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.