AS GEORGE KENNAN OBSERVED 50 years ago in American Diplomacy, American foreign policy has been periodically affected by bouts of evangelical idealism, which date from the country's Puritan founding and which have led Americans to seek to transform the world in our image--and to demonize any country or regime that stands in the way. Since September 11, a group of Washington neoconservatives, some of whom serve under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have attempted to define America's objectives in the Middle East and the war against terrorism in these evangelical terms. Arrayed against them have been Secretary of State Colin Powell and his principal ally and mentor, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. While Powell has eschewed major statements of strategy, Scowcroft has voiced their common outlook in a Wall Street Journal column this August and in a Washington Postcolumn in November.
Scowcroft, a student of the late Columbia University political scientist Hans Morgenthau, is a realist who worries about international stability and sees the world in shades of gray rather than white and black. Like other realists, Scowcroft and Powell have sometimes erred in being overly cautious and in slighting the struggle for human rights. But in the present debate over the Mideast, their realism has been a welcome corrective to the evangelical idealism that has gripped the rest of the Bush administration and to the Democrats' unsubstantiated complaints that the administration is "not doing enough to win the war on terrorism."
Scowcroft and Powell's realistic approach to the region can be boiled down to two propositions: first, that if forced to choose among waging the war against terrorism, seeking regime change in Iraq and reviving the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, regime change in Iraq is the least important and should be approached the most gingerly; second, that immediately resuming negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians is integral to waging the war on terrorism. By contrast, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense; Richard Perle, the chairman of the Pentagon's Policy Board; William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, and other neoconservatives see removing Saddam Hussein as an overriding priority, and Hussein himself as a figure of transcendent evil. Moreover, they believe that out of Hussein's ouster will come a transformed, democratic Middle East in which the Palestinians, deprived of their radical leadership, will accept a significant Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Scowcroft and Powell reject the Pentagon obsession with ousting Hussein--which recalls an earlier American fixation with getting rid of Cuba's Fidel Castro. They see the Iraqi leader as a brutal dictator but not as an immediate threat to the United States or to its neighbors. A nuclear-armed Iraq could menace its neighbors and the stability of world oil supplies, but as Scowcroft argued in his August column, this threat could be met initially through resuming United Nations arms inspections. If Hussein clearly defies the United Nations by preventing its arms inspectors from doing their job, the United States could go to war with the backing of a multinational force.
Under pressure from Powell, George W. Bush reluctantly endorsed the mission of UN arms inspectors but still seems wedded to the war plans of Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle. Cheney and Rumsfeld are probably more interested in removing the threat of Hussein developing nuclear weapons and in gaining leverage over Iraq's copious oil supply, but the administration's neoconservatives harbor dreams of what Kristol calls a "chain reaction" from Hussein's overthrow that could wipe out Islamic radicalism. When Olivier Roy, an authority on Islamic radicalism, visited Wolfowitz earlier this year, he asked him whether he was worried that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could precipitate the overthrow of other Arab regimes. …