Saturday, August 09, 2003

Overrating Powell
A few thoughts on the reports earlier this week in the Washington Post that Secretary of State Colin Powell might not remain for a second Bush term, assuming there is one. But first a short aside to this New York Times link suggesting that those Iraqi trucks Powell pointed to as WMD production facilities were, it seems, actually designed to make hydrogen...for weather balloons.

Now back to the Post reports: I'm rarely one to agree with Newt Gingrich, who has his own agenda in trying to undermine Powell, but there is truth in what he says about the secretary of state as regards the Middle East. If one institution can be said to have protected and abetted the stalemate in U.S.-Arab relations for decades, if one institution helped ensure that successive administrations would ignore issues of democracy and human rights in the region, it was the inevitably “moderate” State Department.

Why did this situation occur? In part because for a long time there was a core of so-called Arabists at the State Department who genuinely believed in the possibility of domestic Arab reform, and who sensed that a more aggressive approach on democracy might permanently alienate regimes and abort such reform. (China hands, I recall, used much the same rationale after the Tiananmen massacre). So what ensued was a paradox: the State Department, motivated by a desire to cooperate with Arab regimes in the hope they would improve, gave them an incentive not to do so.

A second reason is bureaucratic indolence. The State Department, like any other large bureaucracy, tends to preserve the status quo because that is what is bureaucratically safest. In the Middle East, transformation not only threatened to shake up existing (and often painstakingly engineered) relations with Arab regimes, it also gave competing bureaucracies an opportunity to meddle in State’s affairs.

In the first year of the Bush administration, Powell’s myriad shortcomings (for example, “smart sanctions” in Iraq) were concealed by the fact that foreign policy was not a Bush priority. Powell didn’t try to change things, and no one really cared. Such a minimalist philosophy, however, couldn’t work after 9/11. In contrast, from the outset Powell’s competitors at the Pentagon took a different tack. Initially the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, came in with a plan to reform the armed forces, and after 9/11 that penchant for change--that delight in keeping perceived opponents constantly off balance--was used to steer the administration towards war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While I have many reservations about the neocon philosophy, it has certainly not brooked stalemate--stalemate that we in the Arab world have spent decades whining about, whether when mentioning our own sclerotic and repressive Arab regimes, or those regimes’ relations with the U.S. Does it make sense today to turn around and consider as the Arabs' best friend the man (and his department) who has fought the most to ensure a continuation of this stalemate?

We needn’t approve of the neocons’ excessive militarism to point out that they, far more than Powell, have at least acted in consequence with the stated ambitions of the U.S.--to advance democracy and open markets. Are the neocons hypocritical? Yes, as relations with North Korea show. Are they unfair? Again yes, as they have shown in their uncritical devotion to a perfectly abysmal Sharon government in Israel, despite the fact that its policies are compromising a U.S. peace plan and quite possibly Israel’s own future. Do they have too great a belief in military power? Plainly, and Iraq certainly requires better U.S. “people skills” if Iraqi minds are to waver America’s way.

But at least the neocons have relocated the foreign policy debate to where it should be: in the realm of innovation, not deadlock. It’s in that realm that the old-line realists, so-called left-liberals, multilateralists and just plain old State Department wonks have to fight back. They haven’t done so, and their dearth of ideas suggests that if Powell goes next year, it may create a potentially dangerous imbalance in the administration, assuming Bush is reelected, but it certainly won’t cost Washington any fresh ideas.

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