Realism Is Back in Washington? Don’t Hold Your Breath

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by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

Some American pundits are suggesting that a major transformation has been taking place in the direction of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy.

"The Bush Doctrine has collapsed, and the administration has consequently embraced realism," Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine argued in a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times.

Rose and other observers are suggesting that recent personnel changes in the State Department and the Pentagon have supposedly eroded the influence of the neoconservative ideologues who have been the driving force behind the American military adventure in Iraq and the democratic crusade in the Middle East. According to their view, there are more realist types now in charge at the State Department and the Pentagon who are eager to apply the traditional mechanism of diplomacy to resolve Washington’s dilemmas abroad.

It seems to me that this latest conventional wisdom reflects nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, and in particular former officials affiliated with the Realpolitik-oriented administration of President George Bush the First.

After all, we have heard the Realists-are-Back news-break quite a few times during the first term of President George Bush the Second. Just recall how the same pundits who are now celebrating the alleged pragmatism of the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her advisers had expressed their confidence that former Secretary of State Colin Powell would force the Bush Administration to resolve the crisis with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein through the United Nations (UN).

We now know that Powell and the other "realists" in the State Department were nothing more than pawns employed by President Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as part of a sophisticated disinformation spin campaign that targeted the American public, Congress and the international community.

Pragmatic face

The strategy applied by those who were really pulling the levers of power in the Bush Administration – as opposed to those who were delivering speeches at the UN – was to display to Americans and the world the pragmatic face of Powell and Company, while at the same time, the Cheney-Rumsfeld team was preparing to use US military power to oust Saddam Hussein and remake Iraq and the Middle East.

To suggest, as Rose did in his New York Times piece, that the administration’s policy is going to take a turn to realism because "first-term hard-liners" like Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and John Bolton "have moved to jobs outside of Washington or left the administration entirely" is quite misleading.

It’s true that Wolfowitz, the architect of war in Mesopotamia decided to jump from the sinking Iraq War ship to get a cushy and lucrative job as the president of the World Bank, following at the footsteps of secretary of defense Robert McNamara, the architect of the war in Southeast Asia, who had jumped from the sinking Vietnam War ship in 1967 to become the president of the World Bank.

But US military involvement in Vietnam continued for many more years and so will probably the American occupation of Iraq.

Feith is basically an incompetent Pentagon official who was ridiculed by the military leaders in the Pentagon as well as by lawmakers from both parties. And Bolton? Well, he may be living and working "outside of Washington" most of the time (although he has a large office in the State Department), but he has stepped up into one of the most important foreign policy positions in the administration from which he is expected to lead an aggressive American diplomatic campaign against the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.

And it’s true that the Bush Administration is probably not planning to attack North Korea or invade Iran any time soon. That’s good news. But no one has ever argued that Cheney, Rumsfeld and their neocon advisers were suicidal, which doesn’t mean ipso facto that the Bushies have come realists.

Realism in the case of North Korea and Iran could be demonstrated by a willingness on the part of Washington to engage in direct negotiations with those two regimes and make diplomatic deals recognizing the interests of both Pyongyang and Teheran in diplomatic and economic links with the United States.

But what Cheney and Rumsfeld hope is that the failure of the current talks with those two remaining members of the Axis of Evil would reach a deadlock and would permit Bolton to head an effort in the UN Security Council aimed at isolating and punishing the Iranians and North Koreans.

And while the professionals at the State Department are providing the Bush Administration with the diplomatic cover for a tougher policy towards Teheran and Pyongyang, there is little sign that under Condoleezza Rice and her competent advisers, the United States is attempting to draw the outlines of coherent and, yes, realistic policies towards China, Israel-Palestine, or for that matter, Iraq.

The China "policy" looks more and more like a series of ad-hoc responses to pressures from China bashers in Washington, including the neocon hawks in the Pentagon who continue to promote their "containment" strategy of Beijing, including by using the control of the oil resources in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia as a leverage over the Chinese.

Palestinian issue

On Israel-Palestine, the Bushies are trying to spin the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, a product of domestic Israeli political debate, as a triumph for US diplomacy that supposedly is "doing something" to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And when it comes to Iraq and the broader Middle East, Rice continues to turn to the empty rhetoric of the Freedom Narrative while another Shiite theocracy is being established in Mesopotamia (bye, bye women and minority rights), Baghdad is burning and Iraq is sliding into civil war.

One should remember that in an era of the Imperial Presidency and a Militarized America, it’s the occupant of the White House and his top advisors, and in particular the Defense Secretary, who are determining the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

The pundits may be talking the realistic talk. But the Bush Administration will embrace realism only if and when President Bush and his two most important foreign policy advisers, Cheney and Rumsfeld, decide to start walking the realistic walk. So don’t hold your breath.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of the forthcoming Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan).

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