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Feinstein: Bush’s Iraq Speech ‘Watershed Moment’ in Debate on Iraq

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 1, 2005

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Lee Feinstein, a CFR expert on U.S. foreign policy, says President Bush's November 30 speech on Iraq and the accompanying "National Strategy Plan" for victory in Iraq represented "a watershed moment in America's debate about Iraq." He says the president "is at least entering the debate on a strategy for winning the war and this is a welcome shift in tactics by the White House from attacking critics of the war to debating them."

But Feinstein, a former principal deputy director of the State Department's Policy Planning Office in the Clinton Administration, says he wishes the president had used the term "strategy for success" in Iraq, rather than "strategy for victory."

"He could have said 'strategy for success,'" says Feinstein, the executive director of the CFR's Task Force Program. "Everybody wants to be successful and I think the strategy frankly ought to be to leave Iraq better than we found it. That is a much more reasonable strategy and I think it's a moral strategy as well. I don't think it suggests anything other than what all of us would like for Iraq and for Americans who have served in Iraq and have paid the price for serving there."

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on December 1, 2005.

President Bush yesterday gave what was billed as a major speech to the U.S. Naval Academy and at the same time the White House made public a "National Strategy Plan" for victory in Iraq that contained details about U.S. tactics and strategy right now. What did you make of the whole effort?

First, this was really a watershed moment in America's debate about Iraq. The president is at least entering the debate on a strategy for winning the war and this is a welcome shift in tactics by the White House from attacking critics of the war to debating them. This I think is due to a shift in how the public is looking at foreign policy now. We're in a period of time where 9/11 is no longer the prism through which the public is looking at foreign policy; Iraq is.

And what's the big difference?

The big difference is that after 9/11, there was greater deference to the president's decisions about what was necessary to keep the country safe. Now, there is more skepticism, which is more in keeping with American views on foreign policy generally. This is borne out in a poll that the Pew Research Center did with the Council recently that showed Americans are less inclined to support the muscular foreign policy of the administration than they were after 9/11.

That Pew Report was quite interesting. It really reflected the old sort of isolationist sentiment in the country.

I'm not so sure it's an isolationist sentiment but rather, a return to the norm. The public has different public priorities for foreign policy than elites do, and in general, the public does not welcome foreign policy activism. I would also in this context refer to a very important piece in Foreign Affairs by John Mueller on public opinion and wars since 1945. The points he makes that I think are relevant to the president's speech is first that public opinion is now figuring in this war in a way that it hadn't before. The Iraq war represents just the third time since 1945 that the United States has been involved in sustained ground combat. Mueller cites a threshold of 300 war dead and notes that this is just the third time since 1945—Vietnam and Korea being the previous times—when the United States has suffered casualties above that level. Now of course, casualties in Korea and Vietnam were much higher, although in Iraq they are significantly over 18,000.

That includes the wounded, yes?

That includes the wounded. But the consequence of this is that public opinion now figures in the president's ability to conduct the war and is part of the overall calculus about how you fight the war. The president's speech is clearly a response to the pivotal vote in Congress in overwhelming support of an amendment sponsored by Republican Senator John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which essentially said next year is the year of transition.

And asking for periodic reports from the president?

It requires periodic updates from the president. A lot was made of the fact that a competing Democratic amendment was not approved, but the truth is that these amendments are almost identical. Some have said that the Democratic bill implied a specific timetable linked to dates for withdrawal but I think that that's arguable.

We know what he said in his speech and we know what the strategy document said and we know the president's going to be speaking on Iraq between now and December 15 when elections for a new parliament take place there. What markers should we be looking for as signs of progress toward ending the war?

Well, I would answer that in two ways. I'd like first to comment on the document itself. I commend the president for putting out a detailed national strategy document on "victory in Iraq" and it's extremely important to have these kinds of things as benchmarks. I was very struck, however, that the opening page quotes the president from 2003 and the statement that I think really was and still remains the president's over-arching strategy for the war, which is "we will remain in Iraq as long as necessary and not a day more." To my mind, this has always been a Clintonesque statement that was intended to have it both ways but has never been sufficient as a guiding strategy.

I was surprised that this was invoked yet again and I think it speaks to the tension that you see in the document because the document is analytical in places, particularly about the nature of the insurgency. But then it is in other places stubborn. I think the title "Strategy for Victory in Iraq" is a conundrum for the president and I think probably a mistake, but obviously very deliberate.

In other words, it could have been called, "Strategy for Withdrawal," right?

