Hawks Looking for New and Bigger Enemies?

As if rallying fading public support for keeping more than 100,000 U.S. troops in a disintegrating Iraq and preparing the ground for a possible military attack on Iran were not enough, some influential hawks are now promoting a more confrontational stance against Russia and China, as well.

Their eagerness to take on new and bigger enemies, signaled by Vice Pres. Dick Cheney’s blistering verbal assault on Russia Thursday, could be a calculated effort to intimidate the two Eurasian giants at a moment when the US and the European Union (EU) appear to have forged greater unity on key foreign policy issues than at any time since Washington invaded Iraq three years ago.

Russia and China, which were initially treated as allies in the "global war on terror," are now seen as the two biggest obstacles to Washington’s drive to impose U.N. Security sanctions against Iran, the administration’s current top foreign policy priority. Hardliners may believe that putting them on the defensive at this moment could persuade them to show greater flexibility, at least with respect to Iran.

At the same time, however, a more aggressive stance toward the two powers risks driving them further together in opposition to US geo-strategic designs, particularly isolating Iran and asserting more control over the flow of oil and gas out of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

It could also revive trans-Atlantic tensions despite the convergence between the major western European powers and the United States at the Security Council over Iran. That unity could turn out to be fleeting, particularly if Washington fails to heed increasingly urgent pleas by its allies to offer the Islamic Republic security guarantees in exchange for a verifiable freeze on its nuclear program.

"I don’t see how antagonizing (Russian President Vladimir) Putin at this particular moment will make it any easier for him to support you on Iran," said one Congressional foreign policy aide. "And I can’t imagine that the Europeans think this is such a good idea at this moment either."

The administration’s position toward both Russia and China has gradually hardened over the past year for a number of reasons, including what appears to be their joint strategy of pushing the US military out of bases in Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Central Asia; their relations with what the administration considers hostile or rogue states, such as Sudan and Belarus; their failure to "deliver" Iran and North Korea in negotiations over their nuclear programs; and their refusal to respond to US bilateral concerns, from human rights to trade.

While Beijing had come to expect hawkish statements from the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, Chinese leaders – as well as her hosts in Australia – were taken aback when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sounded alarms about Beijing’s becoming a "negative force" in Asia during a swing through Southeast Asia in March.

The administration’s ongoing and increasingly ardent courtship of both Japan and India as strategic allies against Beijing in what it calls its "hedge" strategy has also done little to promote greater trust.

In that context, the many procedural slights and disruptions – from introducing the national anthem of "The Republic of China" to permitting a well-known Falun Gong activist to infiltrate the White House welcoming ceremony – that soured President Hu Jintao’s visit here two weeks ago have reportedly been interpreted in Beijing as deliberate efforts by at least some forces in the administration to embarrass the Chinese leader.

Similarly, Cheney’s blast against Russia – the harshest US attack on Moscow since the Bush administration took power – delivered right next door at a NATO-EU conference in Vilnius, Lithuania and just two months before Putin plays host to the G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg, strongly suggests that the hawks are once again ascendant.

Among other points, Cheney accused Moscow of using its control over energy supplies as tools of "intimidation or blackmail" against its neighbors, "undermin(ing) (their) territorial integrity," and "interfer(ing) with democratic movements."

"Russia has a choice to make," he declared in terms that reminded some observers of the "Iron Curtain" speech delivered by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Missouri at the outset of the Cold War and prompted others to predict that hardliners around Putin would be strengthened.

"When making these kind of statements, you always have to keep in mind what the reaction from the other side will be, and it’s difficult for me to imagine that Russia is simply going to agree with these reproaches." Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Moscow political analyst described as close to the Kremlin, told the Financial Times.

Indeed, it is likely that Washington’s growing hawkishness will strengthen hardliners in both Beijing and Moscow and make it harder for the administration to enlist their help with respect to either Iran or the " global war on terror."

But according to a leading neoconservative strategist, Robert Kagan, larger goals may be at stake.

In a Washington Post column published last Sunday, Kagan, whose spouse, Victoria Nuland, worked as Cheney’s deputy national security advisor until last year and now serves as US ambassador to NATO, argued that Washington now faces as much of an ideological struggle against the two great powers as a contest for control over resources.

"Until now the liberal West’s strategy has been to try to integrate these two powers into the international liberal order, to tame them and make them safe for liberalism," argued Kagan, a cofounder with Weekly Standard editor William Kristol of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).

"If, instead, China and Russia are going to be sturdy pillars of autocracy over the coming decades, enduring and perhaps even prospering, then they cannot be expected to embrace the West’s vision of humanity’s inexorable evolution toward democracy and the end of autocratic rule," he said.

Given their own autocratic nature, the two nations have emerged as the protectors of "an informal league of dictators" – that, according to Kagan, currently includes the leaders of Belarus, Uzbekistan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Venezuela, Iran and Angola, among others – around the world who, like the leaders of Russia and China themselves, resist any efforts by the West to interfere in their domestic affairs, either through sanctions or other means.

"The question is what the United States and Europe decide to do in response," wrote Kagan. "Unfortunately, al-Qaeda may not be the only challenge liberalism faces today, or even the greatest."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.