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With friends like us ...

The U.S. is alienating its closest allies by insisting on silly unilateral actions.

April 05, 2006|MAX BOOT | MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

I'M ALL IN FAVOR of unilateral action when necessary. If, tomorrow, the U.S. or Israel -- or, for that matter, Lichtenstein -- were to attack Iran's nuclear weapons complex, I would applaud, no matter how many condemnatory resolutions the United Nations General Assembly passed. But at the moment, the U.S. is scrupulously multilateralist in handling our enemy, Iran, even as we alienate our allies with unilateral actions that serve no good purpose.

The most famous example is the uproar that prevented a company from Dubai, one of our closest Arab friends, from taking over operations at some American ports. Some lesser-known American actions are also rubbing allies the wrong way.

A few weeks ago, British, Italian and Australian officials appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to complain about the lack of cooperation they are getting from the Pentagon in the $256-billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. This next-generation warplane is being built by Lockheed Martin for the U.S. and eight allies. Britain has been the biggest foreign partner, anteing up $2 billion so far and promising to pay $9 billion more.

Notwithstanding their close involvement, the Brits feel stiffed because the Defense Department did not consult with them before canceling a contract for F-35 engines that were to be built by Britain's Rolls-Royce. Even worse, the Pentagon refuses to share with the Brits (or the Australians or anyone else) all of the technology that goes into this high-tech stealth fighter. The Brits are particularly rankled that they cannot get their hands on critical software that they will need in order to modify the jet for their own requirements, because U.S. law restricts the export of sensitive technology. Every time our British partners want some key piece of information, they have to request a waiver that can take months to arrive.

Does someone really think that we risk our security if we share information with Britain, a country that is already privy to some of our most treasured intelligence secrets? Apparently that is precisely the concern of House barons Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), who fear that Britain might pass along our secrets to France -- another ally.

After Britain threatened to pull out of the F-35 program last month, the Bush administration belatedly began to negotiate an information-sharing accord to address London's concerns. But it shouldn't have come to this; the Brits have been complaining loudly for years, and their concerns have been ignored.

Another example of dumb unilateralism has arisen out of the debate over the International Criminal Court, which was created to try war-crimes suspects from countries without functioning legal systems.

Some conservatives, notably U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, speculate that the ICC might be perverted to imprison American soldiers. To avert this hypothetical danger, Congress passed a law requiring that any nation that receives U.S. military aid must agree not to extradite U.S. soldiers for trial in The Hague. Most countries are understandably unwilling to create a double standard for the United States when their own citizens would remain subject to the ICC's jurisdiction.

Major allies, such as Germany and South Korea, are exempt from the aid cutoff, but 12 Latin American nations that refused to sign ICC-exemption treaties have had their military assistance terminated. These include such important countries as Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Next up is Chile, a U.S. ally that is about to ratify the ICC treaty without an exemption for American service members.

Aiding these nations is very much in our own interest because it helps them to combat terrorists, drug traffickers and other common threats. It also draws them closer to the United States at a time when our influence in the region is waning. If we don't help them, our rivals, such as China and Venezuela, are delighted to step in. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admits that we are "shooting ourselves in the foot" with the aid cutoffs, but no waivers of the sort extended to Germany and South Korea have been forthcoming from Washington.

This is the kind of mindless unilateralism that gives the whole concept a bad name -- and that shows how deeply entrenched this tendency is in Washington. Though Democrats may denounce some instances of Republican unilateralism, they happily play the same game when they demonize Dubai. The executive branch and Congress, Republicans and Democrats -- all contribute to perpetuating the stereotype of the ugly American.

Memo to policymakers: By all means punish our enemies. But leave our friends alone.

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