Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

February 7, 2001

Tussling in the Bush Foreign Policy Team?

Even as Dubya is earning unexpectedly good reviews for his first couple of weeks in office (a generally meaningless indicator of which the media are nonetheless inordinately fond), especially for his deft handling of domestic issues and Congress, there are rumblings about rifts among the Bush foreign policy advisers. Or perhaps some folks are trying to get some rifts going, or at least some rumblings, for their own purposes.

Of course Lawrence Kaplan, who has dealt with potential Bushie rifts most extensively in the February 5 issue of the New Republic has an agenda that is hardly hidden. The TNR senior editor wants the United States to be a proper superpower, flexing muscles and fixing messes around the world. He has been denouncing the alleged isolationism, even pacifism of Colin Powell for months now, most recently in a couple of TNR articles critical of the "Powell Doctrine" of avoiding military involvement unless firm public support, overwhelming force, a definable mission and a clear exit strategy are in place titled "Yesterday’s Man" in the January 1 & 8 issue.


In his current piece, Kaplan casts Vice President Dick Cheney as the aggressive keeper of the interventionist tablets, claiming that despite denials of any friction with Secretary of State Colin Powell, "Cheney has effectively created his own foreign policy apparatus, installing his protégés (and, in the case of Donald Rumsfeld, his mentor) at the Defense Department and the White House. And, because many of Cheney’s protégés are known for their willingness to use military force, what began as a clash of personalities is fast becoming a war of ideas."

On the one side, Kaplan says – and others have reported similar bifurcations – will be Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, installed by Cheney after a tussle between Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (reportedly Powell’s preference) and defense intellectual Paul Wolfowitz became desultory. So Wolfowitz, described by Kaplan as "even more hawkish than his boss," got the number two job at Defense. Wolfowitz made his Washington debut in the 1970s as head of the conservative "Team B" that 1976 challenged the CIA’s essentially rosy détente-minded assessment of Soviet capabilities and intentions. He rose quickly during the Reagan and elder Bush administrations, and in 1992 provoked controversy by advising that that United States exploit its supremacy for "deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role." Wolfowitz reportedly brings with him, and has sprinkled through the bureaucracy, a cadre of like-minded lieutenants. I. Lewis Libby, a former Wolfowitz aide, is Cheney’s chief of staff. Eric Edelman, a former Wolfowitz colleague, will be Libby’s right-hand man. William Schneider, a former Reagan official, is working on Defense transition issues and reportedly can have whatever top job he wants. Zalmay Khalilzad, with a long record of trying to get the United States to support insurgencies against rulers in Bosnia and Iraq, is also said to be in line for a top Pentagon job.


Lawrence Kaplan counts National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice as a generally noninterventionist thinker who, as he puts it, "though not quite as rigid as Powell, nonetheless tends toward a crabbed view of America’s global role." (Don’t you just love the insistence on strictly descriptive terms rather than emotive ones?) Condoleezza’s deputy, Stephen Hadley, who resisted the Bosnian intervention and criticized the Clinton administration for "being too quick to reach out to the military instrument," is counted on the side of those who will not be – well, too quick to reach out to the military instrument.

Kaplan notes that having Powell as Secretary of State and Rumsfeld as Secretary of defense makes for something of a role reversal. Since Vietnam, by and large, it has been the State Department that has been for intervention and the Pentagon that has urged caution. (As a defense intellectual rather than someone with experience as cannon fodder, Kaplan is on the side of the mighty interventionists and can’t seem to understand why those military people are such wusses. Don’t you love my own insistence on non-emotive descriptions?)


But as far as Kaplan can see – and he may be indulging in wishful thinking – the Cheney-Rumsfeld boys will roll over Powell and Rice like Hitler through Czechoslovakia. On foreign affairs Dick Cheney is likely to run the White House inasmuch as Dubya himself has little interest in foreign policy, and that will more than trump the fact that Bush feels personally close to and comfortable with Condoleezza Rice and trusts her judgment. Powell has stacked the State Department with people loyal to him and with experienced career civil servants rather than political types. But in policy battles, Kaplan claims, the political types win and the civil servants go along.

"As for Rice," claims Kaplan, "her stature shrinks by the day." Talking about pulling out of the Balkans during the campaign, he thinks, was a blunder of major proportions that simply freaked out the Europeans. I’m not so sure it was a blunder, and it’s worth noting that Ms. Rice was appointed after that flap, so maybe Dubya doesn’t see it as a blunder to the extent Kaplan does.

