The shadow knows
Who knows what philosophy will drive Bush's foreign policy?
by Seth Gitell
A "shadow National Security Council." It sounds like something out of Stanley
Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, but it isn't. Washington is abuzz with talk
of Vice-President Richard Cheney's attempt to create just that.
The Jerusalem Post has mentioned it, as has the New Republic. And
the rumor seems to have captured the imagination of a capital city starved for
gossip. "Cheney's obviously putting together his own foreign-policy team,"
whispers one Washington insider, who adds: "A lot of the conservative people
around town think that's where the action is going to be."
For all the cloak-and-dagger connotations, a shadow NSC would not secretly
convene in a fortified bunker miles beneath the earth. Rather, the term refers
to the group of foreign-policy advisers Cheney is said to be assembling under
his own banner. Just two weeks into the new administration, it's already
becoming clear that Cheney is going to put together a foreign-policy team
that's larger and more influential than those of previous vice-presidents --
who have typically employed only a handful of such advisers. Al Gore, for
instance, who was perhaps the most active vice-president on the foreign-policy
front, had his own national-security adviser in Leon Fuerth. But although Gore
played a fairly active role in foreign affairs -- for example, he acted as
point man in America's international environmental negotiations and worked with
a Russian counterpart to address the transfer of nuclear and missile technology
to Iran -- Washington sources say something very different is happening with
Consider that Cheney reportedly wants as many as a dozen advisers to run
individual policy desks, say close observers of Washington-based foreign
policy. He's already hired Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who will serve as both his
chief of staff and his assistant for national-security affairs. Libby made a
name for himself on the commission headed by California congressman Christopher
Cox, which investigated Chinese spying at American research bases. Meanwhile,
Zalmay Khalizhad, a Rand Corporation official and Iraq expert, is under
consideration for a posting to the Department of Defense. Should this fall
through, he is expected to join Cheney's team, foreign-policy sources say. And
if he does, people who devour journals such as Foreign Affairs and the
National Interest will view it as a significant sign of the strength
Cheney will wield.
But even more significant, say foreign-policy insiders, is the success Cheney
appears to be having in getting a key ally, Paul Wolfowitz, installed in the
number-two position in the Pentagon. Wolfowitz -- one of the "Vulcans" who
advised George W. Bush on foreign policy during the presidential campaign --
served both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as an adviser on foreign-policy
and defense issues. Wolfowitz is a strong backer of the democratic Iraqi
resistance movement, the Iraqi National Congress, and believes human rights
should play a role in determining US policy. Although Wolfowitz appeared to be
overshadowed during the campaign by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice,
Cheney and his ally, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, want him in the
Pentagon, where he can magnify the influence of Cheney's foreign-policy team.
Writing in the New Republic, Lawrence Kaplan rightly placed Cheney's
shadow NSC in the context of a behind-the-scenes power struggle between Cheney
and Secretary of State Colin Powell -- a battle in which Rice is merely a
bystander. Figuring out who's who in this struggle amounts to much more than a
Beltway parlor game. What's at stake is whether the United States will
revert to isolationism or worse. As Wolfowitz wrote in the January 2000 issue
of Commentary: "The worst imaginable indictment would be if future
generations, looking back, were to conclude that our generation could have
prevented a global war, but failed."
With the stakes so high, Powell's flaccid track record on interventionism
doesn't bode well. During his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
Powell -- as Kaplan and others have reported -- opposed the Gulf War, denied
the Rangers' request to use AC-130 gunships in Somalia (a decision that
contributed to the spectacle of dead American troops being dragged through the
streets of Mogadishu), and balked at intervening to stop ethnic cleansing in
Cheney's camp, on the other hand, is filled with people who believe that force
can be used to foster liberty and American values abroad. Given that the
London Telegraph is reporting that Saddam Hussein has built two atomic
bombs, the raison d'être of Cheney's team becomes clear. How America gets
through what is beginning to look like a very difficult period -- with the
threat of a regional Middle East war looming and China rattling its sabers over
Taiwan -- will depend on whether Bush has an active, alert, and engaged
foreign-policy team in place.
SO WHAT is Cheney up to, exactly? Foreign-policy experts all acknowledge that
something different seems to be afoot. There has even been talk that Bush has
declared national security to be within Cheney's purview. "There was nothing
like this under Gore," says the Washington insider.
Still, some are skeptical of talk that Cheney is assembling his own
national-security team. "I wouldn't call it a shadow NSC," cautions Stephen
Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of
Government. "It's been clear since Cheney was the [vice-presidential] candidate
that he was going to have an unusually responsible role in the administration.
Given Bush's lack of experience and lack of gravitas, one would expect the
vice-president staffing up for a more active role."
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, notes
that Cheney may be too busy to play foreign-policy czar at the White House.
"It's going to be very difficult with Cheney spending so much of his time on
Capitol Hill and playing so many other roles to dip into foreign policy in a
really big way," he says. "If you get in the vice-president's office six or
seven professionals on foreign policy, then I'll change my mind about what kind
of strong role he will play."
