Making foreign policy

Print edition : December 02, 2005

It is an infallible rule that a prince who is not wise himself cannot be well advised... wise counsels, from whoever they come, must necessarily be due to the prudence of the prince, and not the prudence of the prince to the good counsels received.

- The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli; Chapter XXIII.

"I DREAD our own power and our own ambition. I dread our being too dreaded... . it is ridiculous to say we are not men, and that, as men, we shall never wish to aggrandise ourselves in some way or other... . We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin."

This was not spoken as a critique of the President of the United States, George W. Bush, and his Cabinet's foreign policy. These words were spoken by Edmund Burke three centuries ago, even before the British Empire reached its zenith of power. Two centuries and more lay between him and Niccolo Machiavelli. Their outlooks differed. But common to both was the emphasis on the character of men in the seat of power; on their wisdom and moderation. The U.S. blazed the trail in elevating "decision-making" into an esoteric science and a special art. The process was elevated, the product got debased over the years. The qualities which Europeans, artists in diplomacy, extolled were neglected. Slickness was preferred to wisdom and ruthlessness to moderation.

The example proved particularly infectious in India. The U.S. National Security Council, set up by statute in 1947, acquired an allure in the eyes of some Indians. On its Indian counterpart was superimposed an Advisory Board; a quaint addition to the varied sources of state patronage that already existed. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) used the Board to stage a farce on October 16, 2002, in order to endorse its decision to abandon the hare-brained Operation Parakram. Institutions are run by men. If they are disciplined, institutions strike roots and, in turn, discipline men. But where there is no culture of informed, considered decision-making, institutions will wither and wane. If there are any who still yearn for an "effective" NSC, they would do worse than consult these books, especially the first which begins with the quote from Burke. Although a creature of the law, the NSC has been used and ignored by successive American Presidents as they wished.

This is not to say that the NSC is intrinsically worthless. It is only to point out that, like any other institution, it functioned just the way the President and his National Security Adviser - who is not named in the law - wishes it to perform. David J. Rothkopf, who served in the Clinton Administration and also worked in Kissinger Associates, Henry Kissinger's firm, is a thoughtful person.

"Understanding what role human behaviours and the character of individuals play in determining the character of a nation like the United States - how the choices of our leaders become the pivotal choices of our eras for global society - is one of the principal objectives of this book. When we examine the evolution of the national security apparatus of the U.S. government from 1947 to the present, we discover that no other factor is more central to determining whether we succeed or fail in preserving or advancing our national interests and ideals than the character of the people we put in the positions to lead us" (emphasis added, throughout).

He has none too high an opinion of the U.S. political system or the quality of political debate or the role of the media. "For a country that is the world's greatest democracy - and one that regularly pats itself on the back for this distinction, hawking its native political theories as avidly as it does its soap and its pop stars - it is remarkable how deficient and decaying our political system is. A particularly insidious element of this deficiency is the ignorance of the electorate about their government... . those who are charged with the fundamental decisions for that democracy, many of which have profound international conclusions, are singularly ill-prepared to thoughtfully consider or even understand those decisions or their implications." A National Geographic Survey found that 83 per cent of Americans aged between 18 and 24 could not find Afghanistan on the map even as their country launched a war on that country.

Harold Nicolson pointed out that diplomacy is distinct from foreign policy or even negotiation. "It denotes the process and machinery by which such negotiation is carried out" (Diplomacy, page 3). Diplomacy can mitigate but not avert damage done by bad policy. Rothkopf's work is about the making of policy as well as its execution through diplomacy. One learns a lot about both, though there are some serious omissions; Bangladesh, for instance. He traces the genesis and growth of the idea of an NSC and the NSC's working from its early years under Harry Truman to George W. Bush. Truman attended only 11 of its almost 60 meetings before the Korean war. He wanted to ensure that no one thought he was captive to the NSC's decisions. It would deliberate and advise him. "He would then determine whether or not to heed its advice."

Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. National Security Adviser and now Secretary of State, is reported to enjoy unprecedented proximity with President George W. Bush.-LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS

The NSC has become a sizable bureaucracy parallel to the State Department. Its officials are "the de facto NSC" and this little understood group is perhaps in the best position of any group of a few human beings anywhere to influence history, to shape our times and our future". The author interviewed over 130 individuals, including all living National Security Advisers and their deputies. The NSC is now "the hub of all U.S. international engagement, the place where formal policies are adopted, agencies offer alternative choices to the President, and the President decides on the world's most powerful nation's course of action with or without regard to the rest of the planet. It became both the policy creation mechanism and the policy implementation mechanism that helped harness and coordinate the actions of an increasingly complex government in an increasingly complex world." But Bush was set on invading Iraq without seeking the NSC's advice.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), John F. Kennedy set up an Executive Committee of the NSC (Excomm), which deliberated on the crisis continuously. He needed advice and support.

