Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

June 6, 2001

Reassuring Nobody?

The Bush administration is putting out all sorts of statements that are presumably supposed to be reassuring. I just wonder who is supposed to be reassured by some of these statements.

For example, in domestic affairs, the Bushies want to reassure us that they are firmly committed to leaving no child behind and the evidence is that while they are increasing the overall budget by 4 percent they are increasing education spending at the federal level by 11 percent. To a lot of people who voted for George W. Bush and think that too much federal involvement and control is the chief problem with government education these days this is far from reasssuring.

Insofar as it is not accompanied by any particular evidence that the Bushies are intent on reforming the way federal education aid is done – or even have a notion that some changes might be desirable – the news might even be viewed as alarming. If the Bush administration is planning to propagandize the same way the Clinton administration did – equating spending levels (or proposed spending levels in Clinton’s case) with genuine commitment to an issue – those few who hoped for something resembling substantive change from this administration are bound to be disappointed.


On the international front, Secretary of State Colin Powell on the Sunday chat circuit offered a statement that was presumably meant to be reassuring in response to the latest tragedy from the Middle East.  Incidentally, there’s a phrase veteran journalists will recognize as an “evergreen” or always appropriate. There will always be a latest tragedy from the Middle East.

Back to Secretary Powell. “We have been actively involved from day one of the Bush administration, just not quite in the way President Clinton and his team have been involved.”

Well. I can understand a desire to create some distance between a Bush administration and the Clinton team. After all, even establishment analysts have entertained the likelihood that Clinton’s hyperactive efforts last summer to create a legacy in the Middle East might well have been a contributing factor in the violence that has ripped to shreds any confidence Israelis and Palestinians might have had in one another.

What is difficult for me to understand is how an assertion of active involvement by the United States would be reassuring to anybody outside the Washington Beltway. In some ways such a comment might be reassuring only to that smaller circle of essential establishmentarians inside the Beltway who actually care much one way or another about international affairs.


Regis Philbin might not have a hard time finding people who want to be a millionaire, but it’s my observation that outside the fairly small circle of those professionally involved in international relations hardly any American wants to be an imperialist. While most Americans will allow themselves to be manipulated into hating somebody like Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic for a while, they really have little desire to run the countries where those dictators hold sway.

So an assurance from Colin Powell that the United States has really been actively involved in the Middle East – which seems to contradict early press reports that the Bush administration was determined not to get sucked into being the essential and necessary element in any move toward peace in the Middle East – does not qualify asnews to make one deliriously happy. The early reports even suggested strongly that Colin Powell himself was one of those with no desire for a particularly active role in the conflict there.

So the news  assuming it’s true – which might not be a safe assumption – that the Bushies have been at Middle East diplomacy from Day One is to me much more alarming than reassuring.


Over the last several months political violence, kidnappings and killings have beset the Philippines, a country the United States used to control directly and with which it still has numerous ties of trade, friendship, memory and immigration. Neither Mr. Powell nor anybody in the administration has felt constrained to reassure Americans that the government is actively involved in that conflict. We mourn and we hope for the best, but we don’t pretend that only the U.S. government holds the key to an end of violence.

To be sure, there are ties to Israel and to other countries in the Middle East that are more than mere sentiment. But the notion that active U.S.  involvement in the increasingly violent and apparently intractable conflicts of the region is utterly essential is difficult to explain.

Nevertheless, one might have made a stronger case when the Soviet Union was a clear and present menace and used the Middle East as a staging ground in geostrategic struggles. But that struggle is no longer part of the equation. And recent events provide fairly solid evidence that the power of the United States to get the parties to sit down and speak sweet reason one to another is extremely limited. In fact, too much U.S.  involvement is almost certainly counter-productive.


It might sound cold or standoffish to suggest that the deep-seated disputes, resentments and mutually exclusive memories can only be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians, that it is not the role of the United States to fix things, whether through conspicuous diplomacy or behind-the-scenes maneuvering. But the inescapable fact is that the United States has not been able to impose peace despite fairly constant involvement for decades.

If realpolitik is the application of hard-nosed realism rather than sentimental blather to international affairs, recognition of the limited ability of the United States, even if it is the sole remaining superpower and the indispensable nation, to fix long-standing problems in other countries ought to be the first lesson of realism.

Instead, those who suggest a more modest perspective, a more modest agenda, a less activist posture toward the rest of the world are often accused of not being realistic, of not understanding the solemn responsibilities that come with superpower status.


The suicide bombing that targeted teen-agers in a disco in Tel Aviv, followed by gun battles that broke a cease-fire on Monday, suggest that the so-called leaders on both sides exert limited control at best over events. I have no idea, from personal knowledge, whether Yasser Arafat is clandestinely urging on and encouraging violence, as many Israeli supporters insist, or if he simply doesn’t have much control even over his own supposed Palestinian Authority. But I suspect that the latter is an important factor. 

As we weep and wonder why such violence seems inevitable, it would be healthy for U.S. leaders to consider that if Arafat and Sharon can’t hope to control every aspect of the conflict, how much more limited is American ability to control events. That recognition should lead to reluctance to become more involved and eventually to statements more sincerely in line with the kind of cautious disengagement Mr. Powell seemed to be advocating when he first assumed office.


If I thought the U.S. government was really reluctant to play an activist role in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and was resolved not just to speak but to act with appropriate modesty, I would be reassured. I suspect most Americans would be reassured.

But it seems rather obvious that Colin Powell is not all that interested in reassuring me or thee. It seems more likely that his real target for reassurance is the cadre of interventionists, media and interest groups that have always had much more influence on foreign policy than the mere people in this purported democracy.

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