A Foreign Policy Out Of Focus
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, September 2, 2003; Page A21
As America's troubles mount in Iraq and North Korea, it's time to ask what's going wrong in the Bush administration's implementation of foreign policy.
One answer is that the National Security Council system isn't working as it should to forge consensus in a divided administration. A range of experts I consulted over the past month agreed that an unusually weak security council process is allowing ideological disputes to fester and is hindering effective policy.
Prodding contentious foreign-policy agencies toward agreement is the responsibility of the national security adviser, who has often been a Machiavellian figure on the model of Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski. Sometimes ruthless bureaucratic politicians, they used the security council's system of interagency groups as a ramrod to force a coherent line.
In contrast, Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, has a reputation as a solid policy analyst but a weak politician. Confronting strong personalities and sharp ideological divisions at Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon and Colin Powell's State Department, Rice and her deputies have often failed to achieve consensus. Even after agreement has supposedly been reached, ideological warfare continues behind the scenes, undermining policy.
"The interagency process is completely dysfunctional," says one Republican former Cabinet secretary with decades of foreign-policy expertise. "In my experience, I've never seen it played out this way."
Another Republican insider recalls that early on, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld admonished his deputies that he alone would speak for the Pentagon in interagency debates. Lower-level officials were not authorized to resolve disputes. That stance effectively gutted the traditional security council process.
Bush has been quick to defend Rice. In late July, after critics charged she had made misleading statements about the Iraqi nuclear threat, Bush responded sharply: "Dr. Condoleezza Rice is an honest, fabulous person, and America is lucky to have her service -- period."
Whatever Rice's political weaknesses, several experts agreed that the current disarray is less her fault than the president's. "In a situation where there are Cabinet-level divisions, something's got to give. That's where I fault the president himself," says the Republican former Cabinet secretary.
The administration's poor planning for postwar Iraq is a case study: The effort was hobbled by sharp policy disputes between State and the Pentagon that were never resolved.
For weeks, the two agencies and the CIA quarreled about the personnel and policies that would govern postwar Iraq. The Pentagon dithered in approving State's nominees for the civil administration, which made effective planning almost impossible during the crucial months of March and April.
Adding to the confusion was the bizarre battle over Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, who became an ideological litmus test for administration neoconservatives. Chalabi argued that his group should be designated as a provisional government as soon as the war began -- and that elements of the Iraqi army and security agencies should be quickly dismantled. CIA and State Department officials who mistrusted Chalabi countered that parts of the Iraqi military should be maintained as a foundation for security.
The actual policy was a muddle: Chalabi lost his battle to create an immediate provisional government but won his argument to dissolve the Iraqi military and security apparatus. The military was duly cashiered, then partly reconfigured. A genial but weak civil administrator, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, was replaced by the more decisive Paul Bremer, but by then critical time had been squandered. Bremer delayed in granting power to an Iraqi governing council, then demanded it take more action.
Even Chalabi's supporters argued that the central problem was the White House's failure to impose a single strategy. What emerged was a vacuum, with no effective Iraqi allies.
A new confusion is whether Bush wants a multinational force in Iraq under U.N. mandate, as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage suggested last week. It's unclear whether Armitage was speaking for Rice and Bush, or freelancing.
A similar lack of clarity has hobbled efforts to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat. For two years, hard-liners blocked continuation of the Clinton policy of engaging Pyongyang. When the Bush administration finally reversed itself and decided to hold direct talks, it had wasted crucial time and allowed North Korean to push toward deploying nuclear weapons.
Even on the eve of direct talks last month, the administration seemed to be going in two directions at once, with Undersecretary of State John Bolton blasting Kim Jong Il as a "tyrannical rogue" just as his colleagues were about to sit down at the negotiating table with him.
To meet increasingly dangerous challenges abroad, Bush needs to use the National Security Council better to forge coherent strategy within his fractious administration. Rice can fix a broken process, but only if the president makes some hard decisions about what he wants.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company