Collective deliberations are preferable to solo performances. But they do not ensure soundness of the result. On the Gulf of Tonkin "incident" (1964), which paved the way to escalation in involvement in Vietnam, "the main decision-making error that the few participating in the response to these developments made was the weight given to separate and not necessarily reliable intelligence flows. However, given that [President Lyndon B.] Johnson's team was looking for an incident to put the already drafted resolution before Congress when one seemed to have occurred, a reasonable effort to nail down the facts, as might have been done in other circumstances, likely seemed counterproductive. In short, groupthink can become powerful enough to drive leaders to twist events and intelligence to support conclusions they have already reached. In this case, that is apparently what happened - consequently making this both a prime example of the intelligence-analysis-policy development synapses misfiring and a precedent for several notorious similar instances that would come in the decades to follow". Witness Afghanistan and Iraq. These decision-makers were not endowed with good sense or restraint. They were set on action and they acted rashly, immorally with lasting danger to their own country's interests, ruining another in the process.

One can get lost in the apparatus and procedures of the NSC system. If Kissinger had his National Security Study Memorandum and National Security Decision Memorandum, Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski, who was President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser, had his Presidential Review Memoranda and Presidential Directives. They were useful to ensure discipline in, and as records of, deliberations. They did not preclude tugs-of-war with the State Department. The National Security Adviser came to acquire "operational" responsibilities also. He executed policy behind the back of the Secretary of State. That has happened in India too.

While tracing the process, the book also reflects on the decisions that were made. They worked under "the Cold War culture" and continue still to do so. In October 1989, President George Bush signed the top-secret National Security Directive-26 (NSD-26), "U.S. policy toward the Persian Gulf". It stated: "The United States should propose economic and political incentives for Iraq to moderate its behaviour and to increase our influence. The administration was also interested in facilitating the participation of American businesses in the reconstruction of Iraq after its long, ruinous war with Iran."

The study deemed Iraq a potentially helpful ally in containing Iran and nudging the West Asian peace process ahead. The "Guidelines for U.S.-Iraq Policy" swiped at proponents of sanctions on Capitol Hill and a few human rights advocates who had begun lobbying within the State Department.

Iraq's occupation of Kuwait came as a shock. Iraq now held 20 per cent of the world's oil reserves. It would hold 40 per cent if it occupied Saudi Arabia. That was a far-fetched scenario. Defence Secretary Dick Cheney prevailed on Saudi Arabia's rulers to accept the presence of U.S. troops on its soil. Plans were discussed for toppling Saddam Hussein "using covert means". Cheney said in February 1992 that the administration had little interest in occupying Iraq and ousting Hussein with American forces. He said in a February 1992 interview: "If we'd gone to Baghdad and got rid of Saddam Hussein, we'd have had to put a lot of forces in and run him to ground some place... Then you've got to put a new government in his place and then you're faced with the question of what kind of government are you going to establish in Iraq? Is it going to be a Kurdish government or a Shia government or a Sunni government? How many forces are you going to have to leave there to keep it propped up, how many casualties are you going to take through the course of this operation?" A decade later, both caution and scruple were thrown to the winds.

Over time, the White House concentrated power in its hands. Defence came to the fore. "Although history has also shown that, given human nature, leaders come to depend on small clusters of close, trusted advisers, what happened during the first term of the presidency of George W. Bush was hardly anticipated by anyone - that the dominant role in that inner circle would be played by a vice-president who would himself occasionally assume the role envisioned for the National Security Adviser and have unprecedented influence over the President. Finally, as the rift with the traditionalists in his own party suggests, during the first term of his presidency the second Bush and his team adopted a course that eschewed international institutions, selectively side-stepped our allies, and applied American power with faint regard for the 60 years of history that had gone into shaping the global system that we, as a nation, played the central role in designing."

Condoleezza Rice, former National Security Adviser and now Secretary of State, enjoys proximity to the President unprecedented in history. Some complain that "she was so preoccupied with being the President's `body man', at his side every minute, whispering in his ear, being his `alter ego on foreign policy matters', tutoring him on areas he does not understand or is not up to speed on" that she has let the NSC become weak and, worse, the NSC processes become weak". Rice said once: "This President is more strategic than any other President I have dealt with." Who else, besides his father, pray?

