The punditry world is abuzz with talk of a recent New Yorker article (no link available) by writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who has interviewed Brent Scowcroft, the former national security advisor for the Ford Administration and the Administration of George H.W. Bush. In a number of passages in the piece, Scowcroft takes on the current Bush Administration over the issue of Iraq, something for which he has earned applause from many Democrats and other Bush critics.
But when one reads the entire New Yorker piece, one finds that Scowcroft’s critique is directed at foreign policy idealism in general. And it’s a critique that should make Democrats jubilant over his attacks on the Bush Administration’s foreign policy more nervous than they appear to be right now. Scowcroft’s brand of foreign policy realism is shot through with contradictions and weak attempts at self-justification that should cause many realists to take issue with his arguments.
Consider that if Democrats capture the White House in 2008, they will look largely to foreign policy veterans of the Clinton Administration for guidance in constructing a new foreign policy strategy to replace that of the current Bush Administration. If so, then much of a new Democratic foreign policy will be based on idealist intentions and ambitions. Such idealism drove the intervention of the Clinton Administration into the crisis concerning the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the political crisis in Haiti and the Clinton Administration’s decision to take the first Bush Administration’s relief operation in Somalia and turn it into a larger nation-building plan.
Brent Scowcroft thinks as little of this Clintonian idealism as he does of the Bush Administration’s “neocon” foreign policy ambitions. In the article, Scowcroft backs the first Bush Administration’s decision not to get involved in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia by saying that “there was only so much that the United States could do” about the breakup and the ensuing bloodshed. This puts Scowcroft in direct opposition to the Clinton Administration’s foreign policy regarding the former Yugoslavia, as pointed out by Goldberg:
Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Bosnian peace accords on behalf of President Clinton, saw the [first Bush] Administration’s reluctance to take effective action in Yugoslavia as a failure of realism. “When the Cold War ended, the Bush people concluded that our strategic interests were not involved,” Holbrooke said. And they turned their back on Yugoslavia just as it fell to its death. They said they determined that it had no strategic value, but, as it turns out, the Balkans still had strategic value and an overpowering humanitarian case as well.” A good foreign policy, Holbrooke believes, ought to “marry idealism and realism, effective American leadership and, if necessary, the use of force.”
Scowcroft’s brand of foreign policy cannot be reconciled with the brand practiced by the Clinton Administration. As mentioned in the Goldberg article, Scowcroft simply “would have proposed that we go to the Yugoslavs and say ‘It makes no sense for you to break up. Economically, you’re small as it is, but, if you’re going to break up, here are the rules. Here are the rules, and we’re going to insist on those rules.'” As Goldberg writes, the first Bush Administration was going to rely on hope that Yugoslavia would stay together, much as it urged former Soviet republics to avoid the dangers of “suicidal nationalism” in an August 1991 speech by President Bush that was dubbed the “Chicken Kiev” speech.
It’s clear that Scowcroft’s statements in the New Yorker article are not simply attacks against the current Bush Administration. Rather, they are a shot across the bow against the likely foreign policy ambitions of any future Democratic Administration that would emulate the Clinton Administration’s foreign policy. So while Democrats may be pleased to see Scowcroft — the former national security advisor for Bush the Father — taking the rhetorical lumber to Bush the Son, they will have to contend with his critiques the next time they are given the chance to occupy the White House.
As Cindy Sheehan’s recent comments highlight, the prospect of repeating the vigorous foreign policy of the Clinton 1990s won’t make the Democrats’ anti-war isolationist base happy.