On January 22, 2004 in its Washington, D.C., office, the Council on Foreign Relations convened an on-the-record journalists' roundtable on foreign policy and the 2004 presidential election. Two Council fellows -- James M. Lindsay, vice president, Maurice R. Greenberg chair, and director of studies, and Max Boot, Olin senior fellow, national security studies -- briefed reporters on a range of topics. The moderator was Lee Feinstein, senior fellow, U.S. foreign policy, and acting director of the Council's Washington program. The following is an edited transcript.
Council on Foreign Relations
January 22, 2004
LEE FEINSTEIN: … In an otherwise workmanlike address, I thought the president [in the State of the Union speech] did a very effective job in summarizing his critique of the Democrats with a one-line zinger, which was "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country." So to open things up, let me ask you, how effective do you think this kind of criticism is? And what, if anything, can the Democrats do to address it?
JAMES LINDSAY: … I think the president's State of the Union address is really good politics. I think all State of the Union addresses are political documents. This one was a particularly effective one. It shows how skilled the president and his team is, because what they in essence did, as I think Lee's question implied, was to anticipate all of the Democratic objections to their conduct in foreign policy and come up with very brief sound bites that rebutted -- not just rebutted, but reframed the question. The question is, I think, as you point out, what Democratic candidate wants to get up and say, "Excuse me, I really do want to get a permission slip from the French or the Germans or NATO or some other"? I think it's remarkably effective.
How do the Democrats counter or respond? I think two broad points we can develop in the follow-up. One, I think, this election, for the Democrats to win, fundamentally has to be about domestic affairs, not about foreign policy. What the Democrats have to do on foreign policy is to neutralize the president's advantage. They don't just have to win; they just sort of have to pass what I call a threshold. Whoever the eventual candidate is has to be able to persuade the American public that they're good enough on these issues and that whatever their differences are with the president aren't that great. Biography, in and of itself, won't be the cure-all, to anticipate the [Wesley] Clark and [John] Kerry candidacies.
But I think fundamentally for Democrats, what they have to hope is this really turns into an election about domestic politics. As you go forward, I think it's important to keep in mind this is still a relatively split country in terms of partisan balance. And I can only see foreign policy becoming pivotal in the election if the Democrats can keep it close on domestic issues, and then we get into the whole "How does it play in swing states?" which means that what may matter in many states is not foreign policy writ large, but rather specific individual policies, whether it's trade, whether it's Cuba or anything related to it, but particularly narrow constituency interests.
The last thing I would point is that the fact that foreign affairs is, quote, more important to the public than it was in 2000 doesn't mean people are going to vote based on foreign policy. It's quite possible people are going to be unhappy about what the administration is doing in foreign policy and vote to re-elect it. I offer up [Democratic nominee] George McGovern in 1972 [who lost to Richard Nixon]. And the problem with McGovern is people didn't like Vietnam, but they weren't persuaded he was the man to be put in charge of the stewardship of the United States on foreign policy. So people can be unhappy and still vote for the person leading the policy they're unhappy with.
FEINSTEIN: Okay, terrific. So kind of a Clinton strategy of playing for a draw, or close to it, on foreign policy.
LINDSAY: I think the more they can turn this into being about domestic affairs, the better off they are.
FEINSTEIN: Okay. All right, Max, back to the State of the Union. Clever and effective as that zinger was in the president's message, the stuff he had to say about Iraq was, I would say, much less compelling. And the talk was about the long, hard fight and doing what's right on Iraq. … Tell us the degree to which you think Iraq will be a liability for the president coming into the election and what you think he needs to do between now and, say, Labor Day or now and June 30th [when the Coalition Provisional Authority is scheduled to return sovereignty to the Iraqis] to put this into the plus column for the president.
MAX. BOOT: Well, I think to put it into the plus column, it would be helpful if there were not a large-scale Shiite revolt between now and November. I think that would be probably good for the president if the whole country didn't rise up against him. (Laughter.) So I think that's definitely one point I would make.
