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The Hawks Mourn: AEI’s Annual “Pre-Briefing” on President Bush’s Sixth State of the Union

Posted by K.E. White on January 24, 2007

The mood was sullen today at the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) annual State of the Union “pre-briefing.” 

Six foreign policy analysts at AEI spoke on what the President will—or should—discuss latter tonight, all reiterating a similar theme: never has the President been so weak, and never has he had so much to prove. 

Danielle Pletka, making clear that foreign policy would not be lost to domestic issues in Bush’s upcoming, ably moderated the discussion, guiding the five AEI analysts ably and pulling their wonkish talks into a coherent and compelling—if one-sided—narrative. 

Michael Rubin argued, “while some might criticize Bush’s remarks five years ago as being unhelpful in diplomacy, in reality they were prescient,” emphasizing the growing danger Iran and North Korea pose to international stability. 

While side-stepping the issue of what role those remarks had in creating these sources of international crisis, made the case for tough U.S. diplomacy on Iran and North Korea. 

Rubin recommended President Bush “recognize that there are commonalities among the reformers, the pragmatists, the reformers,” continuing by claiming that “[t]he difference between these factions is one of style, not one of substance.” 

But he conceded a more general failure of America’s approach to Iran: “What I am saying is that the United States isn’t good at playing this Iran game. Of trying to be puppeteer, of trying to engage one faction verses the other.” 

Leon Aron, AEI’s Russia expert, bemoaned “the shrinking of the common commitmentsLeon Aron of every one of the four mainstay areas of the U.S.-Russia strategic dialogue: the war on terror, non-proliferation, Russia’s reliability as a global energy supplier, and its move towards democracy.” 

These common interests will “shrink even further…in the next two years,” Aron stated. 

“[T]he State of the Union speech will matter very little,” Gary Schmitt posed, going against the conventional wisdom of the news media and anchoring the theme of the discussion. 

Gary Schmitt“[P]resident’s can make very fine speeches,” Schmitt told the audience, “but after a time it was a coin that got spent too readily. People began to hear great speeches, but if you don’t see the follow through—the actions—people begin to dismiss the speeches. 

He continued by pointing to the dual-pronged source of the public’s dissatisfaction with President Bush: the botched response to Hurricane Katrina at home and a war effort abroad perceived as failing. 

“The reality in Iraq is what determines public perception. The reality in Katrina, the results of the Hurricane there, are what determined perceptions. And those perceptions are that we have a President that may have very fine policy ideas but is very ineffective in carrying them out.” 

Dan Blumenthal, AEI’s Asia analyst, saw any improvement on the North Korean nuclear dilemma ““only happen[ing] if we start to see some success in Iraq.” 

But Blumenthal seemed pessimistic, finding the Bush administration’s bureaucracy favoring compromise with North Korea, similar to the position of China—not tightening the screws to China by letting Japan out of the nuclear box, or making the de-nuclearization of North Korea the “litmus test” for Sino-American relations. 

But he hoped for some action, lest we have President Bush hand to the next administration “a North Korea that is irreversibly nuclear at this point.” 

Thomas Donnelly, AEI’s Iraq speaker, saw the escalation as a workable strategy: but pointed to the many obstacles Bush must overcome for success in Iraq. 

Donnelly argued that the Bush administration must still show there is a unity of commandThomas Donnelly in Iraq—with Petraeus in the top role; clarify the troop numbers and stages of the proposed surge; and, finally, have ready a reconstruction that works in Iraq. 

Donnelly was well aware of the new political landscape, telling the audience that newly empowered Democrats will point “both barrels to the President on Iraq.” 

He also saw General David Petraeus’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee as more important to Congressional support for Iraq than the State of the Union, conceding the extreme weakness of President Bush to rally the nation behind his foreign policy in Iraq. 

The outlook looked gloomy for all the speakers. 

Success in Iraq, while still seen as achievable, was by no means guaranteed—these speakers blamed domestic politics rather than conditions in Iraq.

And the real threat for many in the room, a nuclear Iran and a further nuclearized North Korea, seemed ever more illusive to contain with Iraq’s attention-stealing and resource-draining present condition. 

Though what seemed most clear to all these speakers was the realization that the aggressive neo-conservative foreign policy was a mere step away from extinction. Unless the compromised Bush administration shows success in Iraq soon, not only will the Bush legacy be tarnished but so too neo-conservative approach to America’s foreign policy.

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