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Lindsay: Bush Seeks to ‘Reach Out’ to Bolster Support on Iraq

Interviewee: James A. Lindsay, Director, Robert S. Strauss Center, University of Texas
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 22, 2007

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James M. Lindsay, a former CFR director of studies, says President Bush is so politically weakened by Iraq that he has begun to “reach out” to others to broaden his base of support. He says the days when the administration could act unilaterally are over, “and the administration is being forced by necessity, not by choice, to try to find areas where it can work with other people.” Lindsay says “now that the political bleeding of the president has continued, the White House has been forced to make concessions on a number of different issues.”

President Bush has about twenty months left in office, and he’s struggling with Congress on what to do about Iraq. It’s a very complicated issue. The Washington Post says Bush seems to be now leaning toward accepting some of the recommendations in the Iraq Study Group report the White House dismissed last year. Where do you think he can go in these last months?

President Bush has been gravely weakened by the course of events in Iraq. It has come to dominate the day-to-day agenda; it has cost him political support. It has put him in a position in which much of his administration’s effort is going toward fighting off or holding off Democratic criticisms, and that is likely to be the overarching motif of his remaining time in office. That’s not to say the president’s powerless. The office of the presidency comes with a tremendous ability to set the agenda and take initiatives, particularly in the area of foreign affairs.

I notice he has the NATO secretary general out at his ranch in Texas today. He seems to be seeking support from everywhere right now. Do you see a kind of conversion by Bush in his last months?

Because the president is politically weakened, he has to reach out to more people and more quarters to find allies. And if you were to go back four years, in the aftermath of what was perceived at the time to be a great success in Iraq, the administration set the agenda and pushed other people out of the way. Those days are now over, and the administration is being forced by necessity, not by choice, to try to find areas where it can work with other people. We’ve seen that change initially in the rhetoric at the start of the second term, a kinder gentler version of itself.  But now that the political bleeding of the president has continued, the White House has been forced to make concessions on a number of different issues. And he’s likely to remain in that position over the last twenty months.

Coming back to the Iraq Study Group, which put great emphasis on multifaceted diplomacy with Iran and with Syria, working to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issues, and looking toward setting good-governance benchmarks for the Iraqis. The Post said Bush seems now to be adopting some of these recommendations. Is this part of seeking out more support?

Part of it is a matter of perspective. The president went in a very different direction on Iraq than the Iraq Study Group recommended. The administration pushed for the “surge,” which was not what the Baker-Hamilton group recommended. We’re likely to have the surge go forward, but it’s been made pretty clear to the White House by Congressional Republicans that support on Capitol Hill for the surge from Republicans is frail, and likely to erode rapidly if we don’t see a major change in the security situation in Iraq by early fall. That warning from Congressional Republican leaders has a way of concentrating the administration’s attention on the issue, forcing the administration to try to find areas in which it can be seen as being responsive to criticism, and as being open to change. It is trying to find a new strategy. But whether troop levels are going up or down, the administration is still on the unpopular side of the debate, in favor of the “surge.”

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