John Bolton’s correlation of forces

It used to be said by security analysts, back in the days of the Cold War, that the Soviet Union, though benighted in so many other ways, managed to maintain a highly sophisticated and realistic view of the balance of power across the various geographies over which it was in contention with the United States. The Soviets looked at something they termed the “correlation of forces”, which was comprised of all things that determined relative power: public opinion, political allegiance, economic prosperity, class struggle, and military might. This holistic concept the analysts contrasted unfavourably with what they saw as a Western view too focused on counting tanks; if you wanted to get the full picture of what was going on in a country, in other words, it was often most useful to look at things through Soviet lenses.

In a not-so-strange parallel, it appears that John Bolton — the recess-appointed former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and permanent advocate of missileboat diplomacy — has emerged as a similarly accurate lens on the true direction of U.S. foreign policy. Writes Dr. Gary Sick (of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs) on Tony Karon’s excellent blog Rootless Cosmopolitan:

Unlike many observers and commentators, Bolton has been looking, not at what the US administration says, but what it does. Ever since the congressional elections of 2006, the US has been in the process of a fundamental change in its policy on a number of key issues: the Arab-Israel dispute, the North Korean nuclear issue, and Iran. Since the administration proclaims loudly that its policies have not changed, and since the tough rhetoric of the past dominates the discussion, it is easy to overlook what is actually going on.

Bolton no doubt noticed that Rumsfeld is gone and replaced with Robert Gates, a very different sort of secretary of Defense. He will have observed that the worst of the neocons (including himself) are now writing books and spending more time with families and friends, cheer-leading for more war by writing op-eds from the outside rather than pursuing their strategies in policy meetings in the White House.

He will have seen the gradual shift of the policy center of gravity from Dick Cheney to Rice and Gates. He will have been listening when the Chairman of the JCS and others have said as clearly as they realistically can that the military option, though never renounced as a theoretical possibility, is the least attractive option available to us and in fact is close to impossible given our over-stretch in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In other words, Bolton, as someone whose policies (in my view) are certifiably insane, recognizes real pragmatism and moderation in Washington when he sees it. And he does not like what he sees in this lame duck administration.

The Soviets, and now John Bolton. How is it possible that the most blinkered ideologues can simultaneously be the most clear-sighted, at least with regard to certain specific subjects? I suspect it is because fanatics — particularly aggressive fanatics with a program to impose on others — are more attuned than the rest of us to agents or forces that actually threaten their plans.

I say “actually” because when it comes to all other areas of potential threat, such fanatics are hopelessly lost in a fog of their own making. To the Soviets, traitors and capitalist-sponsored plots were everywhere, and the USSR’s national security apparatus spent much of its resources monitoring, jailing, and murdering members of what was in fact a terrified and passive population. Likewise, to Bolton, the non-NATO world (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt in defining its limits this way) is a nest of snakes just waiting to deliver a lethal bite to the United States, and the United Nations little more than a speaker’s convention of the same.

Both the Soviets and Bolton were (and are) wrong about these matters. But that’s because, whether they admitted this to themselves or not, the actual threats to their programs did not (and do not) come from such directions. The real enemy of the Soviet Union was not internal subterfuge but rather its obvious external foes, particularly the United States, and it therefore should come as little surprise that in focusing on this threat the Soviet foreign-policy apparatus was as realistic and as comprehensive as it could be. When survival is at stake, ideology often finds itself pushed quietly out of the way.

Likewise, the real threats to Bolton’s neo-con program do not come from Iran, or North Korea, or Hugo Chavez: they come from Washington. Thus while Bolton can afford the luxury of simplistic and unrealistic thinking about foreign “enemies” — indeed his program is premised on such simplistic and unrealistic thinking — he cannot afford for one minute to be unrealistic about the way Washington works, or about the subtle ebbs and flows in the tides of policy-making power. Making his fantasies come true — or rather, making the United States behave as if his fantasies were true — requires him to be, in this one key area, the most realistic observer of them all.

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