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Neo-cons have hijacked US foreign policy

THE COUNCIL on Foreign Relations is the epicenter of the American Establishment. Its top three officers are Republicans -- Peter G. Peterson (chair), the former commerce secretary under Nixon, leading investment banker, and opponent of social outlay who must chair half the boards in America; Carla Hills (vice-chair), a corporate power-lawyer who was US trade ambassador for Bush I; and Richard Haass (president), who recently stepped down as one of President Bush's sub-Cabinet appointees at the State Department. The council is best known for its journal, Foreign Affairs, ordinarily a fairly cautious and moderate publication. So it was startling to pick up the September-October issue and read article after article expressing well-documented alarm at the hijacking of American foreign policy. This is not how the council ordinarily speaks.

The must-read piece is "Stumbling into War" by former Assistant Secretary of State James P. Rubin. It documents that Bush's feint to the United Nations was a charade; that even as the administration was going through the motions of diplomacy, war had been already decided upon.

More important, Rubin documents that another path to ousting Saddam Hussein was possible, had the administration been more patient. Other nations, even France, were in fact prepared to use force against Saddam, but insisted on letting the inspections process work first. Rubin demonstrates that every major European nation "would have been prepared to support or at least sanction force against Iraq if it had not fully disarmed by [fall 2003.]" The administration repeatedly rebuffed British entreaties to pursue this other course, which would have preserved a much broader coalition and shared responsibility for reconstruction.

So America's lonely quagmire in Iraq was entirely gratuitous. But it's still a well-kept secret that the vast foreign policy mainstream -- Republican and Democratic ex-public officials, former ambassadors, military and intelligence people, academic experts -- consider Bush's whole approach a disaster. In fairness, it isn't really Bush's approach. Foreign policy is not something Bush closely follows. Mainly, he fell in with the wrong crowd. A determined band of neo-conservatives far outside the foreign policy mainstream persuaded the president that invading Iraq would demonstrate American power to tens of millions shocked and awed Arabs. Instead, it has demonstrated the limits of American power (but limitless arrogance), and stimulated a new round of fundamentalism, nationalism, and terrorism.

The neo-cons also contended that "the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad." In other words, get rid of Saddam and the Mideast balance of power would shift; Israel's enemies would be softened up for a peace settlement on Israel's terms. But much of the violence between Israel and Palestine is home grown, and any durable settlement must also be home grown. The sacking of Iraq has only made both Israel's Ariel Sharon and the Palestinians more intransigent.

The same neo-cons persuaded Bush that nation-building and collaboration with bodies like the UN were for sissies. But now, Bush has blundered into nation-building in the worst possible circumstances, in which Americans are viewed as inept invaders rather than liberators. And he is begging for aid from the UN and the very nations he scorned.

Does Bush know that he's been had? Increasingly, Iraq looks like Bush's Vietnam -- a long-term occupation of unfriendly territory in which Americans are targets; an adventure based on misperceptions and misrepresentations, where the benefits fail to justify the costs.

US Representative David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, recently sent the president a letter which is worth quoting. "First," Obey wrote, in eloquent understatement, "I recommend that you allow the secretary and deputy secretary of defense to return to the private sector.

"Second, I recommend that the responsibilities for developing and implementing foreign policy that have traditionally resided in the Department of State be fully restored to that department."

Obey goes on to recommend that the military be restored to its proper role of military planning and that government-wide coordination of intelligence be resumed. All of this is by way of pointing out that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, with little knowledge of the region, arrogated to themselves diplomatic, intelligence, and operational functions, and made a mess of them all. Now Bush is trying to reverse course without admitting it. Nothing would make that prudent reversal clearer than firing this duo, who have ill served their president and country.As the Foreign Affairs issue makes clear, there's a large, competent, and mainstream body of foreign policy experts ready to step in. Then, the American people can decide whether to fire Bush. Robert Kuttner is co-editor of the American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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