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Haass: State of Union Address Stressed U.S. Desire To Avoid Confrontation With North Korea and Iran

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
January 21, 2004

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Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department official, says that he was struck by the emphasis on multilateralism in foreign policy in President Bush’s January 20 State of the Union speech. Haass also noted the omission of any discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, and says that the president’s remarks on North Korea and Iran reflect the administration’s desire to “energize diplomacy” with those two “axis of evil” countries and avoid confrontation.

Currently attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Haass says he detects a slackening of anti-Americanism. “One doesn’t encounter the same kind of intensity or the same amount of anti-Americanism as one did, say, a year ago,” he says.

Haass was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on January 21, 2004.


Did you think that President Bush’s State of the Union address broke new ground on the administration’s foreign policy or national security concerns?

I didn’t think this was a speech designed particularly to break new ground. Rather, it was a speech meant to put things in perspective. So it tried to make the case that going into Iraq was the right thing to do. It essentially argued that things in Afghanistan and Iraq are heading in the right direction. It argued that we are winning the war on terror. Most of the speech was aimed at presenting that perspective, rather than introducing some foreign policy departure.

On North Korea and Iran, his remarks were fairly modest, compared to two years ago when he lumped them with Iraq in the famous “axis of evil” comment.

Sure. It reflected, I think, the strategic reality that the United States is extended quite far, and, long before this speech, [that] no one has been trying to provoke confrontation. To the contrary, for some time now, people have been trying to energize diplomacy in dealing with North Korea and Iran. This speech just reinforces the tendency.

Do you have much sense of the reaction of non-Americans you have met at the Davos conference?

Nothing systematic. I don’t think people see in this speech any fundamental departures. It tends to reinforce the slightly greater emphasis on diplomacy that we’ve seen in recent months with North Korea and Iran. But it doesn’t show any self-questioning about either the correctness of going to war in Iraq or the trajectory of events in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

Do you find that the United States is still as unpopular as ever?

Some of the heat seems to have gone out of things. One doesn’t encounter the same kind of intensity or the same amount of anti-Americanism as one did, say, a year ago. I think that is in part because a lot of these debates have played out, and also because most situations— what’s going on in the war on terror or the situation in Iraq— are not black and white. People are seeing some areas of progress, so that is muting some of the criticisms.

Do you think the decision to turn over sovereignty to the Iraqis by mid-year has improved the United States’ standing in public opinion?

Somewhat, only because the United States has staked it out as a commitment; indeed, one doesn’t hear that much debate about Iraq now. Everybody, just about, wants to see a transfer of authority. Everybody wants the security situation to improve. The problem is, it is going to be hard to do these things. But there is not a debate along ideological lines. It is simply that everybody is confronting some very hard barriers to accomplishing tasks in Iraq.

Many of the pundits say that foreign policy was really not such a big factor in the Iowa caucuses, that domestic matters turned out to be more important to the voters. Did you get much feedback in Davos on the Democrats?

No. I don’t get the sense that people have focused all that closely on this or that candidate. To the extent they had, [former Vermont Governor] Howard Dean had received the lion’s share of the attention. Suddenly, the perception is that he has faded, and people just don’t know that much about [senators] John Kerry [of Massachusetts] or John Edwards [of North Carolina].

On the treatment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the president’s speech, do you think the president did the best he could on that issue?

Yes. He didn’t dwell on it. And he made the best case he could on that, but I thought the thrust— quite rightly— was more on moving forward than on rehashing the past.

Do you look upon what he said in the speech as largely his foreign policy platform for this year?

It makes the argument that we’ve gained ground in the war on terrorism, a point that I agree with. By the way, I think he was both right and wise to point out that no one should assume this war has ended or that we’re not going to be the victim of future attacks. He was basically making the case that our investments in Iraq and Afghanistan are paying off, not only in those two countries, but more broadly for example, with Libya. So, yes. I would think that would be the thrust of his approach over the next year when it comes to foreign policy.

Did you hear any other points you thought were particularly interesting?

I thought there were a couple of things that were interesting, four things in particular that he mentioned, and one that he did not mention.

One was his comment that different threats require different strategies. That to me was Bush essentially saying that Iraq should not necessarily be viewed as a template. I thought that was an interesting statement, also his commitment to working with the United Nations in Iraq, and his emphasis that what we’ve done and are doing in Iraq is not unilateral. So, if you add all that up, he was essentially arguing that U.S. policy is more multilateral than its critics grant, and also more multidimensional in the sense that it is not necessarily just military. So I thought it was interesting that he made all those arguments.

I was struck, watching the speech in Davos on television, that one of the strongest reactions, in a positive way, was to his argument that the United States will never seek a “permission slip” to act. What that said to me was that the statement was not just “red meat” for a domestic audience, but it was a reminder that while the United States will try to work with the United Nations, it can't accept the vetoes of others if the United States believes its vital national interests are at stake.

And lastly, I thought the most interesting omission was any reference to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. That has gotten a lot of attention over here because you have a large representation from the Arab and Muslim worlds but also because, in Europe, one of the principal areas where Europeans disagree with American foreign policy is over the perceived lack of American effort to bring about progress there.

Do you think he omitted it because he just doesn’t want to get into it in an election year?

I’m not going to ascribe motives. I will simply say that, for whatever reason, it is the one omission that’s gotten the most attention here.

Should any significance be given to the fact that about half of the State of the Union address was on foreign policy and related security issues?

That’s quite a lot, heading into an election year. I once did a content analysis on Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses and on his Saturday radio talks. The percentage was closer to 10 to 15 percent on foreign issues. So when you say it is almost half, that to me is a remarkable change from the evidence, say, a decade ago. This shows that in post-9/11, post-Iraq America, foreign policy has become far more of a priority than it was 12 years ago. There has been a sea change there.

You’re right. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s advisers were saying, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

To use that analogy, even if the Democratic candidate this year runs with a campaign platform that emphasizes domestic issues like the economy or health care, there won’t be any language that puts foreign policy and national security on the back burner. Again, it is just a very different context. Put another way, the post-9/11 context is seen fundamentally differently from the post-Cold War context.

Or the post-Persian Gulf War context?

Exactly— even though people now want to put a greater emphasis on the domestic, but again, it is without putting the foreign policy or national security stuff on the back burner.

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