At the moment, I don't think that Iraq is a negative for the president. I mean, I've actually been surprised to see how well the poll numbers on Iraq seem to hold up, given the fact, as we all know, that the initial rationale or one of the initial rationales for the war, WMD [weapons of mass destruction], remains in the not-proven category, at least not found, and the fact that the casualties are continuing to mount; they've got all these problems. Despite that, you know, every poll shows that about 60 percent of the public thinks it was the right thing to do; that is, the decision to go into the war was the right one. So that shows quite a bit of strength.
And I think that's reflected in the high poll numbers that Bush gets on foreign policy, national security policy, terrorism, all those kinds of things, whereas Jim just said basically the Democrats' best strategy is to change the subject, because Bush is so far ahead on those kinds of issues. And certainly Iraq, I think, is very much part of that, because it shows he is decisive. It shows he's willing to take hard decisions. He's willing to defend American security proactively. I think all those things are huge positives.
And a few months ago, it looked much more like a quagmire. Certainly November was a very bad month and casualties were way up. We didn't seem to be making progress. And all of a sudden we caught Saddam Hussein looking like the Unabomber in his rat hole. And that obviously gave a huge boost to the president, some of which is now starting to wear off.
Overall, I think there's still a sense that we're making progress, and that's what really counts. If you look at a polling study that was done at the Triangle Institute in North Carolina recently, what they found was that, in measuring public support for wars, what really counts is not so much the initial rationale for the war but what kind of progress you're making in the war once you're in it. And as long as the American people see progress, I don't think that even the casualties and the setbacks are really going to hurt Bush. And I think they will see progress, because I think they are intent on having the transfer of authority by June 30th. And once that happens, that will be a clear sign that we are making progress towards democratizing Iraq, contingent, of course, on working out this little spat with [leading Shiite leader] Ayatollah [Ali al-] Sistani that we're in the middle of right now.
LINDSAY: It's just an eentsy-weentsy little spat.
FEINSTEIN: Just to follow up on that one point, how important is it to the president to be able to do the handoff at the end of June? Does the president have the flexibility to postpone the formal handoff if that's necessary to cut the kind of deal he needs? Or is this really essential to showing progress?
BOOT: Well, I think there's certainly -- I don't know that it's essential from an on-the-ground viewpoint in Iraq. I think it is essential from a political viewpoint, because he's basically staked the strategy on turning over authority and saying, "Hey, look, we've created a democratic Iraq" and saying it before the election.
Now, on the whole, all the talk right now, of course, is about the spat with Sistani. And I don't want to underestimate that or the importance of that, because I think that is in some ways the crux of the matter. These attacks that are going on are painful and they're awful, but they're not going to fundamentally affect our ability to hold on to Iraq.
If we all of a sudden get 60 percent of the country against us, which could happen if Sistani turns against us, then we're in deep doo-doo. But I don't think that's going to happen. I think basically Sistani is not that far apart. I think he's shown himself to be reasonable. He's basically interested in elections, not in mullah rule.
So I think it is possible to cut a deal with him and make progress that will look pretty good by the elections. And I'm not -- by our election, I mean. And I'm not too worried about in terms of on-the-ground reality. I'm not too worried about what happens formally with the Iraqi government when it gets turned over to -- or what the election procedures are and all that.
To me, the bottom line is as long as we still have 100,000 troops in the country, I know who's ultimately going to be responsible for what happens in Iraq. And I think that'll be a tremendously stabilizing influence. Whatever happens at the Iraqi political level, the fact that we still have an overwhelming security presence in the country, I think, will ensure that we're going to make progress toward democratizing Iraq.
My biggest worry would be, are we going to draw down the troops too fast? That's what to me would be the most destabilizing factor in Iraq.
FEINSTEIN: Okay. Let's go around the table.
