Ira Chernus  




Condi Rice: Up. The neoconservatives: Down. That’s the conventional wisdom inside the DC beltway these days. Neocon guru William Kristol once bragged that Condi “swung over pretty decisively after 9/11” to his view of the world—a tough world, where only the militarily strong survive. But now, the pundits say, Condi and the neocons have gone their separate ways. For proof, they point to the new version of the National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS), the administration's updated official policy statement.

The first version, back in 2002, boldly declared that the U.S. would keep its military strength preeminent forever and pre-emptively (or, more precisely, preventively) attack anyone, anywhere, anytime it pleased. This time around, says political scientist John Mearsheimer, there is “a subtle but important shift away from the emphasis on force. The teeth are much less prominent." The conventional wisdom credits this change to the ever-growing influence of Condi Rice.

But don’t rush out to celebrate Condi’s divorce from the neocons quite yet. True, the 2006 NSS puts less emphasis on brute military “teeth” and more on the gentler art of diplomacy. The Bushies have learned from their failure in Iraq that you can’t build an empire with military force alone. However, they haven’t given up on the neocon vision of turning the world into a permanent American empire. Condi hasn’t given it up, either. Instead, she has transformed herself from an ordinary neocon into something new: a neoCondi. And the Bush administration is now pursuing a new kind of diplomacy. Rice calls it transformational diplomacy.” I call it neoCondism.

Condi has explained the operative principle of “transformational diplomacy” quite candidly: “The fundamental character of regimes now matters more than the international distribution of power.” In other words, the overriding goal of U.S. diplomacy is now to protect U.S. interests and the global corporate system by controlling the internal political and economic structures of other nations—and changing those structures whenever the U.S. deems it useful.

The new version of the NSS spells out the theory clearly enough, if you read between the lines. Here’s how the argument goes. “The desire for freedom lives in every human heart.” So everyone should live under a free democratic government. To prove that they are free, governments have to do more than hold elections. They must “govern their territory effectively,” “maintain order within their own borders,and “conduct themselves responsibly in the international system.” In short, they have to behave well.

Who gets to decide when a state is “responsibly governed” and “behaves well”? The Bush administration, naturally. In the NSS, the Bushies solemnly take upon themselves the burden of “encouraging governments to make wise choices and assisting them in implementing those choices. We will encourage and reward good behavior rather than reinforce negative behavior.

Condi has tried to put it in polite terms: “I would define the objective of transformational diplomacy this way: to work with our many partners around the world, to build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system. Let me be clear, transformational diplomacy is rooted in partnership; not in paternalism.”[1] Yet phrases in the NSS like “we will encourage and reward good behavior rather than reinforce negative behavior … encouraging governments to make wise choicescreating external incentives for governments to reform themselves” could come straight out of any modern parenting manual.

In short, neoCondism means that the U.S., like any good parent, makes the rules: fair but firm, with consequences for those who disobey. And the neoCondites are ready for disobedience. In fact, they expect it. The “Overview” section of the NSS begins: “The goal of our statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states … Achieving this goal is the work of generations. The United States is in the early years of a long struggle, similar to what our country faced in the early years of the Cold War.”

All of the seemingly banal cliches about “responsible well-governed states” that “behave well” are part of a strategy for war. They all serve to justify war and define the enemy. So it is entirely logical that the text moves smoothly between terrorists (who are all “totalitarian”) and “irresponsible” states that behave badly, effectively fusing the two into one huge global enemy. The two prongs of this war are, according to Bush, “inseparable priorities.”

  But “good behavior” doesn’t mean genuine democracy. It means behaving the way the administration wants. Journalist Fred Kaplan, analyzing the new NSS, rightly assures us the U.S. will keep on cooperating with even flagrantly undemocratic regimes as long as they are “friendly” and serve our national interests. As Kaplan says, the push for freedom and democracy amounts to nothing but “the push for countries to behave more like we behave and more in our interests.Again, neoCondi herself puts it more politely: “We particularly have good working relationships with people who share our values.”

