Saturday, May 27, 2006

Three Republican Administrations

The Nixon, Reagan, and now the George W. Bush Administrations have all had somewhat divided personalities in foreign affairs. In the Nixon Administration the contradictory impulses between warmaking and peacemaking coexisted within the same complex individual, the President himself. In the Reagan Administration George Schultz represented the peaceful traditions of the Nixon Administration and, thanks to the Iran-Contra scandal, eventually prevailed against a coterie of ideologues in the staff of the National Security Council. The Bush Administration has been almost relentlessly hard line, and after four years it lost its leading countervailing force, Colin Powell, but in the last two weeks there are weak signs of an argument inside it, as well—without any indication of a real change of course.

Richard Nixon, like his great rival John F. Kennedy, wanted more than anything else to tame the Cold War. He sought arms control with the Soviet Union, opened relations with the Chinese, and talked freely about a generation of peace. He said more than once that no one could win a nuclear war. But he was determined to outshine his predecessors, Johnson and Kennedy, by winning the Vietnam War, and he convinced himself that success in Vietnam had to accompany any conciliatory moves towards the major Communist powers. Because political considerations and the demands of his Pentagon leadership forced him to withdraw our troops from Vietnam, he had to persuade himself that a combination of South Vietnamese troops and American air power could hold back the Communists. When his strategy nearly collapsed under the weight of the Communist offensive of 1972, and most of the US-South Vietnamese gains of the previous two years evaporated, Henry Kissinger convinced him to make peace. He did so, we now know, by telling the President that he could blame a debacle on South Vietnamese incompetence in the Communists won within a year or two. Then came Watergate, and Nixon was no longer in office to face the decision of whether to resume war once again. Kissinger changed his strategy and blamed the Congress and the American people instead, as he has been doing ever since. But meanwhile, Nixon had gone to Moscow in 1972 and essentially declared peace with the Soviet Union in a declaration of principles that was far too optimistic, and which no Democratic President would ever have dared sign. That led to an immediate backlash against détente, especially within his own party, that almost cost Gerald Ford the Republican nomination in 1976, and swept Ronald Reagan into office in 1980.

Reagan immediately abandoned détente and serious arms control negotiations in favor of a big arms build-up and new attempts to isolate the Soviet Union within the world community. For whatever reason, he clearly was not easy to work with, and he ran through four National Security Advisers and two Secretaries of State during his term. Ironically, in the wake of Vietnam, his policies got their most significant restraints from Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, whose Weinberger Doctrine insisted that the United States should only go to war when vital interests were at stake, the nation clearly supported the war, and a successful outcome could quickly be achieved. That forced the Administration into covert action in Nicaragua and Iran to achieve its objectives of striking down Communism in Central America and regaining a strategic foothold in Persia. The National Security Council, led by Col. Robert McFarland, Admiral John Poindexter, and Lt. Col. Oliver North, carried out that policy until it was caught red-handed in the fall of 1986. Iran-Contra put Secretary of State Schultz, who had opposed it, in the driver’s seat. With considerable help from Mikhail Gorbachev, he reversed the course of Reagan Administration policy, reaching an agreement removing intermediate-range missiles from Europe and creating a new atmosphere. That momentum carried through the next twelve years.

The first George W. Bush Administration appeared to pit Colin Powell at State, representing the moderate Republican tradition and his own version of the Weinberger doctrine, against Donald Rumsfeld and his neocon staff at the Pentagon. With the critical help of the Vice President, Rumsfeld outmaneuvered Powell at every turn, not only convincing the President to invade Iraq before Powell even knew the decision had been made but also preventing any progress in negotiations with North Korea, Iran, and on the Taiwan Straits. As National Security Adviser Condolezza Rice does not seem to have done anything to change the balance. The neoconservatives apparently assumed that a quick victory over Iraq would be followed by similar wars against Iran and North Korea. By 2005 their hopes had obviously been disappointed, and Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith left the government. So, however, did Powell.

Some Washington insiders have consoled themselves that Rice, who also moved John Bolton to the UN (without the approval of the Senate), has scored some kind of victory over the neoconservatives, but this commentator has not seen any evidence of it. The Administration has refused to talk with Iran or make any concessions to North Korea. During the last two weeks evidence has emerged that some one is trying at least to start a fight in the Administration on these issues. A week ago Thursday, the New York Times reported that “aides” (evidently at State) were prepared to offer North Korea an actual peace treaty (after 53 years of armistice) in return for the abandonment of its nuclear program. The key player apparently is State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow, a former academic (and one of the editors of a volume of Kennedy’s taped meetings during the 1962 missile crisis), and an anonymous source speculated that President Bush would approve the proposal. (Zelikow’s editorship of The Kennedy Tapes would surely have kept him out of the Nixon Administration, by the way.) Henry Kissinger has already advised the Administration to give up on regime change in North Korea in an op-ed. It conceded, however, that Vice President Cheney’s position on the proposal was not yet known. Today, a parallel piece by a different reporter states that a debate has opened up in the Administration over opening direct talks with Iran—but the story indicates that not only the President, Cheney and Rumsfeld, but also Rice, are against it. Your commentator cannot help wondering whether Zelikow (whom I have met only once, years ago, in a totally academic setting) has something to do with this story as well.

The President made headlines this week for apologizing for some of his Texas language in connection with the war in Iraq, but he said nothing to indicate any second thoughts about his policies and essential strategies there. He continues to believe, apparently, that the holding of elections and the belated section of a partial cabinet (without ministers of the interior or defense) is more important than the escalating anarchy within Iraq—a subject for a future commentator. He continues to believe, in my opinion, that he stands for good and should not compromise with evil. I shall be delighted, but surprised, if the Administration actually changes its policy towards North Korea, Iran, or both.