Kaplan does claim that whereas Powell and Rice should be allies against the mighty bureaucratic heft of the Cheney-Rumsfeld interventionist on-the-side-of-history types, Powell views Condoleezza Rice less as an ally than as a competitor, having taken the job with the understanding that she wouldn’t get in his way. Kaplan quotes an unnamed Rumsfeld ally with obvious relish: "She’s going to be crushed. It’s as simple as that."


For those who hope for a foreign policy that is at least a little less imperialist, a little less casual in its commitment of American prestige and treasure to conflicts of dubious relevance to American national interest (whatever that is), all this could be pretty grim news. The idea that the best hope for common sense is Colin Powell, who hasn’t exactly been a profile in courage and might even be described as something of a careerist and an opportunist who doesn’t like taking risks that might besmirch his precious image is not exactly reassuring. And the notion that this experienced bureaucratic infighter is being outmaneuvered in the bureaucratic infighting to boot is not the best of news.

On the other hand, Dubya has so far created the impression that he is more his own man than almost any observer believed he would be. On domestic policy (understanding that it’s early and first impressions are often wrong) there seems to be little question that he is more in charge than most had expected that he would be. Perhaps the buck will really stop with him, and the fact that he feels a special closeness to Condie Rice will give her more influence that Lawrence Kaplan would like her to have. And although the Pentagon and the Treasury Department have had an increasingly influential role in foreign affairs of late, there’s little question that Colin Powell will run the State Department – and the State Department is still the major locus of policy decision on international matters in the U.S. government.


I talk to a lot of people, but I haven’t lived and worked in Washington for more than 20 years, so I’m sure there are subtleties of which I can’t be aware. I can claim no particular insight into the personalities involved beyond having spent a couple of hours talking policy with Condoleezza Rice, back when she was still Provost of Stanford but had already announced that she was leaving to join the Bush campaign. She was thoughtful, informed and eminently likable.

She listened politely and apparently with respect when I laid out the concerns I had about an expansive global role for the US government. I remember wondering at the time – having had experience with people coming into editorial board meetings and trying to convince you they were really almost allies – whether she was shining me on. But she has since stayed with the position she outlined at the time – that the United States is and should be a global power, but that it should understand that its major interests lie in Europe, the Middle East and to some extent in Asia, and that involvement in the affairs of other countries should be based on a cold-blooded assessment of national interest rather than an inchoate desire to do good.

The misgivings about "humanitarian" interventions and "nation-building" commitments, about running around bragging that we are the "indispensable nation" and imagining that we have a unique ability to solve problems because we’re the great and powerful Oz, about confusing the ability to lob bombs with the ability to solve problems that she expressed when she talked to me have not disappeared. She has continued to express them even in the face of ridicule from the likes of Lawrence Kaplan and other world-savers. She may not be much of a bureaucratic infighter, but she has been reasonably intellectual consistent – not that that’s likely to be much of an advantage in Washington.


It may just be possible, then, that the Lawrence Kaplans of this world are indulging in wishful thinking (or using apparent analysis to influence the balance of forces in their intellectual favor) when they predict that the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz axis will roll over the ineffectual pacifist Powell-Rice wing. If Dubya turns out to be more his own man than most observers had expected – which I have to confess I view as possible – and he views Rice and Powell with respect, his very inexperience might cause him to incline toward caution when it comes to future interventions.

Colin Powell hardly inspired great confidence when he said, on the eve of the Israeli elections, that developments in that region will be a top priority for the Bush administration. Now he might have been simply mouthing the proper pieties even as he privately believes that if anything the region has suffered in the last year more from an excess of American attention than from neglect. But if he really believes that he could have found a way to avoid mouthing the pieties in those terms.

Kaplan thinks the major policy disputes will come over the Balkans, Iraq and China, where the Cheney-Rumsfeld side is inclined to opt for involvement and action while the Powell-Rice side urges caution and maybe pullback. But events almost always surprise the prognosticators. The first real test that helps us to descry the shape of the Bush foreign policy could come in response to a crisis elsewhere – perhaps in the Middle East if the ascent of Ariel Sharon leads to Palestinians and Arabs escalating action to the level of their rhetoric.

So it’s well to be aware of analyses by such as Kaplan of the way bureaucratic forces are arrayed in Washington. But it’s still a bit early to predict just how the Bush foreign policy is likely to play out in practice.

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