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Mead: Bush’s Policies Achieve Success in Difficult Year

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
December 22, 2003

Walter Russell Mead, the Council’s expert on U.S. foreign policy, says President Bush has scored “some successes” in the past year and maintained “a very high level of political support in the United States for what is a very risky and difficult course.”

While criticizing Democratic presidential candidates for failing to produce a feasible alternative to Bush policies, Mead says the administration must be faulted for its “catastrophic” misjudgment of the post-combat situation in Iraq. He also says the president should have tried to nurture more cooperation among his often-divided foreign policy team.

Mead, the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on December 22, 2003.


How will President Bush’s 2003 foreign policy be judged?

If the year had ended on December 1, he would have faced one kind of judgment. As it is, with Saddam Hussein captured and Libya agreeing to give up its weapons of mass destruction (WMD), he will be able to hold his head up. Obviously, the administration made some pretty catastrophic misjudgments about the post-combat situation in Iraq, but public opinion, despite some qualms, has sustained the Bush administration. You look at the polls and, even before Saddam was captured, the number of people who felt the war was the right thing to do had been going up. What Bush has managed to do in the year despite a lot of difficulties, some of them self-inflicted, was to pursue a very clear line of policy to the point where he has achieved some successes; and he has been able to do that while maintaining a very high level of political support in the United States for what is a very risky and difficult course.

How does Bush fit into the categories you describe in your book, “Special Providence?” On the one hand, he is what you would call Jacksonian, pushing ahead, no matter what, to “get the bad guy.” On the other hand, he has a Wilsonian streak that expresses itself in his pressing for democracy in the Middle East. Is his Wilsonianism just a political gesture or part of Bush’s character?

I think it is really part of his character. I compare him to Ronald Reagan in this way. Most people think the Jacksonian and the Wilsonian are completely opposite and can’t be combined. In fact, they can be. Reagan did it first, and now Bush is doing it. What you do, however, is that your Wilsonianism is non-institutional Wilsonianism. Woodrow Wilson, when he thought about spreading democracy and the rule of law, thought instinctively about creating international institutions and in a sense taking the politics and the force out of international relations and replacing them with administration and judicial norms.

You’re talking about the League of Nations?

Yes, the League of Nations, or even before that, compulsory arbitration. Whereas for Bush, and for Reagan, international institutions might be from time to time useful as a means to an end, but they were never an end in themselves. And if institutions got in the way of some important result, you would swat them aside without much second thought. So what Bush has done is that he has combined this non-institutional Wilsonianism— very idealistic and sweeping in terms of what you hope to achieve, the democratic restructuring of the Middle East— but not thinking that the way to do that is to get [United Nations Secretary General] Kofi Annan to sign off on a grand plan.

Or U.N. inspectors to find WMD?

That’s right. And I think that while a lot of people have been alarmed by what they see as the administration’s disregard for some of these institutions— and certainly many people, including me, think they have been unnecessarily brusque in the way they have handled some of their important relationships— in an era of weapons of mass destruction, how useful can institutions be in dealing with that problem? We’ve seen that Libya was pretty much successfully evading not only the normal nonproliferation accord, but was even under special U.N. economic sanctions and yet was apparently much further along in its quest for nuclear weapons than we had thought. Obviously, Pakistan and India present another case; North Korea not only evaded the standard nonproliferation controls, but also evaded a special agreement with the United States. So what you’re coming to is that, currently, the international nonproliferation regime is not very functional, and it’s a real question what you do about it.

There have been various proposals to try to make it impossible to enrich uranium, even for peaceful uses, something that is now permitted. But it is probably difficult to rewrite the treaty at this stage.

Exactly. That’s part of the problem because international institutions generally depend on the unanimous consent of a large number of sovereign entities. For example, in the Security Council today, three out of its five permanent members are European. That is frankly a ridiculous assignment of international power. You have [on the council] former world powers like Britain and France and, even to some degree, Russia, yet under the U.N. system India is equal to Lichtenstein. It has one vote in the General Assembly. This is absurd, and yet there is no convenient or functional way to repair these institutions, and so what any American administration now faces is, on the one hand, a set of dysfunctional international institutions and, on the other, very urgent problems.

The trick is that there is no good way to handle this. If you ignore the institutions and work around them, you pay real costs in terms of international support for what you’re trying to do and the support of other key countries, whose help you need. On the other hand, if you let the institutions set limits on your policies, you will not be able to deal with major, critical issues in as timely a way. So we face a structural problem in world politics now. September 11, which put a real urgency into American foreign policy, turned a problem into a crisis because no president can now be seen as letting himself be hobbled by the slow pace— or a French veto— of something the American people thought was necessary to protect them from terrorism.

Does that mean the Democrats are mistaken in criticizing Bush for not taking the allies more into account in Iraq?

Yes. I think the Democrats have yet to develop either a serious, thoughtful critique or an alternative to the Bush policy. Basically, they’ve spent several months complaining that he hadn’t caught Saddam Hussein. Almost immediately, when Saddam Hussein was captured, they said, “Well, he still doesn’t have Osama.” This is not a critique. You hear criticism that Bush didn’t get France on board. There’s a quote from Howard Dean, running around the internet now, that notes that in 1998, I think it was, Dean said, “It is useless to try and get France on your side. They are opposed to us.”

