December 22, 2000

Powell and Rice: Closet Warmongers

As was to be expected, the "neo-conservatives" are already up in arms over Dubya's foreign policy team. It lacks a crusading spirit, they cry, the vision of America as a beacon unto other nations, of being the shining city on a hill. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are accused of believing in the old-fashioned doctrine of Realpolitik. Allegedly all they care about is America's "national interest." They have no time for American "values" like human rights, democracy and "humanitarian intervention." Doubtless, it is only a matter of time before some Robert Kagan-type informs us that Powell and Rice are, well, "isolationist." As usual, "neo-conservative" analysis is based more on hysteria than rational thought. Powell and Rice are as mainstream as they come. To describe them as "realists" serves only to flatter them. Moreover, it helps stifle potential Republicans criticism. If liberals hate them that much they must be doing something right!

First out to bat was the unfailingly uninspiring Jacob Heilbrunn. In a Wall Street Journal article entitled drearily enough "Win Another One for the Gipper," Heilbrunn declares: "If Mr. Bush relies exclusively on his father's old team to staff his administration, he risks ignoring a more important presidential legacy – Ronald Reagan's." Reagan's legacy, Heilbrunn reveals, is for the United States to go around the world bullying other countries into following Washington's diktats. Heilbrunn calls such interference in other countries' internal affairs "promoting democracy." Bush Sr.'s advisers, according to Heilbrunn, were very uncomfortable about "Reagan's exuberant belief in democracy and capitalism. Caution was their watchword. In a sea of 'new world disorder', they clung to the melting glacier of geopolitical realism." Imagine, splutters an indignant Heilbrunn, the "Gulf War was seen as a justifiable war only to ensure that Saddam Hussein did not gain control over oil in the region. Moral arguments for toppling Saddam cut no ice." The very idea! Looking after your own interests rather than worrying about "democracy" in a corner of the world you do not know the first thing about. Even that gives the Heilbrunns of this world too much credit. They have no interest in "democracy," only in the establishment of "pro-American," or rather "pro-Israeli," regimes.

Bizarrely Heilbrunn then goes on to argue that the "Bush administration refused to intervene in the Balkans. James Baker's only response was that Yugoslavia should remain a single entity with Slobodan Milosevic in charge." Really? This is the usual back-to-front "neo-conservative" history. It was the Bush Administration that precipitated the war in Bosnia by its early recognition of the "independence" of Croatia and Slovenia, and, most important, by its sabotage of the 1992 Lisbon accord between the Bosnian Serbs, Moslems and Croats. Here is how Susan L. Woodward describes it in her scarcely pro-Serb book Balkan Tragedy: "By March 18, the three party delegations, meeting at Lisbon, had agreed on and signed a document outlining the political principles of a republic composed of three constituent nations, each with the right to self-determination, and of the regional cantonization of its territory….At the same time, apparently influenced by the appeals for recognition from Izetbegovic's foreign minister, Haris Silajdzic, Secretary of State Baker was intensifying his pressure on the European capitals. A week after the signing of the Lisbon accord, Izetbegovic reversed his position….On April 6, at the NATO meeting in Brussels….Baker succeeded, persuading his Western allies to recognize Bosnia-Herzegovina as a sovereign state." And thus began the terrible carnage, in which the United States egged on the Moslems and blamed everything on the Serbs. The "neo-conservatives" shrieked for more US intervention, even as the evidence mounted that it was US intervention that caused the mayhem in the first place.

Heilbrunn concludes predictably enough: "Mr. Bush should listen to Reaganite advisers such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle as well. Mr. Wolfowitz has always been skeptical of engagement with China, and he has been a staunch proponent of defending Taiwan. He has argued for bombing the Serbs and wants to step up military pressure against Saddam, including aiding the Iraqi opposition. Other neoconservatives Mr. Bush might consider naming to posts include the Carnegie Endowment's Robert Kagan….But don't count on it. The word is that Mr. Wolfowitz may be shunted aside to director of the Central Intelligence Agency rather than be offered a major cabinet post like Defense." To the rest of the world the idea of Wolfowitz as head of the CIA cooking the intelligence reports is the stuff of nightmares. To "neo-conservatives," however, any limit on his ability to get the United States involved in some war or other is immediately interpreted as defeat.

The silliest "neo-conservative" onslaught by far appeared in Slate. Its author was Robert Wright, a reliable advocate of the divine right of liberal elites to rule. According to Condoleezza Rice, he writes, the "struggle for the soul of American foreign policy is between austere realists, who keep their steely gaze on the national interest, and weak-kneed, mush-minded liberals, who get lost in humanitarian concerns and an obsession with multilateral cooperation." But, Wright cries with the barely controlled excitement of one who believes no one before him had ever made this observation, "national interest" and "humanitarian concerns" are by no means mutually exclusive. To the contrary, it is in America's interest to be humanitarian. "Some people – me, for example – believe that, more and more, it is in America's national interest to address certain humanitarian issues abroad. For example: If we help resolve some obscure overseas political grievance before it has time to fester into terrorism (terrorism featuring, say, biological weapons) isn't that in America's interests?" Worse even than Wright's solecism – "me, for example" is ungrammatical – is his reductio ad aburdum way of arguing. If every grievance in the world could eventually degenerate into "terrorism" and "biological weapons," then indeed the United States must intrude into every single dispute, no matter how obscure the cause or the geographic location. Moreover, we should even extend this principle into our daily lives. You see that husband and wife quarreling over there? The prudent thing would be not to interfere. But how can we be sure that the man will not one day murder his spouse? Or that she will not one day, out of distress, crash the car killing herself and her children? A busybody principle would license everyone snooping into everyone else's affairs. Hence the fraudulence of Wright's argument: He will only permit the United States – so long as it is run by New Democrats like himself of course – to sort out other people's conflicts. Wright would not for one moment permit other countries to investigate the nature and consequences of, say, the United States' unconditional support for Israel.

