Politicus: Bush might be heading for tangle with neocons

Posted in United States | 11-Jan-05 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

President George W. Bush
WASHINGTON In a still corner of a Jesuit residence hall on a fairly dismal Washington day last week, the Reverend James Schall, professor of government at Georgetown University, was talking about the meaning of the world's reaction to the Asian tsunami disaster. "It's the clash of civilizations right there," he said. "How much money did the Saudis give?"

As it turned out, a check of the newspapers showed a Reuters chart that put Saudi Arabia in 19th place on the list of international donors, which Schall suggested was a glaringly inadequate response from a fabulously rich Islamic country to global horror that particularly savaged Indonesia, a Muslim brother-nation.

Schall's comment exemplifies the mind-set of a conservative scholar, yet one so politically nondoctrinal that an article of his in the current issue of Policy Review, the journal of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, comfortably puts down General Douglas MacArthur, an iconic darling of the old American right, for having sappy notions about the world's possibilities for dialogue and conflict resolution.

A year or two ago, a remark like Schall's about the Saudis might have had quick and wide currency in a Bush-1 universe where confidence in a good outcome in Iraq was the party line, and faith could be found in the idea of democracy eventually sluicing from a liberated Iraq into the rest of the Middle East. Now most of that tonality is gone, many of the crusading voices hushed, and their you're-with-us-or-against-us refrain transmogrified into concern the Americans could quit Iraq in a hurry.

For people who think a bit like Schall, reflecting on whether any political philosophy is left in the Bush administration, not to mention conservative or neoconservative ideology - he narrows down any categorization of himself to a fondness for St. Thomas Aquinas - there has been an obvious change. In his view, the big problem arose in the administration's not talking candidly enough about the Big Problem.

Referring to President George W. Bush, he said: "I always thought it was a mistake not say what Iraq really was, that is, a war against an expanding Islam. I can put myself in Bush's position, of course, and understand it was a prudential act to say it was a war on terrorism."

To the extent he thinks that the Arab world has looked on neoconservative notions of installing democracy there as lumbering it with a forced conversion from Islam, Schall said the region was going to reject it. And since Schall insists a deepening clash of civilizations exists (and sees great vested interests devoted to denying this), the language of truth on Iraq and the region would have been to correctly identify the enemy and limit a statement of U.S. goals to "bringing in broad standards of freedom, discussion and persuasion."

So, following the sense of Schall's remark on Bush's choice not to call the problem by its right name, the administration is stuck with having sold a war with an intellectually leaky cover story.

According to a U.S. official who served in the White House during Bush-1, the result now is an episode of what he tagged as "Bush Meets World."

Clearly, he argued, with the retreat of a dominant political philosophy, in its place are a new kind of vagueness and foreign policy orientations that lack the old central line: "I think the president has seen ideology has failed and is responding in ways that a traditional politician would. He's moving on. What neocon ideology he liked was blended into his own approach anyway."

In the minds of many American conservatives of pre-neocon origins, the former White House official said Bush had wandered from their hard-core scripture in his first term when he placed tariffs on steel imports from the European Union - an act that undercut his stance as a free trader. Now, since his re-election, the contention goes, the distance from conservative policy comfort zones has magnified.

A cutting example came in Washington last week. After meeting with Condoleezza Rice, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said he had gotten the impression that the Americans "will be able to live" with the EU's plans to lift its arms embargo against China.

Surely, this would jar any number of U.S. officials and congressional conservatives who think the administration should retaliate against the EU if the ban is set aside. Accepting Europe's sale of arms to China, it is said, would be massively self-contradictory, undermining the American view of Asia's security situation, and the positions of its allies in Japan and Korea.

The same kind of conservative reasoning is applied to judging pre-inaugural Bush-2 policy on Russia and Iran. Vladimir Putin's increasingly authoritarian hand in Russia and his efforts to influence the outcome of elections in Ukraine have met with administration expressions of dissatisfaction, but nothing that would say there are American limits and, after that, an American punitive approach.

On Iran and its efforts to build atomic weapons, the postelection Bush position comes down to letting a European team of Britain, France and Germany keep talking to the Iranians. Essentially, it is a method without any finality, one that does not explicitly state Washington will not tolerate an Iran with a nuclear force - or what to expect if there were one.

If this has none of the feel of Bush-1, it is not at all clear either just where the baseline has been shifted. When Bush goes to Europe in late February to "mend things" (in Colin Powell's words), there is the real likelihood that while offering less ideology, no new sense of coherence and reliability will come out of the mission. Against the backdrop of four years of the mantra-like specifics of Bush policies, no one I have talked to in Brussels or Washington since Christmas week has come up with a substantive explanation of what this trip is about.

Through the gray afternoon at Georgetown, Schall spoke about the consequences of policy that was not firmly stated, and of the allure of tossing seemingly intractable problems at international institutions that offered no special guarantee of neither wisdom or justice. He also pointed to the limited appeal of "soft power" in a lethal world where "you don't have a culture here or in Europe that recognizes seriousness of the issues" involved in what he believes is a battle for the existence of the West.

Soft power, softer power, whatever kind of power, or whoever its advocates: "They have to realize that you can't exercise any of it unless there's a line that the guy who does not wish you well can't cross," Schall said. "You can't do it without drawing those lines for all to see."

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