The Emperor’s Old Clothes

The Emperor’s Old Clothes

Bush’s national security advisers aren’t up to the tasks before them.


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.”

Rice and Powell: Dubya’s Praetorian Guard

Although Bush the Elder’s National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft stakes claim to having first spotted Rice (“this little slip of a girl”) at Stanford, Shultz has been her steady mentor in Silicon Valley. Her skyrocketing career began in a very different place, however: Bull Connor’s Birmingham, where she was born in 1954. After getting her PhD at the University of Denver she helicoptered from obscure assistant professor of political science at Stanford in 1981 to the Bush Administration in 1989–where she was a key adviser on the Soviet Union and its East European satellites as the Berlin wall collapsed–thence back to Palo Alto to become Stanford’s chief managing officer in 1993, within one month of being promoted to full professor at the age of 39.

Like all of Bush’s praetorian guard, Rice prides herself on being a hard-nosed realist, a trait helped along by an authoritarian personal style (according to several Stanford faculty members who dealt with her in the seven years that she was provost). Shultz got her appointed to the international advisory council of JP Morgan, to acquire some much-needed learning about how the world economy works. By now her economic program is Clintonism without tears; that is, a purely Thatcherite neoliberal emphasis on free markets, economic openness and individual liberty, to take advantage of the United States now being the prototypical “new economy.” She also served on the boards of the Hewlett Foundation and Chevron (which maintains large oil concerns in Africa). Although she and George the Younger claim to be great friends, in fact she first got to know him just over two years ago, at the Bush summer home in Kennebunkport, and they only “clicked” during a meeting in the fall of 1998–at Shultz’s home in Palo Alto. Shortly thereafter Bush made her his key foreign policy adviser.

Rice’s foreign policy views are a pastiche of warmed-over cold war clichés. In her signature campaign article for Foreign Affairs a year ago, she accused the Democrats of having no coherent national security strategy, just a hit-and-miss ad hoc-ery–conveniently forgetting George the First’s trouble with “the vision thing.” Bush the Younger, however, will valiantly guard “the national interest” (never defined in the article) and refocus American energies on “the big powers”–which just happen to be our old cold war enemies, Russia and China.

Rice quite ridiculously claimed that US military spending under Clinton had fallen “to its lowest point as a percentage of GDP since Pearl Harbor,” thus contriving to compare a military budget in which we outspend all our adversaries and allies combined with a time when the Army was little more than a constabulary and defense spending was around $500 million. Neither she nor Powell liked the American intervention in Kosovo; as tough realists they can’t abide a “humanitarian” use of force, and Rice has derided the US military’s role in Kosovo as mere police work. (They should talk to the Kosovars, who now view NATO troops as their liberators.)

Like Powell, her counsel may be caution in the use of force: Rice frequently says the United States cannot be “the world’s 911.” But what does that mean–paying billions to build up the military but not using it? Ringing the bell only for trouble with old cold war adversaries? Letting regional powers handle conflicts in their area? A clear test of the last principle occurred in the East Timor rebellion two years ago, when Clinton’s advisers initially said “let Asians handle it.” Then it looked like China might intervene, whereupon Clinton backed and directed intervention by Australian forces. Liberals may debate whether the United States should be the world’s policeman, but it’s no help to let US intervention depend on an undefined American “national interest,” and it suggests a Reaganite unilateralism.

As for Powell, George Shultz was right: His doctrine fails every test of pragmatic national security strategy, but it passes with flying colors the requirement that the US military have a self-satisfying explanation of its defeat in Vietnam (the politicians sold us out), and it meets the need to appear authoritative in hierarchical organizations. Powell calls his doctrine Clausewitzean and “the bedrock of my military counsel”: Have a clear political objective, use all necessary force, go in big with everything required to win and have a clear exit strategy. Vietnam failed all these tests, he and his military comrades agree, but which of our wars since 1945 has not? Fifty years after the Korean War, 37,000 American troops remain there with no resolution of the civil conflict and no exit in sight; what better example could there be of how easy it is to get into a war and how difficult to get out? Even Powell’s celebrated Gulf War victory doesn’t look very good ten years later: He got all the force he needed (and then some) to eject the Iraqi Army from Kuwait, achieving a ground war victory in four days; yet Saddam Hussein still requires round-the-clock containment to keep him “in his box,” 9,000 American troops are still based in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait–and there is no exit in sight. Powell says he had “no reservations and never will have any reservations” about not dispatching tanks into Baghdad in 1991. What he does not explain is that containment is in fact a good strategy from the Army’s point of view; the Army loves it, because the Army gets to plug all the holes in the containment system with its many bases around the globe. It turns out Powell’s doctrine isn’t Clausewitzean after all: On War is a textbook about winning militarily but losing politically, and the Gulf War is, if anything, an indication that Powell did not absorb its lessons. Clausewitz thought war was too important to be left to the generals; the crucial element is political or presidential leadership (as the Cuban missile crisis aptly demonstrated)–and this is where we start from scratch with Bush the Younger.

