Two weeks after compromising with its traditional allies on the wording of a key UN Security Council resolution on Iraq, U.S. foreign policy under George W. Bush appears to be moving further toward the more realist policies of his father in other areas as well.
Few pretend to know whether the move is tactical for electoral reasons or strategic, in the sense that it would continue if Bush won reelection. But the notion that the president is indeed trying to soften the harder edges of his foreign policy agenda is now widely accepted.
The latest solid indication of this trend came Wednesday as U.S. negotiators in Beijing outlined for the first time the possible benefits that North Korea would gain in exchange for its commitment to disclose and dismantle nuclear weapons programs.
While the presentation, which came during the opening of three days of multilateral talks involving South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, as well as North Korea, amounted to a repackaging of the administration’s position, it was nonetheless seen as a major victory of State Department realists over right-wing hardliners in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office.
Indeed, the New York Times, whose reporter, David Sanger, had been given a private briefing about the move by none other than Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, the day before, called the presentation "a turning point" in the three-year struggle over Korea policy.
At the Security Council, meanwhile, U.S. envoys sheepishly withdrew a proposed resolution to extend the immunity of U.S. troops and officials serving in UN-authorized peacekeeping operations from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for one more year.
Two years ago, the administration considered a similar resolution so important that it threatened to veto all UN peacekeeping operations if the Council did not approve it, as it subsequently, albeit resentfully, did.
But on Wednesday, the latest version, which had already been watered down from an earlier draft, was quietly taken off the agenda by the deputy ambassador, James Cunningham, who explicitly declined to reaffirm Washington’s threats to retaliate if it did not get its way.
"The United States has decided not to proceed further with consideration and action on the draft at this time in order to avoid a prolonged and divisive debate," Cunningham politely explained.
"This is a victory for international justice and the rule of law," crowed Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International, in a statement that must have caused much gnashing of teeth at the Pentagon and Cheney’s office.
In fact, it was another victory for administration realists who, while not enamored with the ICC by any means, have long argued that the unilateralism of administration hardliners would end with the rest of the world turning against the U.S. in ways that ultimately Washington could ill afford.
While that fear was long derided with contempt by the neoconservatives and right-wing nationalists who dominated the administration’s foreign policy after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, now, with 140,000 U.S. troops bogged down in Iraq and still no clear exit strategy (let alone "victory") in sight, it has become the overriding reality that confronts the White House on a daily basis.
"The Bush administration has gotten America into its worst foreign-policy debacle since the Vietnam War, the kind of crisis that creates a moment when you realize you can’t continue this way," said John Ikenberry, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.
"We are as close to an open rebellion against American leadership in the world as we’ve seen since after World War II", he told IPS. "The costs of a unilateral, hard-line, go-it-alone approach are much greater than those who championed that style have anticipated."
Indeed, the tilt to the realists has been driven by the convergence of Washington’s steadily growing diplomatic isolation and its patent failure to cope by itself, or with its dwindling number of allies, with the situation in Iraq.
In order to begin to redress that situation, the administration was forced to accept a UN resolution that substantially diluted its ability to control Iraq’s future the kind of resolution that would have been dismissed contemptuously by the administration just three months ago but which has long been seen as desirable by the realists in the State Department whose sense of the limits of U.S. power was always far more acute.
The same logic now applies elsewhere, as in the ongoing negotiations in North Korea about which Cheney reportedly said last December in vetoing precisely the kind of repackaging of U.S. proposals that Kelly put forward Wednesday, "We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it."
But the administration’s game plan of isolating North Korea in the six-party talks by insisting that all negotiations, including the discussion of possible gains Pyongyang might expect by co-operating, be preconditioned on its commitment to the "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement" (CVID) of its nuclear arms programs, was ultimately rejected as both unrealistic and counterproductive by Washington’s partners.
The quagmire in Iraq further weakened Washington’s position by reducing the credibility of both its military threats and its intelligence on nuclear weapons programs. Nor did it help that the administration’s increasingly desperate need for troops from Japan and South Korea and for Chinese diplomatic support at the UN gave those three governments far more leverage in negotiations over North Korea than when Bush was celebrating victory in Iraq on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.
Over the last month, unusually frank public statements of impatience from Beijing, Seoul and finally Tokyo with Washington’s refusal to discuss carrots as well as sticks made it clear that Washington had succeeded only in isolating itself, precisely as the State Department had predicted.
Just as Iraq has badly weakened Washington’s military credibility, so the global outrage over the Abu Ghraib prison abuses has weakened its moral and political authority at the UN, making what the White House described as a routine "technical rollover" of the ICC immunity resolution an insurmountable hurdle, especially after Secretary-General Kofi Annan denounced it. To the extent that the administration now relies on him to help bail it out of Iraq, his leverage over Bush has also increased, just as the realists predicted.
The next arena is almost certain to be Iran. There, too, signs of realism have been budding since last December as the administration has both muted its threats to retaliate if Tehran intervenes against U.S. interests in Iraq and moved ever-closer to its European allies in dealing with Teheran’s nuclear program.
Ur-realist Gen. Brent Scowcroft Bush Senior’s national security adviser and mentor to both Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell proposed in the Washington Post Thursday a plan whereby the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and Russia offer to help Iran build and equip nuclear reactors in exchange for verifiable commitments that it will not attempt to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel that can be used in a weapons program.
Scowcroft, who was chewed out privately by Rice for an August, 2002, Wall Street Journal column in which opposed the drive to war in Iraq, has generally been careful since then to publish articles that he has reason to believe would be well received in the White House. One well-placed neoconservative wrote recently that Rice, chastened by her dalliance with the hawks, is now in frequent contact with her former patron.
The proposal the heart of which is similar to a 1994 deal negotiated between the Clinton administration and North Korea is certain to be highly provocative to administration hardliners who remain committed to "regime change" in both of the remaining members of the "axis of evil."