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Lindsay: Bush Trying to Convince Public Iraq Going Better Than They Think

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
December 8, 2005

James M. Lindsay, CFR's director of studies, says President Bush's recent public speeches on Iraq policy indicates the president is "trying to make the case to the American public that we are doing better in Iraq than people think and this is the right strategy for the administration at this point." But Lindsay, an expert on U.S. foreign policy, says public opinion polls are running heavily against the President. "The challenge for the president is making a persuasive case—and it can be very difficult—to get people to change their mind once they've decided things aren't going well."

But Lindsay, who served on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, says Democrats cannot get their act together on Iraq. "Democrats are divided on what to do in Iraq, both in terms of the substance of the policy, but also on the question of the politics of the policy."

Lindsay, CFR vice president and the Maurice R. Greenberg chair, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on December 8, 2005.

What's your impression of the President's efforts to regain the political high ground with his two speeches on Iraq?

The president clearly is trying to change the terms of the debate. He's trying to make the case to the American public that we are doing better in Iraq than people think and this is the right strategy for the administration at this point. It's clear that from public opinion polls that the public is not persuaded we're doing that well. The challenge for the president is making a persuasive case—and it can be very difficult—to get people to change their mind once they've decided things aren't going well. The White House does have some recent polling data that would cheer it up. The New York Times' (PDF) most recent approval rating shows the president going from 35 percent to 40 percent, so the trend is the White House's friend. But generally speaking, this early in the second term you would want to have a much higher public approval rating. At this point in Bill Clinton's term, it was at 58 percent and Ronald Reagan was at 68 percent, so the president is running uphill right now.

How much do you think the events on the ground in Iraq play in this? If the Iraqi National Assembly elections next week on December 15 turn out well, I assume it will help the president.

Good elections tend to help the president. If you can remember back in January, 2005, when we had the first election, that was a great success for the administration, in large part because of the visuals that came out of the election, particularly the Iraqis going to the polls and coming out with purple, ink-stained fingers. It's not clear you're going to get that same kind of favorable media image coming out of the December elections, but if they go reasonably well with a large Sunni participation, it will make it easier for the administration to make its case that we're going in the right direction.

The administration also has some good news. If you look at the public opinion polls, it's not the case that the American public is saying we want out of Iraq now. The public mood seems to be saying, "We're concerned about Iraq and we're not convinced the president has a strategy to win, but we realize there are real consequences to a rapid withdrawal." So what that says to the White House is that there is an opening for it to make its case that it has a strategy and that's been done in the president's last two speeches.

And the White House's 35-page document, the strategy document for victory in Iraq. Somebody I interviewed recently said that it would have been better if the White House, instead of saying "strategy for victory" had said "strategy for success" because victory is a harder thing to quantify. I'm not sure that's true, what do you think about that?

My great strength does not lie in parsing words and judging the appeal of victory versus success. It wouldn't surprise me if the White House had done some focus group poll and decided it would be from a political point of view a smart thing to do. But clearly the issue here is that the White House recognizes it's important to make a case to the public today that it has a strategy and that strategy is working. Again, it's clear from the public opinion data that people aren't convinced that we know what we're doing. One of the big problems for the administration over the course of this year is that a variety of events both in Iraq and here at home, particularly with Katrina, have taken away the administration's reputation for competence.

Certainly, ever since August, it's been really a terrible political situation for Bush.

It has been a very bad year for George W. Bush. I don't think the administration is going to look back on 2005 favorably because, again, on domestic issues such as social security, the president's agenda hasn't gone the way he had wanted it to.

If you think about it, they really wasted, it seems, a lot of energy on social security...

Well, it turned out for the administration that neither the political elite nor the public accepted its definition of the problem and wasn't ready for the solution.

What about the Democrats? There has been a lot written about how the Democrats are so divided that they really can't get their act together. Is that a fair assessment?

