September 24, 2002

How hawks captured the White House

When the Soviet threat vanished, the purpose of American foreign policy seemed to go with it - until September 11 and Iraq's regime


The Bush administration has broken with the internationalist premises that have been accepted by every other administration since the second world war - with the exception of Reagan's first. The lack of debate over foreign policy since September 11 has obscured the rift, but to recall Bush senior's approach to foreign policy is to see just how radical the change is - and to raise the question of how it came about only eight years later.

A conservative and a "realist" who was much influenced by the approach of Kissinger and Nixon, especially in their dealings with China and the Soviet Union, George Bush senior was slow to grasp the revolutionary nature of Gorbachev's reforms and the importance of conflicts within states, such as those in Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. But he was a confirmed multilateralist, who believed in respecting international law.

The contrast between the approaches of Bush senior and Bush junior is all the more remarkable since many of those who served in national security posts in the first Bush administration now serve in the second. But the differences between father and son correspond to the differences between the Republican party of Eisenhower and Nixon and the more ideologically coherent Republican party that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, its strength in the south and the south-west.

When I talked with him a few months ago, Brent Scowcroft (national security adviser under Bush senior) pointed to a more specific reason for the difference between the foreign policies of father and son. Asked about the ideological conflict between Colin Powell and others in the administration, he said: "That's as much an accident of personalities as anything else." He added: "We used to have strong arguments and many differences of perspective, but they were all kept inside the administration. The president decided, and that was it. So it's partly a question of how conflict is handled. It's more public now."

Scowcroft, in his polite way, was saying that Bush junior, who came to the presidency without any knowledge of foreign affairs, could not make decisions or manage dissent as his more knowledgeable and experienced father had. He was also talking about another accident of personalities. In A World Transformed, the memoir that he and Bush senior published in 1998, Scowcroft makes it clear that while Bush senior's top advisers had different perspectives, the fundamental division lay between the defence secretary Dick Cheney and everyone else.

By his account, and by those of others in the administration, Cheney never trusted Gorbachev. In 1989 Cheney maintained that Gorbachev's reforms were largely cosmetic and that, rather than engage with the Soviet leader, the US should stand firm and keep up cold war pressures. In September 1991 Cheney argued that the administration should take measures to speed the breakup of the Soviet Union - even at the risk of encouraging violence and incurring long-term Russian hostility. He opposed the idea, which originated with the chairman of the joint chiefs, Colin Powell, that the US should withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe and South Korea. As a part of the preparations for the Gulf war he asked Powell for a study on how small nuclear weapons might be used against Iraqi troops in the desert.


But Cheney always disagreed in a thoroughly agreeable fashion. In Congress, where he had served for 10 years, he was thought of as a moderate even though he had a hard-line conservative voting record. Bush senior's advisers respected him for his intelligence, his ability to work quietly to build a consensus, and, above all, his loyalty. In 1998 Cheney became one of Bush junior's foreign policy advisers and, two years later, his running mate. The choice was unconventional, but many, including his father's advisers, thought it useful to have Cheney, with his knowledge of Washington and experience in international affairs, backing up the insouciant Prince Hal of the family.

As Bush's senior adviser, Cheney exercised great influence over appointments. Colin Powell had long been Bush's choice for secretary of state; Condoleezza Rice, his tutor in such matters as the location of Kosovo, was his choice for national security adviser. But after the election most of the other national security posts remained to be filled. Eventually Bush chose Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney's Washington mentor in the late 1970s and his friend for more than 30 years, as defence secretary.

In the job for the second time, Rumsfeld took as his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, who had last served in government as Cheney's undersecretary of defence for policy. In February 1992 Wolfowitz and Zalmay Khalilzad of the NSC staff - currently a member of Bush junior's NSC staff and his envoy to Afghanistan - completed a project, initiated by Cheney two years before, to articulate America's political and military mission in the post-cold war world. The document, a draft of what was called a defence planning guidance, was leaked to the New York Times in early March 1992. By the Times's account, the policy paper asserted that America's mission was to ensure that no rival superpower emerged in any part of the world. The United States could do this, it proposed, by convincing other advanced industrialised countries that the US would defend their legitimate interests and by maintaining sufficient military might. The United States, the document stated, "must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role". It described Russia and China as potential threats and warned that Germany, Japan and other industrial powers might be tempted to rearm and acquire nuclear weapons if their security was threatened, and this might start them on the way to competition with the United States.

The authors of the document therefore recommended that the Pentagon take measures, including the use of force, if necessary, to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in such countries as North Korea, Iraq and some of the former Soviet republics.

The document made no mention of collective action through the UN, and while acknowledging that military coalitions could be useful, it maintained, "we should expect future coalitions to be ad hoc assemblies, often not lasting beyond the crisis being confronted..." This was hardly Bush senior's view of America's role in the world. The US was to dominate the globe and to deter all competition, whatever it cost.

