Will a weak administration be a prisoner of special interests? How would Bush rule the world?by Anatol Lieven / December 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
At the time of writing, America’s odd mix of democracy and 18th-century oligarchy was poised to give us a Bush presidency. If this is so, then the key question for the next four years will be whether Bush aims at consensus, and forms an administration including Democrats and pursuing centrist policies, or whether the electoral and post-electoral struggle continues. If it does, then a Bush administration may find itself paralysed. Lacking real legitimacy, with a tied Senate and the barest of majorities in the House of Representatives, it will be exceptionally hard for the White House to launch any big domestic initiatives. In foreign policy, unfortunately, the reverse may be the case.
As set out by Condoleeza Rice (right), tipped to become National Security adviser, Bush’s foreign policy is rooted in the realist school of international relations, with a strong emphasis on putting US interests first. Rivals and partners will be dealt with on the basis of those interests, rather than the ideology of “democratic nation-building” which dominated much of the rhetoric of the Clinton administration. There is considerable hostility to military intervention except where this is clearly a vital US interest-and this reflects not just the beliefs of Colin Powell (a likely Secretary of State), but most of the armed forces as well.
In one of the rare foreign policy clashes of the election, Bush called for the withdrawal of US forces from Kosovo and Bosnia, and for European Nato members to take on the full burden. This produced howls of anguish from Europe, much scoffing from the Gore camp, and a hasty backtrack from Rice, who stressed that there would be no unilateral withdrawal. Little of this is as new or as “isolationist” as has sometimes been made out and it seems to reflect the basic attitudes of most Americans. It might even be no bad thing if, for a few years, the US were to refrain from further overseas interventions. The Kosovo war caused great international alarm, and US involvement with Israel is causing more and more anger in the Muslim world. While a Bush Junior administration-like that of Bush Senior from 1989-93-may be somewhat less tied to Israel than a Democrat one, the grip of the Israeli lobby is such that no US administration can distance itself enough from Tel Aviv to deflect Arab anger.
Given this, the last thing we need is another interventionist administration, committed to exporting US-style democracy and economics. Better to take a back seat for a while. The Europeans should be shown that they cannot always rely on the US in the Balkans, especially given their own pitiful contributions to Nato. Furthermore, if there is another middle east war involving the Americans, then the growing differences between the US and Europe over Israel and Iraq, make it probable that (unlike in the Gulf war), there will not even be symbolic military aid from European countries. In this event, Congress would force a US withdrawal from the Balkans.
When it comes to US weaponry, Bush’s language about military overstretch and unpreparedness is nonsense. The demand for more spending on high-technology weapons reflects an unsavoury mix of political pork and pressure from the military-industrial complex. The US already spends as much on its military as the next eight countries of the world combined: its technological lead is insuperable. The problem is the servicemen. The US Army has fewer than 600,000 soldiers, and only a small proportion of these are infantry suitable for deployments like Kosovo. Further, this is not a 19th-century army which could be sent to India (or wherever) for five years at a time. Especially in the case of married officers and NCOs: if their lives are put under too much strain by constant moves, they will quit the service and new recruits will not come forward. So on this score, Bush makes some sense.
But there is one issue where he is categorically wrong: the environment. The difficulty is that in his hostility to the Kyoto agreement, and to any serious action on global warming, Bush is not merely reflecting the views of his oil state and corporate backers-he speaks for America.
A much more important factor in international criticism of Bush and the Republicans has been National Missile Defense (NMD), which has united European governments against it-quite apart from the Russians and Chinese. It might be thought that a de facto coalition administration, or a weak one with a tiny majority in Congress, might drop this issue. Unfortunately, the plan is so popular that the Democrats have failed to oppose it properly, even when its technological rationale is seen to be flawed. It seems likely that a Bush administration will push ahead with NMD, and will abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty if Russia will not agree. This would obviously be bad for relations with Russia, China and Europe, and for non-proliferation. But it would probably only become a full-scale disaster if joined by other policies seen by Moscow and Beijing as actively threatening. In the case of China, this seems unlikely. Thanks above all to the business lobby, good relations with China is one of the few areas where we can speak of a Republican-Democrat consensus-as the big Congressional majority for accepting China into the WTO proved. There are no really powerful Sinophobe ethnic lobbies in the US. It is quite otherwise with Russia. One of the greatest dangers for the next four years is that, in a scrabble to attract every scrap of ethnic support, Bush may commit himself not only to NMD but to Nato enlargement to the Baltic States too. At this point, relations with Russia would probably collapse, with severe consequences for Russian sales of arms and nuclear technology, and Russian pressure on pro-western regimes in the former Soviet Union.
Further Nato enlargement would be clean against the principles set out by Rice and Powell, but it cannot be excluded. For these figures do not represent the full range of Republican opinion. As blacks, they are useful multicultural symbols (Powell enjoys great public respect) and they are free of the central European memories which have sometimes warped the judgements of Kissinger, Albright and others. But this also makes them unusual creatures in the US foreign policy ecology. Another candidate for high office in a Bush administration is Paul Wolfowitz, a much more interventionist figure; and lurking in the background are ideologues like Robert Kagan and William Kristol, who believe in spreading the American way of life through strong geopolitical pressure.
This is the problem with US realism, not just Bushite but in general. It is rarely consistent, and because of moral arrogance and cultural ignorance, it is often unrealistic in judging the likely reactions of other states. Because of the nature of US domestic politics, it can rarely resist the temptation to strike international moral poses, which may then turn out to have dangerous practical consequences. The power of ethnic lobbies means that it is also often difficult to focus on or even identify the interests of the US as a whole-supposedly the very core of realism.
This gloomy picture is by no means inevitable. Powell at least is as sensible and restrained an individual as we could hope for when it comes to the rational deployment of US power. The problem is that in this field there is no mass public consensus, because the public is too ignorant and uninterested. This increases the tendency of US foreign policy to be dragged to and fro by groups which make up in organisation and determination what they lack in numbers. A weak Bush administration may find itself more than usually vulnerable to their pressure. n