Why the United States Will Remain Assertive Abroad

Why the United States Will Remain Assertive Abroad


President George W. Bush’s nomination of Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State is certain to put a more assertive stamp on US foreign policy during the next four years. By replacing Colin Powell, who frequently strayed from White House orthodoxy, Bush has signalled that he is determined to fix a dysfunctional relationship that hampered the execution of his foreign policy during his first term. Similar moves at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Council (NSC) show that Bush aims to take full control of his national security bureaucracy, and imply that he and Vice President Dick Cheney will dominate all aspects of US foreign policy decision-making. By centralizing power and enforcing discipline, the White House is laying the groundwork for a foreign policy that may be even more hawkish than before. But hardliners will be confined by military, economic and political constraints.


US allies and enemies alike should abandon the illusion that the White House plans to fundamentally reorient its foreign policy during the second Bush administration. Bush has said that he views his re-election as a vindication of his leadership and as a mandate to implement a foreign policy that is even more uncompromising about pursuing US national interests than before. Shortly after his re-election, Bush said: ‘I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style.’ And after meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin on November 30, Bush told reporters that ‘we just had a poll in our country where people decided that the foreign policy of the Bush administration ought to stay in place for four more years’.

Indeed, the re-energized White House has already spelled out a second-term agenda that is audacious in scope. Domestically, Bush has promised to reform Social Security, radically rewrite the tax code, change the immigration system and install a conservative judiciary that will long outlive his presidency. Abroad, Bush has announced that the grand strategy for foreign policy in his second administration will be to continue the project of democratising the greater Middle East. Moreover, he plans to stay the course in Iraq, continue a relentless pursuit of the war on terrorism and act alone where necessary. Taken together, Bush aims to overhaul the federal government, bring about long-term Republican domination over US politics and secure long-term US hegemony over the world.

To achieve this, Bush has appointed loyalists to run key cabinet agencies in an effort to assert full control over his administration and aimed at making the government bend to his will. The most significant move has been to send Rice to the State Department; not since Richard Nixon moved Henry Kissinger from the White House to the State Department has a president so seized the foreign-policy apparatus. The White House will now be in a position to muscle that department into accepting the more assertive world-view espoused by Bush and Cheney. Indeed, the administration is in the process of creating the most ideologically harmonious foreign policy team in decades, placing the centre of national security policy-making firmly within the White House.

In fact, few other presidents have had the opportunities that Bush now enjoys. Not only did he win a clear majority of the popular vote, but Republicans increased their majorities in the House and the Senate. Moreover, for the first time in 50 years, a two-term presidency will end without sending out its vice president to seek a mandate for succession at the next election. Because Cheney, who has no political ambitions of his own, is unlikely to run for the presidency in 2008, Bush will enjoy a unique freedom of action because he will never have to seek popular ratification again.

Nevertheless, there are a number of factors working against the president. Bush may find it harder to be hawkish during his second term because he now has much less flexibility to deal with international crises than he had four years ago. Iraq has exposed the limits of US power by magnifying America’s military, financial and diplomatic constraints, and critics warn that Bush will need to rebalance ends with means. Moreover, Bush may find strong opposition to his domestic agenda because the country remains politically divided and Washington is polarised.


Who Will Be Running US Foreign Policy?
The main beneficiary of the nomination of Condoleezza Rice to be Secretary of State is Dick Cheney. With Colin Powell gone, the administration loses its chief advocate for traditional Republican internationalism, and Cheney no longer faces even token ideological opposition from within the cabinet. This gives Cheney an unprecedented position in American history as one of the most active and influential vice presidents ever. Bush chose Cheney –an old Washington hand and veteran of previous Republican governments– as his running mate in the 2000 elections precisely because of his enormous stature and credentials in foreign policy. Indeed, Cheney has often been characterised as being the power behind the throne of the Bush administration.

In national security affairs, Cheney already is the de facto national security advisor. He is the main White House link between the Pentagon and the State Department, and runs a free-floating power base that has all but sidelined the normal policymaking machinery under Rice. In fact, during her tenure, Rice redefined the role of the national security advisor by choosing to play more of an advisory role to the president instead of managing the inter-agency process by which foreign policy has traditionally been made. For example, Rice refused to coordinate the often warring agencies like the Pentagon and the State Department. Instead, she has usually sided with Cheney because they both identify with Bush’s black-and-white perspective and preference for action over talk.

