Bush needs to calm his own warring factions
Foreign editor's briefing by Bronwen Maddox
The Times (London)
June 14, 2002
IT IS a peculiar state of affairs when the United States' allies,
and enemies, have to try to guess the outcome of the internal
battles of the Bush Administration in order to discern its foreign
The trouble now is that there isn't really a policy. The broad lines
of the Administration's intentions had been clear from September 11
to at least January 29, when President Bush gave his State of the
Union address, denouncing the "axis of evil".
Now they are blurred, by months of infighting between his advisers,
which the President has seemed unwilling or unable to resolve.
We are told that next week Bush will give a speech outlining his
intentions towards the Middle East. But one reason it is necessary,
and its content is so much in doubt, is that he has been apparently
so willing to be buffetted around by his competing advisers. When
Bush first assembled his team, many rushed to compliment him on the
quality of his choices. He might not have much experience in foreign
policy, they said, but at least he had brought in people who did.
There is no doubt that this has proved true. From September 11 until
at least the end of November, when the fighting in Afghanistan
lessened, the war belonged to the Defence Secretary, Donald
Rumsfeld,omnipresent on American television screens. Condoleezza
Rice, the National Security Adviser and a Russian expert, then
helped choreograph the complicated, unpredictable and crucial
relationship with President Putin. The Bush team was united on its
It doesn't look that simple anymore. Once the fiercest of the Afghan
fighting cooled, the war within the team began. The biggest split,
of course, is the one that divides the Secretary of State, Colin
Powell, from his colleagues, but even that is not quite as clear-cut
as it is often painted.
The caricature which is now commonplace would have it that Powell
stands on one side of an abyss, with heartfelt but ineffectual
support from his deputy, Richard Armitage, and about three quarters
of the State Department. Ranged against him in the battle for Bush's
ear are the hawks: Rumsfeld, the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, and
the Pentagon, with muted support from Rice. They have the backing of
a shrill, harsh chorus from the conservatives: Paul Wolfowitz, the
Deputy Defence Secretary, and the defence adviser Richard Perle.
This is true up to a point. There is no question that Powell is
isolated; this week has demonstrated it more brutally than at any
point in the Administration.
On Monday, after meeting Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister,
Bush slapped down all the strands of a Middle East policy associated
with Powell in a few quick remarks -- essentially, the commitment to
trying to restart a peace process. He seemed to embrace the views of
the hawks, namely that dealing with Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian
leader, is a waste of time.
Next week's speech by the President will show whether any fragment
of Powell's views on the Middle East has been preserved in the
Administration's policy. State Department officials say privately
that Powell supporters are deeply demoralised. Their chief, well
known for his resilience, may be able to keep sanguine under this
pressure, but that is a feat fewer of his staff are managing.
Why is he staying? Some conservatives close to the Administration
reckon that Bush takes advantage of his loyalty as a "good soldier",
willing to serve his Commander-in-Chief as long as he is wanted. On
this argument, the hawks can assume that Powell is not going to
quit. The more sophisticated version of this, again from
conservatives, is that Powell is useful, in fact essential, to Bush
because he reassures liberals and many who would otherwise be
His greatest value is not in pacifying critics in Europe. Powell has
been the main interlocuter with European governments, who dearly
wish he had more influence, but there is no sign that Bush
particularly cares about courting continental European opinion. But
keeping the allegiance of voices within the US which otherwise could
cause trouble, particularly those in Congress, is essential for
Bush. There is a lot of truth in this view, then, as there is in the
affectionate gibe that Powell's real job title is "Ambassador to
Still, it is not the whole picture. Even if from a supremely
uncomfortable position, Powell has had some influence. He received a
rebuff in November, when Bush announced his intention to walk out of
the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, against Powell's
strong urging, it is said. But Powell then turned his superior
Russian connections to good advantage, brokering the recent
arms-cuts deal with Putin, and gaining much of the credit for it.
He has also been instrumental in checking Bush's desire to have an
early attack on Iraq, as strongly suggested by the "axis of evil"
speech. In this, he has had unexpected allies, in the form of many
of the military chiefs, who are said to be deeply perturbed by the
practical problems of trying to topple Saddam.
Next week will be the biggest test of his influence, as he has so
identified himself with trying to restart a Middle East peace
process. It is impossible for Bush to reconcile his advisers'
incomptible views; he will have to begin to choose, more than he has
yet had to do in any area of policy. But there lies the heart of the
problem: the President's reluctance, so far, to adjudicate in these
rows, or to identify himself indubitably with one side or the other.
Never mind Powell: next week, in fact the next six months of foreign
policy, will prove a harsh test of the President himself. The action
he wants most clearly, attacking Iraq, is problematic. The step he
least wants to take, becoming engaged in a Middle East peace
process, he must now face.
Most serious, the risk that he didn't think he could possibly run
now looks like the situation that is hardest to avoid: the failure
to catch Osama bin Laden, the failure to oust Saddam Hussein, in
short, failure to prosecute to any conclusion the War on Terror, the
single defining theme of his presidency. His speech-writers must be
looking forward nervously to the State of the Union address this
What they will have to conceal is not just the lack of success, but
the proliferation of confusion, from the President's attempt to
agree with all of his headstrong, warring advisers. If he can't
bring peace to the battle between the Pentagon and State Department,
there is small hope for the Middle East.