Tue, 16 Sep 2003

U.S. hawks beat a retreat: Neoconservative tide turns

Jonathan Eyal, The Straits Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

The language used last week by U.S. officials during the second anniversary commemorations of the terrorist atrocities on the Twin Towers was predictably tough: America will continue to hunt down the perpetrators of this crime and their associates, wherever they may be.

And yet, although often imperceptibly, the U.S.' global military policy is changing.

The impulse to act alone, sometimes in defiance of world public opinion and often by deriding the role of international institutions, is now subsiding. Suddenly, the United Nations is back in fashion in Washington, and global consensus-building efforts have replaced unilateralism.

The conversion may be tactical rather than fundamental, but it remains significant.

The signs are unmistakable. In the last two weeks alone, America has let it be known that it would welcome a discussion in the UN Security Council on the character and mandate of the occupying force in Iraq, hitherto anathema in Washington.

And, more recently, the Americans responded to North Korea's sabre rattling by dangling the possibility of aid to the Pyongyang government even before a settlement to the nuclear stand-off is achieved. Yet again, this represented a crucial volte face, something which was hardly expected from the Bush administration.

When President George W. Bush came to power, it was by no means clear that the Republican hardliners, or neo-conservatives as they are now commonly referred to, would be in the ascendancy.

After all, Bush campaigned on a middle-of-the-road platform, which emphasized social inclusion at home, and promised less overseas intervention. His highly controversial electoral victory also pointed to a presidency which would avoid confrontation.

True, the old coterie of right-wing Republicans, people like Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, held important positions.

But their influence was counter-balanced by many others; within a year of Bush's win, the received wisdom in Washington was that Cheney and Rumsfeld were both on their way out.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 changed all that. The neo- conservatives were never a homogeneous group. But they have long argued that the end of the Cold War, far from removing the military threat to the U.S., has actually made America more vulnerable.

And, they have also frequently suggested that military might -- and not "limp-wristed" diplomacy allegedly practiced by former president Bill Clinton -- is the way to deal with such threats.

The terrorist atrocities transformed the neo-conservatives from a small fringe group to a collection of visionaries; everything that happened looked like confirming their long-held beliefs.

The result was fairly predicable: A war in Afghanistan, a huge increase in defense spending and the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

In strictly military terms, these operations were a great success. U.S. troops confounded most of the pessimistic scenarios in the Afghanistan war and dismantled Iraq's military machine in precisely three weeks while suffering few casualties.

Yet it is now clear that the military triumph in Iraq represented both the highest point and the beginning of the decline for the neo-conservatives. Most officials in Washington are now prepared to admit that Iraq's post-war arrangements were badly mishandled, and that the current situation is not tenable.

The U.S. cannot withdraw from Iraq.

But the President, now truly embarked on his re-election drive, is only too painfully aware that if he continues to lose soldiers at the current rate, the Iraq episode could become a disaster by the time Americans face the ballot boxes in November next year. The administration hotly denies any suggestion that it is now engaged in a hasty retreat from its previous policies.

But this is precisely what is happening. For the last two years, the State Department and its boss Colin Powell were routinely sidelined in Washington. Yet, the decision to return the entire Iraq issue to the UN Security Council was made public by none other than Powell himself, a sure sign that U.S. diplomats are now back in the saddle.

The Secretary of State's room for maneuver is limited: The administration is still not willing to make serious concessions in return for broadening the composition of the force which now controls Iraq. And Washington still expects to continue making decisions about the future of the Middle East, while other countries are invited to share in footing the bill.

Nevertheless, the neo-conservative tide has clearly turned; while Powell did all the running on Iraq and North Korea, Rumsfeld toured his troops in the Middle East, forlorn and unusually silent.

For governments which are traditionally suspicious of U.S. motives, this policy change appears to be a mere tactical ruse.

Perhaps, but there is no doubt that given the right response, what has begun as just a strategic change in priorities can ultimately be transformed into a more cooperative U.S.

Everything now depends on the reaction of the key veto-holding powers in the UN Security Council and the behavior of other governments.

It is pointless to wait for the ultimate "defeat" and humiliation of the neo-conservatives in Washington.

Their influence may be waning, but Bush is unlikely to repeat his father's mistake a decade ago by suddenly abandoning the bedrock of his right-wing support.

Nor is it very fruitful to regard the battle over policy now unfolding in Washington as a tussle between the supposedly moderate State Department and the allegedly hawkish Pentagon.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is one of the neo- conservatives' leading lights, right inside America's diplomatic establishment. And many of the generals in the Pentagon are behind the push to transform the Iraq operation into a much broader international effort.

For the rest of the world, the task is less one of isolating a few individuals, but more of persuading mainstream U.S. officials that the new mood of cooperation can bear fruit relatively quickly.

The dispute in the UN Security Council should not be about high principles but about the practicalities: How much of this command should be shared with other countries, and how much should remain in America's own hands.

Washington's policy change offers a window of opportunity. And seizing on this opportunity is now the urgent task of most other governments.

If they fail, a historic chance to bind the world's only remaining superpower into a much more durable and cooperative international security system would have been missed.

The writer is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.