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Lindsay: Iraq Completely Dominates Bush's Second Term

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
December 19, 2005

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James M. Lindsay, CFR vice president and director of studies, says President Bush's decision to robustly defend his Iraq policies underscores how much Iraq is dominating his second term. Noting that Bush is in his "lame duck" term because he cannot be reelected, Lindsay says, "As you look at the president's foreign policy, it's likely to be dominated by Iraq as the first priority, Iraq as the second priority, and Iraq as a third priority."

Lindsay, who served on the national security council staff during the Clinton administration, notes that all other foreign policy issues, such as North Korea and Iran, have been muted by the administration to concentrate on Iraq. He says the decision to emphasize Iraq so heavily recently was due to the polling showing great dissatisfaction with the way Iraq was being handled.

"You're in the White House and you realize that somewhere between six and seven of every ten Americans think you're doing a bad job handling Iraq. That's a message that it's time to change your approach," he says.

Lindsay was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on December 19, 2005.

We're now at the end of the year and we've just witnessed a rather extraordinary amount of public relations work personally by the president. Four speeches on Iraq; a speech in the Oval Office on Saturday defending a hitherto unknown domestic surveillance program; a speech to the nation on Iraq Sunday; and today a press conference, almost entirely devoted to Iraq. What do you make of all this?

The administration is trying to regain momentum on the issues. Go back a year ago, the president had won a fairly comfortable victory over Senator John Kerry (D-MA), and he spoke at great length about how he earned political capital that he intended to spend. As the administration entered 2005, it was optimistic that it would be able to dominate the domestic and foreign policy agenda. But twelve months later, the wheels have come off the administration's vehicle in many respects, and an administration used to dominating events was finding itself being dominated by them. So clearly, the administration decided it was time to change its tune.

At this point, has he succeeded?

The president did himself a big favor with the speeches on Iraq because he did two important things. First, he acknowledged that his administration had made mistakes and it's a reality of American politics that the public likes humility and likes contrition, and the administration had stood out in some ways because of its refusal to acknowledge what was obvious to everyone—that mistakes had been made. The second important thing the president did, particularly in the speech on Sunday night to the nation from the Oval Office—the first time he'd done so since the announcement of the invasion of Iraq—was to reach out to those people who disagreed with the war. He said in effect, "I understand you disagree with my decision. What I'm asking for is your support in achieving the objective we all hold dear, which is making a success of our policy in Iraq." I think it was very important, because to this point, the administration had pretty much refused to acknowledge the validity of the criticism of its handling of the war, indeed often acting in ways suggesting that it believed that people who disagreed with the White House on policy were being unpatriotic.

And it's true, I guess, the administration until now had really been speaking to the already converted.

You're in the White House and you realize that somewhere between six and seven of every ten Americans think you're doing a bad job handling Iraq. That's a message that it's time to change your approach.

Would you agree that he has, on Iraq, about three to four months because of the politicking that has to go on in Iraq before we see what this government looks like? Today's preliminary results, at least in the province of Baghdad, show again the Shiite religious parties pretty much have the majority. But there was a strong showing, I thought, by the Sunnis. It looks again as if the secularist parties led by such politicians as former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi are not doing well. I don't know what that tells us.

Well, it's too early right now to infer too much from the preliminary election results because two things have to happen. First, we have to have a count of the votes to determine which parties won and by how much. Then comes the second round, which is going to determine who is going to control the Iraqi government. It's not clear whether we're going to have a majority victory, whether a coalition will emerge, and how different government ministries will be parceled out among groups. If we go back to the elections we had in January 2005, it actually took more than a month for the various parties to agree on a government portfolio, which is why for the Bush administration, there's still an awful lot of work to be done. The administration can quite rightly take credit for having a successful election, but as we all know in democracies, elections are the beginning, not the end of the process.

Let's talk a little broadly about Bush's second term. He's a lame duck president now, and the further you get into the lame duck term, the power seems to wilt. On the other hand, foreign policy is the president's purview. Should we expect that's going to be his main subject now from here on?

Well, second-term presidents are vulnerable to "lame duckitis." George Bush knew that as he was running for reelection, and on occasion, joked about becoming a lame duck. What is surprising about the Bush administration is that the president began waddling and quacking a lot earlier than most people figured. And again, part of the recent effort by the president to speak to the nation on Iraq is designed to try to recover some of the momentum. The bigger problem the president is going to face in foreign affairs comes less from his being a lame duck than from the consequences of the decisions made during his first term, particularly on the Iraq war. The administration right now has its agenda largely filled up by Iraq. It's clear that this administration's legacy is going to be determined by how well Iraq turns out and that getting Iraq right is very hard in good part because this administration's missteps along the way—and there were many—have made what was always a difficult task even harder.

As you look at the president's foreign policy, it's likely to be dominated by Iraq as the first priority, Iraq as the second priority, and Iraq as a third priority. And indeed the administration, which at many times during its first term had rather ambitious notions on what it could accomplish on foreign affairs, seems to have recognized this almost implicitly by its effort to go out and try to pull back a number of the other foreign policy issues that were clearly surging toward the forefront during the first term. Think of North Korea; think of Iran and a variety of other issues. The administration has been much more solicitous of its allies and much more inclined to find ways to tamp things down rather than to build them up.

