Rifts widen in Bush's foreign policy team

Backers of Powell's multilateralism clash with go-it-alone conservatives over the administration's direction.

When it comes to Iraq, the Bush administration's foreign policy team is speaking with one voice: All the players are saying that despite faulty prewar intelligence, the president's decision to go to war was right.

But behind the unanimity is dissonance in tones and forcefulness that suggests the deeper differences that have been part of the Bush foreign policy since the beginning. The failure to see eye to eye extends to the so-called Bush doctrine of preemptive war - one of the administration's defining policies - and reaches to the president's top foreign-policy players.

The continuing differences have only added to President Bush's woes as the White House has grappled with questions of whether what the administration knew about Iraq justified a war. But the bigger issue, some experts say, is what the differences suggest about the administration's ability to confront continuing problems, like North Korea and Iran, especially as Bush enters a battle for reelection.

With key members of the Bush foreign policy team expected to leave their posts at the end of the term - including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell - some are trying to set the record straight on the role they've played. They are also, clearly, trying to shape the direction things might go in a second term.

"Perhaps a second term would resolve things, but right now there continues to be a very fundamental disagreement," says Karl Inderfurth, a Clinton administration State Department official now at George Washington University. The highly visible rift is between elements "led by the vice-president, the secretary of defense, and his deputy, who hold to a notion of America's unique right to unfettered action, and others, allied with Secretary Powell, who continue to argue for an emphasis on what he has called a 'strategy of partnership' with the international community."

Mr. Inderfurth says that two recent comments typify the internal differences. At a closely watched security conference in Munich last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a spirited defense of the administration's national security strategy that "the higher the risk and the danger, the lower the threshold for action."

Also in recent days, Mr. Powell - who revealed in a Washington Post interview that he might have recommended differently on going to war with Iraq if he knew a year ago what's known now - has preferred to stress that Bush is not looking to respond to threats with force "if there are other ways to solve the problem."

"Here you have the two most prominent cabinet officials," says Inderfurth, "one hyping preemptive action and the other playing it down."

Some observers say the differences, played out in public, hurt the president - especially with Americans paying more attention to foreign-policy questions because of the 100,000 US soldiers in Iraq.

"Presidents always look bad when their main advisers are squabbling publicly over what the White House should be doing or has done," says James Lindsay, a foreign-policy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "It hurts the president especially in this case because he's been under such criticism from Democrats for not coming clean on the intelligence aspects of the Iraq war."

Mac Destler, an expert in US foreign policy at the University of Maryland, recalls that Ronald Reagan, as a candidate against an incumbent president, criticized Jimmy Carter for a foreign policy team that failed to speak with one voice. "The problem for a president is that if [the division] reaches critical mass," he says, "it can end up diluting what should be a political advantage for the incumbent."

But Danielle Pletka, a foreign policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, says the Bush team has been "remarkably unified" on the issue of going to war with Iraq. She suspects that "people are so habituated to hearing about the deep divisions in the administration over foreign policy matters that they are looking for them." That doesn't mean they don't exist - they do on some issues, she says, like North Korea and Iran - just not over the justification of war with Iraq.

How Bush's foreign policy might shift if he is reelected will hinge on key appointments. Powell, who customarily answers questions about his tenure by saying he serves at the pleasure of the president, is not expected to return for a second term.

Many observers say some of Powell's recent actions, like his qualifying his enthusiasm for war and reemphasis on multilateral action, reflect a man trying to set the record straight on his legacy. "He's on his way out, so he's paying a little more attention to his place in history in these final months," says one insider at the State Department. "He's the good soldier as everybody says, but he also knows there are already books being written about him. He wants it remembered that he's the one who convinced the president to go to the UN before going to war, things like that."

Closer to the president, Ms. Rice has said this will be her last year in the White House - though that careful language does not rule out taking the top slot either at State or at the Pentagon. How Bush would fill those positions would reveal the way he wants America to be viewed by the world. Noting that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz - dubbed the architect of the Iraq war - would love to take over at State, former Reagan administration official Lawrence Korb says "that certainly sends a very different signal than if you pick a Senator [Richard] Lugar or [Chuck] Hagel," two moderate Republicans.

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