Look Who's Running the World Now

(By Jason Reed -- Reuters)
By David J. Rothkopf
Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Dick Cheney era of foreign policy is over.

From 2001 to 2005, the vice president's influence over U.S. foreign policy may have been greater than that of any individual other than the president since Henry A. Kissinger held the positions of national security adviser and secretary of state during the Nixon years. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld served as Cheney's partner in steamrolling bureaucratic rivals; Colin L. Powell toiled loyally at the largely ignored and mistrusted State Department; and Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser and ostensibly the coordinator of policy, played the role of tutor to a neophyte president and seldom challenged Cheney. As a result, policies were largely shaped by the vice president and his circle.

But Cheney's influence has waned. He's lost his top aide, his public approval ratings are dismal, and his network of supporters inside the administration has dissolved. At the same time, Rice has taken charge at State, and the National Security Council has faded even further. The result is a kinder, gentler face on foreign policy, but also a void in the Bush administration foreign policy apparatus just where it matters most -- the White House.

Presidents need strong figures in the White House to harmonize competing views and cabinet departments. Otherwise, an administration cannot deal effectively with the pressing problems of foreign policy. And there are plenty of them for Bush today, ranging from the immediate, such as Iran's challenge to the nuclear nonproliferation regime, to the long term, such as how to manage our interdependence with China.

Last week demonstrated the new order. Cheney was relegated to the traditional vice presidential duty of playing the president's heavy. He rattled the U.S. saber and threatened Iran with "meaningful consequences" for its failure to comply with international nuclear safeguards, only to have Rice temper his comments later the same day. As secretary of state, Rice is now more policy architect than presidential aide. Cheney was a role player, not the puppetmaster.

The ebbing of foreign policy initiative away from the White House over the last year represents a striking change from the previous 35 years. During that time, the NSC asserted primacy in foreign policy, nudging aside the State Department, which had been the grande dame of American cabinet agencies since Thomas Jefferson served as its first secretary.

Created in 1947, the NSC was transformed by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger from a tiny team of paper pushers and facilitators into a hub of real policy shapers. Nixon and other Oval Office occupants worried that the appointees they sent to State would "go native" over at Foggy Bottom, just 10 minutes from the White House. "You'd be surprised how big a deal that distance can become," remarked Kissinger. The NSC gave the president a foreign policy staff he could call his own and who owed loyalty only to him.

Since Kissinger, national security advisers have equaled or surpassed secretaries of State in influence. His successors such as Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank Carlucci, Powell and Samuel R. Berger have often galled the State Department by taking the lead.

Then, during George W. Bush's first term in office, something unprecedented happened. The seat at the head of the White House policymaking table was, in effect, taken over by the vice president. Cheney's own national security team was larger than the entire NSC staff had been during the early days of John F. Kennedy's administration. Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, enjoyed the same protocol rank as the president's national security adviser.

What has changed? First, the president no longer depends on the vice president as he did in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, when Bush was still learning national security on the job and the nation was in crisis. The president today is better schooled, more experienced and more confident. Second, Rumsfeld, who is Cheney's staunchest supporter after the president and whose vacation home is just a few steps away from Cheney's on Maryland's Eastern Shore, has lost a lot of his clout. No longer the center of attention, as he was during the offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq, Rumsfeld has legions of his own detractors.

Third, Libby's legal woes over his alleged disclosure of a CIA operative's identity has been a huge distraction. And his departure was only part of the disintegration of the administration's network of neoconservatives that Cheney tapped into. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz decamped for the World Bank, Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith left government, and Undersecretary of State John Bolton received the ironic punishment of being posted to the United Nations, an institution he had derided as irrelevant.

Then there is the matter of Cheney's personality. One former top Bush administration official says, "I have always felt that his relentless pessimism was unsustainable. After a while people want more than fear, they want a positive vision and that was not his strong suit."

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