by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
major Pentagon hawk has abruptly resigned his post in a move that, in the context of other recent developments, is likely to fuel speculation that the White House might be trying to soften the harder edges of its controversial policies.
The Pentagon announced Oct. 29 that Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, J.D. Crouch II, was resigning effective Friday, in order to return to "academia" at Southwest Missouri State University (SMSU).
Significantly, the announcement did not give a reason for his departure nor for the suddenness with which it is taking place. And no one was named to replace him.
While officials stressed that Crouch, who has a long association with many of the key figures who have promoted military pre-eminence as U.S. post-Cold War strategy, was leaving voluntarily, some sources said his resignation reflected a loss of influence on the part of right-wing and neo-conservative hawks centered in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office.
"He's not being fired, but they're starting to move people around," said one knowledgeable source. "It's all about (Bush's) re-election and how to get rid of the loonies without looking like they screwed up."
As assistant secretary, Crouch reported to Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, whose office has been responsible for post-war strategy in Iraq.
Feith also oversaw the work of the now-disbanded Office of Special Plans (OSP), which has been charged by retired intelligence and State Department officials with "cherry-picking" intelligence that bolstered the case for going to war and sending it directly to Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and Cheney's office without having it vetted by professional analysts for credibility.
As a result, Feith's office has become a major target of critics of both the war and the post-war situation, which, given its rising cost in money and the lives of U.S. soldiers, is being blamed for Bush's plummeting poll numbers.
Crouch, an arms-control specialist, had very little to do with the preparation for war against Iraq. But he has long taken what have been regarded as extreme and extremely unilateralist positions on a number of key issues.
A champion of U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, Crouch has supported military action against Cuba; defended the development of offensive chemical weapons; opposed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); and advocated the development of new nuclear weapons for such purposes as destroying underground facilities (bunker-busters).
Before his appointment in 2001, he also strongly criticized the previous Bush administration decision to withdraw nuclear weapons from South Korea, and called for Washington to unilaterally destroy suspected nuclear and missile installations in North Korea unless Pyongyang complied with an ultimatum to dismantle them.
Crouch's departure is the latest of a series of developments that suggest to some analysts that a significant foreign-policy shift is underway.
Those hints began with the announcement by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice earlier this month of a new inter-agency committee to coordinate Iraq policy in the National Security Council. Rumsfeld's unusually testy reaction to the announcement suggested that the move was more than cosmetic.
The next shoe dropped during Bush's recent trip to Asia, where he repeatedly stressed his willingness to sign a five-nation security guarantee if North Korea agreed to fully and verifiably dismantle its nuclear program.
While this did not go as far as Pyongyang's demand for a bilateral non-aggression pact, it was a more flexible offer than what Bush had previously put on the table, prompting Donald Gregg, the chairman of the Korea Society and a former top aide to George H.W. Bush, to assert that "a corner has been turned and the administration's pragmatists are in charge."
In just the past week, a number of other developments suggested that the White House was tacking to the middle, away from right-wingers and neo-conservatives like Crouch and Feith.
Testifying before Congress on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage affirmed that Washington was not seeking "regime change" in Iran and, indeed, expected to engage Tehran in a dialogue over its nuclear program and other issues shortly.
His remarks, which appeared to align the administration behind a recent European initiative on Iraq's nuclear program, also included an unusually strong denunciation of the Pentagon's decision to negotiate a cease-fire with an Iraq-based Iranian rebel group during the Iraq war.
Finally, Bush's decision Wednesday to "drop by" a meeting between visiting Chinese Defense Minister Gen Cao Gangchuan and Rice was considered particularly disappointing to hawks, who had lobbied hard against such an encounter.
While none of these developments by themselves would warrant the conclusion that the hawks are in decline, the totality suggests that they might be more than mere straws in the wind.
"This could be the beginning of a change," says Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. "What's new is that Bush's poll numbers are nose-diving, and he's scared."
Some sources say that Robert Blackwill, the administration's former ambassador to India who was taken on as a senior aide by Rice last month, could be most responsible for the shifts.
Blackwill, who was Rice's boss in the National Security Council during the first Bush administration, is a savvy Republican operator with friends and proteges in key posts in the national security bureaucracy and on Capitol Hill. While considered on the right, he reportedly shares the first Bush's distrust of neo-conservatives, in particular.
While Crouch is not considered a neo-conservative, he has long been closely associated with them.
A former member of the board of advisers of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), he worked for former Republican Senator Malcolm Wallop, a far-right Republican from Cheney's home state of Wyoming, before joining the Pentagon as the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security in the first Bush administration.
In that capacity, he worked under then-Undersecretary for Policy Paul Wolfowitz, for whom he reportedly helped prepare the controversial 1992 Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) draft.
That document called for, among other things, Washington to pursue military dominance in and around Eurasia, carry out pre-emptive attacks against potential threats, and to rely more on ad hoc alliances than multilateral mechanisms like the United Nations or North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to promote U.S. interests.
When the paper was leaked to the 'New York Times' that spring, it was repudiated by the administration, and Wolfowitz -- the current deputy defense secretary and Feith's superior -- and a close aide, I. Lewis Libby (currently Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser) were reportedly almost fired.
Crouch himself left the Pentagon in July 1992, just three months after the draft DPG was exposed.
The current administration's September 2002 National Security Strategy was based largely on the DPG developed under Wolfowitz, Libby and Crouch 10 years before.
Crouch is a long-time protege of William van Cleave, a nuclear-arms specialist who played a key role in the mid-1970s in derailing detente with the Soviet Union, in part by working with Rumsfeld and neo-conservative hawks in thwarting Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's efforts to reach a major strategic-arms agreement with the Soviet Union.
Van Cleave, who heads the SMSU department of defense and strategic studies to which Crouch will be returning, has been a major, if low-key, champion of U.S. military dominance and of developing new nuclear weapons that can be used in conventional warfare.
Van Cleave also serves on the boards of advisers of the CSP and two Israel-based institutions closely tied to the right-wing Likud Party -- the Ariel Center for Policy Research and the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (IASPS).
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