Regardless of his “doctrine,” Colin Powell cannot fail to be the most formidable figure in the new Cabinet. He fills every room that he walks into with a commanding presence and dignity. He is widely admired by broad swaths of the American public–with the notable exception of many African-Americans, who view him as a sellout (an uncharacteristically mild Al Sharpton dubs Powell and Rice “political sweet poison,” while others call Powell an Uncle Tom). Nonetheless he is the Cabinet member most likely to succeed, sooner or later, to the presidency. Unusually plain-spoken for someone who has held such high office, Powell wrote that “Iraqis have parents too,” in decrying Clinton’s harsh sanctions regime. Powell is also a masterful bureaucratic infighter, and when you combine that with his personal force and his talent for writing his own history, it is easy to see him going toe to toe with Cheney and Rumsfeld, and winning in the end–or at least in his next memoir. Given the State Department’s falling budget, low morale and search for a function since the cold war ended, Powell could do a lot to restore his department to pre-eminence in American foreign policy.

Even with Powell and Rice on board, Bush the Younger didn’t match the slim black vote that his father got in 1988. The recurrent biases of prominent Republicans against African-Americans clearly discomfit both of them; in his biography Powell called the 1988 Bush campaign’s Willie Horton ad racist and “a political cheap shot.” This ad was vintage Lee Atwater, who at the time had an acolyte working with him by the name of George W. Bush. Scuttlebutt has it that Powell and Rice remonstrated with Bush about his visit last spring to Bob Jones University.

Powell is a master in the care and feeding of Republican racists and white liberals, however, and because America is so hypocritical about race, he and Rice can effortlessly compose a list of reasons why being Republican doesn’t make them Uncle Toms. Powell compares the Army–perhaps the most integrated of major American institutions–with the double standards and pretensions of other American institutions, including our universities, where white liberals enjoy privileged positions while blacks struggle to puncture glass ceilings. Powell and Rice, who are increasingly lonely supporters of affirmative action among Republicans today, clearly advanced on their own manifold merits (in other words, neither is a Clarence Thomas). Yet, although both are quite aware of standing on the shoulders of civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, so far there is little indication that their presence will bring heightened attention to the area most in need of it: Africa, the continent with no end to failed states and civil wars, mass poverty and a Black Death-like HIV/AIDs epidemic. Indeed, early signs suggest a return to Reagan’s malign neglect of the region.

Demons, Villains and Charcoal Briquettes

At its best, Powell’s doctrine may mean his counsel to Bush the Younger about the use of force abroad will be conservative and restraining. But at worst his doctrine of all necessary force verges on exterminism. In 1995 he urged President Clinton to tell the North Koreans this about their alleged atomic bomb: “If we ever think that you’re going to use one, or if you do use one, you’ll become a charcoal briquette.” After the Gulf War was over, Powell exclaimed, “I’m running out of demons. I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung.” Now Kim Il Sung is dead, and his son looks less like a villain than an eager salesman of his country’s antiquated missile program. The inexcusable US embargo against Cuba looks more like Swiss cheese today, with most American allies and many Americans routinely ignoring it. So who will be the new enemies?

Mary Kaldor argued persuasively that the cold war in Europe was a “shadow conflict”: The massive forces arrayed along both sides of the central front were highly unlikely to fight each other after the two blocs stabilized in the 1950s, but both sides used this massive mobilization to discipline their allies and to promote massive military spending at home. If the USSR nonetheless cast a long shadow, what can we say today of the presumed targets of Bush the Younger’s National Missile Defense (NMD), the primary one said to be North Korea? Its three-stage missile is a shadow weapon, useful only as a bargaining chip, with a warhead that may itself become a charcoal briquette: North Korea doesn’t have 1960s-era heat-resistant technologies that would keep the warhead from burning up in the atmosphere when it returns from the heavens. Iraq amply demonstrated its recklessness in firing SCUD missiles aimlessly at Israel in 1991, but it still isn’t clear that the updated Patriot antimissile missile is more effective against them today than it was then.