He could have said "strategy for success." Everybody wants to be successful and I think the strategy frankly ought to be to leave Iraq better than we found it. That is a much more reasonable strategy and I think it's a moral strategy as well. I don't think it suggests anything other than what all of us would like for Iraq and for Americans who have served in Iraq and have paid the price for serving there.

So this question of war termination I think is really the central question that is raised by the president's speech yesterday and the document the White House released. And I think it's really the question that is not adequately addressed, at least not yet. Of course the president is going to have three more bites at the apple since he's planning further addresses on his Iraq strategy. But I just thought it was very interesting in the speech yesterday that the president actually invoked the end of World War II and the signing of the armistice with Japan on the battleship Missouri and then said—

That we won't have any such signing—

That we won't have any such signing but that also, "I will settle for nothing less than complete victory." And of course, this alludes to the very intense debate, even in World War II, about what constituted victory. Remember in World War II, we were certainly completely victorious but we did agree to allow the emperor to remain in power in Japan, which was something many people opposed and that was a compromise. So even in a "traditional" war, the terms of ending a war are always controversial and difficult to set.

Now, the president in his speech and in the document the White House released does not consistently define victory and I think that that helps to explain why the analyses [of the speech and the paper] are all over the place. Sometimes, the president defines victory modestly. For example in the document, victory in the long term would be when Iraq is peaceful, united, capable, secure, well-integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terror.

Here there is no mention for example of it being democratic. In the speech, however, victory is defined as when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq's democracy. And elsewhere, again, victory is defined more modestly, when the Iraqi security forces can provide for the safety of their own citizens, or when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists. I think the president and his administration have made a mistake by embracing the idea of not wanting to settle for anything less than victory.

I want to go back to one thing you said. You mentioned they repeated the president's statement from 2003 that we'll stay in Iraq as long as possible but not a day longer. You said that was a very "Clintonesque statement." What does that mean?

I think it was meant to be a statement that could incorporate many interpretations and appeal both to those who are concerned about a long stay and those who want total victory. The truth is that this glosses over the problems rather than addresses them. That's why I think that this is really the heart of the problem the president is facing.

You mean, what is victory?

What is victory. And I think again it underscores the tension between analysis and politics that you see running throughout this document and throughout the president's speech.

I'd like to add just one other point that I thought was interesting. Some of the commentary about the president's speech points to the fact that the document and the president's speech seem to acknowledge most of the insurgents are Iraqi and not al-Qaeda-connected. That is interesting because, first of all, I think it's important to know who you're fighting and if this represents an indication that the United States has a better fix on who the enemy is, that's good. But it creates a political issue for the president because the president has said and repeated yesterday that Iraq is an essential front in the war on terrorism. But if in truth the opponents of the United States in Iraq are not terrorists, this creates a tension between how the president has been trying to win support for the war politically and the reality of the war on the ground.

You're right. If Iraq is a war against terrorism and the people we're fighting are mostly Iraqi Sunnis then the important thing is to get them into the government which is another part of his speech, right?

Right. My advice to the president would be that it's time to focus on the problems we face and not try to rationalize the way ahead based on what has gone before. A more direct way of saying that is that if you can't admit mistakes, at least in going forward don't try to rationalize them. I am concerned the president's efforts to rationalize past policies and past mistakes are negatively affecting judgment on how we prosecute the war. That goes to two specific issues: 1) war termination and 2) tactically who the enemy is and therefore how to fight it.

Do you think he gave too rosy a picture of the ability of the Iraqi forces?

I think that the document and the speech in some places accentuate the positives and in other places are very realistic about how it's going to take. On balance, the statements yesterday are much more realistic about how difficult it's going to be to have effective Iraqi forces but you know you have to look very closely to find that.

What about the political reaction in Washington? Was it kind of the expected reaction for the Democratic and Republican sides?

I think the responses have come back within the Republican Party with much more skepticism than you might have expected. For example, [Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee] Senator Richard Lugar's reaction was tepid. I think on the other hand, Senator Joseph Biden [the senior Democrat on the committee] went out of his way to be constructive in his response. I would summarize both of their responses as "good, go further."

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), the minority leader, of course just blasted it.

Right. And Representative Nancy Pelosi [D-CA], the House minority leader, has now thrown her support to the [Representative John] Murtha [D-PA] plan [to pull out of Iraq within six months]. Another interesting comment comes from my colleague at Brookings, Ivo Daalder who says [on the blog TPM café] the president's plan looks a lot like the Murtha plan in terms of its military tactics, which go to essentially withdrawing American forces to the periphery. I think he overstates the case but I think it's a brilliant point to show that there is a lot more in common between the Murtha plan and the president's plan than you might think.

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