Bush’s War Hawks Edged Out of the Nest

Although still united in pushing for confrontation with Iran, the coalition of hawks that propelled U.S. troops toward Baghdad three years ago appears to have finally run out of steam.

Demoralized by the quagmire in Iraq, as well as President George W. Bush’s still falling approval and credibility ratings, the coalition of aggressive nationalists, neoconservatives, and the Christian Right that promoted the belligerent, neo-imperial trajectory in U.S. foreign policy has lost both its coherence and its power to dominate the political agenda here.

As a result – and almost by default – realists under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and in the uniformed military have steadily gained control over the administration’s policy. Within the increasingly fractious Republican Party, more xenophobic forces appear to be on the rise, as evidenced by recent and ongoing controversies surrounding immigration and foreign control of U.S. ports.

Evidence of a decisive shift is not hard to find, beginning with the latest edition of the “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” released earlier this month.

A kinder, gentler version of its fire-breathing 2002 predecessor that laid out the doctrinal justification for the March 2003 invasion, the new version puts a greater emphasis on diplomacy and development, tending alliances, and other realist themes, even as it continues the administration’s defense of preemptive military action with Iran squarely in mind.

Rice’s constant travel – as well as that of her two underlings, Deputy Secretary Robert Zoellick and Undersecretary for Policy Nicholas Burns – not only demonstrates the priority the administration has placed on cultivating allies and even states more skeptical of U.S. benevolence. It also suggests that the State Department – the bastion of foreign policy realism – is considerably more confident of its own power within the administration.

Indeed, her peripatetic pace stands in striking contrast to the homebody habits of Colin Powell, who feared that even a two- or three-day absence from Foggy Bottom would create policy vacuums instantly filled by Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, co-leaders of the hawks’ “cabal,” as Powell’s former chief of staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, has called them.

Similarly, senior military officers have appeared less reluctant to buck the party line, making assertions about the lack of progress and the looming possibility of civil war in Iraq that are far less optimistic than the two cabalists-in-chief.

In fact, the hawks’ decline dates back to late 2003, when it became clear that Cheney and Rumsfeld and their neoconservative subordinates, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith, had totally failed to anticipate, let alone prepare for, a Sunni-based insurgency that has gone from strength to strength.

Except for a brief period from Bush’s November 2004 reelection and very early in 2005 – a period in which they had hoped that Powell’s departure and the president’s soaring pro-democracy Inaugural Address signaled a resurgence of their power – the hawks have steadily lost power to the realists led by Rice, whose neoconservative rhetoric, like the president’s, has masked the shift back to the more cautious approach of Bush’s father.

The return to realism has been helped immensely by the disappearance over the past year of key players from the administration, among them Wolfowitz and Feith, whose unpopularity with the military and among even Republican lawmakers made them convenient scapegoats for the growing fiasco in Iraq.

John Bolton’s move from a policy-making role in the State Department to the United Nations also deprived the “cabal” of a key player in a strategic post behind “enemy” lines.

The loss of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s formidable chief of staff and national security adviser, after his indictment by a federal grand jury for perjury and other charges in connection with the unauthorized leaking of classified information last October was an even more decisive blow against the hawks. A national security specialist who acted with the full authority and confidence of the most powerful vice president in U.S. history, Libby was the hub of the hawks’ network inside the administration.

The network has also suffered serious losses in Congress, most particularly the resignation after his indictment by a Texas grand jury last year of the unusually powerful House Majority Leader, Rep. Tom DeLay. An outspoken champion of Israel’s settler movement, “The Hammer,” as he is known, imposed iron discipline on Republicans in the lower chamber on behalf of the 25-year alliance between the Christian Right and pro-Likud neoconservatives

But, aside from these losses, the coalition has been set back by internal divisions that seem only to grow deeper with time.

With a few hard-line exceptions, neoconservatives, such as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, have been attacking Rumsfeld for failing to deploy many more troops to Iraq and crush all resistance virtually since U.S. forces invaded.

More recently, they have taken advantage of the growing calls for a comprehensive shakeup in the administration to renew their demands for Rumsfeld’s resignation, demands that ironically echoed those in recent days of their realist foes in retired military ranks, including former Central Command chief, Gen. Anthony Zinni, and Gen. Paul Eaton, who served as senior commander in Iraq.

Neoconservatives have also suffered internal divisions that have weakened their political potency. The most important has been their reaction to Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and the Kadima Party’s plans to dismantle settlements in the West Bank. Staunch Likudniks have opposed disengagement and the administration’s support for it; while more moderate elements, including Kristol, have taken a more flexible position.

The coalition of hawks is also increasingly threatened by growing disillusionment over the effects of Bush’s administration’s democracy crusade across the Middle East.

Key leaders in the Christian Right, in particular, were stunned by the capital charges brought earlier this year by a court in Afghanistan against a Christian convert, who after U.S. and Western protests was permitted to go into exile in Italy last week.

“[S]ome [in] our community decided early on that we would support the president’s policies because it might provide the shock therapy to change these dictatorships [in the Islamic world],” Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told National Public Radio Sunday.

“Now, if in fact as a result of this effort … we’re not going to have that kind of freedom for people to choose [their faith], then that’s a real torpedo in the belly of the president’s policies.”

Indeed, the finding of two recent national surveys found that evangelical Christians, who make up roughly 40 percent of all Republicans and have long been Bush’s strongest source of political support, have become significantly more skeptical about Bush’s interventionist policies in the Middle East since late last year.

While all of these trends have weakened the hawks and are likely to moderate U.S. policies in the region, they do not mean that the chances of military action against Iran have been significantly reduced.

Unlike the Iraq invasion, which was promoted almost exclusively by the three coalition constituents, Iran’s nuclear program is seen as a threat to vital U.S. interests by a broader range of forces, including some realists and even liberal internationalists in the Democratic Party.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.