Over the last year, the Bush administration has undergone a sort of deathbed conversion to a traditional diplomacy characterized by working with allies and negotiating with enemies. None other than John Bolton, once Bush's UN ambassador and now one of his harshest critics from the right, has howled that the "Obama administration has begun six months early" and that the administration's shift represents "appeasement" and the "intellectual collapse" of Bush's foreign policy.
But this shift is more than the product of a desperate president; it symbolizes the downfall of the conservative national-security establishment that has dominated the foreign-policy debate since the end of the Cold War.
Consider the administration's new approach to the charter members of the "axis of evil," Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. Gone is the tough-guy strategy whose hallmark was rhetorical posturing and refusal to negotiate. In terms of Iraq, the administration is talking more about timetables for withdrawing troops.
For the past year, the Bush administration has engaged in high-level, direct negotiations with the North Korean regime to persuade it to come clean on its past nuclear activities and end its nuclear program -- talks that have achieved some modest success. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently met with her North Korean counterpart, the first such meeting between representatives of the two nations at that level since Madeleine Albright's trip to Pyongyang in 2000.
Meanwhile, despite all the Washington chatter about the possibility of military attacks on Iran over its nuclear ambitions, President Bush has been working through the United Nations Security Council to create a unified diplomatic approach, accepting watered-down Security Council resolutions in order to keep Russia's and China's support. And last month, the administration finally broke one of the most enduring taboos of American diplomacy, allowing a senior State Department official to participate in negotiations with Iran without preconditions.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago, conservative national-security mandarins have basked in their reputations as masters of the foreign-policy universe. This special aura of superiority and credibility shaped the tenor of the foreign-policy debate from the 1990s to the years after the September 11 attacks. Democrats always felt they needed to prove themselves equal to those who had presided over the end of the Cold War and such foreign-policy victories as the peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire, the first Persian Gulf War, and the unification of Germany.
The mandarins who came into office with President Bush in 2001 were widely seen as the "A team" by the public, the press, political elites, and even many leading Democrats. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and Paul Wolfowitz, among others, were a group as experienced and talented as any incoming administration could have hoped to assemble. It was not uncommon in Washington to hear sighs of relief that the "adults" were back in charge to steady the ship after the tumultuous Clinton years.
All this praise may have gone to the Bush team's heads. The Bush administration believed its own hype, thinking it understood international politics better than the Democrats who, they asserted, had a muddled and weak vision of America's role in the world. This in part explains the Bush team's desire to reverse many of the policies that it inherited from Clinton in 2001 -- many of which it is trying to claim credit for reintroducing.
But now, amid a series of foreign-policy catastrophes and the Bush administration's own sudden policy reversals, this conservative generation -- like the hawkish liberal "best and the brightest" generation in the 1960s -- is in eclipse.
Their collapse will reshape foreign-policy debates -- within the Republican Party and between conservatives and liberals -- for years to come. Since Vietnam the Democrats have faced skepticism that they can manage national security. Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 only because that concern was less salient with the Cold War over and the economy in shambles. His first years in office -- defined by the "Black Hawk Down" disaster in Somalia, the controversy over gays in the military, and the inability to end the bloodshed in Bosnia -- did little to lessen the Democrats' weakness on the issue. Now the tables have turned, and it's the Republicans who find themselves facing deep doubts that they are capable stewards of the country's foreign policy.
Yet the conundrum in which conservatives find themselves goes far beyond the question of mere competence. They suffer from deep divisions over ideas that will require much more than changing a few players on the field to resolve.
For conservative foreign-policy thinkers, this crisis has been almost 20 years in the making. The end of the Cold War was seen by many as a triumph for modern conservatism, but it opened an era in which Republicans openly fought about the future of America's global role. The Soviet Union had served as the glue that held modern conservatism together. In the wake of communism's downfall, Republicans were torn between Pat Buchanan's isolationism, the anti-Clinton nationalism of the "Contract with America" Republicans in Congress, the pragmatic realism of establishment stalwarts such as James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, and the diminishing attraction of neoconservative idealism (which by the mid-1990s was assumed dead).
After 9-11, Islamic terrorism, like communism during the Cold War, provided a (supposedly) existential threat to the United States that unified a diverse party and dominated the American political debate. Bush outlined a bold interventionist policy that emphasized the spread of democracy, and for several years he was backed by a remarkably strong unity among conservatives.
But that consensus has broken down. And as Republicans ponder the post-Bush years, many are doubtful that Islamic extremism can keep conservatives united. Frustrations with the Bush administration's policies in Iraq and questions about its competence are only intensifying, and the 1990s fault lines on the right are re-emerging. More conservatives find themselves questioning the wisdom of Bush's aspiration to promote democracy and consequently are urging a return to a policy based more on interests than on values. As Bush rushes to achieve some successes, the few pragmatists in the administration have reappeared, and, for once, they are winning struggles inside the administration.
We have seen these battles emerge within John McCain's presidential campaign, where advisers of these factions exist under one roof. One only has to compare McCain's major foreign-policy speeches to see these contradictions play out. In March, the presumptive nominee said that, given Moscow's authoritarian turn under Vladimir Putin, Russia should be expelled from the G-8. Two months later, McCain was extolling the virtues of cooperating on arms control with the Russians. How this would work in practice is anyone's guess -- if McCain wins, those arms controllers will not get far in their negotiations if their colleagues elsewhere in the government are trying to boot Russia from a major international body.
And what if McCain loses? The pragmatists will certainly blame Bush and the neo-conservatives for the predicament the Republican Party has created for itself. The neo-conservatives may find themselves as they did in the 1990s, small in number, isolated from the conservative mainstream, and desperately trying to rally Republicans to continue in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan and pursue a great national foreign-policy project.
But after Iraq, it will be a lot tougher to garner support for such pursuits. And a defeated McCain, who would limp back to the Senate, will be one of the few moderates left. Odd as it is to think right now in the heat of the campaign, but a Sen. McCain will probably be one of the more reliable GOP partners for a Democratic president, especially on issues like torture and climate change.
For progressives, such disarray on the right presents both opportunities and challenges. Democrats have reason to be pleased that the Bush administration is embracing diplomacy and multilateralism -- after all, such approaches are good for the country. But if Democrats retake the White House in November, the new administration cannot repeat the mistake that the Bush team made in 2001 by simply opposing everything that came before -- especially given the president's recent leftward shifts. It might be uncomfortable to admit, but on many issues there could be a significant degree of continuity between Bush's new pragmatism and how a Democratic president would like to govern.