It was just nine months ago when Newsweek
spoke for the conventional wisdom at that moment when it pronounced "The
End of Cowboy Diplomacy."
The phrase signaled the apparent victory – at last – of the State Department-led
"realist" wing over hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Pentagon
chief Donald Rumsfeld in gaining control over the foreign policy of President
George W. Bush.
One month later, however, war broke out between Lebanon's Hezbollah and Israel,
and the hawks, particularly neoconservatives around Cheney and Rumsfeld, enjoyed
a strong resurgence.
Bush not only spurned the pleas of Washington's European and Arab allies to
press the Jewish state for a cease-fire, but his top Middle East aide, Elliott
Abrams, reportedly encouraged it to expand the war into Syria, much to the horror
of both his State Department colleagues and his Israeli interlocutors.
Now, one Democratic election landslide later – not to mention Rumsfeld's departure,
and the longest-running record of sustained low public approval ratings for
any U.S. president in more than 50 years – conventional wisdom has again concluded
that the realists have finally taken the reins of power.
That such an assessment coincided with Tuesday's felony conviction by a jury
of Cheney's former chief of staff and the most powerful neoconservative in Bush's
first term, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for lying to federal investigators
was probably not entirely coincidental given the "cloud," as chief
prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald described it, that it cast once again over the
vice president's office.
That the case – which, at its heart, involved the lengths to which Cheney's
office and the White House went to discredit critics who charged that the administration's
hawks had manipulated intelligence to rally the country behind the 2003 Iraq
invasion – seems likely to soon become the subject of congressional hearings
will almost certainly deepen that cloud.
Even before Libby's conviction, however, the notion that the realists had finally
triumphed was growing here.
"Diplomacy Could Define End of Bush's Terms: Pragmatism Colors Policy,
Experts Say," headlined a story last week in USA Today, while on
the same day, the New York Times ran an analysis titled "Pragmatism
in Diplomacy" about recent moves by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
to engage North Korea, Iran, and Syria.
"White House Foreign Policy Has Shifted," noted a front-page Los
Angeles Times article this week which asserted that recent moves reflect
"the ascendancy of Rice and her State Department team over hawks once led
by [Cheney and Rumsfeld]."
"Bush Shows New Willingness to Reverse Course" ran another headline
earlier this week in the Washington Post, while one of the newspaper's
columnists, David Ignatius, argued that Bush has apparently embraced the recommendations
of the bipartisan, realist-led Iraq Study Group (ISG) in a piece titled "After
the Rock, Diplomacy." In another column titled "What Has Happened
to Dick Cheney," Jim Hoagland suggested that the vice president has been
effectively marginalized by Rice, who "has won full agreement and support
from the president on strategic goals and methods she and her diplomats are
While Hoagland himself indicated that view remains to be confirmed by events,
the evidence that power has indeed shifted to the realists has become increasingly
persuasive in just the last month, if only because the hawks, such as Cheney
favorite and former UN Ambassador John Bolton and his colleagues at the American
Enterprise Institute (AEI), are expressing growing distress at the changing
balance of power.
The most dramatic sign of the realist ascendancy to date was last month's accord
between North Korea and the U.S. by which Washington agreed to begin normalizing
relations and resume the supply of fuel oil in exchange for Pyongyang's shutdown
of its plutonium processing plant and the return of international inspectors.
The deal, which resembles a 1994 bilateral accord repudiated by Bush early
in his term – albeit within the framework of a regional agreement involving
South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia – marked a sharp reversal of the
administration's stance. It was cleared by Bush after a direct appeal from Rice,
who reportedly circumvented the normal interagency process.
At the same time, the State Department's tacit support for Saudi Arabia's efforts
to midwife a Palestinian government of national unity last month in Mecca –
a deal that infuriated the hawks and Abrams, in particular – has been seen
by some analysts here as demonstrating a new flexibility that would have been
inconceivable just a few months ago.
But what has gotten the most attention to date was Rice's announcement at the
end of last month that Washington will participate in at least two regional
meetings convened by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,
which will also include Syria and Iran. The first takes place this weekend in
Baghdad, and the second, in which Rice herself will take part, early next month
either in Istanbul or Cairo.
Her announcement confirmed the growing impression that Rice was indeed trying
move the administration toward implementation of the recommendations of the
ISG, which was chaired by former secretary of state and neoconservative nemesis
James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton. The group called explicitly for Washington
to engage Tehran and Damascus as part of a larger regional strategy that also
include a renewed commitment to a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Rice's announcement came while Cheney was out of the country. Significantly,
White House spokesman Tony Snow insisted on the day after his return that U.S.
participation did not did not constitute any change of policy and that, in any
event, "there will not be bilateral talks between the United States and
Iran, or the United States and Syria, within the context of these meetings."
