No Adult Supervision

November 23, 2004

by Christopher Layne

US Secretary of State Colin Powell's resignation has not come out of the blue. After all, although his public face has been that of the good soldier, behind the scenes he was out of step with the unilateralist, interventionist and muscular Wilsonian impulses that have driven the Bush administration's first-term foreign policy.

With Powell leaving the scene, the administration's hardliners will be firmly in control of US foreign policy. Powell's departure is the foreign policy equivalent of a hurricane warning: rough weather is ahead. For one thing, Powell was the sole voice of moderation and prudence in the administration's senior policy-making circle. For another, his departure has triggered a round of musical chairs.

George W. Bush is set to announce that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice will be Powell's successor and the ultra-hawkish John R. Bolton likely will be named as Rice's deputy. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz -- the architects of the mess-in-potamia -- are set to remain in place. Finally, deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley, a protege of Vice-President Dick Cheney, will succeed Rice. If anything, the new Bush foreign policy in all likelihood will be even more aggressive and confrontational -- and more contemptuous of the European allies -- than the first.

Powell leaves office with US foreign policy in a shambles. Washington's relations with its European allies have never been at a lower point and it seems increasingly doubtful that the trans-Atlantic rift can be repaired. The offensive in Fallujah during the past fortnight has not altered the fundamental picture in Iraq, which shows every sign of becoming a quagmire from which the US has no strategy for extricating itself. Instead of stability and democracy, the most likely outcomes in Iraq are civil war or that an Islamic Shia government will come to power during next year's election -- which almost certainly would result in Iraq falling into Iran's orbit.

The backdrop to the Iraq insurgency is the widespread perception that the US is waging a war of civilisations against Islam. The spreading hostility to the US in the region -- which, of course, finds expression in terrorist groups such as al-Qa'ida -- is fanned, in part, by frustration with the administration's policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Throughout the Middle East, the Bush administration is viewed -- with considerable justification -- as blindly following in Ariel Sharon's wake rather than formulating a more even-handed policy that might lead to progress in the peace process.

Above all, Powell was a man of restraint. As an army officer who served in Vietnam he learned first-hand some hard lessons: that it is difficult for the U.S. to prevail in wars against nationalist insurgencies; that no U.S. military intervention can hope to succeed unless backed politically by Congress and the American people; and that the US should never go to war without a realistic plan to win the peace.

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War in 1990-91, he wisely recommended that the U.S. not march into Baghdad to overthrow Saddam Hussein -- precisely because he foresaw that such a policy would plunge the US into just the kind of morass in which it is now engulfed in Iraq.

During the run-up to the March 2003 US invasion, Powell advocated prudence. He wisely favoured exhausting all diplomatic options in the hope that Saddam Hussein could be contained and disarmed without war and, if not, that the US would go to war backed by the same kind of broad-based coalition that it assembled to fight the first Gulf War. Powell warned Bush that there would be two consequences if the US rushed to war. First, there would be a strong international backlash against the US. Second, that by seeking regime change without coalition support, the US would end up "owning" Iraq and all of its internal problems.

It's hard to say how history will judge Powell. On every important issue -- North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Israel-Palestine -- his instincts were far sounder than the administration's. Yet, perhaps inevitably, he was overruled on each of these issues. Perhaps -- especially on Iraq -- he ought to have resigned, but the concept of principled resignation really is not imbedded in the US political system.

One thing is sure: Powell will be missed because he alone brought adult supervision to the Bush administration's foreign policy process. With his departure, the children are in charge, and there is no telling what kind of mess they will make.

There is plenty of reason to worry. Although a lot of wishful thinkers hope the US is too bogged down in Iraq to even contemplate going to war with Iran and North Korea to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons, the new team is, if anything, even more hawkish than the first-term team.

Rice, whose academic credentials and scholarship are exceedingly modest, has neither the intellectual foundation nor the stature to act as an independent foreign policy counsellor to Bush. Instead, she and Bolton will be the executors of Bush's faith-based version of foreign policy, and they will be charged with rooting out those moderates who hold important posts at the assistant and deputy assistant secretary levels -- where the heavy lifting of policy-making is done.

On the Middle East, she is a true believer who is committed to the quixotic attempt to "democratise" the region, and who will do Bush's bidding by keeping US policy yoked to Sharon.

With Powell gone, there is no sober realist left in the administration who can provide a reality check with respect to its muscular, militarised idealism. But in an administration where the senior foreign policy-makers believe that the US is "an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality", Powell is unlikely to be missed -- because those in charge do not need to be bothered by facts.

Christopher Layne, a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy and a visiting fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, is writing a book on US foreign policy in the post-Iraq war era (Cornell University Press). This article originally appeared in The Australian, November 17, 2004.

Posted by coalition at November 23, 2004 08:38 AM

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