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The many voices of US foreign policy
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - If foreign leaders and diplomats appear increasingly confused about where United States foreign policy is being made, they are not alone.

From Qalqiya on the West Bank to Karbala in Iraq to North Korea, contending forces within both the administration of President George W Bush and his Republican Party are duking it out for control, and the White House seems more and more unable to impose discipline.

While the neo-conservatives and right-wing hawks in the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, who led the drive to war in Iraq, have been put on the defensive as the costs in blood and treasure of the post-war occupation mount, they have by no means retreated from the battle.

And while Secretary of State Colin Powell has worked quietly to extend his power, particularly over the Israeli-Palestinian roadmap and dialogue with Pyongyang, right-wing elements in Congress appear determined to thwart him, even if the Pentagon's voice on the two issues has been somewhat diminished.

To succeed, Powell needs a strong ally within the White House, and, as noted by the Financial Times last week, the newly perceived weakness of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her staff is making it very difficult for the secretary to gain traction there.

Instead, Powell is relying increasingly on his friends in Congress, particularly Democrats and moderate Republicans - such as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, and Senator Chuck Hagel - to both press his positions and to keep the Pentagon on its heels, a task they performed admirably in a remarkably confrontational hearing on Iraq that featured a defensive, if defiant, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

Indeed, as both lawmakers and Bush left the capital for the August recess, the overriding impression is one of a diffusion of power that the president might find difficult to recover when official Washington reconvenes in September for what is shaping up as a very difficult autumn.

Congress has scheduled a battery of hearings on whether, how, and why the administration exaggerated the threat to the country allegedly posed by Iraq in the run-up to the war, and how and why it so completely failed to anticipate and plan for the post-war debacle.

Unless the military has captured Saddam Hussein and resistance to the US occupation has been substantially reduced by then, those hearings could spell major trouble for the administration.

Bush's handlers appear to have sensed that he has lost authority over the past few weeks, despite last week's killings of Saddam's two sons, a development that appears to have at least temporarily halted a steep slide in Bush's popular support. They hastily scheduled a rare press conference Wednesday, at which he gave a particularly cocky and confident performance.

But Bush's demeanor came across as mostly empty bluster, including his assumption of responsibility for his controversial State of the Union Address reference to flawed intelligence about Iraq's alleged effort to gain uranium yellowcake from Africa. The appearance became instant fodder for laughs on late-night television talk shows.

But adding to the growing sense of a vacuum at the White House has been Rice's sharply diminishing public stature as a competent arbiter of policy. Her case was probably not helped by Bush's effusive - if irrelevant - endorsement of her as "an honest, fabulous person" at his press conference.

Her initial attempts to blame the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the president's reference to the African yellowcake have clearly backfired, and her tardy admission that she had not read key intelligence documents on Iraq has exposed to the broader public one of Washington's least-talked-about secrets: she lacks the expertise and authority to impose discipline on warring parts of the sprawling national security bureaucracy.

That shortfall has been evident for a long time, but became particularly pronounced last year when Cheney assailed United Nations' weapons inspectors just as Powell had persuaded Bush to request new inspections.

Her passivity also encouraged Rumsfeld to speak out on a range of foreign policy issues - such as "the so-called occupied territories" and "Old Europe" - that both made Powell's efforts to rally international support behind Washington much more difficult and needlessly alienated key allies.

The fact that Rice - whose job it is to coordinate different agency perspectives into a coherent national security policy - could or would not impose discipline on the Pentagon contributed to the perception abroad this year that the State Department had been seriously marginalized and its opinions could not be taken as seriously as those of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz or Rice herself.

That impression changed partially just after the Iraq war, when Rice, whose proximity to the presidential ear is still regarded as without peer, was named by Bush as the person responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Israeli-Palestinian roadmap, which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

With the Pentagon pre-occupied with post-war Iraq, analysts saw that a Powell-Rice alliance on the roadmap could redress the balance of power within the administration in the State Department's favor, not just with respect to the Middle East, but on other key issues like North Korea and Iraq.

While generally hawkish, Rice, whose academic expertise is the Soviet military, is regarded as more pragmatic and less ideological than the unilateralists around Rumsfeld and Cheney. But her public exposure as a lightweight, combined with Bush's babble, has set back the hopes of those who thought Powell might regain more control over policy. The result is the spectacle of an uncoordinated scramble for power, with Cheney and the Pentagon - backed by Congressional right-wingers - still pushing their agenda, at the same time that Powell and key Democrats and moderate Republicans try to push back, with Bush, Rice and the White House somewhere out in right field.

The jockeying was clear all week long. While Powell and the senators all but pleaded for a new UN Security Council resolution that would permit more countries to contribute troops and financial assistance to Iraq, Wolfowitz rejected any arrangement that would diminish US control over the occupation.

Similarly, as Powell and his Congressional supporters called for the administration to swiftly engage North Korea, John Bolton, the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security who was forced on Powell by Rumsfeld and Cheney, delivered a ferocious address in Seoul in which he repeatedly and personally attacked Kim Jong-il, suggesting to some experts that he was deliberately trying to sabotage a new round of talks.

Meanwhile, in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - a favorite of the hawks - Bush declined to criticize Israel's construction of a security fence in the occupied territories as he had done just the week before.

And while Sharon was toasted at the White House, the powerful Republican Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay, assured his right-wing hosts in Jerusalem of his reservations about the road map and that he "can't imagine in the very near future that a Palestinian state could ever happen".

(Inter Press Service)
Aug 5, 2003

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