Neo-cons vs. realists

I have been working on this post on the future of US policy in the Middle East on and off since before the elections, but now that Bush has won it seems more useful. My feeling is that the neo-cons kept a low profile during the past six months to help with the Bush campaign, but will be back in force once the president decides who gets what job. So here's a round-up of articles I've read that discuss the forthcoming reshuffle of Bush's cabinet and White House staff below. It's long so you can only see the whole thing by clicking "more" below.



  • Acording to the Asia Times, key neo-conservative players were busily planning the next phase of what they call World War IV in the interlude provoked by the Bush re-election campaign's desire to avoid war in 2004.

    But while the neo-cons may be down, they are by no means out. As more than one foreign-policy analyst has noted, no neo-con within the administration has resigned or been fired, despite their responsibility for the Iraqi quagmire and public calls by even some senior Republican lawmakers and retired military officers that they be ousted.


    Some analysts have argued the neo-cons remain in place only because their departure now would amount to an admission by the administration - and thus Bush himself - that serious mistakes had been made. In this view, Bush would purge them in a second term, as he continued along the State Department's "realist" line.


    But a growing number of observers, particularly in the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), are coming to the conclusion that the neo-cons may actually enjoy greater influence if Bush wins re-election.


    The other thing I found interesting about the article is the last line, which describes a meeting of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a neo-con outfit:

    Two days later, the FDD helped convene the Middle Eastern American Convention for Freedom and Democracy to elaborate a foreign policy towards the region by several dozen mostly sectarian groups, including the American Coptic Association, the American Maronite Union, the Southern Sudanese Voice for Freedom, the Assyrian American National Federation, the Chaldean National Congress, the American Middle East Christian Association, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa and the Washington Kurdish Institute.


    Neo-cons and these minority groups are playing a dangerous game. Manipulation of minorities by foreign powers is a sensitive issue in the Middle East and only serves to reinforce perceptions of minorities as fifth columnists. The fact that some minority groups -- notably Egyptian-American Copts and Lebanese Maronites -- often fabricate examples of persecution to gain the attention in the US. The point is partly to give their cause a higher profile and highlight the discrimination they feel exist, but also to sometimes purely economic or financial: minority "exiles" have been known to make their career from becoming spokesmen for their co-religionists.


  • A counter-opinion from Today, which thinks the realists are back:

  • With Mr Bush's re-election, we are likely to see a return of traditional Republicans, of foreign policy-makers more in harmony with conventional Republican ideas about America's role in the world.


  • Traditional Republican foreign policy concerns itself with the defence of American power and interests and views the promotion of democracy abroad as an often prohibitively expensive luxury.


  • It's founded on the principle that costs and benefits must be carefully weighed before taking action.


  • The aim of its policies is to produce maximum national security benefit at minimum cost. With Mr Bush's re-election, we are likely to see the US pull as many troops as possible from Iraq at the earliest reasonable date following Iraqi elections. It also means the United States will continue to play the role of world policeman but without the ideological context of a "world order" to give the role strategic coherence.



  • On the bureaucratic debate between neo-cons, realists and multilateralists it's good to revisit this Salon article from a month or so ago, penned by am irate and anonymous State Dept. officer.


  • The New York Times ponders what Bush's second term could mean for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process:


    The Bush administration's Middle East strategy since before the war in Iraq began last year has focused on the peace plan drafted by the United States, Europe, Russia and the United Nations, known as the road map. The plan outlines a series of reciprocal steps by Israel and the Palestinian leaders ending with the establishment of a Palestinian state.



    But neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have agreed to take their initial steps. Each side has charged the other with reneging on its promises, and administration officials acknowledge privately that the plan is dead, or at least in abeyance.



    In its place the administration supports the plan of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to withdraw military forces and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip, hoping that the pullout would eventually lead to peace talks on broader issues. Mr. Sharon has won initial legislative approval for the Gaza pullout, and he has informed the Bush administration that he hopes to complete the withdrawal by next September.



    Instead of the road map, administration policy makers have begun discussing what Javier Solana, foreign minister of the European Union, calls the street map, a series of political arrangements worked out with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians to have moderates run Gaza and its security forces once the Israelis pull out.



    With Mr. Arafat ailing, administration, European and Arab diplomats said Thursday that the new plan had also run into difficulties, in part because of the threat of Hamas and other militant groups to hijack the security command in Gaza.



    In addition, administration officials and Arab diplomats say President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been uncertain about committing forces to training or providing security in Gaza, or to stopping infiltration of militants and arms from Egypt into Gaza.