Although Cheney is a champion of American power, he is not a neo-conservative. However, before becoming the vice president, Cheney did spend time with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington think tank that serves as the citadel for neo-conservative thought. It was there that Cheney came in contact with neo-conservative foreign policy hardliners who argued that the United States had missed a chance to remove Saddam Hussein in 1991, that Saddam was rebuilding his stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, and that sooner or later the Iraqi dictator would have to go.

Indeed, the 9/11 attacks convinced Cheney that it was no longer enough to treat terrorism as a law-enforcement matter, and that the United States had to find ways to act against the terrorists before they struck. Of all the president’s advisors, Cheney has consistently taken the most dire view of the threat posed by terrorism, and he is widely believed to be the moving force for war with Iraq. Cheney has repeatedly warned that those who harbour terrorists face ‘the full wrath of the United States’.

Cheney has managed to embed his influence throughout the administration by appointing like-minded colleagues to senior national security positions, including his mentor, Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld, who like Cheney is a more traditional and pragmatic conservative not completely in the camp of the neo-conservatives, birthed Cheney’s political career in 1969 when he hired him as a personal assistant during the Nixon Administration. Their careers have been intertwined ever since.

Cheney and Rumsfeld hold the same strategic vision, they have a shared belief in the importance of American military power, and they are both sceptical about accommodations with other countries. Sometimes branded as their own axis of evil within the administration, Cheney and Rumsfeld have consistently worked together to undermine Powell on almost every major foreign policy issue. As a result, Powell has had little or no influence on the national security decision-making process, nor has he been effective in making the administration’s case overseas. Rumsfeld, a consummate Washington operator, has described the different approaches of State and Defense by saying Powell’s ‘job is to talk them to death and my job is to hit them over the head’.

A growing chorus of conservative commentators, however, want Rumsfeld replaced by someone with wider appeal. Many hawks have soured on Rumsfeld because his failure to install enough troops on the ground after the invasion of Iraq has dealt a severe blow to the continued viability of neo-conservative foreign policy. Before 9/11, Rumsfeld was busy overhauling America’s huge and conservative military establishment to meet the new threats of the 21st century –and to keep the US armed forces by far the strongest in the world– a key Bush campaign pledge in 2000. An essential element of his strategy was realigning US military doctrine by substantially reducing Cold War-era ground forces, and replacing them with smaller, more flexible fighting units that could be quickly deployed around the world. Rumsfeld’s critics now claim that the end result of his strategy in Iraq is an overstretched US combat capacity.

Rumsfeld has survived the first round of cabinet reshuffling by outlasting Powell. Unlike Powell, however, Rumsfeld lacks an obvious replacement, although some have mentioned Paul Wolfowitz, the neo-conservative deputy defense secretary and another driving force behind the war in Iraq. In any case, Rumsfeld is widely expected to remain in place until after the Iraqi elections in January 2005.

Because of Powell’s problems with key administration figures, foreign interlocutors have never been completely sure if he was speaking for the White House, complicating even his best diplomatic efforts. Moreover, Powell travelled less than any Secretary of State in 30 years; his three immediate predecessors travelled abroad almost twice as much. Although Rice has made no secret of her impatience with traditional diplomacy, as Secretary of State she is expected to subject European and other capitals to a vast American effort of persuasion to get them to fall into line on key US priorities. Rice in March 2004 said that the United States must put new energy into its public diplomacy, adding that ‘we, unfortunately, I think have not paid as much attention after the end of the Cold War to the effort to get the story out’.

Rice has one immeasurable asset that Powell, Cheney and Rumsfeld do not have –her unrivalled closeness to Bush–. The difference between Rice and Powell could hardly be greater: she shares much of Bush’s basic world-view, and both are politically conservative and devout Christians. Rice is the epitome of the Bush foreign policy and is likely to reflect Bush’s views on all key policies. Both allies and adversaries will know –for better or for worse– that when Rice speaks they can be sure that she is speaking for the president, and when she makes a promise she will almost certainly be able to deliver it. Moreover, Rice will be under the political control of Bush and Cheney, which will lead to a greater consistency between White House strategy and State Department execution than was the case with Powell. Rice is expected to tell it like it is.

