[Overseas view]The element of surprise

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[Overseas view]The element of surprise


The surprise trip by President George W. Bush to Iraq and Afghanistan has nonetheless received relatively routine media coverage. This reflects not only the lame-duck status of his administration, but also fundamental problems regarding our policies, despite the president’s very optimistic statements regarding Iraq.

The trip clearly has implications for East Asia as well as South and Southwest Asia. Concern regarding Islamic fundamentalism is directly related to the level of violence in both countries visited. In recent months, insurgent activity in Afghanistan has expanded and political turmoil in Iraq continues - symbolized by the journalist who hurled his shoes at Bush.

For South Korea, direct interests are involved. Korean troops have served in Iraq, there was a hostage incident last year involving religious missionaries in Afghanistan and North Korea for years has supplied weapons and other supplies to rogue regimes.

Politicians, like magicians, love public surprises that underscore their prowess. Even when we are well aware that sleight of hand is involved, the skill factor is very impressive when the trick is done well. In March 2006, Bush added a surprise visit to Afghanistan to an announced trip to India and Pakistan. The White House stated publicly that security was the reason, but the politics of surprise also was apparent.

Nearly three decades ago, the “October Surprise” debate dealt with allegations that the 1980 Reagan presidential campaign, notably including vice presidential nominee George H.W. Bush, conspired with Iran to frustrate the Carter administration before the November elections. Hostages again were involved, this time American government embassy personnel held by the fundamentalist Islamic government in Tehran. At the time, there was considerable public speculation that the Carter administration might secure release of the prisoners just before the presidential election.

That surprise never happened, and accusations against the Reagan team were never proven. Congressional investigations later concluded that there was no evidence of such a conspiracy. The debate, however, has proven remarkably durable, testifying to the political importance of the surprise factor.

In foreign policy, the greatest successful unexpected turn is still President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secret journey in 1941 during the Second World War, several months before Pearl Harbor, to Canada to meet British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The president was reported in the press to be vacationing elsewhere. Top Washington officials were kept in the dark. The ruse went so far as to include an FDR lookalike, waving from a distant pleasure boat.

In fact, Roosevelt traveled in total secrecy to a special summit on American and British warships moored just offshore. For days, the total surprise of that historic encounter dominated the world press. FDR’s crucial commitment of U.S. economic resources to help a very close ally was dramatically demonstrated.

Nearly 70 years ago, FDR and Churchill used their dramatic summit to announce the Atlantic Charter, a remarkably ambitious vision of a United Nations. Even early in the Second World War, leaders who were disciplined as well as visionary were planning the post-war world.

A half century ago, President Dwight Eisenhower undertook a trip to South Asia that was a public relations success, directly related to his Atoms for Peace initiative to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation. Then as now, relations with India were complex and vexing.

Two years ago, President Bush’s surprise stop in Afghanistan was designed to bolster his credentials as a war leader, in an arena where progress appeared visible against Islamic insurgents. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is articulate, clearly courageous, and skilled in projecting a generally positive media presence. Also, Afghanistan is a truly allied enterprise, supported by the United Nations and implemented to a significant degree by the NATO alliance.

On this trip, President Bush emphasized political as well as security progress in Iraq, against a backdrop of applauding American troops, but there has been too much disappointment over the years for this to be persuasive. Stated U.S. goals have oscillated among destroying weapons of mass destruction, to combating terrorism, to creating a democratic Iraq. Early optimism after Baghdad fell proved entirely premature.

Still mired in Iraq, now facing revived insurgency in neglected Afghanistan, the Bush administration has lacked the disciplined forward planning which characterized the likes of Churchill, FDR and Ike.

Let’s hope the discipline demonstrated by the Obama presidential campaign will carry over into actual foreign policy.



*The writer is the Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu.


by Arthur I. Cyr

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