As a result, I guess, the major effort started this year to revise social security is largely dead.

Privatization of social security is in intensive care for the time being, if not dead. It's hard to imagine the White House is going to be in a position to resurrect the issue of privatization. There's going to be bigger challenges in terms of the deficit, in terms of whether it should change its approach to tax policy, and issues related to health care.

The Patriot Act is a major domestic issue with foreign policy implications. It's been held up in the Senate by a filibuster. There's a few more days left before the act expires. Do you think these speeches have had much effect on changing the voting on the Patriot Act?

The president came out swinging in his Monday morning news conference on the Patriot Act. He clearly is trying to put pressure on senators—mostly Democratic senators but not solely Democratic—who are opposed to the Patriot Act. He has tried to point out that some of the senators who are now opposing the Patriot Act have criticized the intelligence community for failing to connect all the dots before September 11. At the end of the day, we're going to get some version of the Patriot Act. The debate on Capitol Hill has been complicated by the news that the president since September 11 has pursued this policy of conducting warrant-less electronic surveillance. This either violates the law—if you believe the president's critics—or the president's allowed to do [this] because of his constitutional powers or because of the wording of the resolution Congress passed immediately after September 11. The net result of that debate is to further complicate the Patriot Act. But I would expect at some point you'll get some version of the Patriot Act.

Or at least, a temporary extension of it.

Or a temporary extension. The president points out the provisions are scheduled to elapse on midnight of December 31. The president in all likelihood could have a very powerful political argument, or either be put in a position where he could say the Senate of the United States is allowing the country to lose its most important tools for defeating terrorists. The president said in his news conference today the law may expire on December 31, but the terrorist threat won't.

I had lunch today with a journalist who said his personal opinion is that he has no problem with domestic surveillance as long as it is—as the president said—on foreign calls to and from the United States. He said he also, personally, has no problem with torture on a select few. What do you think the public feels on these issues?

If we look at public opinion polling on torture, the message from the public seems to be along the following lines: "We don't especially like torture, but we believe in some instances it's justified or necessary." So the public won't totally rule it out, but there's no evidence to suggest the public wants to see wide-scale use of torture. On the issue of domestic surveillance, we don't have a great deal of public opinion data to this particular program. My guess is that most Americans wouldn't be particularly concerned about this, because of the reason your friend pointed out, that it is about communication between people in the United States and people outside the United States. That would all change if news comes to light that it is truly domestic—spying on people who clearly have nothing to do with terrorism, which is why there may be more of this story to unfold politically. Of course, one of the problems always in judging intelligence programs is we don't know much of the specifics. We get some summaries from hardworking reporters based on conversations with people who refuse to identify themselves. But I would expect much of the debate over domestic surveillance is above the public's head and the broader public is not likely to be interested.

In Congress, some members were briefed about it but didn't make much of a fuss about it, apparently.

This is where we, once again, have some vague outlines of the story but we don't know the particulars. Apparently, some members of Congress said they voiced objections, but one of the realities when you are briefed in these programs is that you can speak in the private briefing but you're not allowed to run to the podium and speak about it. The administration apparently thought there might be legal questions surrounding what it was doing at one point. It supposedly stopped the program and conducted another review of its legality. I would expect we're going to get some more details to trickle out on this whole issue. This is probably more of an "inside the beltway" issue than a mainstream issue.

Are these issues on Iraq and intelligence activities going to have any influence on next year's congressional elections?

Iraq has the potential to affect next year's congressional mid-term elections. The reason Iraq matters so much is that if the public comes to believe that Iraq is hopeless—a point the public is not at right now—politicians will be the first to know and then you're likely to see a fracturing of the Republican coalition. The coalition is frayed at its edges right now. Look, for instance, at the passage of Senator John McCain's [R-AZ] bill on banning torture. But for the most part, it's still intact. If you get to late spring and early summer, however, and the public is still not seeing progress in Iraq, it will be very difficult for the administration to be able to dominate the policy. You will likely see growing calls for withdrawal and that can play in the election. That may actually be more significant for Senate races than it will be for House races because of the nature of gerrymandering of districts in the House. It's hard to imagine having enough Democratic wins in the House side to change the balance of power. It's also hard to imagine that in the case of the Senate, but perhaps not so much because Senate races tend to be more competitive and attract better challengers.

Right now, the Democrats don't seem too united on any particular policy. Do you think they'll be able to come together in a significant way, or is it going to be a division between the more liberal and the more conservative senators?

Democrats don't agree on foreign policy and when you don't agree it makes it hard to have a unanimous or united policy platform. There is a debate within the party between those who have been full-throated in the denunciation of the war and of the administration's handling of intelligence data, and those more centrist Democrats who have argued that unless we have a workable and credible alternative to what the administration's done, what we're doing is painting ourselves as defeatists and thereby helping the Republicans in their efforts. If you look at the president's recent speeches, he's clearly trying to drive home that split in the Democratic Party. The word "defeatist" is popping up in a lot of administration talking points and the purpose is clearly designed to reframe the debate between those who are willing to try to fight to make something good happen in Iraq and those who are eager to quit.

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