Although Rice began her career as a moderate from the realist school of foreign policy –her mentor was realist national security adviser Brent Scowcroft– she, like Bush, is also a moralist, and this is a key distinction. Since 9/11, Rice has become a strong voice for an assertive and at times unilateralist US foreign policy. ‘These are not ordinary times’, she has said. Rice has described herself in the past as a realist who understands that power-plays on the world stage require compromise. But she has said: ‘there cannot be an absence of moral content in American foreign policy. And furthermore, the American people would not accept such an absence. Europeans giggle at this and say we are naive, but we are not European, we are American and we have different principles.’

There are two main candidates in line to become deputy secretary of state under Rice. John Bolton, currently the under secretary of state for arms control and international security and a former AEI vice president, is openly campaigning for the job. Bolton, perhaps the most hard-line neo-conservative in the Bush administration, has pushed for confronting Iran and North Korea and has made no secret of his contempt for the United Nations. He vehemently opposes the International Criminal Court. As the chief US non-proliferation official, Bolton is believed to be pushing Bush to take a more coercive approach towards North Korea. Another candidate is Elliott Abrams, a neo-conservative who two years ago was appointed senior director for Near East and North African affairs at the National Security Council (NSC). Abrams, who has been very friendly to Israel and has identified closely with positions of the Likud Party, is close to Rice. But nomination for any position that requires confirmation hearings in the Senate will put Abrams –and the White House– in an uncomfortable position, as Democrats are likely to bring up his role in the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal.

Rice is also expected to replace the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, William Burns, who has told associates that he would like to leave his job to become the next US ambassador to Russia. One name being mentioned as a possible successor to Burns is Danielle Pletka, a hawkish Middle East analyst with the AEI. Pletka, who, like Abrams, is Jewish, is a strong supporter of Israel.

At the NSC, Stephen Hadley, who has strong ties to Cheney and Rumsfeld, will take over from Rice as the national security adviser. Hadley has served four presidents, but his long career has been behind the scenes of US politics. Hadley, who has been Rice’s right-hand man since Bush took office, is another realist by instinct but is also extremely loyal to the president’s views. He was the author of a plan to engage North Korea before it was discovered that Pyongyang was secretly trying to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon.

The White House has also named another loyalist, Porter Goss, to take over leadership of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Goss, an ex-CIA agent and former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is implementing a shake-up at the agency aimed at streamlining an outdated and risk-averse spying bureaucracy. The White House is under pressure to fix the problems with US intelligence that were revealed by 9/11 and the failures related to estimates of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Many of the problems at the agency stem from an over-reliance on the use of technology for intelligence gathering and a corresponding neglect of clandestine agents. In a presidential order dated 18 November, Bush ordered Goss to increase by 50% the number of qualified CIA clandestine operators and intelligence analysts, an ambitious step that would mean the hiring and training of several thousand new personnel in coming years. Bush also called for a 50% increase in the number of CIA officers proficient in ‘mission-critical languages’ such as Arabic. Goss said his goal will be to emphasise a culture of taking risks. But he also plans to enforce discipline. In a memorandum to CIA employees, Goss said: ‘I also intend to clarify beyond doubt the rules of the road. We support the administration and its policies in our work. As agency employees we do not identify with, support or champion opposition to the administration or its policies.’

Foreign Policy With or Without Diplomacy?
Does the reshuffling of the foreign policy team mark the ascendancy of the neo-conservative world-view within the administration? Or does it signal a second-term shift of emphasis from war to diplomacy? Yes and yes.

It is true that neo-conservative ideology wields considerable influence on the Bush White House, and neo-cons are poised to become even more powerful during the next four years. However, it is also true that policy options for the Bush administration are more restricted than before because US military power is stretched to the limit by the commitment in Iraq, and US financial resources are severely constrained by large deficits. Indeed, Iraq affects virtually every other aspect of US foreign policy. Reaching out to allies may be the pragmatic choice.