In his memoir My American Journey, published in 1995, Colin Powell recalls that Cheney and Wolfowitz had made Bush senior's Pentagon policy staff "a refuge for Reagan-era hardliners". In the Bush junior administration Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz have done the same for the Pentagon's entire top civilian staff. To Wolfowitz's former position they appointed Douglas Feith, who in the Reagan administration had been a protégé of its leading hawk, Richard Perle. (Perle was appointed chairman of the defence policy board, which advises the Pentagon.) Out of office in the 1990s Feith had worked to stop the ratification of the chemical weapons convention negotiated by Bush senior. In 1996 he and Perle wrote an advisory paper for the new Likud prime minister of Israel, Benyamin Netanyahu, calling upon him to "make a clean break" with the Oslo peace process and reassert Israel's claim to the West Bank and Gaza. When Netanyahu did not oblige, Feith published an article calling upon Israel to reoccupy the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority. "The price in blood would be high," he wrote, but it would be a necessary form of "detoxification-the only way out of Oslo's web."

To Perle's old job as assistant secretary of defence for international security Rumsfeld appointed JD Crouch, who had served in Bush senior's defence department but who later opposed the chemical weapons convention and criticised Bush senior's decision to withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea. In 1995 Crouch, as a private citizen, had advocated a military strike against North Korea's nuclear plants and missile facilities - apparently accepting the risk of war on the Korean peninsula.


Colin Powell, for his part, brought into the state department some like-minded internationalists, such as Richard Armitage and Richard Haas. But as undersecretary for arms control and international affairs, the number three post in the department, he had, at the insistence of Cheney, to appoint John R Bolton, a protégé of Senator Jesse Helms and a self-proclaimed unilateralist. "There is no such thing as the United Nations," Bolton said on one occasion. "There is an international community that can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that is the United States, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along."

What had been a minority position in the first Bush administration had become a majority position in the second. But then it had become a majority position in the Republican party as well, and Bush junior had given voice to its basic elements when he made his bid for the Republican nomination in 1999. In a major speech on defence at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina - reportedly prepared with the help of Wolfowitz - he said: "For America this is a time of unrivalled military power, economic promise and cultural influence. It is in Franklin Roosevelt's words 'the peace of overwhelming victory'." Both in this speech and in a foreign policy speech that same year Bush spoke of the virtues of democracy and free enterprise but, unlike his father, made no mention of the rule of law.

What is most curious about these speeches is the combination of triumphalism and almost unmitigated pessimism about the rest of the world. China was becoming a "strategic competitor" and an "espionage threat to our country". Russia, whose thousands of unsecured nuclear weapons presented the threat of an accidental launch or nuclear theft, might revert to imperialism. That China and Russia might get together was another dire possibility. "On the Eurasian landmass," Bush junior said, "our vision is that no great power, or coalition of powers, dominates or endangers our friends." In the Citadel speech his list of threats included plutonium merchants, crime syndicates, car bombers, cyberterrorists, drug cartels, biological, chemical, and nuclear terrorism, and ICBMs in North Korea. In his inaugural address he said nothing about foreign affairs but simply warned "the enemies of liberty" that the US would "meet aggression and bad faith with resolve and strength."

On one occasion during the campaign Bush junior confessed that he really didn't know who the enemy was. "When I was coming up, with what was a dangerous world," he said, "we knew exactly who the 'they' were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who the them were. Today we're not so sure who the they are, but we know they're there." In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations this February Cheney admitted that before September 11 he had been similarly puzzled. "When America's great enemy suddenly disappeared," he said, "many wondered what new direction our foreign policy would take. We spoke, as always, of long-term problems and regional crises throughout the world, but there was no single, immediate, global threat that any roomful of experts could agree upon." He added, "All of that changed five months ago. The threat is known and our role is clear now."

What Cheney was saying was that the main purpose of American foreign policy was to confront an enemy -and that a worthy successor to the Soviet Union had finally emerged, in the form of international terrorism.

A conservative thinktank report on US nuclear planning and arms control, issued as the administration took office, argued that the United States faced an unpredictable world, one potentially more dangerous than that of the cold war, and that nuclear arms control treaties hindered America's flexibility to adapt its nuclear forces to future threats. "Washington," they wrote, "cannot know today whether Russia, or for that matter China, will be neutral, friend, foe, or part of a hostile alliance in the future."

Implicit in the report is the assumption that the world is a Hobbesian place in which national interests never coincide and where the security of the United States can be assured only by unfettered autonomy and its ability to deploy superior military force.

