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Look Who's Running the World Now

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."

Now, Rice is in her ascendancy at State. Diplomatic, thoughtful and a good listener, she is the Un-Cheney. She has the ear and trust of the president and she has been embraced by U.S. allies for her efforts to repair the damage to ties frayed by first-term policies. She has appointed seasoned internationalists and her former deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, who has replaced her at the NSC, seems content to remain subordinate to her. One former NSC staffer said to me, "He runs the NSC like it was a bureau of State's."

In the eyes of many, notably State Department types who have long felt that foreign policy should be led by diplomats, that is just fine. They would like the NSC once again to become more of a coordinating mechanism than an originator of ideas.

But diplomacy is only one of many tools the United States has at its disposal when it comes to international relations. The State Department is in no position to mobilize Defense, Treasury, the U.S. Trade Representative or any other agency. The NSC is the place where all the president's options come together.

With the profile of the NSC receding under Hadley, this critical role has been weakened. A lawyer who has worked closely with virtually every GOP foreign policy team since the 1970s, Hadley gets high marks for improving interagency coordination. But the joke for the past year in the foreign policy community has been that Rice has two deputies: Robert Zoellick at State and Hadley. One longtime associate of Hadley who worked closely with him in this administration says, "Steve is very, very, very, very, very, very, very cautious. He is a lawyer not just by training but by disposition." Despite traditional rivalries between the NSC and State, one State Department official said, "My only concern is whether he is too invisible, whether the administration wouldn't be better off if he were more out in front on the issues."

So how well will this new, more harmonious dynamic serve U.S. foreign policy? As Brzezinski said to me, "The question really is whether the administration's new look amounts to merely a toning down of past policies or whether it is really the beginning of something new." Will the Bush foreign policy legacy be something more than Afghanistan, Iraq and the opportunity costs of the overwhelming focus on the latter?

"I believe people will ultimately look at the foreign policy of this administration as having had four quarters, like a football game," one senior official at State told me. "The first was focused on 9/11 and the instant coalition that was offered to us by the world to support our efforts in responding to the terrorist threat. The second came as we made the decision to enter Iraq and did so in a way that undercut much of our international support. The third has been spent, during the past year, with Condi's leadership, rebuilding those international coalitions. But the fourth will be about Iran."

And as any football fan knows, the last quarter often counts the most. Iran "is the critical challenge we face," the State Department official added, "but I would have to say, that if I were a betting man, I would not give us very high odds of achieving our goal of keeping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons or emerging as an even more formidable threat to us in the Middle East."

As it happens, the Bush administration devoted itself to containing the weapons of mass destruction threat of a terrorist-supporting Gulf state during its first term. Now diplomacy, however frustrating, has replaced preemption even though the administration is now facing such a threat, this time more real than imagined. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, then the test for U.S. policy will not be about prevention at all, but rather about how to manage new threats in a world in which the nuclear nonproliferation regime is rapidly failing and in which terrorist-sponsoring states will have real nuclear capabilities.

To manage that will require the help of one of our most critical partners, China, which is also one of our most challenging rivals. We compete for oil resources, jobs and influence. Yet, unlike the distance between us and our Cold War rival, interdependence characterizes our relationship with China. To hurt China would be to injure ourselves. We benefit from its growth and China benefits from ours.

Yet our policy toward China lacks coherence. Some people may long for political instability that could bring about a more humane, democratic way of life in China, but unrest there could also take lives and wound the world economy. While there was a great hue and cry about China's desire to purchase a U.S. oil company last year, there was virtually none when the same Chinese company made a major acquisition in Africa, a region from which, in 10 years, we are likely to get as much of our oil as we do today from the Middle East.

If our foreign policy is to do more than damage control from the first term of the Bush administration, it must tackle a new and broader set of priorities with real creativity. For example, in the case of our relations with China, we need to develop a Doctrine of Interdependence -- an approach that carefully uses the levers at our disposal, all the carrots and the sticks, the tools of our interdependence, to help shape relationships, contain threats and drive common interests. In the case of Iran, we need a replacement for a worn-out and abused nuclear nonproliferation regime.

These are hardly policies that can be run from the State Department alone. The reason the NSC has risen in influence in the past is that relationships such as these require genuine collaboration among all agencies, mutually conceived and orchestrated policies, and these can only be driven and implemented by the White House. The decline of the NSC is antithetical to the new challenges we face. It's good to have a more effective, engaged State Department and a diminution of the role of the vice president, who is in no position to play the role of honest broker. But the real challenges of our time require that Rice and Hadley go well beyond process and damage control. Being better than the last term is not enough.

drothkopf@carnegieendowment.org

David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of "Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power" (Public Affairs).

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