Despite these realities, however, neo-conservatives do not appear to be ready to relent. In fact, although most true neo-cons remain largely outside the administration, since the election they have been actively mobilising to set policy direction. For example, The Centre for Security Policy (CSP), a neo-conservative think tank with longstanding ties to top hawks in the Bush administration, on 5 November laid out what it calls ‘a checklist of the work the world will demand of this president and his subordinates in a second term’. The list calls for calls for: (1) ‘regime change’ in Iran and North Korea; (2) dealing with threats posed by China, Russia and ‘the emergence of a number of aggressively anti-American regimes in Latin America’; and (3) ‘contending with the underlying dynamic that made France and Germany so problematic in the first term: namely, their willingness to make common cause with our enemies for profit, and their desire to employ a united Europe and its new constitution –as well as other international institutions and mechanisms– to thwart the expansion and application of American power where deemed necessary by Washington’.

More specifically, a coalition of neo-conservatives is pressing Bush to adopt a more coercive policy towards North Korea, despite strong opposition from China and South Korea. North Korea ranked high in bilateral talks between Bush and North-East Asian leaders, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, at the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Santiago, Chile on 19-21 November. Bush said that his patience with Pyongyang and its efforts to stall the ongoing six-party talks was fast running out and that Washington would soon push for stronger measures against North Korea in the absence of progress towards an agreement to dismantle its nuclear programme.

William Kristol, an influential neo-conservative who also chairs the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), distributed on 22 November a memorandum titled ‘Toward Regime Change in North Korea’ to reporters and opinion shapers across Washington DC. The memo refers to two recent articles, including one published on 23 November by Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea specialist at the AEI. The article titled ‘Tear Down This Tyranny’ calls for the implementation of a six-point strategy aimed at ousting North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-il. Eberstadt argues that Washington should ready ‘the non-diplomatic instruments for North Korean threat reduction’, arguing that preparing for the deliberate use of such options ‘will actually increase the probability of a diplomatic success’. He also calls for a purge of US State Department officials who had argued for engaging Pyongyang during Bush’s first term. Eberstadt’s views largely mirror those of John Bolton.

Another article, published in The New York Times on 22 November, is titled ‘Japanese Official Warns of Fissures in North Korea’, and describes recent indications cited by political leaders and the media in Japan –including high-level defections and the reported circulation of anti-government pamphlets– that Kim’s hold on power may be slipping. The article noted in particular a recent statement by Shinzo Abe, secretary general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), that ‘regime change’ was a distinct possibility and that ‘we need to start simulations of what we should do at that time’. Yet another article on the issue appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 24 November, which suggests a push for taking a more hard-line approach to Pyongyang.

So What Should We Expect in a Bush Second Term?
The White House has already said that the main foreign policy goal during the next four years will be democratisation of the Arab world. Bush has called it ‘liberty’s century’. Most members of the Bush foreign policy team share his perspective that reform in the Middle East is a moral imperative, rather than explaining it away as just a political agenda. Powell and the State Department have been unenthusiastic about this because they are realists who think such goals are unattainable and a distraction from pursuing America’s national interest, narrowly construed.

But neo-conservatives are moralists, not realists. And like Bush, Rice believes the best route to peace and security is through planting democracy in countries where it does not exist. If there is a ‘Rice Doctrine’, it is that the US should be ready to use its vast power in the cause of freedom and democracy. ‘There is nothing wrong with doing something that benefits all humanity’, she has said.

For the Palestinians, this means democracy first, then statehood, the opposite of the realist formula. Indeed, Bush is not expected to exert much pressure on Israel during his second term and analysts inside and outside of the US government say they doubt that Rice would be willing to challenge Bush’s most fundamental beliefs, especially his unstinting support for Ariel Sharon, the Israeli leader.

In fact, hopes that Bush in his second term will adopt a more even-handed approach to the Palestinian problem were frustrated after he invited Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and now a leading Israeli hawk, to the White House on 11 November to discuss the Israeli’s new book titled ‘The Case for Democracy’. Sharansky was the inspiration behind the 24 June 2002 speech in which Bush made a call for democratic reform of the Palestinian Authority the centrepiece of his vision for peace in the Middle East. Echoing a common Bush dichotomy, Sharansky describes a world ‘divided between those who are prepared to confront evil and those who are willing to appease it’. In the book, Sharansky –who has described Sharon as being soft on the Palestinians– says that there should be no concessions, funds or legitimacy for the Palestinians unless they adopt democracy, but a modern-day Marshall Plan if they do.

