Monday, March 12, 2007

End of Cowboy Diplomacy, Part II?

By Jim Lobe

"It was just nine months ago when Newsweek spoke for the conventional wisdom at that moment when it pronounced "The End of Cowboy Diplomacy."

The phrase signaled the apparent victory – at last – of the State Department-led "realist" wing over hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld in gaining control over the foreign policy of President George W. Bush.

One month later, however, war broke out between Lebanon's Hezbollah and Israel, and the hawks, particularly neoconservatives around Cheney and Rumsfeld, enjoyed a strong resurgence.

Bush not only spurned the pleas of Washington's European and Arab allies to press the Jewish state for a cease-fire, but his top Middle East aide, Elliott Abrams, reportedly encouraged it to expand the war into Syria, much to the horror of both his State Department colleagues and his Israeli interlocutors.

Now, one Democratic election landslide later – not to mention Rumsfeld's departure, and the longest-running record of sustained low public approval ratings for any U.S. president in more than 50 years – conventional wisdom has again concluded that the realists have finally taken the reins of power.....

But while the realists are clearly ascendant, they are not yet dominant, particularly with respect to Middle East policy where they remain hostage to events in Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and the occupied territories – and to potential provocateurs – that in many ways are increasingly beyond their control.

Cheney, whose office remains a neoconservative stronghold, retains considerable influence, particularly in its coordination with like-minded colleagues in the White House on the National Security Council staff, notably Abrams and others in the Middle East bureau, and deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch.

And a big question lingers over Rice's own willingness to take risks in pursuing the realist agenda, and the ISG recommendations, in particular. Some observers note that she has been very careful to permit other actors – Saudi Arabia and the Europeans in the case of both the Palestinians and Syria, the Iraqi government in the case of Iran – to take the diplomatic lead, leaving her less vulnerable to attacks by the hawks.

"She understands that she has a very short leash," said Joshua Landis, a Levant expert at Oklahoma University. "She knows she can't get too far off the reservation.".....

An even bigger question looms over Bush himself. While he has clearly given Rice a lot more room to maneuver than her predecessor Colin Powell could ever have imagined, particularly with respect to North Korea, his own views, especially on the Middle East, remain a subject of unceasing speculation among the capital's cognoscenti, hawks and realists alike.

Just last week, for example, he hosted a "literary luncheon" in honor of Andrew Roberts, author of History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. In a recent interview, Roberts called on Bush to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan "for as long as it takes to achieve complete and final victory over Radical Islam … [and] not be afraid of threatening to widen the struggle to include foreign countries that aid and abet the insurgents [there]."

Other guests in attendance included some of the country's most hawkish neoconservatives, such as Norman Podhoretz; Paul Gigot, the editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page; and AEI fellow Michael Novak.

"Roberts said that history would judge the president on whether he had prevented the nuclearization of the Middle East," wrote Irwin Stelzer, another prominent neoconservative, in the Weekly Standard.

As noted by the Financial Times in an article entitled "Four Years of Turmoil Put Pragmatists in Driving Seat" this week, the Eurasia Group, a consultancy firm, has advised its clients that it rates the chances of a U.S. and/or Israeli military attack on Iran before September 2008 at 60 percent."

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