The extent to which the next president will want to make his presence felt in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will depend on his willingness to put all his weight on that frail card.