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    Middle East
     Apr 5, 2006
Clipped wings and a triumph for realism
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - Although still united in pushing for confrontation with Iran, the coalition of hawks that propelled US troops toward Baghdad three years ago appears to have finally run out of steam.
Demoralized by the quagmire in Iraq, as well as President George W Bush's still falling approval and credibility ratings, the coalition of aggressive nationalists, neo-conservatives and the Christian Right that promoted the belligerent, neo-imperial trajectory in US foreign policy has lost both its coherence and its power to

dominate the political agenda in Washington.

As a result - and almost by default - realists under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and in the uniformed military have steadily gained control over the administration's policy. Within the increasingly fractious Republican Party, more xenophobic forces appear to be on the rise, as evidenced by recent and ongoing controversies surrounding immigration and foreign control of US ports.

Evidence of a decisive shift is not hard to find, beginning with the latest edition of the "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America", released last month.

A kinder, gentler version of its fire-breathing 2002 predecessor that laid out the doctrinal justification for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the new version puts a greater emphasis on diplomacy and development, tending alliances and other realist themes, even as it continued the administration's defense of preemptive military action with Iran squarely in mind.

Rice's constant travel - as well as that of her two underlings, Deputy Secretary Robert Zoellick and Under Secretary for Policy Nicholas Burns - not only demonstrates the priority the administration has placed on cultivating allies and even states more skeptical of US benevolence. It also suggests that the State Department - the bastion of foreign-policy realism - is considerably more confident of its own power within the administration.

Indeed, Rice's peripatetic pace stands in striking contrast to the homebody habits of her predecessor, Colin Powell, who feared that even a two- or three-day absence from headquarters would create policy vacuums instantly filled by Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, co-leaders of the hawks' "cabal", as Powell's former chief of staff, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, has called them.

Similarly, senior military officers have appeared less reluctant to buck the party line, making assertions about the lack of progress and looming possibility of civil war in Iraq that are far less optimistic than the two cabalists-in-chief.

In fact, the hawks' decline dates to late 2003 when it became clear that Cheney and Rumsfeld and their neo-conservative subordinates, then-deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, under secretary for policy Douglas Feith, had totally failed to anticipate, let alone prepare for, a Sunni-based insurgency that has gone from strength to strength.

Except for a brief period from Bush's November 2004 re-election and very early in 2005 - a period in which they had hoped that Powell's departure and the president's soaring pro-democracy inaugural address signaled a resurgence of their power - the hawks have steadily lost power to the realists led by Rice. The neo-conservative rhetoric, like the president's, has masked the shift back to the more cautious approach of Bush's father.

The return to realism has been helped immensely by the disappearance over the past year of key players from the administration, among them Wolfowitz and Feith, whose unpopularity with the military and among even Republican lawmakers made them convenient scapegoats for the growing fiasco in Iraq.

John Bolton's move from a policymaking role in the State Department to the United Nations also deprived the "cabal" of a key player in a strategic post behind "enemy" lines.

The loss of I Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's formidable chief of staff and national security adviser, after his indictment by a federal grand jury for perjury and other charges in connection with the unauthorized leading of classified information last October was an even more decisive blow against the hawks. A national-security specialist who acted with the full authority and confidence of the most powerful vice president in US history, Libby was the hub of the hawks' network inside the administration.

The network has also suffered serious losses in Congress, most particularly the resignation after his indictment by a Texas grand jury last year of the unusually powerful House majority leader, Tom DeLay, who this week said he would not stand for re-election. An outspoken champion of Israel's settler movement, "The Hammer", as he is known, imposed iron discipline on Republicans in the lower chamber on behalf of the 25-year alliance between the Christian Right and pro-Likud neo-conservatives.

But aside from these losses, the coalition has been set back by internal divisions that seem only to grow deeper.

With a few hardline exceptions, neo-conservatives such as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol have been attacking Rumsfeld for failing to deploy many more troops to Iraq and crush all resistance virtually since US forces invaded.

More recently, they have taken advantage of the growing calls for a comprehensive shakeup in the administration to renew their demands for Rumsfeld's resignation, demands that ironically echoed those in recent days of their realist foes in retired military ranks, including former Central Command chief General Anthony Zinni and General Paul Eaton, who served as senior commander in Iraq.

Neo-conservatives have also suffered internal divisions that have weakened their political potency. The most important has been their reaction to Israel's disengagement from Gaza and the Kadima Party's plans to dismantle settlements in the West Bank. Staunch Likudniks have opposed disengagement and the administration's support for it; while more moderate elements, including Kristol, have taken a more flexible position.

The coalition of hawks is also increasingly threatened by growing disillusionment over the effects of the Bush administration's democracy crusade across the Middle East.

Key leaders in the Christian Right, in particular, were stunned by the capital charges brought this year by a court in Afghanistan against a Christian convert, who after US and Western protests was permitted to go into exile in Italy last week.

"Some [in] our community decided early on that we would support the president's policies because it might provide the shock therapy to change these dictatorships" in the Islamic world, Reverend Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told National Public Radio on Sunday.

"Now, if in fact as a result of this effort ... we're not going to have that kind of freedom for people to choose [their faith], then that's a real torpedo in the belly of the president's policies."

Indeed, the findings of two recent national surveys was that evangelical Christians, who make up roughly 40% of all Republicans and have long been Bush's strongest source of political support, have become significantly more skeptical about his interventionist policies in the Middle East since late last year.

While all of these trends have weakened the hawks and are likely to moderate US policies in the region, they do not mean that the chances of military action against Iran have been significantly reduced.

Unlike the Iraq invasion, which was promoted almost exclusively by the three coalition constituents, Iran's nuclear program is seen as a threat to vital US interests by a broader range of forces, including some realists and even liberal internationalists in the Democratic Party.

(Inter Press Service)

Neo-con cabal blocked 2003 nuclear talks
(Mar 30, '06)


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