It's a very fair assessment. Democrats are divided on what to do in Iraq both in terms of the substance of the policy, but also on the question of the politics of the policy. We had John Murtha, a hawkish [Democratic] congressman from Pennsylvania, come out in favor of rapid withdrawal. That has allowed a number of more dovish members of the Democratic Party to get behind him and echo his call. Most notable in this school is the Democratic House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi [D-CA]. But, this rapid withdrawal policy is making a lot of other Democrats very nervous because they look at it and argue that we have a moral and strategic interest in trying to make Iraq work and if we leave precipitously we will end up with even a worse situation than we have right now, perhaps a civil war in Iraq or perhaps even a wider, regional war. They worry also from the political side that what it will do is confirm for the American public that the Democrats can't be counted on to stand tall when the going gets rough. This has obviously been a dilemma for Democratic politicians going back to Vietnam. When you look at public opinion polls, the public has much greater confidence in Republicans when it comes to foreign policy than in Democrats.

It's interesting. When you think back to President John F. Kennedy, he came to office as a sort of hawk on Taiwan and Southeast Asia. He sent Marines to Laos and then military advisers to Vietnam. But now, the Democrats have this perception of being "doves," even though they're not all "doves." Is that because Republicans have pushed them into a corner?

Well, part of the problem is that there is a history here of positions taken by Democrats over thirty years, which are firmly affixed in the public's mind. But also, if you look at the Democratic Party, there is a disjunction between the rank and file and the leadership. Looking at public opinion polls, Democrats as a whole are much more likely to favor immediate withdrawal, are much more critical of the president, much more disillusioned with the nature of the president's foreign policy.

But if you look at the Democratic political elite, particularly in the Senate, you discover that many Senators are in some sense to the right of their own party. If you look at Senator Joseph Biden [D-DE], the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has explicitly not endorsed calls for early troop withdrawal and has given a number of eloquent speeches, including one here at the Council, in which he talked about the importance of making the policy work in Iraq.

He doesn't totally embrace the president's strategy. In fact, he's been very critical of the president, but he has emphasized the interest we have in making Iraq work. Then of course you have someone like [Senator] Joe Lieberman [D-CT], who is almost outside of his own party on the issue of Iraq, talking very strongly about the need to stay in Iraq with large numbers of American troops. In fact, it's so sort of to one side of his party that President Bush cited him approvingly in his most recent speech.

I was stunned reading Lieberman's article in the Wall Street Journal a couple weeks ago. No Republicans could have written more eloquently on Iraq.

Here you have a case of a Democratic politician who is certainly immune from the criticism that he's been inconsistent. Senator Lieberman has staked out his position many years before the invasion of Iraq and he's been consistent throughout. His problem is that most Democrats, nationally, don't favor the policies that he endorses.

Let's jump a little bit to an issue that has aroused the Europeans, the issue of renditions and torture, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has to deal with. I gather from the news reports this morning that the NATO foreign ministers in Brussels are taking her at her word and have decided to let this issue die out diplomatically. Whether the press will let it go is another story, but how do you think she's done on this one?

Well, it's been a tough week for Secretary Rice. She has been widely and soundly criticized, and in keeping with past practice, she has shown that when people are critical of her she is more than willing to talk tough in return, which she has done. There are two issues here. One is the issue of government-to-government relations where the secretary has been relatively blunt, at least in diplomatic-speak, in saying, "We're not doing anything that other governments don't know about, so spare us this great shock and surprise." I think on the merits there, she's right.

There is a second issue, which is the politics of it and the public perception. Here what we're seeing, quite clearly, is what has become almost a standard part of our dialogue, and that is a great feeling of anger and resentment in Europe among Europeans toward American foreign policy. And this gets us back to a broader issue: To what extent should the United States worry when publics don't like what we're doing and hold us in an unfavorable light? It's really a sign of a fundamental change in U.S.-European relations. For many years, Europeans may have been unhappy with us, but there was a fair amount of trust, at least in the broader public. Now, I think we're beginning to see that not only are they unhappy with us, there aren't a whole lot of people who trust us, and that can become a long-term problem in the sense that these are all democratic countries. These elected officials have to respond to public opinion, and if the public makes it difficult for them to work with us, all of a sudden this becomes a problem for us.