QUESTIONER: I'd like to ask, I guess, all three of you, and maybe anybody else in the room who has thoughts on it, what we actually think the specific policy differences are going to be between an eventual Democratic front-runner and Bush? I thought it was an interesting article by [Council Fellow] Walter Russell Mead in The Wall Street Journal the other day that argued that in the end there isn't going to be that much difference in position. The big debate in Iraq is, should we involve the U.N. more; well, Bush is involving them more now. North Korea -- it's hard to see them doing something different, the Democrats, or recommending something different. So what do you all think the main differences will be in the next year?
FEINSTEIN: Between Democrats -- the eventual nominee, and Bush.
QUESTIONER: Right, assuming that the left Democrat positions diminish over the next couple of months?
FEINSTEIN: I'm going to stick to my presider role and turn it over to Jim.
LINDSAY: Well, first, I think you have to underscore the assumption your question is predicated on, which is that [the results of the] Iowa [caucuses] represent repudiation of left Democrats, as opposed to individual Iowans sitting and watching Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean slug it out and say nasty things. Having lived in Iowa for 12 years and gone through a couple of campaign seasons, I can understand how people can sour on an election. So I'm not sure it really necessarily heralds the repudiation of the left faction in the Democratic Party.
I think that you are right; going forward in the campaign, Democrats face the problem that -- they face two problems. One, the incumbent is reasonably popular. And, generally speaking, re-elections are elections for incumbents to lose.
The second problem they have is that they're Democrats. And that implies a whole set of baggage. We all know what the poll data show, which is that Democrats are perceived by the American public, most Americans, the majority of Americans, as being weak on these issues. A Washington Post/ABC News poll earlier this week said, "Who do you trust more, Democrats or Republicans, on national security issues?" Republicans have a two-to-one advantage.
So if you're a Democrat, the problem you're going to have is that, even if you have a different message, you are perceived in a way that makes it hard for you to make a sale. So the political incentives during the primary are to appeal to your base, which is why all of them will, as you winnow down the field, talk a lot about how they wouldn't have gone to war in Iraq. But ultimately that as an issue peters out, because that doesn't tell the public what it really cares about -- "What are you going to do?"
So by that point you're getting into the general election, which the incentives become, given who you are as a party, given where Bush is, to basically focus on issues of trying to blur the difference -- that is, you would do it with a gentler, kinder face.
And I think you will see the president doing a bit on the other side, which is, you know, if you look at the speech the other night, what he in essence said -- quite different than what he said on the run-up to the war, or even in the first months of the occupation, which was "We're going to run the show, and if others want to follow behind, fine. But we're not going to, quote, internationalize it." Now he's going to sort of put a klieg light on anything he does that might remotely look like he's internationalizing it.
So the incentives you will have during a campaign are to blur differences. What might become issues -- trade is one where I think clearly, you know, if you're a Democratic strategist, what you realize is that what matters less than popular votes, as Al Gore learned, is electoral votes.You've got to start looking at that map and say, "Where am I going to get electoral votes?" And there are going to be incentives to say, "I want to win where we're likely close" -- a West Virginia or a Michigan. So you may start hitting the trade issue and trying to put the president in a difficult position there. Obviously --
QUESTIONER: This is based on the president's prior record on steel -- (inaudible).
LINDSAY: Well, but this is, in essence -- what I was going to get to is that these political strategists in the White House anticipated some of this and tried to do some things to get the sting out of it with the steel tariffs and what have you. So that can be a hard card to play. Can you play, for instance, in Florida, the Cuba card? So I think you tend to -- you start to, again, try to, if you're a candidate, most likely retreat from macro foreign policy issues, because you don't want to get into the "Actually, I think we should go out and seek a permission slip." If you're doing that debate as a Democrat, you're going to lose.
FEINSTEIN: But is any Democrat going to not -- going to come out for removing sanctions on Cuba, for example? It seems unlikely.
