Phil Zelikow, Realist in a Neocon World

The NYT has an interesting profile of Philip Zelikow, the State Department counsel who has been giving contrarian advice.

Such ideas would have found a more natural home under President George H. W. Bush, for whom Mr. Zelikow and Ms. Rice worked on the staff of the National Security Council. They reflect a sense that American influence is perishable, and can be damaged by overreaching, as allies and other partners react against decisions made in Washington. They form a kind of foreign policy realism that was eclipsed in Mr. Bush’s first term, in favor of a more ideological, unilateral ethos, but that has made something of a comeback in his second term.

Whether Mr. Zelikow, 52, is giving voice to Ms. Rice’s private views, or simply serving as an in-house contrarian, remains unclear. Some of his ideas have become policy: he had called for the closure of secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency a year before the Supreme Court decision that prodded the Bush administration to empty them.

The United States offered North Korea a chance to negotiate a permanent peace treaty, per Mr. Zelikow’s advice, and he, along with Ms. Rice, was one of the backers of the Iran initiative, in which President Bush offered to reverse three decades of American policy against direct talks with Tehran if Iran suspended its uranium enrichment.

Neither North Korea nor Iran has bitten on the initiatives, but America’s allies have applauded them. Mr. Zelikow’s assessments of the Iraq war, first disclosed in Bob Woodward’s book “State of Denial,” were presented to Ms. Rice in 2005.


Ms. Rice had to expend a substantial amount of her own political capital to get the White House to support her choice, friends say, given Mr. Zelikow’s previous job as staff director of the 9/11 Commission, where he played a major role in writing the report that took both the Clinton and Bush administrations to task for failing to act with sufficient seriousness against the threat from Al Qaeda.


Mr. Zelikow and Ms. Rice co-authored a book about Germany’s reunification, “Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft” (Harvard University Press, 1995). It is not exactly light reading, but at its core it is a study in realpolitik, examining — and admiring — the tempered, carefully managed American response to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is a book that Mr. Zelikow could write again today, but one that Ms. Rice could not, friends and associates of both say. Ms. Rice herself has said that she went through something of a transformation after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in which she moved away from the classical realism of her own roots and Mr. Zelikow’s, and closer to the neoconservatives who dominated policy discussions in the first term. Ms. Rice has told friends that President Bush has had a major impact on her thinking in terms of reintroducing values-based politics and ideology.

The existence in the Bush administration of people like Zelikow, who are both universally respected and bring a perspective in sharp contrast to the party line, is reassuring. It also belies the cartoon view that dissent is unwelcome.

It’s also quite interesting that the 9-11 attacks had a much more profound impact on decision-makers than on intellectuals, even those who are part of the policy-making circle. Neither Rice nor, so far as I can tell, Dick Cheney were neo-cons before. Indeed, George W. Bush repeatedly said during the 2000 campaign that he wouldn’t use the military for nation-building.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I recognize that this isn’t the point of your post, James, but I think it’s important to remember that the approaches towards stabilizing the Gulf forged for many years by foreign policy realists form the core complaints of people in the region against us (Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in particular but not limited to them) .

    “Support of repressive regimes” = relying on regional powers for stability

    “Occupation of Muslim lands” = troops in KSA intended to contain Saddam and forces all over the region intended to foster stability and counterbalance Iran

    The neocons may be responsible for the American component of the mess in Iraq but the foreign policy realists are the architects of our problems in the region, which go back long before neocons held sway.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Dave: Yep, a fair point. The problem is thinking that there’s a simple fix for the incredibly complicated set of dynamics in that region.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    As I suggested in this post I think the problem is assuming there’s a solution at all.

  4. Cernig says:


    It also belies the cartoon view that dissent is unwelcome.

    I don’t think you can get there from the article you quote. Indeed, a part you don’t quote is quite explicit that Rice had to expend considerable political capital to get her choice over Cheney’s preferred neocon non-dissenters. The most you can say is that dissent is welcomed by Rice. But that dissent is quickly stifled as soon as Rice tries to take it out beyond her own domain.

