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Lindsay: Bush Presidency Clouded by Iraq Missteps, ‘Missed Opportunity’

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Tom Slick Chair for International Affairs and Director, Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, University of Texas in Austin
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 29, 2008

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James M. Lindsay, an expert on U.S. politics and foreign policy, and a former director of Studies at CFR, says President Bush will likely be regarded as a “below-average president” due to mistakes in Iraq and other policy failures. A dramatic turnaround in Iraq could change that appraisal, Lindsay says. But entering the final year of Bush’s presidency, he says, he gets a low rating based in large part on the missteps of his first term, and the invasion of Iraq, when the “administration exaggerated how much American power could accomplish.” Lindsay adds: “The take on President Bush’s presidency is that it was a missed opportunity.”

President Bush gave his final State of the Union address Monday night and I was wondering what you thought of his effort?

President Bush gave a very strong speech in his final State of the Union address. He seemed to enjoy speaking to Congress. He gave a full-throated defense of the policies he pursued over the past seven years. But at the end of the day, the subtext is more important than the actual text of his speech. And that subtext is that he’s a lame-duck president. Only one in three Americans approve of the job he is doing, and the economy is floundering. President Bush will continue to be president but it’s pretty clear that much of the country is beginning to turn its attention to what’s going to happen next.

On foreign affairs, any particular thoughts?

President Bush laid out his world view, his accomplishments, over the past seven years, particularly on foreign policy. He restated, perhaps in softer tones, his worldview about the importance of liberty, about the importance of going after terrorists, and that terrorism is the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century. And for people tuning in to the president’s address, reading it online, expecting to read or see mea culpas about the mistakes in the past few years, they didn’t get it. Nothing in that speech last night indicated that George Bush’s convictions on what he’s done as president had been shaken.

How do you think he’s going to rank as president? Or do you think it’s too soon to make that kind of judgment?

I think President Bush is going to go down as a below-average president. His tenure is going to be marked by the rather difficult war we have had in Iraq, the inability to tackle major issues like our entitlements programs and the issue of immigration. The take on President Bush’s presidency is that it was a missed opportunity.

And on the Iraq situation, he has obviously gotten a lift by the relative success of the surge operation. Do you think it’s possible that Iraq may turn out better than most people thought a year ago?

Iraq certainly could turn out a lot better than it appeared in 2006 or 2007. Much will depend on what happens in the remainder of President Bush’s presidency, but also what happens when the next occupant comes to the White House. It’s clear that the surge has succeeded in reducing violence. We’ve seen greater security for Iraqis. That’s a very important accomplishment. What the surge hasn’t done, what the administration hasn’t been able to articulate yet, is a strategy for producing national political reconciliation—getting, on the national level, the leaders to come together to provide the sort of stable government that one needs. So right now, we’re sort of in a situation akin to a doctor coming in saying surgery was successful, but the patient remains in a coma. Iraq has a long way to go. If it turns out much better, obviously, if the nation rallies and it’s a great success, President Bush will be vindicated in the next few months.

And that might alter your earlier judgment of him being a below-average president?

Obviously, if Iraq turns to be a success, historians will revise their assessment. President Bush’s people would recall that when [former President] Harry Truman left office [in 1953], he was roundly criticized, he was low in the polls, no one had much good to say about him. Now he’s tagged as an above-average president. So time heals all wounds, time changes perspective. I think that’s the argument the president’s supporters will make.

I was a reporter in Washington during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson [1963-69]. I remember how difficult it was for him to get much attention in his last months in office. Johnson loved the spotlight and I always thought he became very frustrated after he made his speech [in March 1968] saying he wasn’t going to run for re-election when the spotlight was dimming. I guess, as the months will go by it, it will become the same for President Bush.

Very true. And President Bush is well aware of the fact he’s a lame duck. In fact, in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, he would make jokes about becoming a lame duck during his second term. It’s the reality of American politics. And you can tell just by turning on the TV this morning.  There was actually more coverage of what people think is going to happen in today’s primary in Florida than of what the president said last night in his State of the Union address.

Looking back on President Bush’s administration, what were his real problems in foreign affairs? Many people pointed to different things: his failure to engage the allies early enough, his go-it-alone policies that only really changed in the second term. Do you think that was sort of a fatal flaw?

President Bush’s foreign policy suffered from the defects which compounded each other. One, which you already mentioned, was the president’s style. In the early part of the first term, the administration was all elbows. It needlessly threw around American power, rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, which you can see in public opinion polls around the world. The second problem was a deeper one. That dealt with the administration’s view on the way the world works. The administration exaggerated how much American power could accomplish and failed to use the many successes it had initially in Afghanistan and also failed to build upon the great sympathy that the world had for us in the aftermath of 9/11 to build some lasting forms of cooperation. When the administration went down this path of “we will lead even if nobody else followed,” suddenly it found itself in 2003 with far too much on its agenda and not enough people around to help. Since then, the administration has tried to change its tone, as you mentioned, and obviously Iraq has turned out to be far more difficult than anyone in the administration had anticipated.

An issue like North Korea startled a number of people by the turn around—after refusing to deal with North Korea to getting deeply involved in a multilateral negotiation that may or may not prove to have been successful.

What’s remarkable is that the administration ended up on North Korea where its critics argue it should have gone seven years ago. And I suppose one could argue that it’s better late than never, but North Korea has clearly gone a lot further down on the proliferation road in the past seven years.

Now I noticed he discussed Iran in the State of the Union, but again, insisted that negotiations still had to await a suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment. Critics would say “why don’t you just get into negotiation without conditions?” What’s your view on that?

Well, the administration seems fairly consistent that it wants the Iranians to live up to their international obligations before the United States offers any carrots, and there’s a considerable pool of evidence to suggest the wisdom of doing that. So I think actually that it’s a broader set of issues over whether our entire approach to Iran over the past four or five years has really been designed to improve the situation. Indeed, in part the problem in all this is going back to the [2002 State of the Union address, when he called Iraq, Iran and North Korea] the “axis of evil.” It really sort of drew a line in the sand with the Iranians in a way that I think actually helped hard-line elements in Tehran as opposed to dividing them and isolating them from the rest of the regime and the rest of the public.

And again if you go back to 2002, 2003, and certainly in the months immediately after the start of the Iraq war, there was a great deal of confidence in Washington about what the United States could accomplish. This was before Iraq had turned out to be as difficult as it turned out to be with the occupation. And I think that those successes bred a bit of hubris and overreaching on the part of the administration. The old saying is you don’t know you’ve overdone something until you overdo it, and obviously by the time we got to 2004, 2005, the situation had changed greatly. And the opportunity to strike a bargain with Tehran had gone by the boards. 

Do you think the administration, back in 2003, was looking ahead to military action against Iran? Many commentators are convinced of that.

There has certainly been ample commentary—both by proponents of the Bush administration and his detractors—that the administration would go after either Iran or Syria. As to whether that was ever seriously debated in the Oval Office, we’ll have to wait for historians to comb through the archives to tell us.

It’ll be very interesting to read Vice President [Dick] Cheney’s memoirs if he ever writes them because he’s held out in many quarters as the instigator of much of the foreign policy.

I’ve got two points there. One: I don’t expect we’re going to see a Dick Cheney tell-all memoir. It doesn’t seem to fit his style. Two: I think Vice President Cheney is given far too much credit and blame for the administration’s foreign policy. I think that at the end of the day, the judgment historians are going to make is that, while George Bush may have had some very strong advisers, people like Dick Cheney and [former Defense Secretary] Don Rumsfeld, President Bush was his own man and made his own choices. And if anything, he picked people to advise him who had his world view rather than the other way around.

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