LINDSAY: No, in elections generally, there's no incentive to do that. I think that what -- what I would say, getting back to your question, while they may blur the differences as much as they can with the president in the run-up to the election, I think a Democrat -- I think [Walter Russell Mead's] piece is wrong, because I think a Democratic administration would do a number of things very differently than this administration would. But it's going to try to, in essence -- because they are operating at a disadvantage -- they are literally men running uphill into a stiff wind on this issue -- it's in their interest to blur it on the macro level. And if you can find specific issues to put the administration in a bad light, you'll do it.
And, of course, the wild card is -- you can imagine, you know, a crisis occurring anywhere in the world -- this time the car bomb that goes off in Islamabad does take out [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf, and the problem you always have in a candidate now -- if you're the outsider candidate running, is, what exactly do you say? If there is a crisis, the tendency of people is to want to be sympathetic and rally around the administration.
BOOT: Well, call me crazy if you like, but I do think there is an opportunity for the Democrats to actually take the high ground on defense and national security policy. I don't think that they will, but I think there is an opportunity, instead of just running away from the issue, or trying to blur the differences.
I mean, I think what John F. Kennedy did in 1960 was pretty effective. Even though the missile gap was bogus, he nevertheless used it to hit the Eisenhower administration over the head. And that was probably the last time I think that a Democratic presidential candidate has managed to go to the right of the Republicans on foreign policy. I think there are ways they could actually do it this time. For example, the critique that Joe Lieberman has made, saying, "Yes, I'm in favor of Afghanistan and Iraq, but they're not doing enough; let's do more." That's kind of the [John] McCain critique, which is, "Let's get serious about nation-building."
And you heard the point that John Kerry made in some recent comments in which he was attacking the administration for being too close to Saudi Arabia, not doing enough to press the Saudis, or the critique that they all make on homeland security, saying the administration has not provided enough on homeland security.
And I think you can see -- another point you can make is that the administration has refused to increase the size of the armed forces, which is placing this incredible strain on our active-duty military.
So I think you can see -- I can see areas where Bush is vulnerable to an attack actually coming from the right, but it's very hard for me to see any of the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates, other than Joe Lieberman, who I assume you all think is not going to be the nominee, other than him making these attacks credible.
For example, John Kerry kind of, and [John] Edwards and some of these other guys, they toy around with this notion of saying that Bush is not doing Iraq right, that we ought to be -- to a certain extent, they're thinking that we ought to be doing more. But at the same time, they voted against the $87 billion [in Iraqi reconstruction funding]. So I don't think they have a lot of credibility in making that argument.
So do I really think that the Democrats are going to make this argument in the fall? No, I don't. But I think that they could, and they would be smart if they actually figured out a way to do it.
LINDSAY: My guess is that [White House political adviser] Karl Rove would be very happy if the Democratic foreign policy critique is, "We should dump more money into Iraq." I think they would be happy to have that…
FEINSTEIN: Just to follow up on the question, then. So far, we can't come up with specific policy issues where there's going to be a noticeable, definable difference that we can all then sit down and write about "Here's their position, here's Bush's position." Is that fair to say so far?
LINDSAY: Well, it depends. I mean, if it's Dennis Kucinich, there's going to be a whole list of --
QUESTIONER: You're finally answering my question. (Laughter.)
FEINSTEIN: It seems unlikely.
LINDSAY: But, I mean --
MR. FEINSTEIN: Hold on -- getting a list here. Barry.
QUESTIONER: … I think the president could be extremely vulnerable because of Iraq, and I think he's vulnerable now because of the toll that U.S. intervention has taken. Whoever said he didn't think the Democrats will rise to oppose war, I think it's very smart, because, unlike Bush, if something awful happens, they'll be able to look back with credibility to what they have said.
There's something else that I can't quite make sense of, but I'll try to register this kind of amorphous thought. Everyone talks about polls. I'm not sure if polls can register a cumulative effect. In other words, either -- what I'm saying is how do you measure the series of things that the administration has done which don't conform to what they said was the case?
Now, you might call this credibility. You do a little poll. Are they credible? But I think people build up a case. They build up suspicions. They build up doubts when there are no weapons of mass destruction, when there's no Saddam [Hussein] connection to terrorism, when they hear the Democrats remembering what Bush said in his first campaign, "I don't intend to be as involved -- we ought to be as involved overseas as we are."