    I’ve said before that Rice could be a great stateswoman, the real find of the Bush years, if only she wasn’t so utterly submissive to her work-husband.

    If Cheney wasn’t a neocon before 9/11, what was he doing signing the Project For The New American Century’s “statement of principles” in 1998?

    Regards, C

  5. Cernig says:

    Although admittedly Cheney wasn’t a signator to PNAC’s letter to Gingrich and Lott in 1998, which stated for sure that Saddam had WMD and was famously upbeat on regime change in Iraq.

    U.S. policy should have as its explicit goal removing Saddam Hussein’s regime from power and establishing a peaceful and democratic Iraq in its place. We recognize that this goal will not be achieved easily. But the alternative is to leave the initiative to Saddam, who will continue to strengthen his position at home and in the region. Only the U.S. can lead the way in demonstrating that his rule is not legitimate and that time is not on the side of his regime. To accomplish Saddam’s removal, the following political and military measures should be undertaken:

    — We should take whatever steps are necessary to challenge Saddam Hussein’s claim to be Iraq’s legitimate ruler, including indicting him as a war criminal;

    — We should help establish and support (with economic, political, and military means) a provisional, representative, and free government of Iraq in areas of Iraq not under Saddam’s control;

    — We should use U.S. and allied military power to provide protection for liberated areas in northern and southern Iraq; and — We should establish and maintain a strong U.S. military presence in the region, and be prepared to use that force to protect our vital interests in the Gulf – and, if necessary, to help remove Saddam from power

    Although the Clinton Administration’s handling of the crisis with Iraq has left Saddam Hussein in a stronger position that when the crisis began, the reality is that his regime remains vulnerable to the exercise of American political and military power. There is reason to believe, moreover, that the citizens of Iraq are eager for an alternative to Saddam, and that his grip on power is not firm. This will be much more the case once it is made clear that the U.S. is determined to help remove Saddam from power, and that an acceptable alternative to his rule exists. In short, Saddam’s continued rule in Iraq is neither inevitable nor likely if we pursue the policy outlined above in a serious and sustained fashion.

    But look who was:

    Elliot Abrams William J. Bennett Jeffrey Bergner

    John R. Bolton Paula Dobriansky Francis Fukuyama Robert Kagan

    Zalmay Khalilzad William Kristol Richard Perle Peter Rodman

    Donald Rumsfeld William Schneider, Jr. Vin Weber Paul Wolfowitz

    R. James Woolsey Robert B. Zoellick

    If Bush didn’t intend using the military for nation building, why did he hire so many who strenuously advocated it?

    Regards, C

  6. James Joyner says:


    Interesting. I always thought of Cheney as a pretty standard issue Realist hawk, given his roles in the Ford and Bush I administrations.

    The PNAC principles are such that they could be interpreted very widely. Indeed, I agree with them as stated. The aggressive Wilsonian spin of the Kristols and Wolfowitzes is another matter, entirely.

  7. M1EK says:

    “The problem is thinking that there’s a simple fix for the incredibly complicated set of dynamics in that region.”

    There’s a really simple solution, but it’s not easy: do what the Europeans do; tax the heck out of gasoline to limit the power of bad actors in the region to control our foreign policy.

    If gas was already $6/gallon, we wouldn’t care if bombing the Saudis (who were, frankly, the real cause of 9/11) would spike oil prices. $6 to $7 isn’t going to kill us, assuming we were already adjusted to $6.

  8. James Joyner says:

    M1EK: The problem with that theory is that Islamists are far more of a threat to Europe than in the United States. Certainly, high gas prices didn’t stop al Qaeda from hitting London and Madrid.

  9. M1EK says:


    Yes, and if it weren’t for the US protecting them, who knows what the Europeans might do to the Saudis? (Probably nothing, but at least the option would be available).