Contending Republican factions could muddy waters

by Jim Lobe

Washington, 20 Dec 2000 (IPS) -- If you thought that President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy suffered from incoherence, wait until the administration of George W. Bush takes over on 20 January.  While Bush’s policy will at once be more unilateralist and less interventionist than Clinton’s, it will also suffer from serious inconsistencies as different factions around the president-elect contend for control over specific policies in various hotspots around the world.

Those factions were kept quiet during the election campaign as Republicans of all different stripes papered over differences to unite behind the candidate whom they thought was most likely to restore them to power. It helped that foreign policy played virtually no role in the campaign itself.

But now that Bush has begun naming his top officials, differences among Republicans are rising quickly to the surface, especially over the choice of a defense secretary. Vice President Dick Cheney has reportedly insisted over the objections of Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell, that the Pentagon be headed by a rock-ribbed conservative, former Sen. Dan Coats, instead of a more-moderate friend of “Dubya’s”, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

As more officials further down the ladder are picked between now and 20 January, when Bush is sworn in as the 43rd president, the battles over control are likely to intensify.

Since the 1930s, the Republican Party has been deeply divided between its “Establishment” or “Wall Street” wing, which broadly represented the interests of the largest US corporations, and its more ideologically right, or “Main Street,” wing. Brought together by a shared anti-communism during the Cold War, the two sides were increasingly at odds during the 1990s, only to come together again in 2000 at the mouth-watering prospect of a Republican winning the White House.

The immediate circle around Bush, like that around his father, is dominated by the corporate wing of the party which is very comfortable with Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (who sits on a number of corporate boards and even has a Chevron oil tanker named after her), and Bush’s Treasury Secretary-designate, Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) chairman Paul O’Neill, who also serves as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the RAND Corporation, a long-standing national-security think-tank.

But Republicans in Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives, are dominated by a more-rightwing group who are not expected to sit quietly if Bush goes too “moderate” in his appointments. In some ways, Cheney, as Bush’s virtual prime minister for the moment, is their strongest advocate, although his own views, to the extent they are fully expressed, bridge the ideological divide.

The worldviews of the two factions, however, are vastly different and are almost certain to clash in debates on key policies, especially in the Gulf, on China and Taiwan, the Koreas, and on national missile defense (NMD).

On the Gulf, for example, the Republican right has long urged a “rollback” strategy designed to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by building up opposition forces in neighbouring countries or areas of Iraq protected by US airpower. At the same time, it opposes any rapprochement with Iran, which it sees as an Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist state dedicated to the destruction of Israel, if not the West itself.

More-moderate forces around Bush, on the other hand, feel both policies make little sense. Echoing the assessment of senior US military and intelligence officials, they argue that a rollback strategy would not only be strenuously opposed by Washington’s closest allies in Europe and the Gulf, not to mention Russia and China; but also because, given the state of the opposition, there’s no practicable way of achieving Saddam’s ouster in this way without US troops occupying Baghdad itself.

On Iran, corporate Republicans, beginning with Bush’s chief foreign policy mentor, his father’s national security adviser ret. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, have long favoured rapprochement primarily for two reasons.  First, US oil and gas companies - whose financing of the Bush campaign could only be described as lavish - have been desperate for access to Iranian oil and gas, and to Iran itself as the shortest route to Central Asian oil and gas.

Second, Teheran is increasingly viewed as it was in the 1970s under the Shah - as the preferred counterweight to Iraq and a possible long-term guarantor of stability in the wider region.

On China, the factions are similarly divided, particularly when the conversation turns to Taiwan.

The right in Congress has championed Taiwan’s cause, including, eventually, independence from the mainland and, in the meantime, to all of the sophisticated arms, including missile defense, which Washington can provide. They also see China as an emerging military threat to the United States itself, and certainly its interests in Asia.

The corporate wing of the party, on the other hand, strongly approved Clinton’s policy of opening China to US investment and trade and will likely oppose any move that could endanger the commercial relationship, including arming Taiwan in ways that Beijing might consider too provocative.

During the campaign, Bush tried to bridge these gaps describing China as “a competitor, not a partner”, as Clinton had called it. But the gap remains, and it is likely to be tested early in the administration.

A similar divide exists on North Korea, which may prove to be Clinton’s final foreign destination as president in order to conclude a framework agreement that would permanently freeze Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programmes. Wall Street Republicans generally have favoured - or at least not opposed - Clinton’s engagement policies, in large part because the alternative could well mean war.

But the Right has been scathing about what they call Clinton’s naivete in dealing with Pyongyang. It favours a much tougher line, even at the risk of undercutting South Korean President and 2000 Nobel Peace Laureate, Kim Dae Jung, and sharply increasing tensions in all of Northeast Asia.

National missile defense (NMD) is another big point of conflict among Republicans. Again, the corporate wing of the party - minus several big defence contractors who stand to make billions of dollars, if it is approved - has long been sceptical both about the scheme’s technical feasibility, but, even more, about its impact on US long-term ties with its NATO allies, Russia, and China. For the Right, on the other hand, support for NMD has become almost as important a political litmus test as opposition to abortion.

Despite these differences, there are broad areas of general agreement between the two sides. On South Asia, for example, they are united in supporting better ties with India at Pakistan’s expense. The corporate wing sees India as a fast-growing market, while the Right sees it as a key rising power against a militant Islam from the West and China from the North.

Both sides also give virtually no strategic importance to sub-Saharan Africa, except as a possible basis for co-operation with Democrats to fight HIV/AIDS and pursue other, relatively inexpensive, but politically rewarding humanitarian initiatives.

There could be some disagreement over Sudan, where the Right will insist on a confrontational policy to the unease of the corporate wing.  The latter also sees oil and gas supplies from the Gulf of Gabon as increasingly important to the United States and clearly hopes to use the major giants of the region, Nigeria and South Africa, to ensure some stability in that sub-region.

Both sides also agree broadly on policy toward Latin America, particularly on extending NAFTA to Chile and working on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) accord. Both sides are very concerned about President Hugo Chavez’ growing power in Venezuela and what risks that may present to US access to Venezuelan crude. The Right, meanwhile, favours stronger support for forces to subdue leftist insurgencies next door in Colombia, while the corporate side is more leery about increased US intervention.