But in another demonstration of the State Department's confidence, its spokesmen
have been less categorical. While insisting that U.S. officials participating
in the meetings will be focused on the main issue – stabilizing Iraq –
they have also repeatedly refused to rule out talking directly with their Syrian
and Iranian counterparts about "related" issues.
Moreover, the presence at these meetings of senior diplomats from the other
four permanent members of the UN Security Council – to be augmented by
the Group of Eight foreign ministers in the second round – increases the
likelihood of broader discussions of the kind advocated by the ISG.
Meanwhile, realists have made other gains, beginning with the replacement of
Rumsfeld by Robert Gates, who, until his nomination as defense secretary last
November, served on the ISG and is believed to share its conclusions.
Gates and Rice – and for that matter, the new directors of National Intelligence
and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Adm. John McConnell and Gen. Michael
Hayden, respectively – served on the National Security Council together
under former President George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser, Gen.
Brent Scowcroft, who, even more than Baker, is considered anathema by the neoconservatives,
particularly with respect to Middle East policy.
It has been Gates who, in contrast to Cheney's persistent mutterings that "all
options are on the table," has been most insistent in recent weeks that
Washington has no plans to attack Iran despite its big military buildup in the
Gulf. In taking this stance, Gates is reportedly reflecting the views of the
military brass, who, freed from Rumsfeld's bullying and contempt, have reportedly
become far more outspoken in internal discussions about their opposition to
any new military actions so long as U.S. forces remain bogged down in Iraq.
A report in the National Journal Friday that Gates is also moving to
curb the ability of U.S. Special Forces to conduct covert operations in foreign
countries, such as Iran, without congressional oversight or CIA direction and
to "dismantle" some of the intelligence programs that helped pave
the way to war in Iraq suggests that he is taking independent action to roll
back some of Rumsfeld's most controversial innovations.
"Bob Gates is about to shut down a significant chunk of Vice President
Cheney's intelligence eyes and ears – and to some degree, an inappropriate
ability to help drive covert actions," according to Steven Clemons, director
of the American Strategy program at the New America Foundation (NAF) here.
But while the realists are clearly ascendant, they are not yet dominant, particularly
with respect to Middle East policy where they remain hostage to events in Iraq,
Iran, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and the occupied territories – and to potential
provocateurs – that in many ways are increasingly beyond their control.
Cheney, whose office remains a neoconservative stronghold, retains considerable
influence, particularly in its coordination with like-minded colleagues in the
White House on the National Security Council staff, notably Abrams and others
in the Middle East bureau, and deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch.
And a big question lingers over Rice's own willingness to take risks in pursuing
the realist agenda, and the ISG recommendations, in particular. Some observers
note that she has been very careful to permit other actors – Saudi Arabia and
the Europeans in the case of both the Palestinians and Syria, the Iraqi government
in the case of Iran – to take the diplomatic lead, leaving her less vulnerable
to attacks by the hawks.
"She understands that she has a very short leash," said Joshua Landis,
a Levant expert at Oklahoma University. "She knows she can't get too far
off the reservation."
Thus, while she replaced a neoconservative hawk, Robert Joseph, with a realist
in the key position of undersecretary of state for arms control and international
security, she also appointed Eliot Cohen, a dyed-in-the-wool neoconservative
who is considered close to both Abrams and Cheney, to a top advisory post, State
Department counselor. "It's always two steps forward, one step back with
her," said one observer.
An even bigger question looms over Bush himself. While he has clearly given
Rice a lot more room to maneuver than her predecessor Colin Powell could ever
have imagined, particularly with respect to North Korea, his own views, especially
on the Middle East, remain a subject of unceasing speculation among the capital's
cognoscenti, hawks and realists alike.
Just last week, for example, he hosted a "literary luncheon" in honor
of Andrew Roberts, author of History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since
1900. In a recent interview, Roberts called on Bush to fight in Iraq and
Afghanistan "for as long as it takes to achieve complete and final victory
over Radical Islam … [and] not be afraid of threatening to widen the struggle
to include foreign countries that aid and abet the insurgents [there]."
Other guests in attendance included some of the country's most hawkish neoconservatives,
such as Norman Podhoretz; Paul Gigot, the editor of the Wall Street Journal's
editorial page; and AEI fellow Michael Novak.
"Roberts said that history would judge the president on whether he had
prevented the nuclearization of the Middle East," wrote Irwin Stelzer,
another prominent neoconservative, in the Weekly Standard.
As noted by the Financial Times in an article entitled "Four Years
of Turmoil Put Pragmatists in Driving Seat" this week, the Eurasia Group,
a consultancy firm, has advised its clients that it rates the chances of a U.S.
and/or Israeli military attack on Iran before September 2008 at 60 percent.
(Inter Press Service)