End of Cowboy Diplomacy,
Part II?

It was just nine months ago when Newsweek spoke for the conventional wisdom at that moment when it pronounced “The End of Cowboy Diplomacy.”

The phrase signaled the apparent victory – at last – of the State Department-led “realist” wing over hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld in gaining control over the foreign policy of President George W. Bush.

One month later, however, war broke out between Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Israel, and the hawks, particularly neoconservatives around Cheney and Rumsfeld, enjoyed a strong resurgence.

Bush not only spurned the pleas of Washington’s European and Arab allies to press the Jewish state for a cease-fire, but his top Middle East aide, Elliott Abrams, reportedly encouraged it to expand the war into Syria, much to the horror of both his State Department colleagues and his Israeli interlocutors.

Now, one Democratic election landslide later – not to mention Rumsfeld’s departure, and the longest-running record of sustained low public approval ratings for any U.S. president in more than 50 years – conventional wisdom has again concluded that the realists have finally taken the reins of power.

That such an assessment coincided with Tuesday’s felony conviction by a jury of Cheney’s former chief of staff and the most powerful neoconservative in Bush’s first term, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, for lying to federal investigators was probably not entirely coincidental given the “cloud,” as chief prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald described it, that it cast once again over the vice president’s office.

That the case – which, at its heart, involved the lengths to which Cheney’s office and the White House went to discredit critics who charged that the administration’s hawks had manipulated intelligence to rally the country behind the 2003 Iraq invasion – seems likely to soon become the subject of congressional hearings will almost certainly deepen that cloud.

Even before Libby’s conviction, however, the notion that the realists had finally triumphed was growing here.

“Diplomacy Could Define End of Bush’s Terms: Pragmatism Colors Policy, Experts Say,” headlined a story last week in USA Today, while on the same day, the New York Times ran an analysis titled “Pragmatism in Diplomacy” about recent moves by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to engage North Korea, Iran, and Syria.

“White House Foreign Policy Has Shifted,” noted a front-page Los Angeles Times article this week which asserted that recent moves reflect “the ascendancy of Rice and her State Department team over hawks once led by [Cheney and Rumsfeld].”

“Bush Shows New Willingness to Reverse Course” ran another headline earlier this week in the Washington Post, while one of the newspaper’s columnists, David Ignatius, argued that Bush has apparently embraced the recommendations of the bipartisan, realist-led Iraq Study Group (ISG) in a piece titled “After the Rock, Diplomacy.” In another column titled “What Has Happened to Dick Cheney,” Jim Hoagland suggested that the vice president has been effectively marginalized by Rice, who “has won full agreement and support from the president on strategic goals and methods she and her diplomats are pursuing.”

While Hoagland himself indicated that view remains to be confirmed by events, the evidence that power has indeed shifted to the realists has become increasingly persuasive in just the last month, if only because the hawks, such as Cheney favorite and former UN Ambassador John Bolton and his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), are expressing growing distress at the changing balance of power.

The most dramatic sign of the realist ascendancy to date was last month’s accord between North Korea and the U.S. by which Washington agreed to begin normalizing relations and resume the supply of fuel oil in exchange for Pyongyang’s shutdown of its plutonium processing plant and the return of international inspectors.

The deal, which resembles a 1994 bilateral accord repudiated by Bush early in his term – albeit within the framework of a regional agreement involving South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia – marked a sharp reversal of the administration’s stance. It was cleared by Bush after a direct appeal from Rice, who reportedly circumvented the normal interagency process.

At the same time, the State Department’s tacit support for Saudi Arabia’s efforts to midwife a Palestinian government of national unity last month in Mecca – a deal that infuriated the hawks and Abrams, in particular – has been seen by some analysts here as demonstrating a new flexibility that would have been inconceivable just a few months ago.

But what has gotten the most attention to date was Rice’s announcement at the end of last month that Washington will participate in at least two regional meetings convened by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which will also include Syria and Iran. The first takes place this weekend in Baghdad, and the second, in which Rice herself will take part, early next month either in Istanbul or Cairo.

Her announcement confirmed the growing impression that Rice was indeed trying move the administration toward implementation of the recommendations of the ISG, which was chaired by former secretary of state and neoconservative nemesis James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton. The group called explicitly for Washington to engage Tehran and Damascus as part of a larger regional strategy that also include a renewed commitment to a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Rice’s announcement came while Cheney was out of the country. Significantly, White House spokesman Tony Snow insisted on the day after his return that U.S. participation did not did not constitute any change of policy and that, in any event, “there will not be bilateral talks between the United States and Iran, or the United States and Syria, within the context of these meetings.”