The truth is France is opposed to an expansion of United States power in the Middle East and sees that as perhaps more dangerous to France than the activities of some of the local despots. The idea that if we could just ask more nicely everyone would do what we want is as absurd as the thought that if we just tell them firmly everyone will just fall into line. Among the Democrats running for president, you have some very unconvincing and partial criticisms of Bush’s strategy. Probably the best approach has been taken by Hillary and Bill Clinton, and neither one is running this time. They have managed rather successfully to do probably what any Democrat needs to do: embrace the core strategy of the war on terror and even accept the prioritization of Iraq within the war on terror, and then make criticisms about “woulda, coulda, shoulda” done this a little bit different or a little bit better.

Senator Joe Lieberman seems to meet your criteria.

Yes. But I don’t think he has what it takes to become a serious candidate for president.

So, at the moment, Bush has got his re-election nailed down?

I think at the moment of this interview, the Dow is above 10,000 again, we’ve got Libya. And Bush can count the European deal to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program as an achievement, because the Europeans only got together and negotiated with Iran because they were afraid if they didn’t, Bush would do something tougher.

Is there a domino effect? Will the North Koreans now fall into line?

I don’t know, but the key to North Korea, most people will tell you, is to have China on board with the United States. And the Bush policy so far has been successful in getting China to agree with the United States on this and to do it in a way that doesn’t make Japan fly off the handle.

What criticisms would you offer about Bush? What should he do in the new year?

I think the biggest mistakes the administration made, beyond any shadow of a doubt, were over the war in Iraq. The first was allowing the public impression to be created that weapons of mass destruction were the key and only effective reason for the war. Now, if you parse [officials’] speeches carefully and go back and look, that’s not what they said. Beyond the WMD statements, they had other arguments. But because it seemed to be an effective argument, and because I think they were genuinely convinced they would find a lot of weapons, they’ve gotten themselves into a position where the failure so far to find a lot of WMD has cast some doubts on their credibility. They didn’t need to do that. They could have made very effectively a full case for dealing with Saddam Hussein. That would have spared them some difficulty.

[The second mistake] was a catastrophic failure [in] the way the administration prepared for the aftermath in Iraq. As far as anyone can tell, the inter-agency process broke down completely. You ended up with a small number of civilians in the Pentagon who had very strong ideas about what to do but didn’t have the institutional resources at the Pentagon to do the kind of work [needed for] effective planning. On the other hand, at the State Department, you had people trying to do better planning, but they were being frozen out of the process because of political differences. The White House should have been knocking heads together on that one.

Was that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s fault?

I think you have to go to the top. It’s the president’s job to get his subordinates working together. The president’s management model is not inherently a bad one, which is to have very strong-willed, very capable people in these key positions who don’t always agree, and who in fact vehemently argue with each other. You don’t want a Cabinet of “yes men.” On the other hand, when they do disagree and decisions still need to be taken, the president has been very good in saying, “This is the decision, nobody criticize it, we’re moving forward.” But we haven’t seen the same kind of effective pressure to say, “Now, cooperate.”

How do you think Colin Powell will be judged as secretary of state?

He will always be respected. People are going to see that he was always able to gain the trust of the people he was negotiating and dealing with. There are some key points where a lot of historians will probably wish the administration leaned a bit more toward Colin Powell and a little bit less toward some of the other people in the administration. On the other hand, the approach to the United Nations by Powell over Iraq was not a brilliant success. If you could look at the whole thing in hindsight, you might think what the United States should have done, given that the decision had been made to go on and deal with Saddam, was to say, “Look, there is a cease-fire between the United States and Iraq. Iraq is violating that cease-fire every hour of every day, and has never complied.” Under international law, when one party is breaking a cease-fire, the way you deal with that is to say the cease-fire is over. We might have ended up with a less complex relationship with some of our allies if we had done it that way.

Powell has an article in the latest Foreign Affairs in which he says that people are wrong to say that the administration’s policy was based completely on pre-emption. Do you agree?

Yes. If you look at the substance of the National Security Strategy document and at what Bush said at West Point [in June 2002], it is not as different from historic American foreign policy as people would think. We now say, of course, that our forces will be “second to none.” Can you imagine any American president saying, “We’re going to allow our forces to be second to one, or second to two”? The reality is that our policy has been for a very long time to have the strongest military in the world and, particularly since the end of the Soviet Union, to be unchallengeable and to maintain that [advantage]. Look at our policy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963. President [John F.] Kennedy was willing to fight a pre-emptive war to prevent nuclear weapons from being installed in Cuba. It was not that he would retaliate if [Cuban leader Fidel] Castro used any of those weapons; Kennedy was willing to risk a pre-emptive war with the Soviet Union.

So this is nothing new. Again, I think this is where the Bush administration makes, in my view, some missteps. You could have presented this policy as continuous with the deepest traditions of American, or indeed, world statesmanship. You could have talked about how the right of self-defense for individual human beings, as well as for nation states, is the foundation of all civil society and all law. The right of self-defense, in the U.N. Charter, clearly also involves the right to judge when your self-defense is threatened. Otherwise you don’t have the right to self-defense any more.

[Administration officials] presented something that was not revolutionary as if it were revolutionary. My guess is that they were more concerned with frightening our enemies than in reassuring our friends, that they wanted to draw a line under what they saw as a somewhat indecisive policy in the past. There were better ways to do this. They could have had all the scary impact on the bad guys they wanted without giving a propaganda excuse to all kinds of people and also creating a whole lot of misunderstanding. So, in that sense, I think Powell’s interpretation of the core policies is the right one, and I wish the administration had used Powell’s language and arguments more. We would have had a smoother ride if we had done that.

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