Expedition to Washington

In just about two weeks the Netherlands’ Prime Minister Balkenende and Minister Verhagen will visit President Bush in Washington to talk about world affairs. Six months later the American elections take place. After this Bush remains president until January 2009, during which time he has nothing more to say about world affairs. In America, the chaos of the election battles continues to rule, which—as it appears now—will finally be between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama (Unless Hillary Clinton is able to miraculously recover).

Regardless of who is the next president, American foreign policy will change significantly. McCain is critical of Bush, but believes that around 2013 Iraq will have reformed into a working and resilient democracy, so that only a small contingent of American troops will be needed for monitoring purposes. Obama wants to bring all forces home as soon as possible. McCain is opposed to any talks with regimes that he considers to be radical or terrorist; Obama does not rule out diplomatic contacts with Presidents Ahmadinejad of Iran and Assad of Syria. A new foreign policy is capable of being formed. No one can say what form it will ultimately take, but it is good if our ministers take the pulse in Washington.

The only issue where we may be able to have some influence is Afghanistan, where around 2,000 Dutch military operate in dangerous Uruzgan within the NATO framework. The war there has now lasted almost seven years. Most of our allies have—to put it kindly—shown no indomitable fighting spirit when it came to sending troops there. That is not so surprising. The situation there is constantly changing, but always chaotic. When The Hague decided to participate in this war, the impression was that this would be a (country) building mission. The Taliban returned. Our small front part became a combat mission.

The major strategy outlines are definitely determined in Washington. There, too, no clear ideas for a solution are apparent. In a recent International Herald Tribune article, a bleak picture of the situation was sketched. Are the Americans and NATO winning or are they, masked by optimistic news of the moment, working on exhausting their forces in a futile war? How long will it be before this country–under a strong government—reaches an acceptable level of security? No one can predict such with any degree of accuracy. When, under the successor to President Bush, a new strategy is developed—whatever that might be—The Hague will have no influence upon it. At the end of last year, The Netherlands prematurely gave away the possibility of exerting some influence by—without any conditions—committing to a military presence in Uruzgan until the end of 2010. A submissive willingness, similar to the support we gave to the Iraq war in 2003.

For more than five years now, we have been virtually uncritical of the most powerful nation in the world, which under President Bush’s administration is conducting two debilitating wars and in doing so has steadily lost power and respect. Our previous Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ben Bot, has a few times expressed doubts about Washington’s wisdom. On October 5, 2005, he asked at a government commission meeting whether in hindsight it had been wise to start the attack on Iraq. A year later he let it be known that he felt that he had been misled when he discovered that Secretary Rice had not told him the truth about the secret CIA prisons. Bot was right. He did not return to the next Cabinet. In his place is now Maxime Verhagen, who in an interview once, let it slip that he finds it “a joy” to talk with colleague Rice.

There is a theory that says that “a small country such as the Netherlands” can not afford to be too critical, because it has to guard its access to Washington. How is it with other small countries? Belgium, Norway, Denmark? And George W. Bush’s and the neoconservatives’ Washington will come to an end within half a year, to the boundless relief of 70 percent of the American voters. Should our foreign policy then have to be adjusted to the successors? This will perhaps bring about a small revolution in The Hague.

One or two years ago, Prime Minister Balkenende said that he missed an intellectual debate in The Netherlands. Now, in an interview with De Telegraaf he declared that “he has had it with negativism. We are doing the international community great harm.” We are rich, we have jobs and we are getting very old. Yes, if you look at it that way, he is right about this.

At the same time, from an international point of view, The Netherlands has, for more than five years, been the faithful, little follower of the most powerful man in the world, who has in the meantime actively proven to be the worst president. This submissiveness ought to be the subject of an intellectual debate. But we will not learn from the Prime Minister himself how things have come this far. Curious as to what the two gentlemen will now do in Washington.

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