WASHINGTON — As he prepared for the Democrats’ first presidential debate, Sen. Barack Obama sought advice from a wide circle, including, I am told, Gen. Colin Powell, who now deeply regrets his role in making the case for war in Iraq.
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On the Republican side, Gov. Mitt Romney (another foreign policy neophyte) has reached out to a number of advisors, among them, I am told, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, an early foe of the war in Iraq and a close ally of Powell’s from the first Bush presidency.
We are in a crucial – but little understood – phase, not only in the presidential campaign, but also in the shaping of foreign policy.
Neocons versus pragmatists
In 1999, then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas knew little about the world and rarely had traveled abroad. Distrustful of most of his father’s advisors (including Powell and Scowcroft), Bush surrounded himself with combative visionaries – the neocons – whose black-and-white view suited his temperament.
After 9/11, that meant the “Axis of Evil,” the War on Terror – and Iraq.
Now the “pragmatists” are back into the conversation. They are neither the get-out-now crowd of MoveOn Democrats, nor the conflagration crowd of confrontationalists on the right.
They represent a deal-making, business-oriented group that seeks to understand (and not judge) the morals of the societies with which we must deal on the planet.
They tend to have a good feel for, and good relations with, the moderate Arab and Muslim worlds. They favor multinational groups, not necessarily the UN, but certainly broad-based coalitions. Their role model is not Bush II but Bush I.
I am told that Powell and Obama have talked more than once, urged to do so by mutual friends. Powell has had a history of offering his expertise to anyone who is interested, but especially fellow African-Americans, since there aren’t many blacks in the top ranks of the foreign policy establishment (besides Powell, they include Secretary of State Condi Rice, of course, and former UN Ambassador Donald McHenry).
Scowcroft has his own personal reasons for kibitzing: he and Romney are leaders of the Mormon Church.
Still a ways to go
In a warm up speech for the Democratic debate – to the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs – Obama praised President George H.W. Bush and offered a military and diplomatic strategy out of the Powell-Scowcroft playbook: patient, coalition-building diplomacy combined with the use of surgical, well-prepared military force.
Playing to the GOP base, Romney has talked for years about confronting the “jihadists who are waging a global war.” But Romney adds that winning that war will require “a broader approach to the broader Muslim world – including working with NATO allies and with progressive Muslim communities.”
None of this suggests that the “pragmatists” are about to retake control of American foreign policy.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, has to balance calls for cooperation and diplomacy with the special challenge of being a woman bidding for the role of commander in chief.
On the GOP side, frontrunners (and would be candidates) Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Fred Thompson all pledge loyalty to George II’s combative, Bible-believing vision.
Romney does to, in his measured way, but he remains the one major GOP candidate in which the “pragmatists” invest some hope. Indeed, friends of Bush have told me for a year that Romney is the Old Man’s favorite.
Still, if George H.W. Bush tunes into the MSNBC debates, he can expect to hear more kind words from the Democrats – or at least from Obama – than from the Republicans. It’s a shrewd political move for Obama. Call it pragmatism.
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