There is a relief rally underway that is celebrating the overdue but still welcome maturation of a suddenly contrite Bush administration.
Consider, for example, the Washington Post column by David Ignatius entitled, “After the Rock, Diplomacy.”
The Bush administration… seems to be bending… This conversion is long overdue…
[T]he administration seems to be tacking back toward the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which Bush appeared to dismiss back in December. Bush’s top aides have concluded that they made a mistake in seeming to reject the Baker-Hamilton report and announcing their troop surge a month later as if it were an alternative. In the process, they set back hopes for a bipartisan policy on Iraq — something officials now regret…
The final areas in which the administration is rediscovering diplomacy are its dealings with China and Russia.
One can find this same theme developed in a Los Angeles Times news story by Paul Richter, “White House Foreign Policy Has Shifted.”
Beset by dangers abroad and rivals at home, the Bush administration has embarked on a broad adjustment of its foreign policy in hopes of using its final two years to improve a record now widely viewed as a failure.
Since January, an administration known for stubbornly holding to its positions has launched a new Mideast peace initiative and reopened diplomatic channels with North Korea, Syria and Iran. And as President Bush arrives today in Brazil, he brings a new approach to Latin America…
“There’s a little more than a year and a half before the election, and they recognize that they’re in a hole,” said James Dobbins, a former diplomat and Bush administration envoy now at Rand Corp. “They’re bowing to reality and abandoning prior positions…. They’re looking for a variety of ways to demonstrate that they’re still relevant and still have room for accomplishment.”
Not so fast.
I have two concerns about this relief rally.
First, because it tends to reinforce the false notion that the Bush administration has hitherto stubbornly held to its positions. As I have suggested in a previous post, the Bush administration put the flip in flip-flop. At this point it goes without saying that they also put the flop in flip-flop.
One question for future consideration: how much did the flip create the flop? In other words, how much of the instability in Iraq is a result of particular policies held to stubbornly and how much is a result of an inability to act effectively because there were no particular policies pursued consistently.
Perhaps it would not have “worked” if the US had tried to retain Sunni Arab authoritarian rule in Iraq, replacing Saddam Hussein with an ex-Baathist. Perhaps it would not have “worked” if the US had tried to immediately transfer sovereignty to the Shiite majority, and let unfettered “democracy” run its course. But these are now entirely hypothetical questions. The US did not consistently pursue either of these options and the result in Iraq is not something that can be said to have “worked.”
Second, the notion of the maturation of the Bush administration misses the central role of factional struggle in the flip-flopping of the administration. In other words, the issue is rarely one of administration officials who experience a change of heart. Rather, the pattern of policy change seems to reflect a change in the balance of power among competing factions within the administration.
Did the North Korean deal reflect a victory for a faction that is, among other things, dovish on China? You bet.
Did the Cheney faction have a change of heart? Give me a break.
The same goes for Russia, Iraq, Iran, and just about everything else.
Until the factionalism is no longer a factor, it would be extremely naive to consider any policy move made by this administration as decisive.
The battles continue. Nothing has been decided. There is no decider.
[UPDATE: Jim Hoagland’s column in today’s Washington Post–“What Has Happened to Dick Cheney?“–addresses the question of administration factionalism and comes to a strikingly different conclusion:
Is the vice president losing his influence…?
[With regard to the “VP’s… internal policy defeats”]… what goes up must come down.
Reports of a new defeat lie ahead for the hard line on Iran and Syria that is associated with Cheney’s office…
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice… is credited by administration sources with having told Bush in January that he should devote his final two years in office to seeking diplomatic agreements with North Korea and Iran and an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. That account emphasizes that Rice is not simply outflanking Cheney in intermittent internal policy battles but has won full agreement and support from the president on the strategic goals and methods she and her diplomats are pursuing.
This remains to be confirmed by events. But it is clear that Bush has always been much more the decision maker than the Cheney-as-puppeteer image conveyed.
The Libby trial revealed serious splits between Cheney and Bush’s political team…
However… Cheney will not resign over the president’s refusal to take his advice. The only force that could drive him to that dramatic step would be that unshakable sense of loyalty to Bush, who desperately now needs a vice president in stable physical, emotional and political health. That is the equation you want to be watching.
I’m not inclined to quibble with the idea that Bush and Rice are tight. Nor would I dispute that fact that at some key moments in some key meetings Bush actually makes some big decisions (say, for example, the decision to invade Iraq!). But I think Bush lacks the courage of his own convictions, if not the intellectual depth to anticipate the consequences of his decisions. He is in over his head. And this has allowed all factional players to sandbag, sabotage, and undermine the Oval Office when it has suited them.
At times, the Cheney crowd has had the President’s ear and the so-called “Realists” have functioned as a beltway insurgency. Today, it looks like the Cheney faction will be forced to play that role. But the battle lines have not been blurred, no factions have conceded defeat, and the window of the Office of the Vice President is not a particularly vulnerable battlefield position from which to take shots as a factional sniper or saboteur.