The Right Men, the Wrong President

For most of the second part of the 20th Century, representatives of foreign governments had grown accustomed to dealing with a certain type of US official. Ask a Russian diplomat, a Japanese bureaucrat or a French intelligence officer, and they will probably describe the American Assistant Secretary of State, a Treasury official, or a CIA agent the following way: “He was a very tough-minded negotiator who paid attention to details and knew how to stand his ground. But he was also very clear-headed, non-ideological and pragmatic. We could do business with him and we were confident that he’ll be able to deliver on his commitments.”

The above is more than just a description of what social scientists call an “ideal type.” I’ve heard it from foreign officials who had negotiated with US Cabinet secretaries in the past. And in fact, if you just consider two prominent US public figures who have been in the news lately – former Secretary of State James Baker and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson – you would probably use very similar terms to describe them.

Mr. Baker, who was one of the leading architects of the 1991 Gulf War and the ensuing Madrid Peace Conference, has co-chaired the Iraq Study Group (ISG) which recommended, among other things, that the Bush Administration engage Iran (and Syria) as part of an effort to stabilize Iraq and the Middle East.

Mr. Paulson, who joined the Bush Administration after spending his career as a successful investment banker on Wall Street, has just returned from Beijing where he tried to persuade the Chinese, among other things, to let their currency, the yuan, to rise further and faster.

Mr. Baker and Mr. Paulson remind me of their predecessors in State, the Pentagon or Treasury – Henry Kissinger, Robert Rubin, Dean Acheson, and George Marshall come to mind. They were all astute statesmen who helped maintain and strengthen US geo-strategic and geo-economic position.

Committed to what diplomatic historian Walter Russell Mead described as the “Hamiltonian” approach to foreign policy (named after former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton), which is based on a realistic promotion of US national security and economic interests, they sometimes may have used tough rhetoric in their dealing with other governments but they always refrain from transforming US policies in global ideological crusades.

And much of their success lay in their skills as negotiators – it’s not surprising that many of these and other successful US officials were lawyers and business executives – whose main goal was to reach agreements with partners and foes alike that would make it less likely that the US would be forced to use military power or economic sanctions as a way of resolving international crises.

And that is exactly what Mr. Paulson with his trip to China and Mr. Baker with his ISG have tried and failed to do. Mr. Paulson, who led a team of American heavyweights (including the Fed chairman) to meet top officials in Beijing, had hoped that a successful outcome of the talks would create a positive political momentum in Washington to help contain the pressure from protectionists on Capitol Hill who want to “punish” China for keeping its currency artificially low against the US dollar which, they argue, is responsible for the huge US deficit.

According to reports from Beijing and Washington, the talks ended with only minor progress: commitment to continue the economic dialogue with Beijing on resolving differences over trade and investment issues, like regulatory transparency and trade in services. There wasn’t any dramatic “breakthrough” that could demonstrate to the economic warriors on Capitol Hill that “something” will be done to bring down the widening deficit with China.

Ironically, Mr. Paulson’s mission may have raised too much expectation in Washington for Chinese action on the yuan that was clearly not going to be fulfilled and thus expected to create the kind of political momentum that the administration wanted to avoid: rising pressure on Capitol Hill to impose tariffs or other sanctions on China.

Mr. Baker and his group of 10 Wise Men had expected that their 79 recommendations would be embraced by President George W Bush and his aides and help erode the power of the neoconservative ideologues in Washington, and create the conditions for extricating most of US combat forces from the military quagmire in Iraq and eventually for a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East to the conflicts in the Persian Gulf, Lebanon and Syria.

If Mr. Paulson and his Team America attempted to launch a preemptive strike against the China Bashers in Washington, Mr. Baker and the ISG were leading a countercoup aimed at ousting the neocons from their positions of influence in the US Capital.

The signals coming out from the White House indicate that President Bush and his aides are not going to adopt the proposals contained in the ISG report. If anything, it seems that Mr. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials have rejected the idea of engaging Iran and Syria, and are planning to increase the number of US troops in Iraq, hang tough when it comes to Teheran and Damascus, and continue advancing the Crusade for Democracy in the Middle East. There are also no signs that the Democrats in Congress are going to support the reports prepared by Mr. Baker and his colleagues.

So why do natural winners like Mr. Baker and Mr. Paulson end up looking now like losers, if not whiners? The fault is not in our two stars – but in their boss in the White House. Mr. Bush remains committed to a global strategy that continues to see the US as a hegemon in the Middle East and East Asia in which other regional and global actors, like China or Iran, need to be contained and constrained.

If America faces counter-pressures around the world, it only needs to cut its losses, buy some time and wait for an opportunity to push “forward.” Under such conditions, negotiations with some players – like Iran (or North Korea) – are seen as counterproductive. Negotiations with other players like China become ad-hoc, since American refusal to recognize China as a strategic equal and partner would leave the Chinese with no incentive to make major concessions involving its core national security and economic interests (like the value of the yuan).

Moreover, whereas Mr. Baker and Mr. Paulson are both “Hamiltonian” in their basic global policy orientation with its emphasis on making the world safe for Corporate America which was shared by both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice still seem to be advancing a “Wilsonian” foreign policy approach with its emphasis on a futile ideological crusade of making the world safe for democracy.

Mr. Baker and Mr. Paulson may be the right people at the right time to try resolving major US global problems. Too bad that the wrong president is at the wrong time in the White House.

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.