Beating About the Bush

For those who see George W. Bush as a dummy, the question is, who are his ventriloquists? Even those who claim to detect hitherto hidden reserves of intellect in the president-elect would not claim for him much in the way of interest in foreign policy, so the nature and views of his entourage are very important.

In fact, there are some positive aspects to the transition. Operating with the blessing of the incoming administration, outgoing UN Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke is on a full court press to get the gnawing issue of U.S. dues out the way before he leaves. And he has done surprisingly well. If, as looks likely, a deal can be arranged and Senator Jesse Helms can be forced to accept it, U.S./UN relations would be off on a new and better footing. In domestic policy formation terms, the executive branch would regain control of an area of foreign policy that the Clinton administration had abandoned to the legislature. Indeed, even before Clinton, the Congress had, through its handling of the UN dues issue, effectively dumbed down American diplomacy, making the concept of U.S. diplomacy almost an oxymoron in the view of the rest of the world.

Looking at the “ventriloquists” gives some room for cautious optimism. Although they are by no means starry-eyed multilateralists, neither are they the knee-jerk isolationists of the Republican right. And whatever one may think of Texas oilmen, they know that there is a world out there full of oil that needs the cooperation of foreigners to tap.

Bush senior was UN ambassador himself, and he and James Baker certainly knew the uses of the United Nations to the United States–whether or not they appreciated its value to the world. Similarly, Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell’s experience in the Gulf War should have demonstrated to him the efficacy of the United Nations for achieving U.S. policy goals.

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice perhaps epitomizes the hard-nosed pragmatism that we might expect of the new administration. She has remarked caustically on the purported attachment to international law of the Clinton team. In practice, this regard for international law has not been readily apparent to American allies, let alone to enemies. So the differences may be more rhetorical than real. Even the Janus-like U.S. can hardly consistently invoke international law against Iraq or Libya yet routinely scorn its application elsewhere.

Regarding peacekeeping, Powell’s reservations about U.S. involvement are not off-the-wall. One only has to compare the new, post-Bosnia British attitude, which is prepared to support peacekeeping operations only under specified, and fairly robust, mandates. In practical terms, it could be argued that the small British contingent in Sierra Leone, operating outside the UN command structure, has been very effective. It is also significant that Bush’s earlier “mis-spoken” throwaway lines about the U.S. pulling out of the Balkans were hastily reinterpreted in ways less provocative to European allies. Allies come at a price, and it is possible that the Europeans may help fill in new administration’s blank spots on, for example, Africa.

Unresolved are two related questions: whether the UN ambassador will be in the cabinet, and who will take the job. Previously, the Bush administration had kept it as a professionally staffed position with Tom Pickering as UN ambassador. The Albright experience does not suggest that the cabinet-level entrée did much for the UN as a factor in U.S. policy, and there will always be an uncomfortable relationship between State, the office of UN ambassador, the National Security Council, and the Pentagon, about who runs foreign policy. (With the appointment of General Colin Powell, it is possible that the latter may regard the question as settled!)

Various suggestions have been made for the UN position. At one time John Bolton, who headed the State Department’s UN affairs desk, was being mooted. As former chief UN baiter for the Heritage Foundation, Bolton was kept under control by former Secretary of State Baker, and has recently been on the UN payroll as assistant to Baker in the ongoing Western Sahara negotiations. Bolton’s basic prejudices have not changed, however, and it would not be a good augury for U.S./UN relations to have him sitting in the Security Council.

Elizabeth Dole has also been mentioned, and she would almost certainly demand and get a cabinet seat. In many ways, such as her experience heading the International Red Cross, Dole would be much better qualified for the ambassadorship than was Albright when she was appointed. Dole would certainly cause less despairing rolling of the eyeballs.

In terms of appointments, Carole Bellamy, the Clinton appointee as head of UNICEF has just dug in deep with a renewed five-year contract. Although these are supposed to be “international civil service” jobs, the Clinton administration showed no compunctions about reshuffling “its” appointments on taking office. If Bellamy doesn’t go quietly then there is little that could be done to move her.

In one small way, the new administration may have a somewhat harder time getting its way in the United Nations. Over and above the “special relationship” with the U.S. that Britain has always evoked to maintain a seat close to the top table in UN matters, in recent years the British government, motivated by the genuine admiration that Tony Blair has had for Bill Clinton, has gone a long way diplomatically to mitigate anti-U.S. sentiment in the Security Council. With that personal relationship no longer in play, Labor Ministers in the Foreign Office are believed to be extremely happy that they will no longer be under pressure from the Prime Minister’s office to accommodate National Missile Defense plans.

Support for National Missile Defense and opposition to the International Criminal Court are among the few ideological foreign policy positions that seem fixed for the new team. Of course, the Know-Nothings of the Republican right in Congress will attempt to shoe-horn many more of their prejudices into policy, but hard-nosed pragmatism may overcome that. One suspects that the Republican White House will, keeping with previous form, be much more robust about manufacturing domestic political support for what it wants for foreign policy. But that leaves unanswered the key questions: Just what does it want? And does it know?