The new NSS candidly admits it, too: “We seek to shape the world.” Using familiar code, the document says that “peace and international stability are most reliably built on a foundation of freedom.” Translation: The global system the U.S. has created since World War II will run smoothly and protect U.S. interests as long as governments everywhere are “well behaved” and don’t rock the boat of U.S. global interests.

If they do rock the boat, they’d better watch out. The new NSS repeatedly warns badly behaved nations to expect preventive attack from American “offensive strike systems (both nuclear and improved conventional capabilities).” True, the text admits, the United States can never know with certainty what an opponent’s capabilities or intentions are. But mere suspicion can apparently be sufficient to trigger a preventive military attack. That’s because “the first duty of the United States Government remains what it always has been: to protect the American people and American interests.”

The NSS relies on the common argument that democracy keeps the U.S. secure because democracies do not “attack other free nations.” Apparently, though, it’s OK to attack unfree -- i.e., irresponsible, poorly-behaved -- nations. In fact, it’s America’s solemn obligation. And the U.S. government is free to declare any nation badly governed or irresponsible. Then that nation becomes, by definition, an enemy liable to a U.S. attack, perhaps even a preventive nuclear attack.

 “Transformational diplomacy” may mean, as analyst Gideon Rose thinks, pursuing “not different goals but a calmer and more measured path toward the same ones … favor[ing] cost-benefit analyses rather than ideological litmus tests.” Yet neoCondi’s former aide and now successor as national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, was right on target when he insisted that the new NSS maintains the neoconservative spirit of the first version, which Rice had produced: "I don't think it's a change in strategy. It's an updating of where we are with the strategy.”

NeoCondi still justifies it all with the same neocon vision of post-9/11 grandeur. Among her predecessors at State, she gives special praise to Dean Acheson, the architect of cold war policy, whose achievement she apparently hopes to emulate. “The international system has been in flux since the collapse of Soviet power,” she said not long after 9/11. “Now it is possible—indeed probable—that the transition is coming to an end…a period akin to 1945 to 1947, when American leadership…[created] a new balance of power that favored freedom. …That has started shifting the tectonic plates in international politics. And it's important to try to seize on that and position American interests and institutions and all of that before they harden again." That was indeed Acheson’s view after World War II.

But neoCondi’s approach to foreign policy is vastly different from Acheson’s. He and the other early cold warriors hardly cared about the internal workings of the Soviet Union. They clearly implied that Stalin could murder whomever he wanted inside his own borders, as long as his power was contained behind the Iron Curtain. They had learned that lesson from Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the mid-1930s, when he told Hitler what the United States wanted from the Third Reich, he never said anything about the fundamental character of Hitler’s regime. Nothing about how the Nazis treated Jews or gypsies or gays or socialists. FDR warned Hitler only to stop throwing Germany’s economic and military weight beyond its own borders. Sure, all U.S. leaders have talked plenty about the evils of totalitarianism. But it was mostly for propaganda. Real policy was all about international relations: stopping the enemy from getting more power in the global arena.

The neoCondites of the Bush administration seem intent on changing all that. U.S. security and the success of global capitalism depend on the internal economic and political structures of every nation state, they  argue. All three factors must be controlled simultaneously, everywhere.

That’s a tall order. But neoCondi thinks she knows how to do it. It “requires integration of all of our assets,” she told one audience, “but it also requires integration of our people with the host country.” U.S. diplomats must now speak the local language fluently so they can “engage with private citizens in emerging regional centers, not just with government officials in their nations' capitals.” Reporting on that speech, the Washington Post summarized: “The move is intended to bring U.S. diplomats—now often barricaded in fortified embassies—closer to the mood in the streets. The State Department will also expand the use of interactive Web sites maintained by diplomats to communicate with foreign citizens, promote the creation of rapid-reaction forces to deal with regional problems and seek to work more closely with military officers to promote the stability of nations after conflicts, Rice said.”[2] In a world where evil is still very real,” she added, “democratic principles must be backed with power in all its forms: political, and economic, and cultural, and moral, and yes, sometimes, military.”

