It was a time of terrible weakness. We were a nation kicked in the gut by Vietnam and Watergate and stagflation. Gerald Ford—who was a strong and honorable man but who had no mandate or electoral legitimacy—was an emblem of that weakness. And yet somehow, by the time he left office, Ford had “rescued a cohesive American foreign policy from the carnage of Vietnam and Watergate," Henry Kissinger wrote in the final volume of his memoirs, “Years of Renewal.” Indeed, Ford helped to steer the United States back onto a course that led to ultimate triumph over the Soviet Union. It is a lesson in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat that George W. Bush needs to learn, especially when it comes to the biggest threat Washington now faces, Iran. And there is no time to waste.
Ford, who died Tuesday, accomplished this by first acknowledging, with admirable courage and honesty, that America had taken some blows and was not on top of its game. He banished the “imperial presidency” and the rantings of the right, which were as divorced from reality then as they are today. Ford reached across the aisle politically and created a common ground with friendly or cooperative nations. Perhaps his greatest, and little appreciated, achievement was the Helsinki Final Act that came out of the 35-nation European security conference, which Ford signed in August 1975. Belittled at the time as a conference of “considerable ceremony, little substance” (NEWSWEEK’s description) and a sellout to the Soviets, Helsinki later took on “an extraordinary life of its own,” as Kissinger wrote.
The conference had originally been a Soviet idea, a way to undermine NATO. But in the end, Moscow’s reluctant agreement to sign onto vague promises of “human rights and fundamental freedoms” inspired “Helsinki monitoring groups” in East-bloc countries, most famously Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. Thus, Helsinki helped to engender the dissident movements that blossomed in the 1980s and eventually destroyed the Soviet bloc. Just as important, Ford maintained the strong ties to Europe that he built then, inviting German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and British Prime Minister James Callaghan to his Vail, Colo., ski house for years afterward. He also institutionalized what eventually became the G-8 summit meetings. Across the cold war divide, meanwhile, the East bloc was quietly fissuring under the surface, a process that was helped along by all this unity and alliance-building going on in the West. Despite the final collapse of South Vietnam on his watch, Ford was able to set in motion a longer-term victory for the United States.
All of this holds important lessons for Bush in the final two years of his presidency. Ford, after all, had only a little more time than that: 29 months in all. Bush has gotten many things wrong in his six years in office, but perhaps what he has understood least is his role as overseer of the international system, a community that works for the most part in America’s favor despite all the fear and loathing directed at Washington over the last six years. Bush has also failed to comprehend how powerful the unified opposition of the international community can be, when Washington stands with it and not against it. Rather than isolating the bad guys, for most of his presidency Bush has allowed himself, and the United States, to be isolated. And he has never needed this international community more than now, when American finds itself drained of its blood and treasure by standing all but alone in Iraq.
For several years now, Bush has also found himself outmaneuvered diplomatically by China, Russia and, most dangerously, Iran. But the president can still turn the tables, at least when it comes to Tehran’s increasingly brazen behavior, which has become so intolerable that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared recently that Iran is already a “nuclear power.” How can Bush do this? By understanding the inexorable logic of the post-cold war world, the foundations of which were created by agreements like Helsinki. The logic goes like this: in order to gain power and influence, countries must prosper; in order to prosper they must join the international economy; and in order to join that international system they must work with its major actors, especially international banks and corporations. Everyone outside this system will grow progressively poorer and weaker no matter how much oil or gas they control; everyone inside it will get richer and stronger. Autarky—the idea of a self-sufficient economic power base cut off from the rest of the world—is dead.
The United States, for all its present weakness, still holds the whip here, in its dominance over this international system. And U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Undersecretary Stuart Levey have been working hard to use this tool recently. Behind the scenes, the U.S. Treasury has been working to isolate and cut off Iranian finances and banks from the international system. The recent passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution adopting sanctions against Tehran, while weak in itself, gives Washington the legitimacy it needs to pursue this policy. This is done indirectly: by subtlely suggesting that major banks that do not cooperate may find their access to the U.S. market—the most important one in the world—somewhat affected.
“It’s very congenial. We’re not here to threaten,” Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise told me. “We’re letting you know: here’s how Iran is using its financial system. Banks want to have a clean reputation.” But some U.S. officials, speaking anonymously, note that the implied threat is clear. “They know we have tools we can use, they know they need access to the U.S. financial system,” said one official who is privy to the details of the policy. “So we don’t need to say anything [explicit].” In recent months, several major international banks, including UBS, Credit Suisse and HSBC, have agreed to curtail dealings with targeted Iranian banks like Saderat, according to the U.S. official. And there is evidence Tehran is feeling the pinch: Saderat Managing Director Hamid Borhani has begun to complain to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization about its financial isolation.
The point here, again, is to convert American weakness into strength, just as Ford once did. Iran has been acting high-handed because it perceives, accurately, that Bush is bogged down next door in Iraq. But if the president can muster an international economic consensus against Tehran, at least among the major banks, and at the same time create new diplomatic leverage elsewhere—for example, in pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, bringing the Arabs to his side—he can still reverse perceptions and positions with Iran. Just as Ford set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s confrontation with the Soviets in the 1980s—after Helsinki, Moscow found itself terminally distracted by the disintegration of the East bloc—so Bush can help future presidents face down Iran, perhaps without another disastrous war. Let’s hope Bush seizes the opportunity by taking a page from Gerry Ford’s book.