After 9/11, NSC meetings became more frequent. Yet Bush "preferred to rely primarily on an inner circle - his war cabinet" which was led by Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet. It is Cheney's "strong belief" that the U.S. must be able "to act on their own interests, unencumbered by alliances, multilateral procedures or Congress nipping at their heels".

The author is torn between the national consensus and his sense of realism. The latter prods him to write: "Through a series of bad judgments or through mishandled execution of our plans, we have undercut the moral authority of American global leadership. While positive progress toward democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere may go a long way to help offset that erosion, damage has been done that will take years to repair... Indeed, we have undercut the institutions and legal underpinnings of that community while complaining of their weakness and yet doing nothing to repair or strengthen them."

But his nationalism inspires him smugly to write of "the sometimes glorious record" of the U.S., albeit "also a chequered one... few if any evil men and women have sat" on the NSC. "Most have been moral" though "error is one of the few constants in the history of the NSC". Were Presidents who authorised assassinations of foreign leaders "moral"? Or the ones who sponsored coups? The same smugness is reflected in the former British Foreign Secretary David Owen's Preface to the able essays on the British Foreign Office. Its head is called Permanent Under Secretary, the Minister is called Foreign Secretary. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has concentrated enormous power in his own hands, undermining the morale of the Foreign Office. The essays "trace the way in which the decision-making process in British foreign policy evolved during the twentieth century". A companion volume analyses the contributions of Foreign Secretaries since 1974. The British diplomat would carry out orders even if his advice was rejected. "Kissinger repeatedly complained of the frustration of giving orders and discovering that they were not implemented." Margaret Thatcher distrusted the Foreign Office and appointed a retired diplomat as her own foreign policy adviser. Her staff got all the information that went to the Foreign Office but the reverse was not true.

"According to some sources, the present expansion of the Prime Minister's private office is deeply resented by diplomats at the Foreign Office. It was widely reported in the press that while Blair's diplomatic advisers supported the Prime Minister's Iraq policies (though there is no confirming evidence) there was considerable opposition from the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] and from some of the European and Middle Eastern embassies. It is a sign of the contemporary situation that two of the Cabinet Office committees dealing with foreign affairs were moved into Downing Street."

In retrospect, were the British and/or the Americans at all sensible in the major decisions they took after 1945? Winston Churchill's advice to open a dialogue with Joseph Stalin was spurned by his own Cabinet. Disclosures from American, British and Russian archives reveal how wrong their respective perceptions were. Prime Minister Anthony Eden made a bold bid for an independent foreign policy but ruined himself by his "Suezide" (the Suez War) in 1956. The U.S. bailed out the U.K. but only at a price. Eden sought "power-by-proxy". In the early 1950s, Britain was in the grip of a serious economic crisis. Eden conceded that there were few ways to effect meaningful reductions in overseas obligations without simultaneously damaging "the world position of the United Kingdom and sacrificing the vital advantages which flow from it". Prestige was paramount. "Once the prestige of a country has started to slide there is no knowing where it will stop." The only solution Eden could come up with was to spread the burden of two major obligations, for which Britain currently bore primary responsibility in West Asia and South-East Asia. "Our aim should be to persuade the United States to assume the real burdens in such organisations, while retaining for ourselves as much political control - and hence prestige and world influence - as we can."

Britain differed with the U.S. on China and on a South-East Asian alliance against it. Churchill opposed the plan. The U.S. saw through the game. In May 1955, Under-Secretary of State Herbert Hoover Jr. warned the National Security Council about "transparent British designs" by which they sought "to assume themselves of command responsibility" in West Asia while expecting "the United States to foot the bill required to place the area in some posture of defence".

British Prime Minister Tony Blair.-YVES HERMAN/REUTERS

Eden bitterly complained in 1954: "They [the U.S.] like to give orders, and if they are not at once obeyed they become huffy." His successor Harold Macmillan realised that "Britain should not pursue her independent ambitions" to the point where they risk a break. "Within a year of the Suez crisis, the relationship had been restored and the United States had agreed to exclusive nuclear collaboration with the United Kingdom - the `great prize', as Macmillan put it," Kevin Ruane and James Ellison write in their able essay on the U.K.'s pursuit of "power by proxy" in the 1960s. A couple of years later Macmillan was a disillusioned man. President Dwight D. Eisenhower rejected his advice to save the Paris summit in May 1960. He attested that this "was the most tragic moment of my life". Thereafter, he questioned the strategy of pre-eminent reliance on the Anglo-American relationship as the keystone of British foreign policy. Power had not been achieved via the proxy and Britain's economy remained unstable.