But in another demonstration of the State Department’s confidence, its spokesmen have been less categorical. While insisting that U.S. officials participating in the meetings will be focused on the main issue – stabilizing Iraq – they have also repeatedly refused to rule out talking directly with their Syrian and Iranian counterparts about “related” issues.

Moreover, the presence at these meetings of senior diplomats from the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council – to be augmented by the Group of Eight foreign ministers in the second round – increases the likelihood of broader discussions of the kind advocated by the ISG.

Meanwhile, realists have made other gains, beginning with the replacement of Rumsfeld by Robert Gates, who, until his nomination as defense secretary last November, served on the ISG and is believed to share its conclusions.

Gates and Rice – and for that matter, the new directors of National Intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Adm. John McConnell and Gen. Michael Hayden, respectively – served on the National Security Council together under former President George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who, even more than Baker, is considered anathema by the neoconservatives, particularly with respect to Middle East policy.

It has been Gates who, in contrast to Cheney’s persistent mutterings that “all options are on the table,” has been most insistent in recent weeks that Washington has no plans to attack Iran despite its big military buildup in the Gulf. In taking this stance, Gates is reportedly reflecting the views of the military brass, who, freed from Rumsfeld’s bullying and contempt, have reportedly become far more outspoken in internal discussions about their opposition to any new military actions so long as U.S. forces remain bogged down in Iraq.

A report in the National Journal Friday that Gates is also moving to curb the ability of U.S. Special Forces to conduct covert operations in foreign countries, such as Iran, without congressional oversight or CIA direction and to “dismantle” some of the intelligence programs that helped pave the way to war in Iraq suggests that he is taking independent action to roll back some of Rumsfeld’s most controversial innovations.

“Bob Gates is about to shut down a significant chunk of Vice President Cheney’s intelligence eyes and ears – and to some degree, an inappropriate ability to help drive covert actions,” according to Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy program at the New America Foundation (NAF) here.

But while the realists are clearly ascendant, they are not yet dominant, particularly with respect to Middle East policy where they remain hostage to events in Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and the occupied territories – and to potential provocateurs – that in many ways are increasingly beyond their control.

Cheney, whose office remains a neoconservative stronghold, retains considerable influence, particularly in its coordination with like-minded colleagues in the White House on the National Security Council staff, notably Abrams and others in the Middle East bureau, and deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch.

And a big question lingers over Rice’s own willingness to take risks in pursuing the realist agenda, and the ISG recommendations, in particular. Some observers note that she has been very careful to permit other actors – Saudi Arabia and the Europeans in the case of both the Palestinians and Syria, the Iraqi government in the case of Iran – to take the diplomatic lead, leaving her less vulnerable to attacks by the hawks.

“She understands that she has a very short leash,” said Joshua Landis, a Levant expert at Oklahoma University. “She knows she can’t get too far off the reservation.”

Thus, while she replaced a neoconservative hawk, Robert Joseph, with a realist in the key position of undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, she also appointed Eliot Cohen, a dyed-in-the-wool neoconservative who is considered close to both Abrams and Cheney, to a top advisory post, State Department counselor. “It’s always two steps forward, one step back with her,” said one observer.

An even bigger question looms over Bush himself. While he has clearly given Rice a lot more room to maneuver than her predecessor Colin Powell could ever have imagined, particularly with respect to North Korea, his own views, especially on the Middle East, remain a subject of unceasing speculation among the capital’s cognoscenti, hawks and realists alike.

Just last week, for example, he hosted a “literary luncheon” in honor of Andrew Roberts, author of History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. In a recent interview, Roberts called on Bush to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan “for as long as it takes to achieve complete and final victory over Radical Islam … [and] not be afraid of threatening to widen the struggle to include foreign countries that aid and abet the insurgents [there].”

Other guests in attendance included some of the country’s most hawkish neoconservatives, such as Norman Podhoretz; Paul Gigot, the editor of the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page; and AEI fellow Michael Novak.

“Roberts said that history would judge the president on whether he had prevented the nuclearization of the Middle East,” wrote Irwin Stelzer, another prominent neoconservative, in the Weekly Standard.

As noted by the Financial Times in an article entitled “Four Years of Turmoil Put Pragmatists in Driving Seat” this week, the Eurasia Group, a consultancy firm, has advised its clients that it rates the chances of a U.S. and/or Israeli military attack on Iran before September 2008 at 60 percent.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.