And when they look at the Middle East and see there is no -- Bush at least was smart enough not to talk about the Middle East. There is no settlement in the Middle East. He says there'll be a Palestinian state, which presumably would be part of some sort of a settlement next year. Well, if that happens, I'll be amazed. There's no indication that that's about to happen.
So, you know, on several fronts the Democrats should be able to make a case that -- you know, I'm supposed to be a neutral reporter, but I think you know where I'm going -- should be able to make a case that a lot of these policy fronts were not productive, and in fact, may have been misleading.
Kennedy didn't run to the right of [Dwight] Eisenhower. He invented the missile gap. Kennedy ran to the young of Eisenhower….But he did not run to the right of Eisenhower. And I would -- who would run to the -- you say run to the right of Bush? Where would the right of Bush be? Is there something to the right of Bush? …
LINDSAY: I think, to go back to Max's point, the Democrats clearly had hoped to run to the right of George Bush on homeland security. That was behind a lot of the push for the Department of Homeland Security back in the fall of 2001 and the spring of 2002. Then, all of a sudden -- and they were very, very excited because they thought the administration was going to hand them an issue. And then what happened? All of a sudden the administration went from saying, "The Department of Homeland Security is a terrible idea" to saying, "We will see your 18 agencies, we'll spot you six more, and we're going to go on national TV." So, I mean, in that sense the administration took that issue away from them. But to go back to your question, seriously, Barry, it seems to me it rests on -- at least the first part of the question rests on the assumption that Iraq is going to go really bad.
QUESTIONER: No, it might.
LINDSAY: If Iraq doesn't go really bad, I don't think at current level it has enough legs to change people's votes. The second thing is, even if it goes really bad, it's not at all clear how much it hurts Bush, for the following reason. … Number one, the administration has tremendous ability to frame how people think about an issue. Let's go back to the Vietnam -- or back to '72, where everybody, even people who were originally for the war, hawkish people, thought the war was by this point a mistake and we should get out. There was a great deal of satisfaction with the policy. But the Democratic standard-bearer was unable to get any traction. And his biography -- the fact that he was a decorated World War II bomber pilot who put his life on the line didn't cut slack for everything.
There are a couple of things that go on. Number one, people may not like the issue, but it doesn't matter. What people's opinion is matters less than how deeply they hold that opinion. That is, do they care enough about this issue that it will affect either, A, whether they do vote, or B, how they vote. … The second issue is that, even if you say, "Gee whiz, I think George Bush is screwing up on this issue; he made a mess out of it, and I don't buy his notion about how really it's somebody else's fault," it's a comparative market. Do I believe the opponent has a better plan? And if they're not persuaded on that score, if all they say, as they perceive it, this is somebody sort of saying, "He made a mess, he made a mess," that is not going to be necessarily enough to make the sale. So I guess I would just be more cautious saying just because it gets more turbulent in Iraq, that in essence that means all those are for Bush.
Final point is that I think Max is actually right. John Kennedy did, on the issue of the missile gap, consciously try to run to the right of Eisenhower, because when you're in a close election, you're always trying to grab the sort of swing voters, the moderates, and you find issues that -- for these people, defense matters; for that people, it's steel tariffs. And that's how you put together winning coalitions. …
QUESTIONER: … The Democrats really are in a lose-lose situation unless, as Barry is saying -- it's totally true, I mean, it totally collapses there, there is a spike in the casualties and there's a lot of spending and so on, because what are they going to do, say, "We want to pull the troops out"? Nobody's saying that except Dennis Kucinich. So they say, "We're going to keep them there." So how is that different? People's sense of trust -- I don't know how they also could run to the right of George Bush, this administration because that's pretty right.