In January of this year the defence department completed its nuclear posture review (NPR), a reappraisal of US nuclear policy, and when assistant defence secretary JD Crouch briefed reporters on the still-classified document, it was evident that the thinktank report had become the blueprint for the administration's nuclear weapons policy. "We have a situation," Crouch said, "where the United States may face multiple potential opponents, but we're not sure who they might be." Leaked in part a couple of months later, the NPR made clear what the Pentagon really meant by "strategic reductions": the warheads would be taken off their launchers and some of both would be stored as a "responsive force" that could be redeployed if necessary. "In the event that US relations with Russia significantly worsen in the future, the US may need to revive its nuclear force levels and posture," the NPR said.

In testimony to Congress on the strategic arms treaty this July Rumsfeld spoke of the possibility of "the sudden emergence of a hostile peer competitor on par with the old Soviet Union" and later said: "We are entering a period of surprise and uncertainty, when the sudden emergence of unexpected threats will be an increasingly common feature of our security environment." As if to prove his point, he went on: "We were surprised on September 11 - and, let there be no doubt, we will be surprised again."

Rumsfeld could hardly have made such an argument before September 11, for if anything is certain in international affairs, it is that Russia, with an economy smaller than that of the Netherlands, could not enter a Soviet-style strategic arms race with the United States by 2012; nor could any other nuclear power or combination of them. But now Rumsfeld deploys the argument to justify practically everything he and his top officials want. In a recent article in foreign affairs he called - among other things - for a defence for US space assets, an undersea warfare capability, and missile defences. "Our challenge," he wrote, "is to defend our nation against the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen, and the unexpected."

In mid-March the vice-president Dick Cheney travelled to the Middle East to elicit support for a US campaign to end the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. US forces were still engaged in Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had become more violent than ever. The Arab leaders Cheney visited told him that, under current circumstances, a US attack on Iraq would be seen as a war between the West and Islam and, in view of Arab sympathies with the Palestinians, they could endorse it only at the price of destabilising their own regimes. Two weeks later, at an Arab League meeting in Beirut, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and other leaders declared that an attack on Iraq would be a threat to the national security of all Arab states. At the same time they proposed a peace plan that - for the first time - included a full normalisation of Arab relations with Israel. Abdullah told Bush he would put pressure on Arafat if Bush put pressure on Sharon to work toward an agreement.

Colin Powell considered the Saudi offer encouraging, and Bush endorsed it in a speech on April 4. Other officials, however, disagreed, and when Powell went to the Middle East at the president's request, Sharon ignored him. In the internal debate that followed within the administration, Cheney and Rumsfeld argued, as they had before, that the US had to be consistent in fighting terrorism. It followed that the administration should support Sharon, just as it had been doing since Bush took office.

The president and other officials have repeatedly said that Saddam Hussein must go because he has links to terrorism and because he is developing weapons of mass destruction. But they have not yet clearly explained why they give the Iraqi regime priority over all the other threats to US national security. On the one hand, they have not shown that al-Qaida depends in any significant way on Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, a part of their rationale for maintaining a large nuclear force is that it deters states like Iraq from using their most lethal weapons. The result is that more than a few people in this country have the fanciful notion that the whole thing has something to do with Bush's relationship to his father.


Bush has made no connection between his planning for an attack on Iraq and his withdrawal from the Middle East peace process - except to say that "moral clarity" requires an attack on terror in all of its forms. In Bush's rhetoric Saddam Hussein is a direct threat to the United States. However, for years before the Bush administration took office Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were calling for his overthrow on the grounds that he posed a danger to the region, and in particular to Israel.

In a panel discussion at the Washington Institute in June 1999 Wolfowitz made his view about Iraq's connection to the peace process somewhat clearer. Bush senior's invasion of Iraq, he said, had not only averted the real possibility of a nuclear war between Iraq and Israel but "Yasser Arafat was forced to make peace once radical alternatives [he could turn to] like Iraq had disappeared." Currently, he continued, "the containment of Iraq is failing. The United States needs to accelerate Saddam's demise if it truly wants to help the peace process."

The debate on Iraq has only begun. In congressional hearings experts from outside the government have raised the possibility that a war would lead to a Palestinian revolt in Jordan and uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as oil shortages and terrorist attacks on Americans. Other experts have warned that if the US manages to unseat Saddam Hussein, US forces will have to stay in Iraq for years. At some point Bush will have to explain not just why Saddam Hussein is evil but what he envisions for the future of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. If Bush really thinks that a war in Iraq at this point will help Israel and further other US strategic objectives in the region, he must make a detailed case. He should also tell us about the risks.

A longer version of this article appeared in the New York Review of Books. Copyright © 2002 NYRev

· Frances FitzGerald is author of Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War. Her most recent book is Vietnam: Spirits of the Earth.

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