In retirement Eden complained that Britain "seems content to tag along as [the] 49th State" of the U.S. The U.K.'s Ambassador to France Gladwyn Jebb saw no future in the reconstruction of an "Anglo-American Directorate" which would end up with Britain as either "a sort of 49th State" or "Airstrip One" while simultaneously giving encouragement to neutralise opinion on the continent. "A neutralist Western Europe would lead to a `Yugoslav' approach as world affairs and advantage to the Soviet Union." The solution he advocated was for Britain to throw in its lot more closely with the Europeans.

It is unlikely that Tony Blair shares this pride or the regret at Britain's dependence on the U.S. The Independent (London) reported on October 31, 2005, that "in 1962 the U.S. Defence Secretary Robert McNamara revealed that the British force "did not operate independently", to Harold Macmillan's embarrassment. When Macmillan later accepted President John F. Kennedy's offer of the Polaris missile submarine, his Permanent Secretary, Sir Robert Scott, recorded that the decision has "put us in America's pocket for a decade".

"Sir John Slessor, the commander of the V bomber force, wrote privately that the deal had been done to sustain the `myth' of an independent force. President Charles de Gaulle of France turned down the same offer and built an independent force de frappe. De Gaulle then vetoed U.K. membership of the Common Market on the grounds that the Polaris deal had made Britain an American vassal."

On one problem first Britain and next the U.S. inflicted a moral wrong from which the world has yet to recover. Gaynor Johnson's brilliant essay on George Curzon as Acting Foreign Secretary during January-October 1919 dispels the many falsehoods about a great maker of foreign policy. He stood up to a powerful Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and the Foreign Secretary, A.J. Balfour, who operated at the Versailles Conference; then Curzon succeeded him as Foreign Secretary. Both the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Balfour were Biblical Zionists, as Tom Segev called them (the writer's review, "Palestine and Isarael"; Frontline; July 20, 2001). Balfour promised in his famous Declaration of November 2, 1917, a "national home" for the Jewish people in Palestine. This was, as Segev exposed, a euphemism for a Jewish state that Lloyd George and Balfour plotted to establish. When he got wind of it, Curzon protested in a memorandum to the Cabinet dated October 26, 1917. "What is to become of the people of this country [Palestine] assuming the Turks to be expelled, and the inhabitants not to have been exterminated, by the war? There are over half a million of these. Syrian Arabs - a mixed community with Arab, Hebrew, Cananite, Greek, Egyptian and possibly Crusader blood. They and their forefathers have occupied the country for the best part of 1,500 years. They own the soil, which belongs either to individual landowners or to village communities. They profess the Mohammedan faith. They will not be content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants, or to act merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water to the latter" (The Truth about the Peace Treaties; Lloyd George; Volume II, page 1129).

Arab subjects of the Ottoman Empire had pledged their support to the British during the First World War. After the October 1917 revolution, the Soviet leaders published the secret treaties. They revealed that, unknown to the Arabs, Britain and France had carved up Arab lands between themselves. Britain was to get Palestine, Jordan and Iraq; France was to receive Syria and Lebanon.

The cynic Balfour wrote with brutal candour in prose of equal felicity in a memorandum dated August 11, 1919. This was shortly after the Covenant of the League of Nations had been drawn up under which Britain and France received a "mandate" to govern those countries. He wrote: "The contradiction between the letter of the Covenant and the policy of the Allies is even more flagrant in the case of the independent nation of Palestine... . For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country... The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. In my opinion that is right. What I have never been able to understand is how it can be harmonised with the Anglo-French Declaration [and the] Covenant... . In fact, so far as Palestine is concerned, the powers have made no statement of fact that is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate" (Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939; First Series; Volume IV; pages 340-349). Balfour opposed Jewish immigration into Britain. Truman did not think of a Jewish state in any of the U.S. territories.

In 1947-48, the U.S. took over the unfinished job from an exhausted and impoverished Britain. Successive American Presidents have actively helped Israel's expansionist policy. Now even one-fifth of Palestine is being denied to the Palestinian Arabs. Read this: "Had Israel not existed, then 750,000 Palestinians would not have become refugees. Five hundred Palestinian villages, 11 Palestinian towns, 94 per cent of the cultivated land in Palestine, thousands of Palestinian businesses, and endless numbers of careers would have been saved... . the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people in 1948 - when they were ethnically cleansed by the Jewish state - would not have occurred.

