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Who's Running Foreign Policy in Washington?

By Michael Werbowski, Prague, Czech Republic, June 30, 2008

In order of importance and influence, the troika in the Oval Office is composed of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Pentagon chief Robert Gates, and Central Intelligence Agency director Gen. Michael V. Hayden.

President Bush is still commander in chief, but is he still in control over matters related to war and peace? The question merits some reflection as his presidency enters its final months and as the United States begins what looks like an uneasy transitional period.

As media reports have pointed out, not since 1968 has the handover of administrative executive power been conducted during wartime. By contrast, Bush's father, George H. W. Bush, handed over power to Bill Clinton while leaving a relatively stable world to his successor. The cold war had ended quite peacefully, historically speaking, and the American economy though hardly robust was not going bust as it is now.

This is far from the case today. As Bush's term comes to an end, it looks as if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to drag on, if not perpetuate themselves, well into the first years of the next presidency. Hence, from a non-American point of view, the passage of power must be as seamless and as smooth as possible for the sake of global stability. America's friends wish it to be so; its enemies, however, would perhaps prefer a disruptive, divisive, and clumsy succession. How it goes depends on who will be in charge from now until inauguration day.

So who is running the show?

On the surface at least, Bush appears to be doing so. Despite historical lows in the polls, he continues to strut and swagger about boisterously on the international stage as if he were just elected. And he even coaxed the Europeans into adopting even more-stringent sanctions on Teheran.

Yet behind the scenes, it seems unclear whether he is at the controls anymore. Perhaps it helps to be a seasoned Kremlinologist to know who in the politburo on the Potomac is initiating and implement policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, on Iran and nuclear proliferation in general (North Korea), on global warming, on missile defense (central Europe), or on any other topical international issue.

Most of Bush's key domestic advisors have left or are packing their bags. Here is a look at the "war cabinet" overseeing foreign affairs.

In order of importance and influence, the troika in the Oval Office is composed of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Pentagon chief Robert Gates, and Central Intelligence Agency director Gen. Michael V. Hayden. The "odd man out" is Stephen Hadley, the president's unassuming, or almost invisible, national security advisor.

For a clue about Hadley and his intentions, one need remember that Hadley once worked with Brent Scowcroft, who was Bush's father's national security advisor. Scowcroft, a very urbane fellow, deftly handled several crises, such as the first Persian Gulf war in the early 1990's and the reunification of Germany. In that sense, Hadley, being Scowcroft's disciple in many ways, can be described as someone who is closer to his mentor than he might be to, let us say, Vice President Dick Cheney or the neocons that are pushing for an attack on Iran.

The Troika on Iran

On Iran, Rice clearly seeks a diplomatic solution to the current "standoff." She recently floated the idea of reopening a United States interests section in the Iranian capital. This might sound like heresy to the hawks and neocons itching for some more "shock and awe" in the Persian Gulf and who are represented in the Oval Office by Cheney. But Cheney's fortunes seem to be fading fast. However brilliant he may be in the "cloak and dagger" department, Cheney suffers from what I refer to as the "Rumsfeld syndrome." Like the former disgraced defense secretary, Cheney is hampered by his association with the failed policies of Bush's first term.

Rice, moreover, is backed by two other very powerful components of the troika in Washington: Gates in the Pentagon and Hayden at the C.I.A. Both men appear very reluctant to open a "third front" on the war against terror, especially at a time when American forces are suffering from "chronic battle fatigue" in addition to being severely overstretched and poorly equipped for any future ground operation.

Gates, who was a "civilian" C.I.A. director under Bush's father, is evidently "moderate" on using military force. Not long ago, he fired high-ranking Air Force officials who were getting out of line or were perhaps just too eager to bomb Iran.

Hayden, although a career officer, is no warmonger either. He came in to run the C.I.A. in the wake of George Tenet's forced departure, taking over when the atmosphere at the agency had turned acrimonious and poisonous over the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction issue and other fabrications concocted by pro-war strategists.

This is the first time a career military man—in this case a former Air Force general—has held the top C.I.A. job since Adm. Stanfield Turner ran "the company" back in the late 1970's. But then, America is at war, so nobody appears to be questioning the convergence of the intelligence community with the armed forces. At least not for now.

Iran: A War Foretold?

The C.I.A. knows Iran might have W.M.D. one day, but maybe not how much or how fast they will acquire nuclear weapons capability. Hence, until they absolutely know for sure, Hayden, perhaps adopting Gates' cautious approach, is unlikely to rush into another disastrous war. Cheney, faced with this united threesome, will have a hard time convincing his boss to go for another war. Whatever happens, the ongoing struggle over war and peace will likely intensify within the White house until the transfer of power is completed successfully.

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