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POLITICS-US: Realists Rule?

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Aug 19 2005 (IPS) - Is realism finally, definitively, back in the driver’s seat of U.S. foreign policy?

That’s the conclusion featured this week on the op-ed page of the nation’s most influential newspaper, the New York Times, in a column by the managing editor of the nation’s most influential foreign-policy journal, “Foreign Affairs,” published by the nation’s most influential foreign-policy think tank, the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). It’s hard to get more official than that.

“Seven months into George W. Bush’s second term, it is clear that whatever his expansive second Inaugural Address may have promised, American foreign policy has taken a decidedly pragmatic turn,” wrote Gideon Rose in a column entitled “Get Real”.

While personnel changes, and notably the resurrection of the State Department as a dominant bureaucratic player and the departure of top Pentagon neo-conservatives, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, help explain the shift, “the real story is simpler,” according to Rose. “[T]he Bush doctrine has collapsed, and the administration has consequently embraced realism, American foreign policy’s perennial hangover cure [for enthusiastic idealism].”

Rose, who depicts the change as the latest shift in a post-World War Two historical cycle whereby periods of idealistic adventurism that result in over-extension alternate with periods of cautious realism, argues that the second Bush administration is unlikely to abandon the general goals of the first incarnation, but rather to pursue a “calmer and more measured path toward the same ones”.

“They still believe in American power and the global spread of liberal democratic capitalism,” he writes. “But they seek legitimate authority rather than mere material dominance, favour cost-benefit analyses, rather than ideological litmus tests, and prize good results over good intentions.”

While realists – and their European fellow-travelers – have repeatedly predicted or proclaimed the final demise of the unilateralist and neo-conservative forces since they first gained dominance over foreign policy in the wake of the Sep. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon only to be proved dead wrong, many observers now believe that the balance of power within the administration has indeed shifted decisively in favour of the realists.

“I think Gideon has it essentially correct,” says Sherle Schwenninger, a foreign policy analyst at the World Policy Institute. “Periods of hyper-idealism – in this case neo-imperialism – are followed by periods of more sober commonsense.”

Schwenninger also agrees that while changes in personnel at key posts throughout the administration have certainly reduced the clout of the ideologues, “a lot of [the shift] is purely dictated by the reality that the U.S. is over-extended in Iraq and doesn’t have good options in either Iran or North Korea. It’s reached a number of constraints, both financially and militarily.”

That is also the assessment of Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation, who noted a similar historical cycle in his recent book, “America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism.”

“I think there definitely has been a change,” he told IPS. “The American system after all is not an insane one, and that’s true even of the Bush administration. If the price of another war is going to be the reintroduction of the draft in America – whose likely consequence is the loss of elections – they’re going to become more cautious; they have to become more cautious. They don’t have the troops; they don’t have the money.”

While the pro-democracy rhetoric, particularly as regards Iraq and the Middle East, continues to dominate official discourse, particularly that of Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the evidence of realist dominance is indeed very clear, especially regarding the two surviving members of Bush’s original “Axis of Evil.”

U.S. backing, if grudging, for the efforts of the EU-3 – Germany, Britain, and France – to achieve an agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme was an early sign of change that was subsequently bolstered by the relaxation – long resisted by Vice Pres. Dick Cheney – of U.S. procedural conditions for engaging North Korea in the context of the now-resumed Six-Party Talks.

Similarly, the administration’s efforts at tamping down rising anti-Chinese sentiment in Congress, as well as its apparent determination to remain on friendly terms with what Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld once contemptuously dismissed as “Old Europe”, suggests a new appreciation for diplomacy at the very least, if not a new understanding that Washington is, after all, not immune from traditional balance of power politics and must indeed take the interests of other great powers into account.

While it is clear that these perceptions are centred in the State Department, and are most strongly promoted by Rice’s team of Deputy Secretary Robert Zoellick, Undersecretary for Policy Nicholas Burns, and Counselor Philip Zelikow – realists all – it appears that they have become shared by National Security Adviser as well, who, unlike Rice during her tenure in that post, is apparently willing to weigh in with his own views at critical moments.

In addition, no one should discount the influence of another heavyweight who has tied her fortunes to Rice’s – Bush confidante, Karen Hughes, the State Department’s new public diplomacy chief.

There is even evidence that Rumsfeld, despite an irresistible tendency to beat the drums against Iran, in particular, has also moved closer to the realist camp, if only to prevent an all-out mutiny by a military officer corps haunted by its Vietnam-like nightmare of an unwinnable conflict and rapidly declining public support.

His backing for the brass’ recent efforts to re-brand the “global war on terror” (GWOT) with the less martial-sounding “global struggle against violent extremism” (GSAVE) and to suggest that Washington will begin a substantial withdrawal from Iraq beginning next spring, come what may, has drawn outraged calls for his departure from neo-conservatives, but, as noted by Lieven, “If you’re actually in charge of the U.S. armed forces, there are certain realities you have to take into account.”

While Rose depicts the realist resurgence as something in the nature of a historical inevitability, others are not so willing to count out the hawks, particularly in the event of another major terrorist attack on U.S. territory or the collapse of negotiations on North Korea or, more particularly, Iran, which remains Public Enemy Number One for both neo-conservatives and the aggressive nationalists led by Cheney.

“Cheney has not necessarily lost on Iran,” according to Schwenninger. “He may calculate that, as long as we’re not helpful, the EU-3 talks are going to fail, and we will therefore show the Europeans that soft power doesn’t work and what Iran’s true intentions.”

In his view, Cheney and the hawks have made a tactical retreat in order to secure greater international support for imposing sanctions that could destabilise the government or justify either U.S. or Israeli military strikes in late 2006 or 2007.

“When something happens to justify their interventionist attitudes,” according to Lieven of the coalition of neo-conservatives and aggressive nationalists in the administration, “they’ll be ready to press their advantage as they did after 9/11.”

Moreover, while the realists are now on top, according to Lieven, the administration as a whole has “nailed itself to positions that will be difficult to shift, particularly on Iran and Israel.”

“If the U.S. would agree to negotiate directly with Iran, that would really mark the ascendancy of the realists, but how far the new realism can go in terms of changing specific policies remains unclear,” he said.

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