"Had Israel not existed, the lives of 50,000 Palestinians - my estimate of the number killed by Israel in its 57 years of existence - would have been spared. Two and a half million Palestinians would have been saved from one of the cruellest and most callous military occupations in the second half of the 20th century. A million Palestinian citizens in Israel would have been exempted from an apartheid system that has discriminated against them ever since the creation of the state. And, above all, the millions of Palestinian refugees could have come back home."

This was not written by an Arab polemicist, but by Ilan Pappe who teaches politics at Haifa University in Israel (Foreign Policy; March-April 2005, pages 60-61). His work, A History of Modern Palestine: One Land Two Peoples (Cambridge University Press; distributed by Foundation Books; pages 333; Rs.895), is a model of intellectual rigour and integrity. He describes how Sir Mark Sykes of the British Foreign Office and his French counterpart George Picot arrived at the sordid deal in May 1916. The state of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948, and was instantly recognised. "No one seemed to consider the possible implications of this act on the fate of the majority of Palestine's people, the Palestinian Arabs." Palestine was "lost to the Palestinians". In his opinion, Israel was "born in sin" (The Asian Age, December 25, 1997).

When Palestinian Arabs rise in revolt, they are called "terrorists". Israel's establishment itself owes a lot to terrorism. Invasion of a country, no matter how slight, is aggression. More so the theft of an entire country by immigrants backed by Anglo-American might: The law doth punish man or woman/ That steals the goose from the common,/ But lets the greater felon loose / That steals the common from the goose. The state of Israel exists. It is a member of the United Nations. Yet, what are a few decades in the memories of a nation? The tragedy is a continuing one and Palestinians see not a ray of hope.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.-MATT DUNHAM/AFP

Pappe writes: "The tragedy of Palestine is that the next peace plan, whenever it appears, will also be based on the false assumption that peace means an Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state next to it. The presence of so many Palestinians in Israel itself and the significant presence of Jewish settlers in what is supposed to be the future Palestine both cast doubt on the feasibility of this idea, which failed to persuade the indigenous population of Palestine in 1947... . For any political peace initiative to succeed, the chapter of Palestine's dispossession needs to be closed. Recognising the very act of dispossession - by accepting in principle the Palestinian refugees' right of return - could be the crucial act that opens the gate to the road out of conflict. A direct dialogue between the dispossessed and the state that expelled them can refresh the discourse of peace and may lead people and leaderships alike to acknowledge the need to seek a united political structure which, at different historical junctures in this story, has seemed possible." Western powers that have perpetrated such crimes have no right to preach morality to the Third World.

No procedure for "decision-making", no matter how streamlined, could have averted this tragedy, one of the greatest in human history. Only vision and honesty in the policymakers would have. Of these qualities, the American leaders are totally bereft. Their entire policy in West Asia is Israel-centric. The aim is to draw up a new Sykes-Picot deal. The game was given away by Stephen Hadley, Bush's National Security Adviser, no less, on October 31 when he said: "The spread of democracy will make the Middle East a safer neighbourhood for Israel." He was addressing the powerful American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. J.N. Dixit's book laments the lack of realpolitik in India's policies (Indian Foreign Service: History and Challenge by J.N. Dixit; Konark; pages 328, Rs.550). That only illustrates how Indians mindlessly adopt not only the NSC idea but also the American neocons' ideas.

Palestine provides just one case study in the West's reckless disregard for the rights of the Third World. The war against Vietnam, the isolation of China, Latin America and especially Cuba, and coups in the Third World are other examples. The worst was the coup in Iran in 1953 to restore the hated Shah in power. His misrule lasted 27 years. Belatedly, on March 17, 2000, the U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright admitted the U.S.' "significant role in orchestrating the coup" and Iranians' resentment at "this intervention by America in their internal affairs". In 1979, the CIA offered the first popularly elected President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Bani Sadr, a bribe of $1,000 a month.

For all this and more, what have the U.S. - and the U.K. for that matter - to show by way of results? Gross misjudgment of Stalin's intentions, of Mao's agenda; a humiliating volte-face on China in 1971 and abject defeat in Vietnam in 1975. What, indeed, have this ill-fated duo to show in Iraq or Afghanistan? Streamline "policymaking" by all means. But no streamlining can make a Bush or a Blair wise or principled.

Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power by David Rothkopf; Public Affairs, New York; pages 554, $29.95.

The Foreign Office and British Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century edited by Gaynor Johnson; Routledge; pages 236, 65.

British Foreign Secretaries Since 1974 edited by Kevin Theakston; Routledge; pages 281, 65.

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