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Carrot and Stick Figure

Given the dismal progress in Iraq, some foreign policy experts have identified a softening of U.S. foreign policy. Talking to one's enemies is in; brinksmanship is out: We've struck a tentative agreement with North Korea over its nuclear program, we'll meet with Syria and Iran (in regional talks on Iraq), and the power of Dick Cheney--the dark and powerful force behind U.S. foreign policy--is giving way to the influence wielded by Condoleezza Rice. Like-minded hawks in the administration, such as Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, are also gone, and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton has been reduced to ranting like an unemployed blogger. "The State Department is once again running foreign policy," Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School told USA Today.

But to suggest that Cheney and his ilk have been sidelined is not entirely right. The vice president is just being used more sparingly--and more effectively. Say what you want about his bull-in-a-china-shop style of diplomacy, but it has yielded results. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits the Middle East, she concludes her rounds of talks with open-ended promises to hold more rounds of talks and issues vaguely worded communiqués. When Cheney visits, you can almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the region's leaders after he boards Air Force Two. Contrary to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's advice to "encourage Dick Cheney to look pale in public [so] he can resign on health grounds," the White House should have him travel more often.

Take his visit last month to Pakistan. Cheney arrived unannounced to raise the ante if President Pervez Musharraf fails to rid Pakistan's unruly border regions of Taliban militants. As Michael Currie Schaffer pointed out last week, Cheney threatened to cut off aid (or, more appropriately, said the Democratic-led Congress would) and sparked suspicions that U.S. or NATO forces might even cross Pakistan's border and carry out raids of Taliban strongholds. Of course, the Pakistani president, fearful of being seen as an American stooge, bristled at being dressed down by the United States' second in command and released a curt statement: "Pakistan does not accept dictation from any side or any source." But, within hours of Cheney's surprise visit, the Taliban's third in command, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, was apprehended--the first high-level arrest by Pakistani forces since 2001. Musharraf got the message.

Or consider Cheney's trip last November to Saudi Arabia, where he was summoned to talk about containing the threat of a regional conflict spiraling out from Iraq's sectarian violence (and Iran's rising influence). Within weeks after Cheney's visit, Riyadh announced plans to boost oil production (to bring down cost), a move some analysts say was aimed at Tehran. It's not clear what Cheney said to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, but he, too, got the message: Align yourself with the United States against Iran or else.

Other nominal allies of the United States have also gotten earfuls of criticism from Cheney recently. Last May in Vilnius, Lithuania, the veep accused Russia of using its vast oil and gas reserves as "tools of intimidation." (He was responding to a January 2006 spat between Russia and Ukraine that briefly severed gas supplies to Western Europe.) Some Russians likened Cheney's speech to Winston Churchill's 1946 Iron Curtain address and accused the Americans of trying to set off a second cold war. But the message was clear: Energy and foreign policy, like oil and water, are not to be mixed. Some analysts say a subsequent gas spat with Belarus, a close ally of the Kremlin, was meant to prove to the world that politics was not behind Moscow's efforts to hike up gas prices to its formal Soviet vassals. More important, the dispute did not disrupt Western Europe's energy supplies--as it had the prior year--thanks in part to Cheney's hectoring.

Pressuring foreign governments to do the United States' bidding--whether rooting out terrorists or ensuring energy supplies--has proven a difficult balancing act for American policymakers. Many states remain reliant on U.S. aid--as well as America's "addiction to oil"--to prop up their unpopular regimes. Push them too far and we risk alienating these states' moderates, enflaming their religious radicals, or pushing them into someone else's arms. The United States lost an ally in Uzbekistan after criticizing its regime's handling of a protest in May 2005. Withholding aid can also backfire, as evidenced by recent U.S. policy toward the Palestinian territories, which allowed Iran to swoop in and become Hamas' chief financier. Yet nudge them too nicely and the overall objective goes unsolved. That is where dispatching Cheney comes in handy.

That is because many of America's allies, unlike Cheney, speak out of both sides of their mouths, to keep U.S. aid flowing while maintaining their base of domestic support. They preach moderation but privately fund madrassas (Saudi Arabia). They talk tough but do little to tackle extremism (Pakistan). They endorse democracy but lock up opposition leaders (Egypt). None has been very helpful in Iraq, nor shown a willingness to mend the larger Sunni-Shiite rift outside Iraq that fuels terrorism. Nearly all have poor human rights records.

Of course, not all of Cheney's trips abroad have yielded results. His January 2006 visit to Egypt to pressure President Hosni Mubarak to tamp down the Sunni side of Iraq's sectarian violence bore little fruit. Cheney was also unable to marshal support from America's Sunni Arab allies in isolating the Syrian regime over its alleged involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The problem with these previous trips, among other things, is Cheney did not seriously threaten to withhold aid in the event of noncompliance.

But on balance, Dick Cheney's feather-ruffling style of diplomacy has delivered results. Especially in this difficult good-cop-bad-cop balancing act of maintaining a global coalition against terror, a Cheney-like enforcer is needed. Otherwise threats to withhold aid look empty. Sure, pragmatists might be back at the helm of U.S. foreign policy and soft diplomacy is gaining currency, but tough talk from America's number two still remains Washington's ace in the hole.

By Lionel Beehner