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National disinterest in Condi

June 26, 2008|ROSA BROOKS

You've come a long way, baby.

In 2000, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice published an essay in Foreign Affairs, "Promoting the National Interest." Back then, Rice was a Stanford professor and presidential candidate George W. Bush's senior foreign policy advisor, and the Washington establishment hung on her every word.

The article was brash, bold and widely seen as a Bush campaign manifesto. In it, Rice made the case for a hard-nosed U.S. foreign policy, one that would keep our national interests front and center and not be led astray by mushy globalist or humanitarian instincts or a foolish yearning for ideological purity.

Rice insisted that "it is simply not possible to ignore and isolate other powerful states that do not share [American] values." Realpolitik had to trump ideology. And she worried about what she saw as the "thinly stretched military," left "close to a breaking point" after eight years of values-based Clinton-era military interventions.

Though she asserted that our "commanding technological lead" gave our military "a battlefield advantage over any competitor" (Rice failed to predict insurgents or suicide bombers), she warned against nation building. "The military is ... not a civilian police force, it is not a political referee. And it is most certainly not designed to build a civilian society. ... It is one thing to have a limited political goal and to fight decisively for it; it is quite another to apply military force incrementally, hoping to find a political solution somewhere along the way."


Eight and a half years later, Rice has a new essay in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. This time, she's "Rethinking the National Interest."

Good plan.

She begins with a politician's rhetorical trick: When possible, evade responsibility with the passive voice.

"What is the national interest?" she muses. In 2000, she now writes, "monumental changes were unfolding -- changes that were recognized at the time but whose implications were largely unclear." Then, after 9/11, "the United States was swept into a fundamentally different world. We were called to lead with a new urgency and with a new perspective."

Presumably, being "called to lead ... with a new perspective" explains all the administration's numerous foreign policy about-faces. In "Rethinking the National Interest," there's little trace of the steely-eyed Kissinger disciple who warned against humanitarian diversions. Instead, Rice now tells us that the U.S. must focus on promoting democracy, human rights and economic development, especially in the poorest countries.

Analyzing the root causes of terrorism, Rice at times sounds like she wandered into the wrong political party. "In the broader Middle East," she asserts, for too long the U.S. "supported authoritarian regimes," but this "produced false stability ... there were virtually no legitimate channels for political expression." No wonder, then, "that Al Qaeda found the troubled souls to prey on and exploit as its foot soldiers. ... Our theory of victory, therefore, must be to offer people a democratic path to advance their interests peacefully -- to develop their talents, to redress injustices and to live in freedom and dignity. In this sense, the fight against terrorism is a kind of global counterinsurgency: The center of gravity is not the enemies we fight but the societies they are trying to radicalize." Right on.

On nation building, Rice admits her change of heart: "In 2000, I decried the role of the United States, in particular the U.S. military, in nation building. In 2008, it is absolutely clear that we will be involved in nation building for years to come." She goes on to say that we must take a "whole-of-government approach" to preventing state failure, with U.S. civilian agencies taking the lead. (A nice thought, but one not likely to be accomplished with the scant 1,400 new civilian positions Rice proposes.)

Rice's article is wiser, subtler, humbler and sadder than her 2000 essay -- at times, it's almost apologetic. There's still plenty not to like, but take out her reflexive defense of the Iraq war and a few rhetorical flourishes, and it could almost have been written by any of several leading Democrats.

For all that, Rice's latest essay has been almost universally ignored. No one seems to care much, one way or the other, about the secretary of State's foreign policy philosophy.

Maybe that's just Bush administration fatigue. Or maybe it really doesn't matter what Rice says. The philosophy she articulated in 2000 made no difference, and her revised one won't matter either. With Bush and Dick Cheney at the helm, Bush foreign policy will be what it's always been: morally bankrupt, intellectually incoherent and incompetently executed. And we're stuck with it for another seven months.


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