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THE NATION | WASHINGTON

Armed With a Big Stick, How Loudly May We Speak?

March 04, 2001|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell returned from a tour of three continents in five days to face a political paradox at home. President George W. Bush, who squeaked out the narrowest electoral victory in modern U.S. history, is likely to find his toughest problems in foreign policy rather than in domestic politics, but his secretary of State will have more problems with domestic politics than foreign policy.

Here's why.

One of the major factors contributing to Bush's narrow victory was public unease over what some voters saw as the Clinton administration's overreaching in foreign policy. Humanitarian interventions in Bosnia, Haiti and Kosovo involved U.S. forces in missions that many Americans, including many military officers, viewed with great skepticism. Nation-building in other people's countries can be a frustrating, expensive and dangerous business.

The Bush attack on the former administration's foreign policy boiled down to this: Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright were doing the opposite of what Theodore Roosevelt advised--their voices were too loud and their stick was too small. They talked too much about democracy and human rights abroad, and let military readiness decline. A Bush administration would turn down the volume and up-size the stick. Increases in military spending would be balanced by a less strident, less ambitious diplomacy.

Powell stands for this kind of foreign policy, one that largely reflects what most Americans want. Unfortunately for his peace of mind and political tranquillity within the Bush administration, the talented and able foreign-policy team that Bush assembled agree on the big-stick part of the program but aren't so sure about the speaking-softly part.

In fact, it looks as if administration hard-liners are turning up the volume on almost every diplomatic issue the country faces. Proposals for a national missile defense have caused problems with Russia, the European Union and, most recently, South Korea; talk of getting tough with China and supporting Taiwan risks heating up this perpetually simmering crisis; rhetoric about toughening U.S. policy toward Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein angers and annoys our allies more than it damages either of these crafty politicians.

Powell's first trip abroad was an attempt to defuse some of the brewing controversies, and, at least for now, he has succeeded. He reassured Europeans that Americans support the idea of an EU defense force, and that we will try to work with them on missile defense; he won at least grudging Arab support for an approach to Iraq that tightens military sanctions but loosens the unpopular economic sanctions that impoverish Iraqi civilians; he tried to work out something with the Russians on missile defense, and he promised the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that the United States won't leave Kosovo ahead of its allies.

This was good diplomacy and made a good impression abroad. Powell won high marks in the international press and from foreign leaders for a polished and effective performance. The world seemed reassured that Powell's State Department wouldn't take the United States down any risky roads.

But Powell's real problems are back in Washington. Foreign leaders you can make peace with; critics and opponents within your own party and administration are harder to handle.

In particular, Powell's "softly, softly" approach to foreign policy has run up against stiff opposition from those in the administration who think the United States should holler and yell and not only carry a big stick but use it to thwack people. Speaking softly, say the hawks, is a sign of weakness. The United States has more power, more prestige and more money than anybody else in the history of the world, and we need to use them. If we don't stand up for our interests and our values, who else will? And, since we are as strong as we are, if we let others know we mean business, they will eventually give in.

The yellers don't just want the United States to have a vocal foreign policy; they want an active one. The United States should support internal opposition groups organizing in Iraq to overthrow Hussein. Sanctions on Cuba should be strengthened. European schemers who want to undercut NATO by building a local defense force should be stopped, if necessary, by U.S. threats to leave the Atlantic alliance.

The loud speakers are sprinkled throughout the Bush administration, and heavily represented in the Defense Department. More than a few Washington insiders think the big political firestorms of 2001 won't be fights between Republicans and Democrats over issues like the president's tax cuts. Instead, the fights will be between Republican members of the administration as the team--long on brains, long on self-confidence, short on team spirit--fight for control of the foreign-policy agenda.

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