Working more closely with the military is an important part of the overall strategy. NeoCondi recently confessed that “the continuum between ending conflict, stabilizing a country, and then moving it on to independence is something that we have to be better at doing.” To that end, she has established a State Department Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization, which gets special notice in the 2006 NSS: “Our diplomats must be able to step outside their traditional role to become more involved with the challenges within other societies. … The Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization will integrate all relevant United States Government resources and assets in conducting reconstruction and stabilization operations … for restoring order and ensuring success.” This sounds like State complaining that it could have done a far better job than the Pentagon of running Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

But the first heads of that Office made it clear that they wouldn’t wait for a destructive U.S. attack before they swing into action. They claimed that their mandate is to “help stabilize and reconstruct [any] societies in transition from conflict or civil strife, so they can reach a sustainable path toward peace, democracy, and a market economy.”

And Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, like Rice’s State Department, now aims to create stability without overt acts of war. Its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released just a month before the updated NSS, announces that U.S. military forces will be charged with “Shaping the Choices of Countries at Strategic Crossroads.” These are countries, ranging from little places like Lebanon and Kyrgistan to the giants, China and Russia, that are not clearly in the camp of the well-behaved. The U.S. military aims to “ensure” that they are “integrated as constructive actors and stakeholders into the international system.” The Pentagon hopes to do the job, most of the time, not with tanks and bombers but with small teams of Special Operations Forces. They will operate in dozens of countries simultaneously and clandestinely, the QDR says, fighting “low-visibility, persistent presence missions and a global unconventional warfare,” speaking the local language and infiltrating into the local culture.[3]

In fact, as Robert D. Kaplan has documented at length, they are already busy doing just that around the world. For example, “today, if you were to visit any number of places in the Balkans or the Caucasus, you would find quite a few American military officers working in this and that defense ministry or army unit, all very low-key, so that it never becomes a political issue.” But Special Ops forces are not so likely to be found in offices. A general told Kaplan candidly what they do: "You whack bad guys quietly and cover your tracks with humanitarian-aid projects." In other words, they make sure that nations at the crossroads always make the right choices, because the locals who might persuade the people to make the wrong choices all turn up mysteriously dead.[4]

The 2006 NSS says little about the QDR’s specific goals, but the goals of the two documents fit together quite seamlessly. Top level officials in Defense and State publicly boast of the excellent “cooperation between the Defense Department and the State Department's Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization. The collaboration has been superb. … State and Defense officials jointly have developed concepts to deal with foreign contingencies.”[5]

They’ve been busy preparing for those contingencies, too. Though it escaped the notice of the mainstream press, from February 27 to March 17 the U.S. military joined with forces from seven other countries in Multinational Experiment 4, a simulation exercise for creating “stable governments.” And neoCondi’s Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization was right in the middle of it. Col. George Bowers spoke for the Pentagon: “It's a holistic approach. The idea is that instead of going in with a big hammer, it's looking at all the aspects of national power and their effect." A Canadian officer agreed that “the response has to be a whole-government approach, not just a military approach, when the effect you want to create is a stable government."

The military people call it using “the DIME elements -- diplomatic, information, military and economic.” Notice that they give “diplomatic” top billing. Barbara Stephenson, speaking for Reconstruction and Stabilization, was delighted: “It's not just the military that's going to be delivering the effect anymore. … It's driving real-world change in a way that's very unusual for a military experiment."

