The national security managers now hovering about George the Younger have few historical parallels. You have to go all the way back to 1945 to find a comparable retinue of highly experienced advisers towering over an accidental President hoisted to the White House by a peculiar twist of fate. Of course, Harry Truman was not quite the foreign policy naïf that Bush is, and Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney are ill fitted to the shoes of George Marshall, Henry Stimson and Dean Acheson–but the analogy is close. There hasn’t been so much pseudogravitas in one room since the last time Henry Kissinger dined alone. Still, there is nothing in the record to suggest that the ascendant foreign policy team has an inkling of the tasks that ought to be central to the US agenda: forming international coalitions to deal with a rapidly deteriorating global environment, coping with failed states, massive poverty and frightening epidemics in the Third World, handling increasingly restive European allies and managing a world economy that may be moving into recession, possibly detonating worse financial crises than those in 1997-98.
Instead, the dubious pedigree of this triumvirate comes straight out of the defunct American struggle with communism, harking back to the Nixon era, when Russia and China were central foreign policy concerns, while doing nothing to quiet suspicions that titular Vice President Cheney is Prime Minister and Master Tailor of the Oval Office (Cheney and Rumsfeld have been close since 1969, when he was Rumsfeld’s protégé). The new National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, at least has a less predictable pedigree and may turn out to be a big star–in part because the others carry the mothballed scent of Republican administrations past. In the near term her stature will be too slight to be more than the facilitator and tutor to Emperor George II, but she has key credentials to joust for the plum job: ventriloquist. In the meantime this gang of four will compete to dress our new leader, fresh from decades of playing the Court Jester, in more suitable attire: a waistcoat fashioned from cold war verities, a silk vest of Reagan pie-in-the-sky panaceas, a golden thread of Thatcherite neoliberalism and a dark, brooding Nixonian cloak of realism-cum-nihilism for good measure.
If Cheney is the foreign affairs kingmaker, he is still Richard the Lesser compared with George the Invisible: Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz, the most important force in Republican national security affairs. Shultz–who vastly aided the rise of Condi Rice–got his first big break under Nixon, as Labor Secretary, while Cheney and Rumsfeld worked in the Office of Economic Opportunity; since then it’s been a game of musical chairs, with Shultz pulling the strings and James Baker, Powell and Cheney swapping national security posts under Reagan and George I. All this good-ol’-days Republican camaraderie does not mean these folks necessarily like each other. Cheney was the source of leaks to Bob Woodward that Powell was a “reluctant warrior” in the Persian Gulf War, causing Powell in his 1995 memoir to recall the failure of nerve that befell Cheney in August 1990, when it looked like Saddam Hussein’s tanks might roll right through Kuwait into vast pools of oil in Saudi Arabia. Rumsfeld was a notoriously nasty bureaucratic infighter in the Ford Administration–“ruthless within the rules,” according to an admirer–who took on Henry Kissinger and won more than once. Meanwhile, éminence grise George Shultz wrote in his own memoir that the vaunted Powell Doctrine–known as the Weinberger Doctrine before Colin appropriated it–was “the Vietnam syndrome in spades, carried to an absurd level.” American military forces, he observed, “were to be constantly built up but not used.”