The call for President Bush’s defeat in a statement released Wednesday by a group of former diplomats and military officials highlighted the stark divide that has opened among foreign policy experts over the administration’s national security strategy.
Although some of the 27 members of Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change are identified most closely with Democratic administrations, almost all served presidents of both parties -- either as ambassadors, executive branch officials or military officers.
In that way, the group’s formation symbolizes how Bush’s search for new approaches to safeguard America has triggered a backlash among the centrist foreign policy establishment.
It also indicates that the debate over Bush’s direction could provoke the sharpest realignment of loyalties on foreign affairs since the emergence of neoconservative thinkers roughly 30 years ago.
“The statement suggests how much certain parts of Bush’s foreign policy do mark a break with the establishment,” said Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a leading conservative theorist. “The simplest way to put it is that Bush thinks 9/11 was a fundamental break and we needed a new doctrine after that, and the foreign policy establishment doesn’t believe that.”
Indeed, a central critique by the group is that Bush abandoned alliance-based strategies that had provided the foundation of U.S. security since World War II.
“Today, we see that structure crumbling under an administration blinded by ideology and a callous indifference to the realities of the world around it,” said Phyllis Oakley, a former State Department official in the Reagan and Clinton administrations and a group member.
The group’s criticisms largely track those leveled against Bush in the last year by other career national security officials. These include former White House counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke; retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former commander of the U.S. Central Command; and a large number of retired diplomats who released a statement last month criticizing Bush’s Middle East policy.
Wednesday’s statement also echoed the dissent over Bush’s policy by Sens. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), some of the last embodiments of the “internationalist” wing of the GOP that prizes cooperation with other nations.
Yet Bush’s insistence that old strategies, such as emphasizing deterrence of threats rather than preemptive action against them, are inadequate to meet the new challenges of terrorism has drawn support from some traditionally left-leaning voices, such as Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
Also, former Clinton national security aide Ivo H. Daalder has argued that internationalists such as the diplomats and military officers’ group may be overestimating the degree to which the U.S. can rely on international institutions like the United Nations to pursue its goals.
The result of these tremors may be the most turbulence in the foreign policy landscape since the late 1970s, when a flight of hawkish Democratic thinkers known as neoconservatives migrated to the GOP in reaction to the dovish post-Vietnam foreign policy embraced by most Democratic politicians.
“I don’t know where it ends up, but clearly it is a very fluid moment like the late 1970s,” Kristol said.
Those signing the sharply worded statement included Arthur A. Hartman, ambassador to the Soviet Union for President Reagan; and Jack F. Matlock, who assumed that post toward the end of Reagan’s second term and held it under President George H.W. Bush. Others were William Harrop, the elder Bush’s ambassador to Israel; retired Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, the Air Force chief of staff during the Persian Gulf War; retired Adm. William J. Crowe, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman under Reagan; and Donald McHenry, the U.N. ambassador under President Carter.
The statement charged that the younger Bush had “weakened” American national security and left the U.S. more isolated in the world than at any other time by overemphasizing military force and shunning traditional allies. The group condemned the invasion of Iraq as “an ill-planned and costly war from which exit is uncertain.”
Although the statement did not explicitly endorse Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, it directly urged Bush’s defeat.
The Bush campaign disputed the group’s claim that it was bipartisan or nonpartisan. Campaign officials noted that at least 13 of the 27 signers had made political contributions to Democrats and that 11 endorsed Clinton in at least one of his presidential campaigns or Al Gore in 2000.
The group’s organizers acknowledged that some of its members were primarily identified with Democratic administrations. But they said that many members had supported Republicans and that it was inaccurate to portray the group as allied with either party.
Harrop and Oakley said they voted for Bush in 2000. At a news conference Wednesday, McPeak acknowledged that he had endorsed Kerry after earlier supporting former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the Democratic race. But he said he served as the Oregon chairman for GOP nominee Bob Dole in 1996 and on a veterans committee for Bush in 2000.
“This administration has gone away from me, not vice versa,” McPeak said.
The group’s membership is drawn almost entirely from career diplomatic and military officials who reflect the commitment to internationalism that mostly has held the upper hand in U.S. foreign policy since World War II. In that sense, the group’s statement might be best understood as a revolt of professionals who believe Bush has radically veered from the course set for decades by Republican and Democratic presidents.
“If we were on active duty,” said Charles W. Freeman Jr., ambassador to Saudi Arabia under Bush’s father and a signer of the document, “this would be the equivalent of a mass resignation.”
Bush allies agree that he has set a different course through an increased willingness to act without overt international sanction, to use the military more aggressively and to heighten efforts to encourage democracy in the Middle East. But they argue that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks demanded those changes.
“This is a group that shares John Kerry’s pre-Sept. 11 worldview and supports [his] ... failed ideas for treating terrorism as a matter mainly for law enforcement and intelligence,” said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign.
In their statement, and more directly in interviews, the group’s members argue that the attacks did not justify Bush’s new directions, particularly his move toward greater unilateral action. “The fundamentals of protecting American citizens, of protecting our national security, [have] not changed,” said Robert V. Keeley, ambassador to Greece under Reagan.
But some analysts who have criticized aspects of Bush’s decisions argue that the terrorism threat sharpened a divergence of interests between the U.S. and Europe that would make it difficult for any president to re-create the close alliances America enjoyed during the Cold War.
“With Sept. 11, the focus of American foreign policy has changed from Europe to the Middle East,” said Mead, author of “Power, Terror, Peace and War,” a new book largely sympathetic to Bush’s foreign policy. “That is going to cause a certain distancing of the U.S. and Europe in any case.”
The question of how much America can rely on allies and how much it must act alone looms as a central issue in this year’s presidential campaign. Wednesday’s statement provides additional evidence that the question also is likely to endure as a key foreign policy debate long beyond November’s vote.
Times staff writer Mary Curtius contributed to this report.