What Will the Pillars of His Foreign Policy Be?

By James Mann
Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Bush administration has become legendary for infighting over foreign policy. But don't assume that the Republican bickering over how to deal with the world ends when President Bush steps down.

To see the potential for internal conflict in a McCain administration, consider two figures who may well be in line for top foreign policy jobs. On the one hand, there's John McCain's old friend Joseph I. Lieberman, the independent Connecticut senator who parted company with the Democratic Party over his ardent support for the Iraq war. On the other, there's a second longtime McCain pal, Richard L. Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state under Colin L. Powell during Bush's first term. Lieberman is a particular favorite of Republican neoconservatives, who favor an assertive U.S. military role overseas and want to spread democracy worldwide. But they mistrust Armitage, a Vietnam veteran who has become something of a skeptic about Iraq and complained while in office that hawks around Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were hellbent on war against Saddam Hussein.

A McCain administration with Lieberman as secretary of state and Armitage as secretary of defense would satisfy different Republican constituencies: Lieberman the neoconservatives, Armitage the realists. But wait a minute: How would Lieberman and Armitage get along? Or, more to the point, even if the two men hit it off splendidly, what about the separate groups of foreign policy specialists around them? How would Republicans who share Lieberman's righteous Wilsonianism deal with those who see the world with Armitage's pragmatism? These chronic frictions helped turn Bush's disciplined team of foreign policy advisers -- who famously dubbed themselves the Vulcans during the 2000 campaign -- into two feuding factions. And now one can find some of the same strains within the McCain campaign.

The Republican nominee is tacking back and forth to appeal to these often conflicting constituencies. In his major foreign policy speech in March, for instance, McCain proposed kicking Russia's increasingly authoritarian regime out of the G-8, the club of leading industrialized democracies. The neocons cheered, but McCain had to endure lots of grumbling from Republican realists -- those who, in the tradition of Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, are skeptical of democratic evangelizing and instead emphasize the importance of U.S. interests and international stability. Exclude Russia from the G-8? Bad idea, warned the realists: It would unnecessarily antagonize Moscow, and the Europeans would never let it happen. Sure enough, in late May, McCain delivered a new foreign policy speech that stressed the importance of cooperation with Russia.

Is this all just inside baseball? Hardly. Such internal disputes could undermine the next presidency, and they're all the more significant now because the stakes for U.S. foreign policy next year are so high. The new president will confront decisions not just on Iraq but on other nettlesome issues -- North Korea, Iran, the Arab-Israeli conflict, China -- on which the two wings of the Republican Party offer very different attitudes and answers.

No wonder McCain has been trying to fudge the philosophical disagreements within his party. In his March speech, he labeled himself a "realistic idealist." If that phrase has a curiously familiar ring, it should. In 1999, at the very start of his own campaign for the White House, George W. Bush delivered a foreign policy speech that called for "realism in the service of ideals" -- words drafted for the Texas governor by the Vulcans.

Over the past eight years, Bush's aides have offered several other efforts at semantic straddling. The administration's 2002 National Security Strategy called for "a balance of power that favors freedom" (balance of power for the realists, freedom for the

neoconservatives). Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who in 2000 led the Vulcans, set forth a policy of "American realism" (realism for the realists, American for those opposed to sheer, unqualified realpolitik). And in a valedictory article in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Rice insists that the two warring factions never really had anything to disagree about. "The old dichotomy between realism and idealism has never really applied to the United States," she writes, "because we do not really accept that our national interest and our universal ideals are at odds."

Much of the reason for the chronic feuding under Bush was not just that the two sides had honest differences of opinion but that the inexperienced president and his national security advisers (Rice in the first term, Stephen J. Hadley in the second) failed to manage them. McCain's supporters are quick to point out that, if elected, he would come to the White House with a background and mindset very different from Bush's.

McCain would take office with serious experience in foreign policy, where Bush had none. (The joke goes that McCain's three leading foreign policy advisers are McCain, McCain and McCain.) On the other hand, the Republican candidate trusts his own instincts -- for better or worse. His unrehearsed quips sometimes get him into trouble, such as when, during a visit to Baghdad, he confused the Sunni radicals of al-Qaeda in Iraq with Shiite insurgents thought to be supported by Iran.

But even if McCain shares a bit of Bush's tendency to shoot from the lip, it does not seem likely that President McCain would confront -- or tolerate -- anything so daunting as the top-level discord within Bush's first-term foreign policy team. In part to compensate for the young president's own greenness, the incoming administration in 2001 included two men who had previously served as defense secretary (Cheney and Rumsfeld) and one former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Powell). Disputes over policy that pitted the muscle-flexing Cheney and Rumsfeld against the realist Powell were exacerbated by the mutual mistrust lingering from prior administrations and the failure of Bush and Rice to resolve power struggles and make the machinery run.

But nothing like the tag team of Cheney and Rumsfeld is waiting in the wings for McCain. After eight exhausting years in office, the Republicans simply have fewer top people on the foreign policy bench. (Even Armitage, whose government tenure dates back to the Reagan administration, has never held a Cabinet job.)

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company