Furthermore, Wright goes on, it is also in America's interest to cooperate with allies, a notion apparently beyond the grasp of Rice: "We need the cooperation of other nations on more and more issues-fighting terrorism, solving environmental problems, fighting drug running and other transnational crimes, isolating Saddam Hussein and other creeps – so doing things that alienate 'the international community' carries an increasingly high cost." This, of course, is the typical disingenuous nonsense we get from the liberal interventionist brigade. Wright knows perfectly well that on almost all of the issues he lists, the United States has for years pursued policies that most of the rest of the world finds profoundly objectionable. For example, other than our faithful pup Great Britain, ever member of the UN Security Council wants to end sanctions against Iraq. As for "terrorism," most countries blame it on the United States for its unrelentingly pro-Israeli involvement in the Middle East. Most countries are also outraged at US policy on "drug running." They believe that the drug trade is being driven by insatiable American demand. Fighting the "drug lords" merely provides the United States with a pretext to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries.

So what is this agonizing about? Powell and Rice are nothing if not trite and conventional in their views. Neither has ever ventured to question any of the last decade's shibboleths. In the pronouncements following his nomination Powell parroted every cliché under the sun. There was no indication he was prepared to reevaluate anything. On Iraq: "We will work with our allies to re-energize the sanctions regime…. We're doing this to protect the peoples of the region, the children of the region, who would be the targets of these weapons of mass destruction if we did not contain them and eliminate them." That Saddam Hussein is still in power more than ten years after the imposition of sanctions gives rise to no fresh thoughts. That it has caused immeasurable suffering to people who had nothing whatsoever to do with the building weapons of mass destruction is a matter scarcely even worthy of reflection.

As for Condoleezza Rice, she sounds as if she were a permanent fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In her Foreign Affairs article earlier this year she made a great show of opposing the Clinton Administration's policy of "nation-building," without ever quite specifying what exactly she meant by that. But she raised no objections to any of Clinton's interventions. She had no problems about bombing Serbia. Kosovo, she explains, "was in the backyard of America's most important strategic alliance: NATO…. Slobodan Milosevic's rejection of peaceful coexistence with the Kosovar Albanians threatened to rock the area's fragile ethnic balance…the United States had an overriding strategic interest in stopping him." Bombing an ancient European country was not only the humane thing to do it served America's "national interest." Rice's position does not seem in the slightest different from that of Robert Wright. He prefers to talk of humanitarianism, she of national interest. It is a measure of the absence of any genuine debate about US foreign policy that its limits are circumscribed by the views of Condoleezza Rice on the one hand and Robert Wright on the other.

Rice's objection to Clinton's foreign policy amounts to nothing more than anxiety that we may not have enough forces at hand to bomb into submission whoever needs to be bombed into submission. It is "unwise," she writes, "to multiply missions in the face of continuing budget reduction." Under a Bush Administration, she exults, "military readiness will…take center stage…new weapons will have to be procured in order to give the military the capacity to carry out today's missions." Well, that's a relief. In other words, there is nothing wrong with "today's missions" that few hundred extra billion dollars cannot improve.

On every issue Rice and the Hideous Harridan are indistinguishable. Rice is a wholehearted supporter of NATO expansion: "The door to NATO for the remaining states of eastern and central Europe should remain open." Rice frets about the supposed rise of Russia: "Moscow is determined to assert itself in the world and often does so in ways that are at once haphazard and threatening to America's interests." What exactly does "threatening to America's interests" mean? Given how foreign policy establishment types like Rice define their terms, it must mean any policy pursued by Russia's leaders that does not lead to their country's subordination to the United States. Rice hates the Europeans developing their own armed forces as much as Albright does: "The United States has an interest in shaping the European defense identity – welcoming a greater European military capability as long as it is within the context of NATO." Tiresomely enough, Rice is also troubled by China: It is "a potential threat to stability to in the Asia-Pacific region….China will do what it can to enhance its position, whether by stealing nuclear secrets or by trying to intimidate Taiwan." Note the weasly words of the professional foreign policy functionary: "a potential threat to stability." A bad case of the common cold could be a "potential threat to stability." Besides it is hard to think of a "potential threat to stability" more potent than United States support for Taiwan independence.

So why the "neo-conservative" hysteria about Powell and Rice? It is an ominous early indication of the enormous pressure they are ready to exert on the Bush Administration to ensure that the United States continues to exercise its global hegemony.

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Text-only printable version of this article

George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Friday.

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