Of course, it doesn’t matter whether NMD can shoot any missiles down or not (it can’t): It’s the money that counts. Western Republicans learned long ago that it was fine to have a gaping hole in their theory of a minimal federal government so long as deficit spending went to the Pentagon, which then funneled billions of dollars into the Sunbelt heartland that stretches from Strom Thurmond’s South Carolina around through Texas and Los Alamos, thence to Southern California and up the coast through Silicon Valley to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The “new economy” that Rice touts, and the university that she long worked for, are both knee-deep in defense contracts. In retrospect the real meaning of Reagan’s Star Wars program was a state-directed race for high technology, to overcome the lead that Japan seemed to be developing in the 1980s.

The originator of this corporate socialism was the San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation, which got its start under Herbert Hoover (and Interior Secretary Ray Lyman Wilbur, both of them longtime Stanford benefactors), helping to divert the waters of the Colorado River to arid Western states, especially California. As historian Kevin Starr has written, “The Hoover Dam represented a subtle triumph of the industrial Right,” and Bechtel never wavered thereafter in milking federal dollars for massive construction projects on a world scale, including entire cities in the Saudi Arabian desert and a myriad of American military bases abroad. So it’s no surprise that when Republican heavyweight Shultz found himself unemployed after Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, Bechtel took the poor waif in (Shultz was Bechtel’s president until 1982).

Expensive and unworkable weapons systems have another virtue for Republicans: The hot rhetoric surrounding them is a great source of red-meat language for the Republican right, even as centrists like Shultz and Powell struggle to keep them from messing things up too much. When you’ve lost your real enemies, the next best thing is to invent them. North Korea is now the public surrogate for China and its obsolescent nuclear strike force, comprising twenty ICBMs based on 1950s technology. If Clinton once saw China as a “strategic partner,” National Security Adviser Rice views China as a “rising power,” akin to Germany or Japan before World War II, a competitor rather than a partner. Meanwhile Russia looks dangerous to Dr. Rice because it is “a declining power,” likely to get more and more authoritarian. Most of George the Younger’s advisers take a dim view of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, meaning they will push for NATO expansion further into Eastern Europe and perhaps even into the Baltic states. In the past year Putin has begun to rebuild Russia’s relations with former cold war allies Cuba, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and China and Russia now say they have their own “strategic partnership.”

The shrewdness of Clinton’s strategy was to mingle economic and strategic diplomacy in enmeshing China and Russia in the world economy, giving them support in return for playing by the rules of systems that the United States dominates, like the WTO and the IMF, while treating them as friends so that their cold war-era military systems atrophied. To turn the clock back now to conflictual strategic relations with China and Russia is doubly stupid, because it will push them both to build up their defenses (when neither has up-to-date military forces with serious global-projection capability today), and it will defeat the purpose of fostering the commercial, financial and legal ties that open their markets and render them both tractable to American leadership.

These strategies, steeped in unilateralism and double standards, will also appall our allies and further alienate a Europe that is already upset with Clinton’s rash pursuit of globalization. When an atavistic realpolitik is combined with Governor Death’s capital punishment factory in Texas, his sorry environmental record and his advisers’ lack of interest in a host of twenty-first-century global issues (poverty, statelessness, massive migration, epidemics), we can expect a rapid increase in anti-Americanism and continental drift on both sides of the Atlantic.

We can also expect a return to demonizing China and Russia–and even if we now have a kinder, gentler North Korea, it can still offer food for thought to the new Cabinet. Kim Jong Il’s pantsuit, puffed-up hairdo and penchant for fine French wines and cognac may nauseate the old guard of hard-liners, but what can a dynasty do? You have to work with the available material in the next generation. So now we have George W., fitted out in wide-shouldered bankers’ pinstriped duds and a newly grave (if still knit-browed) visage, reporting for duty. Where is that little kid who spied the Emperor’s nakedness when we need him?

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy