McCain's Choice

July 2, 2008 Topic: Politics Tags: Diplomacyheads of state

McCain's Choice

Mini Teaser: Neoconservatives and realists are battling to set the GOP’s foreign-policy agenda—and the future of American diplomacy hangs in the balance.

by Author(s): Derek CholletJames M. Goldgeier

SENATOR JOHN McCain (R-AZ) may describe himself as a "realistic idealist," but this formulation does little to paper over the very real schism among Republicans (and conservatives in general) about the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. McCain has assembled a diverse group of advisors for his campaign, but should he win the presidency this fall, he will have to choose between two markedly different approaches to guiding America in the world.

In the aftermath of the Bush administration, particularly the impact of the war in Iraq, conservative politicians and policy intellectuals are again debating the nature of the global order, the purpose and use of American power, and what, if anything, is required to legitimize the exercise of that power, particularly military force. What is striking is the extent to which the divide between the two broad groupings in the McCain campaign (the pragmatists or realists on one hand and the idealists or neoconservatives on the other) resembles the divisions that had emerged in the closing days of the George H. W. Bush administration-and the continuing relevance of two documents, one produced by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney's Pentagon, the other developed by the James Baker/Lawrence Eagleburger State Department.

The former, the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), has been widely discussed, and many have linked the ideas of its authors in the early 1990s to the 2002 National Security Strategy and the subsequent war in Iraq. The other was a lengthy personal memorandum sent by outgoing-Secretary of State Eagleburger to his Democratic successor, Warren Christopher, in January 1993-a document that, in contrast to the DPG, was never released or leaked to the public. 1 

Both memoranda are equally indispensable guides to understanding the splits that opened among conservatives in the early 1990s, simmered throughout the decade, exploded into the open again in 2001, and are alive and well as conservatives contemplate a post-Bush foreign policy in 2009 and beyond.

The DPG was the U.S. government's first effort to sketch a comprehensive strategy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Drafted principally by Undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz's aide Zalmay Khalilzad, the document reflected the collective thinking of Wolfowitz and his staff, including I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Stephen Hadley and Eric Edelman, a formidable group with significant national-security expertise. It laid out very clearly how America should think now that the cold war was over-and set as its objective ensuring American primacy for the foreseeable future by preventing any other power from posing "a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union." Not only should the United States retain its formidable military advantages, it also recommended that the United States "endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power." It was a strategy designed to cement American hegemony by making sure that no other state or group of states could constrain U.S. freedom of action around the globe, as the USSR had done during the cold war.

The presumption is that, had George H. W. Bush been reelected in 1992, the Defense Planning Guidance would have been the prevailing policy of his second term. But not everyone in the administration was impressed. General Brent Scowcroft, then the national-security advisor, recalled, "That was just nutty. I read a draft of it. I thought, Cheney, this is just kooky. It didn't go anywhere further. It was never formally reviewed." As Scowcroft's blunt reaction to the document makes clear, many inside the first Bush administration held a very different worldview. Even though the Bush administration had run out of time, in late 1992 State Department officials quietly set out to develop a strategy to reflect the other perspective.

What they came up with reflected a far-more-humble view of U.S. power and greater hopes for building international coalitions. Compared with the DPG, the State Department effort offered a more-complete picture of the complex challenges that the United States would face: threats emanating from disintegrating states, the greater role of international economics, transnational dilemmas such as weapons proliferation and climate change, and a U.S. domestic environment more skeptical of sacrifice for engagement abroad. Although Eagleburger spent only a brief time at the helm at the State Department, he was a major presence inside the administration and had close relationships with Bush and Scowcroft. William Burns, an extremely able young career diplomat who was then acting director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff (and who went on to serve in senior State Department posts, including as ambassador to Russia and now undersecretary for political affairs) helped write the draft.

A core proposition of Eagleburger's memo was that the United States needed to become the "provider of reassurance and architect of new security arrangements . . . [and] a builder and leader of coalitions to deal with problems in the chaotic post-Cold War world." It described the threat from the spread of weapons of mass destruction as the "central security challenge" and outlined rising concerns about nontraditional threats, including the environment and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Essay Types: Essay