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CAMPAIGN 2004 Editorial Briefing with James M. Lindsay

Speaker: James M. Lindsay, Vice president, Maurice R. Greenberg chair, and director of studies, Council on Foreign Relations
December 11, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations

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James M. Lindsay is vice president, Maurice R. Greenberg chair, and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served on the National Security Council in 1996-97 and is the co-author, with Ivo H. Daalder, of the recently released "America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy." On December 10, 2003, Lindsay participated in a Council-sponsored conference call to brief reporters and editorial-page editors at U.S. newspapers on the role foreign policy will play in the 2004 presidential race. Following is an edited transcript of the briefing.

It's pretty clear that foreign policy issues will be important in next year's election. Will they be the decisive issues in the campaign?

Foreign policy has the potential to be a decisive issue. Whether or not it actually will be depends a lot upon what happens between now and the election. What is striking is the difference foreign policy will play in the election of 2004 versus the election of 2000. If you go back to the campaign in 2000 and look at the polls asking Americans what they were worried about, only somewhere between 2 percent and 5 percent of those queried named anything to do with foreign policy. Today, you can find numbers ranging from 20 percent to 40 percent. And, clearly, the dominant issue is going to be Iraq.

My question is about the Democratic candidates' calls to internationalize the effort in Iraq. How would they get the United Nations involved in managing the political transition?

Well, I won't dare to speak for the Democratic candidates in terms of their specific proposals. But the general argument made by Democratic candidates is that we should internationalize the effort in Iraq and that they will be able to do so— and bring the Germans and the French and other powers on board— largely because they will represent a break from the foreign policy of the Bush administration. The one thing to keep in mind, though, is that if a Democratic candidate were to win the election, he or she is not going to take office until January of 2005, when the political situation in Iraq could look much different than it does today.

Of the 20 percent to 40 percent of poll respondents for whom foreign policy is important, how many think that it's important to get out of Iraq or how many think that it's important to win in Iraq? In other words, can the issue help President Bush or is it bound to hurt him?

We don't know, is the most direct answer to your question. A couple of things are happening at once. We've done some polling, but the polling really hasn't explored this question in sufficient depth to allow us to draw conclusions. It is important to recognize going forward when we're looking at Iraq that the president can be hurt by Iraq if he is unable to persuade the American public— or keep them persuaded— that he has a plan for both removing American troops and leaving behind a stable Iraq. The arguments many Democrats will push, particularly if current trends continue, are that the administration does not have a plan for producing victory in Iraq and that the president has bungled the opportunity to rebuild a stable Iraq. The burden that the Democrats have is that it won't be sufficient simply to present a critique of the administration's policy. Democrats are going to have to be able to persuade the public that they have a solution and can be trusted to deliver on it.

On that score, Democrats face an uphill battle. If you look at poll results going back a number of years, the public tends to trust Republicans more than Democrats on foreign policy issues. In that respect, Democrats have a credibility problem, and they're going to have to be able to persuade people that not only do they have an answer, but they can also be counted on to deliver it. It's simply not enough to criticize the administration's policy. For example, in the 1972 election, the Vietnam War was very unpopular with large segments of the American public. But at the end of the day Democrat George McGovern, the anti-war candidate, was soundly defeated by Richard Nixon.

There is a claim that the Democrats need a candidate who can credibly assert that he can lead the country at a time of war. That's the argument that's being made for Senator John Kerry and for retired General Wesley Clark in particular, and some are saying the issue is a liability for Governor Howard Dean. How do you view that?

If we assume that the economy doesn't collapse, but either goes along at a moderate pace or grows rather robustly, it's clear that the Democrats have to persuade the public that they can be trusted on national security. This is a hurdle that all the Democratic candidates need to get over. I think it's a mistake to assume, as is often suggested in some Democratic circles, that biography is sufficient to get a Democratic candidate over that hurdle. It's not at all clear that that's how the American public sees the issue, that because John Kerry conducted himself honorably in Vietnam, he is therefore bulletproof on national security issues or that General Clark is bulletproof on national security issues. At the end of the day, the public is going to be less persuaded by biography and more by the concrete plans the candidates have for resolving these issues. It's clear that on the Republican side, many are salivating over the opportunity to run on national security issues precisely because of the poll results indicating that the public tends to have more trust in Republicans on these issues. Still, a lot of things can happen, in Iraq or more broadly in the war on terrorism, that could shake those calculations.

What about other foreign policy issues in the campaign? Trade and international economics, for example.