The “effect” -- the “real-world change” the neoCondists want -- is clear enough. Trained U.S. personnel will be infiltrated into every community around the world where people are behaving “badly” or “irresponsibly”—that is, not in line with American interests. Using the broadest possible array of tactics, from early childhood education to back-alley assassination, they will unobtrusively control the inner workings of every society—what Rice calls “the fundamental character of regimes”—everywhere. NeoCondism is a vision of global American power and might that would gladden any neoconservative heart.

The rise of neoCondism marks the boldest bid yet for total American hegemony. The definition of national security has never been more expansive. By aiming higher, the new NSS makes security more nearly impossible to achieve. As Fred Kaplan puts it (with delicate understatement): “People in some countries, and not just their tyrannical leaders, seem reluctant to go along. … [The NSS] verges on not merely hubris but fantasy, a mistaken notion that the end of the Cold War left America in control of the whole world—when, in fact, it left much of the world elusive of anyone's control.”[6] But the Bush administration will not accept that fact. Old-fashioned neoconservatives and the new breed of neoCondites agree on one crucial point: The reality of a world beyond their control is too frightening to tolerate. So they still reject reality in favor of their fantasy of global hegemony.[7] They still commit the United States to an all-out battle of good against evil, with no meaningful middle ground allowed. And they still commit the U.S. to making sure that every state ends up on the good side—the side of American interests—with a forceful preventive push, if necessary. As they constantly change their tactics and the names of the enemy, the neocons ensure that they will never be able to declare a final victory. They can only go on making more enemies and sinking the U.S. deeper into its enduring state of national insecurity.

The greatest danger of neoCondism is that its wily charms may seduce the liberals. Thomas Friedman once called Iraq “the 51st state.” “America broke Iraq,” Friedman explained. “Now America owns Iraq, and it owns the primary responsibility for normalizing it.” Of course, Iraq has hardly been normalized. As liberals like Friedman endlessly point out, that’s because the neocons assumed that all you need is military might. The new NSS seems proof that the Bushies have finally learned their lesson: After you break it, you gotta fix it. Liberals like Friedman want the U.S. to be fixing, normalizing, and controlling nations all over the world.

Now they think they see the Bush administration headed in that direction. As Mearsheimer told the Christian Science Monitor, the NSS “makes arguments about using force that most security experts left or rightwould agree with. It goes out of its way to say that using force would be a last resort.’ Like its predecessor, the new security strategy espouses basic liberal idealsthat democracy, prosperity, and international cooperation are the building blocks of global peace. ‘It could have been written by Woodrow Wilson or Bill Clinton,’ he says.”[8] So most liberals glanced at the new NSS, breathed a sigh of relief, and forgot about it.

For liberals who greeted the neoCondist NSS with a sigh of relief, it may look like merely a better chance to achieve the same kind of hegemony that the neocons want. It’s the same kind of hegemony that FDR and Dean Acheson wanted, too. The debate in the foreign policy elite has always been about means, never about ends. The great danger is that neoCondism may strike the elite as the perfect compromise, the one train to hegemony that all of them can jump aboard. It’s the same train that wrecked in Vietnam and Iraq. The only question is where it’s headed next.




[1]. Ibid.

[2]. Condoleezza Rice, “Transformational Diplomacy”; Glenn Kessler and Bradley Graham, “Diplomats Will Be Shifted to Hot Spots,” Washington Post, January 19, 2006,

[3]. United States Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report, February 6, 2006,

[4]. Robert D. Kaplan, “The Coming Normalcy?”, 81; idem., “Indian Country,” Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2004.

[5]. R. Nicholas Burns and Eric S. Edelman,  “Letter to the Editor, Teamwork by State and Defense,” Washington Post, February 11, 2006.

[6]. Fred Kaplan,Daydream Believers,” Slate, March 16, 2006,

[7]. Condoleezza Rice, “Transformational Diplomacy,” speech and question-and-answer session at Georgetown University, January 18, 2006,;

[8]. In US Security Plan, More Realism,” Christian Science Monitor, March 17, 2006.