Charles Kupchan: On the Road to Normalcy at State?


It’s Charles Kupchan here, filling in for Steve Clemons, to whom I am grateful for my first opportunity to be a blogger. I am a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Sunday’s Washington Post ran a front-page article (“At State, Rice Takes Control of Diplomacy”) commending Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice for taking charge of U.S. foreign policy and pursuing a diplomatic strategy more pragmatic and less ideological than during Bush’s first term. On several fronts, Secretary Rice well deserves the Post’s kudos. Since she moved from the White House to Foggy Bottom, America’s relations with Europe have improved markedly. Washington is now actively engaged in diplomatic efforts to ensure that Iran and North Korea do not maintain nuclear weapons programs. The U.S. is playing a more visible and active role in the Middle East peace process, with Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza proceeding apace. And in picking Bob Zoellick and Nick Burns as her top aides, Rice has reached out to consummate professionals — both of whom embrace the centrist brand of internationalism that was so underrepresented in Bush’s first term. These are impressive accomplishments, especially in light of the fact that Rice still has to do battle with Rumsfeld, Cheney, and other hardliners.
But before we breathe a collective sigh of relief and pronounce America’s ship of state back on course, let’s take a step back. To applaud the State Department for actually engaging in diplomacy with Iran and North Korea is a bit like applauding McDonalds for serving hamburgers. For four years, the Bush team merely glared at Tehran and Pyongyang. Diplomatic engagement is a welcome change of course — but it seems like a bold innovation only because Washington dropped the ball, and was sticking its head in the sand for years, preoccupied with the war in Iraq.
The Post also praises Secretary Rice for brokering a deal on Sudan at the UN. A breakthrough did indeed occur on her watch. But what held up UN engagement for months was Washington’s needless phobia about the International Criminal Court and the prospect of the ICC investigating war crimes in Darfur. The State Department deserves credit for finding a way out of the stalemate (Washington abstained rather than vetoed the resolution), enabling the international community to get on with peacekeeping and relief efforts in Sudan. But the U.S. should have never blocked the resolution to begin with. Furthermore, the Bush administration still has done far too little to stop the suffering and killing in Darfur.
Finally, Condi Rice’s accomplishments notwithstanding, the State Department needs to start speaking the truth about Iraq before I will be prepared to pronounce American diplomacy — and American politics more generally — back on course. On matters ranging from the stamina of the insurgency (it’s not in its last throes), to the influence of Iran in Iraq (there is a great deal), to the risks of civil war (anything but insignificant), it is time for the administration to shoot straight with the American people. Only after strategic myth has given way to sober assessment can the nation sensibly and reasonably find its way forward in Iraq.
Charles Kupchan