  • Henry Kissinger weighs in.


  • So does William Safire.


  • In the Nation, David Corn suggests there are dark days ahead:

    "On foreign policy, the big question mark," says Norquist, "is, What has the President and the Republican Party learned from Iraq? Did he learn it was a bridge too far and doesn't want to do three more of these? Or will he think, 'We got elected, let's do Egypt'?" Bush, Norquist adds, could end up at odds with conservatives on the "empire front." He observes, "If this is perpetual war to achieve perpetual peace, then it's out of sync with conservative members of Congress and his own base. They don't want a permanent garrison state with high taxes, a draft and a big government." But Bush has committed himself to "staying the course" (whatever it is) in Iraq and also to remaking the Middle East. He has fully embraced the hubris and arrogance of the neocons. Why should Bush change his fundamental national security views when he has escaped punishment for hyping a threat, misleading the country into an unnecessary war and alienating much of the globe?


  • The Christian Science Monitor has a clever piece about the politics of the reshuffle:


    Some experts believe a battle could break out within the GOP over foreign policy if Bush suggests, especially by key appointments for a second term, that he is set on pursuing preemptive strikes, unilateral projection of power, and ad-hoc alliances over institutionalized pacts.


    "I see an internal struggle for the [Republican] party over the next couple of months between the neoconservatives and the realists, because both wings supported the president, and people will want something for their loyalty," says John Hulsman, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "It's an inside-the-Beltway battle that actually matters to the rest of the world."


    Much speculation centers on the futures of Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice as key clues to the direction the second term will take. Mr. Powell and Mr. Rumsfeld embodied the tension throughout the first term - but especially after 9/11 - between prioritizing diplomacy and relegating it to a back seat in the Pentagon.



    On Iraq, Mr. Powell tried to rally the world to the US position, most notably with a UN appearance, but largely failed, and saw the State Department initially shut out of a postwar role. Rumsfeld put meat on Bush's "with us or against us" stance, dividing Europe into "new" and "old," and gathering much of his "new Europe" under the American wing in Iraq.



    Most insiders and Powell associates assume that Powell prefers to leave office, but may be reluctant to do so if Rumsfeld is not leaving, too. That leads some to speculate that he may stay on for a short time to avoid looking as if he is leaving foreign policy to an ascendant neoconservative influence.



    But some analysts say the key indicator will be what happens to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who is considered the architect of the Iraq invasion and principal promoter of the Bush drive to reform the Middle East.



    "Wolfowitz is the bellwether to watch because he's the personification of the Iraq policy and so much of what this administration has done in the neocon vision," says Heritage's Mr. Hulsman. "If Wolfowitz is promoted, it's a pretty good sign that it's full steam ahead."



    Wolfowitz would likely face stiff resistance from both parties if nominated to a position requiring Senate confirmation, some analysts say, so they assume that, were he to move, he might go to the White House and the National Security Council.



    Cato's Mr. Carpenter says one reason he believes Bush will keep US foreign policy on a muscular course is that people like Wolfowitz, who were on watch when policies went badly, have not been held accountable and made to resign.



    "The president had ample opportunity to purge the administration of people who had a hand the Iraq debacle, but not a single one is gone," Carpenter says.


  • I think they have it right in two key points: no one paid for the mistakes of Bush I, and Wolfowitz is the key figure to watch to see whether the neo-cons will have more or less influence. With regards to the Middle East (excluding Iraq policy) both Wolfowitz and Elliot Abrams, the NSC advisor on the Middle East, will be key -- the first for how much pressure for reform in Arab countries there would be (at least in the public discourse of the administration, but probably not in any meaningful real sense), the second for the peace process. It's interesting that there were consultation among Arab leaders, notably Mubarak and Assad, after the elections -- probably strategizing how to handle another four years of Bush.

    Also note that Bush has been talking to Mubarak about "his commitment to work for a Palestinian state," which might indicate as some people have argued that Bush would be less beholden to special interests in his second term and more willing to confront Ariel Sharon. I doubt it personally, if only because there are elections coming up in two years where the Republicans would like to consolidate their hold over the House and Senate, and because Bush's own views don't seem to make resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority. However, Arafat's death will probably make a big difference -- as long as there is a modicum of stability in post-Arafat Palestine and a new Palestinian leader that a) the US and Israel accept as an interlocutor and b) he can deliver the goods from the Palestinian groups, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Don't see who that might be apart from Marwan Barghouti though.

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    Issandr El Amrani

    Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.