In January and February the president made a major effort to improve our relations with Europe and it seemed to be going along fairly well until this whole episode broke out in the press over the renditions issue. Is the administration going to have to start from scratch again on this one? What can it do?

What we're seeing in the past week is that rift in transatlantic relations cannot be solved merely with nice words. That was essentially the strategy the administration took beginning really late last year. The administration calculated that its rather sharp elbows in dealing with the Europeans had become counterproductive. White House officials made no bones about the fact they intended to reach out to the Europeans and speak out in a nicer way, and they have done so and they've gotten good reviews as a result, but ultimately, I think many Europeans—particularly in the public as opposed to necessarily political officials—are more interested in what America does than what America says.

The vibration seemed to be that a compromise is going to be worked out soon by the White House with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) on his bill passed by the Senate banning any kind of torture. Does McCain seem to you a likely presidential candidate in 2008?

I have not made my career being a political handicapper because I have no talent at it. What I will say is that Senator McCain clearly is going into the primaries one of the frontrunners on the Republican side. One thing to keep in mind about the 2008 elections is it will be the first presidential election in the United States in fifty-six years in which a sitting president or a sitting vice president isn't on the ticket.

What that will mean is that candidates not only in the Democratic Party but in the Republican Party will be free to run against the White House. Nobody is going to owe their political career to the White House. What this means is that if the Bush administration can't turn Iraq around and the president's support continues to erode, the last two years of his term can become mighty rough as Republicans try to distance themselves as they compete with Democrats for votes. But those are all ifs. We don't know how issues are going to play out. The issue does not tell us that sometimes frontrunners don't make it to the finish line.

What about the Congressional elections next year? A lot has been made about that mainly because it's a national election.

It could be very hard. The dynamic right now is that people in Washington are nervous or excited about the 2006 midterm elections because, when you look at the polls, what you see is that the public—when asked, "Would you prefer to have a Democratic Congress or Republican Congress now?"—opt for a Democratic congress.

If you are a Republican congressman, then that makes you nervous. You also look at the president's polling numbers and the president looks a lot better to you when he's at 60 percent to 70 percent approval, as opposed to being at 35 percent or 40 percent. So this is making a lot of Republicans nervous and a number of Democrats more excited. The reality, though, is congressional elections [in November 2006] are determined by a lot of things other than the president's standing. If you look at the House side in particular, it's clear that it's very hard for a challenger to defeat an incumbent, and that has a lot to do with how electoral districts are drawn.

I'll note that in a number of states, most notably Texas, the districts have been drawn in such a way that it's very hard to imagine that Democrats are going to make sizeable gains—not that it's impossible, but it's very unlikely. You might be more likely to see changes on the Senate side, though for a variety of reasons the electoral map still favors the Republicans. But again, we're still eleven months away from election day; a lot of things can happen between now and then.

Finally, on the question on troop withdrawal from Iraq, do you agree with the common wisdom that there'll be some reduction by the end of this coming year?

Well, troop reductions are inevitable, but total troop withdrawal is unlikely. Part of that has to do with the technical details of deployment, which is that we were at 138,000 troops earlier this fall. The Bush administration decided to go to 160,000 troops in the weeks leading up to the December election to add force protection and security. Those troops are likely to be drawn down immediately after the election and this will allow the administration to say that it's begun taking troops out. We've certainly had stories leaking out of the Pentagon and elsewhere about plans to have some graduated draw-downs, and we can speculate that those leaks are politically motivated to try to change the debate, or not. But if the administration succeeds in its plans to ramp up the Iraqi army and police forces, one of the things you'd expect is to have U.S. troop levels come down. It's likely that as long as the president is in the White House and we still have the kinds of problems we have in Iraq right now, that any draw-down will proceed relatively slowly and I would expect, unless something traumatic changes, there will still be large numbers of American troops in Iraq a year from now.

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