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USA in the World

Time for Bush to Turn Realist

By Steven Clemons, 17.3.2006 (The Washington Note)


  The various denominations that have demarcated the U.S. foreign policy spectrum are in serious disarray and are rapidly evolving into substantially different movements.

  During the first term of U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, there were three camps vying for control of the foreign policy helm. First were the neoconservatives under the lead of personalities like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Vice President Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff Lewis Libby , and Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith. The second was a realist pocket of personalities led by the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. The third was not a school of thought but rather an individual--the soldier-statesman and then Secretary of State Colin Powell.

  Today, the situation is more complex. The DNA of these classic schools of foreign policy as practiced in this terrorist -focused era is under genetic modification. Cheney's team combines the muscular Wilsonian idealism espoused by leading neoconservative ideologues with a pugnacious U.S. nationalism bordering on isolationism that former Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms typified.

  Realism--the sort of serpentine interest-calculating realism that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger personified--has been incrementally morphing into a "kinder, gentler" realism since the time of President George H.W. Bush's administration, when then national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, a clear realist devotee, began to include in his calculations the global affinity for the "American brand"--how the United States looks to the rest of the world, what its essential ethical character and great purposes are perceived to be--and melded these concerns into national security prognostications.

  However, Rice, a protege of Scowcroft's, is clearly taking realism in new directions, adopting more mechanistic approaches to "democracy transformation" globally--and advocating a global democratic values agenda that talks the talk of human rights, individual empowerment, and self-determination--but which still seems rooted largely in realist calculations.

  Rice, now secretary of state, for instance, is launching a new and as yet largely unnoticed initiative to get the United States back into the game of discussing international law--everything from discussions about the rights of combat detainees and rendition practices to the international criminal court.

  Rice apparently feels that even though there are serious divisions between the United States and many other global stakeholders on these topics, it has not served U.S. interests to be absent from these debates. Rice's plans to get the United States back into the discourse on international law can be seen both as a new strand of realism and liberal internationalism morphed together as well as an unambiguous challenge to Cheney's pugnacious antiinternationalists.

  But where is George W. Bush?

  Those who note the third anniversary of the United States' Iraq war--that began with a stealth bombing effort to decapitate Iraq's government on March 19, 2003 (U.S. time)--believe that the president fully subscribed to the neoconservative posture of hard-edged democratization and abandoned any pretense of realist cost-benefit analysis.

  But given the clear quagmire the United States has fallen into in Iraq--and the puncturing of the mystique of U.S. power in the world in which enemies are now moving their agendas and allies are counting on the United States less--Bush's foreign policy soul may be out for bid again.

  Competition for Bush's attention was also part of the character of this administration prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

  On March 19, 2001--two years to the day before the start of the campaign against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein--Bush was getting a tutorial on contemporary foreign policy realism from journalist Robert Kaplan--author of "The Coming Anarchy," "Balkan Ghosts," "Warrior Politics," and most recently, "Imperial Grunts."

  Kaplan had long aspired to be a modern-day Machiavelli, advising "the prince," or in this case the U.S. president, on how best to organize U.S. military and economic resources to unashamedly pursue fundamental national security priorities and interests.

  Rice wanted to instill in Bush--using policy intellectuals like Kaplan--the importance of redesigning U.S. engagement in world affairs during a time of perceived U.S. ascendancy. Rice knew that an inertia rooted in Cold War realities rather than contemporary strategy still drove most military and foreign policy decisions, and she was trying to shake this up. Rice was also trying--though she failed at that time--to modernize the "realist church" of foreign policy and make Bush the first major patron of a "neorealist" movement that used realism as a vehicle for limited democratic transformation abroad.

  Bush met Kaplan personally at the White House and then they enjoyed a 90-minute conversation that focused on the Caucasus and former Soviet states with Rice and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card saying nary a word.

  The bottom line to what Kaplan shared with the president was that the post-Cold War world was dangerous and messy and that great states were going to vie over increasingly limited sources of oil and natural gas supplies.

  That meant that the United States needed comprehensive military and economic strategies in these countries to secure our interests lest China, Russia or other unforeseen future competitors tried to tilt these nations in directions counter to U.S. vital interests.

  The bottom line conveyed to Bush was that while the president had to "talk the talk of democracy," he had to deal in the real world with thugs and dictators. Democratizing undemocratic parts of the world was a time-consuming and long-term process worthy of pursuit--but more important was that the fundamental U.S. security interests were managed and shored up as "transformative" efforts were pursued.

  Kaplan's impact on Bush was evident in part when the president vetoed an effort led by Wolfowitz to use the Chinese EP-3 spy plane incident in April 2001 as a way to engineer a neoconservative takeover of the foreign policy helm. Wolfowitz wanted to feed the U.S.-China clash so as to secure the administration's commitment to a containment strategy on China. It did not hurt that the senior Bush's advice to his son ran parallel to the views of Kaplan.

  But Sept. 11 broke the back of Rice's efforts, which were stymied as well in part because she did little to inculcate these neorealist views across the broad swath of foreign policy practitioners embedded across the executive branch.

  An interesting contrast was former U.S. President Bill Clinton's famous "think-fests" with academics, in which Clinton would have wide-ranging discussions with policy intellectuals and invite many minds to senior level staff from the White House to sit in and actively participate--less for his people to learn from the academic but more for his staff to sense the president's views and direction. As mentioned, the Kaplan meeting with Bush in contrast involved only three people and not disclosed to the public by the president's staff.

  Now, three years after the start of the war in Iraq, new battle lines between these factions are surfacing inside the Bush White House--and the emergence of a potential Iranian threat to the international order is raising the stakes.

  The new breed of strident, hypernationalist neoconservativism is advocating an aggressive, military-dominated strategy in dealing with Iran.

  In contrast, the Rice-led international realists, are promoting a package of diplomacy, democracy promotion, alliance -coordination, and a more complex program of costs and benefits to attempt to influence the direction of the Iranian regime--or at minimum to insert wedges between different factions in Iran's political order as a way to constrain populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

  The battle lines are evident in a plethora of issues--including how to deal with Iran, what the right course is in the Palestinian -Israeli standoff, how to approach China and Russia, or an ongoing struggle over the norms the United States exhibits when engaged in conflict--particularly with regard to detaining, rendering, or interrogating enemy combatants.

  The fault lines between the factions have been clear inside the Bush administration from the outset, but now, neoconservatives and realists have tinkered with their ideology, toughened up, and prepared for a new collision.

  But as March 19, 2006, approaches, Bush would be well advised to spend some time thinking about his foreign policy legacy.

  Does he want to leave on the books the image of a United States disdainful of the rest of the world and one that requires either complete assimilation of foreign, particularly Arab, societies--or as a backup builds high walls and fortresses that the United States hides behind?

  Conversely, is the United States going to marshal its considerable military and economic resources--and its impressive ecosystem of democratic empowerment and civil justice--and get back to a grand strategy that depends on enlightened--but not naive--U.S. global engagement?

  In other words, as Bush thinks about the world's big problems in the two years and nine months left in his term, he has to choose whether he is going to be defined by the image and objectives of his vice president, or whether he is going to stand by the insurgent perspective that his secretary of state is now pushing.


  Steven Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation as well as publisher of the popular political blog, The Washington Note.

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