As I said, Iraq is going to be the dominant issue, at least on a national level. In certain states and among certain constituencies, though, other foreign policy issues are going to be important. Trade is going to be critical, particularly in several of the southern states where there are important textile interests. It could also be very important in the Northeast and the Midatlantic, in states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, as it relates to questions dealing with the steel industry and potential issues related to global warming. How these issues play will depend upon positions the president takes. One of the interesting trade questions now going forward is whether the Bush administration will stick to its proposal to create a CAFTA— a Central American Free Trade Agreement— which would lower trade barriers among the United States and the countries of Central America. This creates potential political problems for the president in states like South Carolina, which have large textile industries that see themselves as being threatened by such an agreement.

Other issues that are likely to come up in specific constituencies would include Cuba, a perennial of American elections. The issue doesn't matter to most Americans, but it can matter a lot to Cuban-Americans, and they can be a swing group in the pivotal electoral state of Florida. Immigration could be an issue in some of the states with large Latino communities.

The administration would argue that it has presented a plan for stability in Iraq and eventual withdrawal. But there have been setbacks. How do you see that playing out over the next 11 months?

Your question points to the potential vulnerability facing President Bush, which is not that he didn't have a plan, but he's had several plans. And the more recent plans tend to contradict the assumptions of the earlier plans. The problem from the White House point of view is that changing your plans could look like prudent adaptation to changing events but that at some point that could turn into a perception that the events are running you and you really aren't in control of the situation. I think it's pretty clear from the polls we have right now most of the public still has some faith in the president. There's some unhappiness about the handling of the war in Iraq. The president's poll numbers aren't as high as they were last May. But, from the White House point of view, there's some reason to be optimistic about the numbers. The real question is, are we going to reach a tipping point where the public comes to the conclusion that the president doesn't have a clear plan and he's sort of chasing after events? That would depend a lot upon what happens on the ground. Indeed, what makes it really difficult for the administration is that getting Iraq right is a really tough thing to do. Nobody should underestimate the nature of the challenge we face, because it's not only a matter of dealing with the insurgency but also the very difficult challenge of trying to knit together Iraq's disparate communities into a stable, coherent whole that doesn't need American troops to keep it propped up.

Does the American public seem concerned that the United States is in these constant food fights with our major allies? And secondly, how much difference would the vice-presidential choice make on security issues? If Howard Dean gets the nomination and picks somebody like Wesley Clark, how much difference would that make?

As to your first question, there's not a lot of poll data I've seen that really gets to that question. Generally, I would say that most people don't pay close enough attention to the issues to be worried about it. But even if they are worried about it, it's not clear it's the sort of issue that would affect how people vote. As for vice presidential selections, it's not clear that these choices swing that many voters because, at the end of the day, people are voting for the president, not for the vice president. But of course the critical question here is how big the margin will be between President Bush and his Democratic rival. If it's a very tight race, even swinging a few votes could be pivotal.

Is foreign policy generally not an issue in presidential campaigns?

Foreign policy is going to be more salient in 2004 than it has been in most campaigns. Having said that, I think it's important to keep in mind that throughout much of the Cold War, elections didn't turn on foreign policy. But there was always an expectation that whoever the candidates were, for whichever party, they had to meet a minimum threshold in terms of their ability to handle national security. Indeed, because national security tended to be a high-profile issue through much of the Cold War era, many of the people who ran for president had fairly substantial resumes when it came to foreign affairs. When you got to the 1990s and the end of the Soviet Union, foreign policy ceased to figure very prominently in presidential elections. Clearly today, because of September 11, foreign policy is going to figure quite prominently.

So even though Iraq is going poorly, many people would say the fact that foreign policy's going to be an issue in 2004 could work to Bush's advantage?

It could work to Bush's advantage in the way that Richard Nixon was able to handily defeat George McGovern in 1972. Again, that was a case in which the war was very unpopular. McGovern was able to capture the Democratic nomination because his critique of that war mobilized parts of the Democratic Party. But ultimately he was unable to persuade Americans that the critique was enough, that he had a sensible plan to replace the Nixon administration's plan. That's the challenge any Democratic candidate is going to face, persuading the American public that he has a workable way of approaching foreign policy. Many people are betting the candidates can't do that. I think it's very premature to reach that judgment.

Do you see any development issues— healthcare, education of women and girls, other topics that some countries are deeply involved in through the United Nations— as voting issues next year?

They're likely to be voting issues for relatively small segments of the public, and they're likely to be voting issues for people who would have voted for a particular candidate under any circumstance. I think that the broader American public won't make decisions based on the issues you named. President Bush might argue that he is taking the lead in increasing American foreign aid, that he has increased spending on HIV and AIDS, that he's trying to lead an initiative to end slavery. The Democratic candidate might argue that the administration hasn't done enough, that we need different types of policies. But I think in some sense the candidates will be speaking to communities that already support them.

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