Cowboy Diplomacy Is Not Dead Yet

"We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it."

So said U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, according to Knight Ridder news agency, three years ago during a top-level White House meeting in which he vetoed yet another State Department proposal that Washington engage North Korea in negotiations over its nuclear program, and a more succinct expression of the Bush administration’s unilateralist and moralistic "cowboy diplomacy" would be hard to find.

Now, three years later, the fruits of that worldview are on vivid display, not only in Northeast Asia, where Pyongyang has defied demands by the U.S. and all of its neighbors to reinstate a moratorium on missile launches, but also across the Middle East where a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, a rapidly disintegrating U.S.-occupied Iraq, and the escalating Israeli offensives in Gaza and Lebanon are daily making a mockery of the Bush administration’s promises to "transform" the region into a democratic stronghold.

"Evil," as Cheney put it, is on the move, emboldened by the manifest inability of U.S. military might to achieve even minimal goals – such as containing relatively small insurgencies, much less subduing them – and empowered by unprecedented popular resentment of U.S. bullying among Washington’s traditional allies and especially in the Islamic world where anti-U.S. sentiment has become virtually unanimous.

"Refusal to compromise, refusal to negotiate, assuming that condemnation of others as terrorists amounts to a policy and these ‘others’ will meekly accept American/Israeli will," according to Charles Smith, who teaches Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona. "All these elements point to the bankruptcy of U.S. Middle East policy at this moment with no options that appear promising."

Asia specialists have made similar observations about U.S. policy toward North Korea.

In fairness, some senior administration officials have long recognized that Cheney’s dictum – which since 2003 has been applied to North Korea, Iran, and Syria, as well as Hezbollah and Hamas – was a policy dead-end that would not only fail to achieve its "regime-change" goals, but would also work to isolate the U.S. diplomatically more than its "evil" foes.

Indeed, by late 2003, as it became clear that Washington faced a serious insurgency in Iraq for which it was completely unprepared, the power balance within the administration began shifting from the dominance of hard-line "cowboys" led by Vice President Dick Cheney, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, and their chorus of Israel-centered neoconservative advisers to the "realists" based primarily in the State Department who understood that Washington could no longer go it alone.

That shift accelerated after Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state in early 2005 and set about healing the wounds inflicted on relations with Washington’s closest allies by the hardliners in the first term.

In the last 18 months, according to a widely noted Time magazine cover story this week entitled "The End of Cowboy Diplomacy," she and other "realists" have worked a "strategic makeover" of the administration’s foreign policy.

In addition to intensified consultation with U.S. allies, the change has been most evident in Bush’s stated willingness to offer concessions to both North Korea and Iran as part of multilateral negotiations to get them to freeze or abandon their nuclear programs; its relaxation of pressure on Syria in exchange for Damascus’ cooperation on Iraq; and, within Iraq, its efforts to engage and co-opt Sunni insurgents and ex-Ba’athists.

That the "realist" resurgence is indeed real is no longer in doubt, as the Time article appeared to certify. In addition to the enthusiasm voiced by European leaders for Washington’s more pragmatic orientation, the recent howls of protest and betrayal from the ranks of prominent neoconservatives – particularly with respect to the administration’s willingness to directly engage Iran, which they see as the main sponsor of Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah – provide strong evidence that the hardliners feel marginalized.

But if Cheney and the hardliners have been down, they certainly have not been out. That the "cowboys" have been able to limit the freedom of Rice and the realists has been made clear in any number of ways.

In May, for example, the State Department reportedly wanted to take up North Korea’s invitation to Pyongyang for informal bilateral talks, but Cheney succeeded in scuttling the idea. Some analysts believe that the rebuff was the proximate cause of the Jul. 4 missile tests.

In the Middle East, the State Department recommended a more forthcoming position on the provision of humanitarian and development assistance to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas’ victory in the January elections but was unable to prevail at the White House.

Similarly, State Department officials reportedly favored a more flexible U.S. position on negotiating security guarantees with Iran, as urged by Washington’s European partners, if Tehran agreed to freeze its nuclear program, but hardliners succeeded in vetoing that, too.

The pattern has been clear: in each case, Rice has been able to nudge the U.S. Position toward a more conciliatory position closer to its allies in hopes of engaging the "enemy" in a diplomatic process, and in each case, Cheney and the hardliners have succeeded in limiting her ability to do so.

In the latest crisis over Lebanon, some observers have perceived a difference in the way the State Department and the White House have reacted to the dramatic escalation in the Middle East this week.

Consistent with her interest in maintaining as unified a stance as possible with Washington’s European allies, Rice, for example, has both publicly and privately urged restraint on Israel in Gaza, and especially now in Lebanon.

Echoing Israel’s stance, on the other hand, the White House, where a prominent neoconservative, Elliot Abrams, holds the Middle East portfolio, has put more emphasis on Syria’s and Iran’s alleged responsibility for the situation. Washington’s U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, another hardliner and Cheney favorite, has taken a similar tack.

Indeed, the crisis atmosphere generated by the fast-moving events of the past 10 days in both Northeast Asia and the Middle East offers a new opening for the "cowboys" to drive policy in their direction.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.