Slack hawks down
RICHARD Perle is a confused and disappointed man these days. Nicknamed the Prince of Darkness, the one-time darling of Republican foreign policy circles - and a man who was as much the architect of the war in Iraq as any other - has seen his standing decline rapidly.
It reached its nadir last week when Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi whom Perle and his hawk allies in the Pentagon had positioned to lead a new Iraq into a prosperous, democratic and peaceful future, was dumped by the Bush administration. Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress had received $100m from the US since the late 1990s. Last week his house and headquarters were raided in an anti-corruption probe.
The knives are out in Washington. As Perle, a neoconservative who is perhaps the staunchest Chalabi supporter in the capital put it: "The CIA despises Chalabi; the State Department despises him. They did everything they could to put him out of business. Now there is a deliberate effort to marginalise him."
Isolated by Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority and frozen out of whatever transitional government the UN’s envoy Lakdhar Brahimi chooses to replace the CPA on June 30, Chalabi’s fate is symbolic of that of the American neocons. They wanted to remake the world in America’s image, but Iraq has dealt their project a deep and possibly fatal blow. With an election approaching, the US now finds itself at a fork in the road.
At the heart of the issue is this: whither the Bush doctrine? And will US foreign policy continue along the path of muscular and preemptive intervention if President Bush wins re-election? Bush has said that the defining issue of this presidential campaign is "who can properly use American power?" and that question - pregnant with possibility and danger - reverberates around Washington as ‘realists’ claim vindication over Iraq, and neoconservative hawks fret about the betrayal of the President’s ideals. Michael Rubin, a former political adviser to the CPA, argues that the Bush doctrine has essentially been abandoned as the administration, despite imposing sanctions on Syria, refuses to take a tough enough line with either Tehran or Damascus.
The failure to discover extant WMDs rather than just programmes with the potential to produce chemical and biological weapons in Iraq has dented American credibility internationally. The scandal over the abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad has further undermined the country’s moral authority. That in turn has made it more difficult for the US to pursue its long-term strategic goal of refashioning the Middle East, sponsoring the growth of civil society, the rule of law and genuine democracy beyond the false friend of ‘one man, one vote, one time’.
The Iraqi adventure appears to have chastened the administration. Even if Bush wins re-election in November - which is by no means certain as the polls paint a gloomy picture for the President - there will be few fresh foreign policy adventures. No one is talking about ‘regime change’ any more. Apart from anything else an over-stretched and tired military possesses neither the ability nor the desire to embark on another campaign while remaining committed in both Iraq and, albeit to a lesser extent, Afghanistan.
As one Republican strategist admits, any President seeking to implement the Bush Doctrine of preemption would face great difficulties in doing so. "The bar is higher, the country would be more reluctant, and the case would be harder to make."
Only a flagrant and convincing imminent threat to the United States would prompt or justify a fresh intervention. Bush’s Democratic rival Senator John Kerry has sharply criticised the tone and tenor of the administration’s foreign policy - and diplomatic failures - but like any would-be President he does not explicitly rule out a first strike use of force in an act of self-defence.
"The United States must abandon the surrealist illusions of those neoconservatives who have done so much to undermine US interests," says Anthony Cordesman, formerly John McCain’s national security assistant and now the Chair of Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The problem with the neoconservative vision, he argues, is not what it sees but the simplistic belief that liberty and democracy can be planted in the Middle East by Americans whose inherent and transparent righteousness will immediately inspire all right-thinking Arabs.
Instead the US must focus upon "the full range of critical issues, including economic reform, job creation, better income distribution and reduction of population growth. It should focus on the advancement of human rights and the rule of law to allow conditions for democracy to emerge". Furthermore, this might also mean working with ‘friendly’ regimes in the region - something which is anathema to the neoconservative agenda, which does not believe any such regimes really exist.
Kerry is content, for the time being, to keep a comparatively low profile while continuing to raise money, but Cordesman’s views reflect the emerging moderate consensus in Washington. As Bill Clinton’s former National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, who has advised the Kerry campaign, put it recently a President Kerry would be "much more rigorous and analytical about when to use military power".
Ultimately, a Kerry presidency would find itself committed to many of the same long-term strategic goals as the Bush administration. The United States will remain committed to the idea of a two state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and will still see the spread of democracy in the Middle East as a worthy long-term ambition. Getting there is a different matter.