Cheney hasn't made six or seven high-level foreign-policy hires yet, but
consider this: in early January, when Israeli Knesset member Natan Sharansky
was in New York City, he made sure to travel to DC for a meeting with the
vice-president. Sharansky will have a high-ranking role in a government headed
by Ariel Sharon if the Likud candidate wins the Israeli election next week --
and polls suggest he will. Sharansky provided Cheney with a full briefing on
the Middle East situation, and the meeting lasted for an hour. Sharansky
spokeswoman Vera Golovensky says, "I think it's obvious why it's important to
see Cheney. Having an opportunity to meet with somebody who's the
vice-president seems to be quite an important opportunity not to pass up."
Cheney's high profile shouldn't come as a surprise. Bush, after all, didn't
choose Cheney to be the Dan Quayle of the ticket. Yet some of what Cheney is
supposedly doing carries a lot of risk -- especially for the first Republican
administration since 1992. The last time anyone talked about a shadow NSC was
in the mid '80s, at the height of the Iran-contra affair, when there was
concern about the NSC's "Crisis Management Center." The current talk could
bring back memories the Republicans want to forget. And if it is true that
Cheney -- and not Powell and/or Rice -- is the real foreign-policy force in the
administration, then that could be seen as tarnishing Bush's groundbreaking
selection of two African-Americans for high-ranking posts.
Those aren't the only problems. If Cheney is indeed forming a shadow NSC, "it
would be a disaster," says Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow and foreign affairs
expert at the Brookings Institution. "You have the potential for two potential
power centers in the White House. That would be a nightmare."
But the positives of Cheney's operation would outweigh the negatives. A
contrast with the Clinton years shows why. Under Clinton, most of the big
foreign-policy decisions started at the top. As numerous columnists have
pointed out, the most important thing to Clinton was winning a Nobel Prize (the
former president even went so far as to hire a Norwegian marketing company to
help him snare one). He calculated that the best way to achieve this objective
would be to devote an extraordinary amount of energy to the peace processes in
Northern Ireland and the Middle East. So Clinton instructed underlings to draft
policy analyses that meshed with his goals and told other acolytes to carry
them out. The joke in Washington is that Clinton knew more about the
intricacies of the Middle East peace process than the chief State Department
negotiator, Dennis Ross.
But Clinton's style had huge disadvantages -- chief among them, the near
impossibility of introducing alternative analyses. So when Clinton's approach
failed, as it did when the Middle East exploded into violence last fall, the
administration had no choice but to encourage both sides to hurry back to the
same kind of negotiations that prompted the violence in the first place.
Cheney's policy team will be able to provide Bush with options that sole
reliance on Rice and Powell would preclude. And if Rice stumbles, the
thinking goes, Cheney's team will pick up the pieces.
IT'S UNCLEAR how all this will affect the real national-security adviser. There
are, however, a couple of well-reasoned speculations. One suggests that it
serves Rice right: during the campaign, she jealously guarded her access to
Bush and blocked other foreign-policy viewpoints from getting to him. The other
holds that this is simply how everything is supposed to work. Bush has already
made one move to minimize Rice's role. During the campaign, his camp floated
the possibility that she would be elevated to Cabinet-level status. Once
selected, though, Rice had no such luck. She'll attend Cabinet meetings, but
her official status will be lower than that of Rumsfeld and Powell. Explains
the Washington insider: "She's just a White House employee. Her job is general
coordinator. Her job is to be the face that presents this stuff to Bush, but
not to be the policy honcho that runs these fellows." The honcho, it seems, is
If Cheney trumps Rice, which he most certainly does, what about the popular
Powell? So far, Cheney has him as well. He got Rumsfeld -- or "Cheney's twin,"
as Washington wags like to refer to him -- into the Pentagon. Powell's already
indicated that he opposes Bush's missile-defense proposal, but just last week
Rumsfeld said the administration will move forward with it. Even less promising
for Powell: the cash-poor State Department lacks the money, staff, and sexy
toys of the Pentagon. But even if Cheney has a team of advisers watching over
the world's hot spots, the charismatic Powell still gets to crisscross the
globe to meet with world leaders. He'll be dispatched to handle relations with
America's allies in Europe and Japan, who will surely bristle at the
administration's missile-defense plans.
If the emerging arrangement keeps Cheney happy and busy on national security
and Powell satisfied as America's chief diplomat, that could be exactly how
Bush wants it. It's obvious -- and a point hammered home in the Kaplan story --
that Powell and Rumsfeld have serious policy differences. Bush needs somebody
to mediate between these two heavyweights. It's more than likely that
foreign-policy questions will go first to Rice, and then to Cheney. Says
Ornstein: "I'm sure Bush sees Cheney as playing a role here when disputes come
up between secretaries, and I think he [Bush] sees himself as the final
But these dynamics -- and whether they were set up deliberately -- remain
unclear. Nobody knows whether Cheney will succeed in putting together his team,
and nobody really knows how influential it will end up being. As the new
administration continues its campaign-style attempt to manage information --
last week was education, this week it's faith-based organizations -- the real
test will come when it's forced to deal with the unexpected. And that's when
the relationships between Cheney and Powell, Rumsfeld and Rice, will really
play out. Whether Cheney's shadow NSC is in place may itself signal which
faction will win. The smart money is on Cheney. And with Saddam Hussein
readying his atomic weapons, maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Seth Gitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.