US Middle East policy has been captive to domestic political considerations in the United States for decades, and Rice has resisted taking a leading role in Middle East peace negotiations, even after Bush identified her as his key envoy, perhaps because of the president’s own ambivalence about the effort. Although Bush in his 2002 roadmap suggested a Palestinian state by 2005, during his joint news conference with Tony Blair on 12 November, it was clear that the 2005 deadline has been postponed to the end of Bush’s second term –or 2008–.

All of this suggests that there may not be much improvement in the US-Europe relationship during Bush’s second term. Indeed, the White House has sent mixed signals on its agenda for repairing relations with Europe.

On the one hand, Rice sent alarm signals across Europe when she was asked how the US should treat the countries opposed to the war in Iraq: ‘Punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia.’ She also told diplomats at a meeting of European Union ambassadors that the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases was ‘dead’.

On the other hand, she pushed for NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to be the first foreign official to meet with Bush in the Oval Office after his re-election. While Europeans will welcome any sign of Washington showing enthusiasm for the Transatlantic alliance, analysts say the US courtship of NATO is calculated to relieve US forces abroad and eventually pass the responsibility to the Europeans.

But even if Washington tempers its diplomatic tone, a change in tone should not be mistaken for a willingness to pursue policies more to Europe’s liking. When asked what he would do to repair America’s image problem abroad, Bush stopped far short of offering up policy changes. He said: ‘I will reach out to others and explain why I make the decisions I make.’

Perhaps the greatest test for the Transatlantic relationship will be over Iran. Indeed, Iran could become Rice’s first serious test. There is no doubt in the White House that Tehran is running a nuclear bomb programme, and the Bush administration remains deeply sceptical of the prospects for the Europeans to derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. One reason is that over recent years Iran’s nuclear programme has become tightly bound with national pride, thus making it all the more difficult for the regime to give it up.

The 35-country ruling board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring organization, passed a mildly worded resolution on 29 November welcoming Iran’s total freeze on a sensitive part of its nuclear programme. The resolution, passed by consensus without a vote, removes the possibility that the group will drag Iran before the United Nations Security Council for possible censure or even sanctions. It also rescues an agreement reached with Britain, France and Germany that requires Iran to suspend all its uranium enrichment activities in return for negotiations on possible rewards for Iran that will begin in December.

The Bush administration has repeatedly tried without success to persuade its fellow board members to debate Iran’s case in the Security Council. In a statement after the resolution passed, the head of the American delegation accused Iran of deceit and the board of the IAEA of irresponsibility. More ominously, the United States said that it could decide unilaterally to send the Iran case before the Council, a move opposed by Britain, Germany, Russia, China and other countries.

The goal of the Europeans is to convince Iran that the rewards of abandoning its enrichment programme hugely outweigh the programme’s benefits. But the Iranians were given nothing concrete in exchange for suspending enrichment, and the deal has been widely criticised in Iran as a sign of the country’s capitulation. Moreover, the European agreement, which fails to discuss consequences for Iran if it breaks the deal, is vulnerable to being undermined not only by Iran but also by the United States.

Indeed, the IAEA resolution is a win-win situation for the White House because it dramatically alters the way Iran will now be judged by the international community. As a result, it could make it easier for the United States to report Iran to the Security Council if it violates the suspension. If Iran breaks its pledges, neo-conservatives will press Bush to confront Tehran at the Security Council; calls for using force and for regime change are likely to follow.

The only remaining question for Europeans and others is whether neo-conservatives will be able to pursue their policies in any meaningful way. Pre-emption –the key element in neo-conservative strategy– does not appear to be viable in the near term because the US has its hands full with Iraq. More than likely, hawks may be forced to balance the rhetoric of confrontation with the reality of accommodation. What is not in doubt, however, is that the United States will remain assertive abroad.


As Condoleezza Rice moves to replace Colin Powell as secretary of state, the balance of power inside the White House will shift towards its more hawkish members. Neo-conservative ideologues have already put in motion an effort to set policy direction on North Korea, the Middle East and Iran. However, even if the neo-conservatives remain in the ascendancy, it is not clear that they will be able to pursue their policies in any meaningful way. Their ambitions will be restrained by military, economic and political constraints.

Soeren Kern
Senior Analyst, United States and Transatlantic Dialogue, Elcano Royal Institute