A Kerry presidency, which may well see Richard Holbrooke as Secretary of State and John McCain as Secretary of Defense, would have a different feel, however. It might share the Bush administration’s aims but not its methods, preferring to speak softly while reserving the right to brandish a big stick when needed. At lower levels a Kerry presidency would be staffed by veterans of the Clinton administration who have ingested the lessons of Bosnia and Kosovo.
Although he has yet to convince even liberal hawks that he is truly serious about winning the war on terror, Kerry, whose world view is shaped by his service in Vietnam, told the Democratic Leadership Council earlier this month: "I will never hesitate to use American power to defend our interests anywhere in the world." Kerry would not have sent American troops into Baghdad - his vote in favour of the war was largely a tactical exercise - but he rejects the idea of "cutting and running" from Iraq now.
More pertinently, however, the candidate argued that: "Our military strength may be at an all-time high, but our moral authority around the world is at an all-time low. That’s wrong and that’s dangerous." It’s reasonable to assume that a Kerry administration would care more about America’s image abroad than the present administration does. "We need," argues Kerry, "a President who knows the difference between strength and stubbornness."
On Thursday Bush made the short trip down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill where he delivered a pep talk to jittery Republican congressmen and senators, many of whom are increasingly worried that the seemingly endless stream of bad news from Iraq may hurt the party badly in November’s elections. Although publicly the administration stayed silent on the meeting, the President told his audience that the strategy of "Iraqification" could no longer be postponed.
"He talked about ‘time to take the training wheels off,’" said Deborah Pryce, a Congresswoman from Ohio. "The Iraqi people have been in training, and now it’s time for them to take the bike and go forward." Ironically, this is just what Chalabi and his allies have been urging.
The most recent opinion polls that show the President’s approval rating down to between 42% and 47% also demonstrate a deep-rooted unease about the wisdom of the Iraq campaign. If current trends continue Bush may emulate his father as a single term President.
"Bush’s rating on Iraq is now just as bad as his rating on the economy - 55% to 39% negative. His Iraq ratings have taken a real tumble since the insurgency began. The American public is split over whether the United States was right to go to war in the first place," argues Bill Schneider, CNN’s chief political analyst.
Whether the United States can recover the confidence it needs to make good on Bush’s vow to remake the Middle East is another, more problematic question. "President Bush’s basic strategic insight - that peace and stability in the Middle East depend on political reform and the spread of liberty - is profound," argues Thomas Donnelly, a defence analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. But, "even though there is a pressing need for some more troops in Iraq, there is an even more urgent need to prepare the American people, their government, and their military for longer and larger missions." There is no sign that this is being done. Instead the administration would much prefer to lock away such wild talk of further sacrifice and fresh commitments until after the election.
While admitting the myriad mistakes that have been made in post-war Iraq, Danielle Pletka, a leading hawk, argues that the biggest problem facing the administration is that there remain "many in the US government who can’t countenance the idea of Iraqi self-governance." The villains in this neoconservative analysis are the hawks’ long-standing foes at the State Department and, to a lesser extent, the British Foreign Office. Neocon noses smell the whiff of defeatism and betrayal in the air. Bafflingly, as Robert Kagan argued earlier this month, the President "continues to tolerate policy makers, military advisers and a dysfunctional policy making apparatus that are making the achievement of his goals less and less likely".
Yet even the Pentagon now admits that mistakes have been made. Paul Wolfowitz, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the scale and organisation of the insurgency had come as an unwelcome surprise. While visiting American soldiers in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld candidly admitted that the issue had become: "Can we win? Is it worth it? Those are big questions," before assuring the troops that "one day you’re going to look back and you’re going to be proud of your service and you’re going to say it was worth it."
"There’s a fair amount of conservative despair, which I respect," argues William Kristol, editor of the neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard. "My sentiments are closer to anger than angst. My anger is at the administration for having made many more mistakes than it needed to have made. But we still have to win and we still can win."
Other conservative pundits, such as the New York Times columnist David Brooks, have to some extent recanted their enthusiasm for the invasion of Iraq arguing that the mission represented a "childish fantasy". A return to the traditional conservative values of non-intervention and prudence is called for. The United States should not, in this analysis, embark on fresh, Wilsonian nation-building exercises. The neoconservatives have, they argue, lured the United States into a conflict it cannot hope to win.
Regardless of whether Bush or Kerry is elected this November the United States currently has little appetite for fresh quasi-imperial adventures. Sober realism has replaced giddy optimism and breathtaking ambition in Washington. A period of calm would be welcomed by everyone.
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