My question is, on the list of Democrats, do you see a situation where the Democrat can actually take what happened, the intelligence failure, and say, "There is a big scandal that is potentially as big as -- definitely bigger than Whitewater" and so on, and turn it and hammer it into people's minds so it becomes a big issue. I don't see how they can really turn Iraq into -- (inaudible).
FEINSTEIN: Okay, so you've got the WMD kind of credibility question that Barry was asking. And we'll put one more question on the table.
QUESTIONER: I guess, because I'm wondering if we're kind of looking at this issue of Iraq hurting or helping the president maybe the wrong way. I think historically I think it's important to note that war is risky for a leader for various reasons. Most importantly, if you succeed, it doesn't necessarily guarantee re-election. See [British wartime Prime Minister Winston] Churchill or Bush I [President George H.W.]. Whereas, if you fail, then the opportunity arises that you can become very vulnerable.
Do you think that -- I mean, both of you seem fairly -- well, not quite confident, but relatively confident that it's not going to be -- we won't see complete disaster in Iraq over the next few months. Barring that -- I mean, I guess I should say, if Iraq is reasonably successful, do you think that, given the historical precedent, do you think that that really will help Bush? Or do you think it's just not going to be really a factor?
BOOT: Well, I think it plays into the general foreign policy strength that we've all remarked that Republicans have. I think the more that -- I mean, he's already being helped by the fact that, you know, we've done a lot to crack down on al Qaeda. I mean, one possible wild card, of course, is if we had another major terrorist attack before the election. I think that would actually probably help Bush, because people would rally around the flag. But it would be interesting to see what happens.
But in general, I think what happens in Iraq basically plays into the Republican president's natural strength on national security affairs. I mean, the question has been raised about WMD credibility and all that. I think you basically answered it. I mean, if you look at the polls, people don't care. I mean, this is a big issue in France. This is not a big issue in the U.S. of A. And you can argue about whether it should be or not, but I just see zero evidence that it's hurting them.
And in terms of the casualties, I think we're a long, long way away from that really hurting him either. And if you look at all the surveys that have been done of public opinion, casualties are not really the major determinant of whether people are for or oppose the war. As I mentioned earlier, the major determinant is, is this looking like it's successful? If the casualties look like the price we're paying for success in Iraq, people are going to be willing to pay that price.
QUESTIONER: But -- I mean, Bush I did a really successful, spectacular war [against Iraq in 1991] with very few casualties --
BOOT: No, no --
QUESTIONER: -- and we didn't have to pay for it. And at the same time, that didn't help him the following year.
BOOT: There's one major difference here. The third quarter GDP number in 1991 was not higher than 8 percent growth. I mean, the economy is doing great. I mean, this is obviously the big difference. I think that -- I think there was maybe even a little bit of an extent to which Bush was undercut by the outcome of the Gulf War, the original Bush, because Saddam Hussein was still in power. I think that took a little bit of the gloss off his victory. But obviously we all know what killed him was the economy, stupid. This time it's just hard -- (inaudible) -- a negative for George Bush. And so barring some major disaster, I think it will be -- you certainly have to make him the heavy favorite.
FEINSTEIN: I think Helen's question is sort of a historical one, which is, is it the case that maybe having lingering threats out there, rather than the threats addressed entirely, like a victory in the Gulf War, having it sort of continue and require a commander-in-chief who knows the ropes in place, whether having a continued threat in Iraq works to George Bush's advantage, or having, as he said in the State of the Union, continued threats of terrorism, works to the incumbent's advantage?
BOOT: Or is that some kind of strategy that maybe the White House has come up with? As it's been said here and there, that is something that they're playing up for the past few months or so leading into the election in November because of this unknown, it's always going to happen, and, as you said, if there is a major terrorist attack, it's actually going to help him, because they're going to rally around him rather than defeat him.
QUESTIONER: Well, I think it would -- it probably helps Wes Clark, because, you know, according to him, if we'd only elect him, we wouldn't have al Qaeda in existence anymore. So I'd vote for him just to eliminate al Qaeda.
LINDSAY: I mean, I think -- come on, the administration talks about terrorism or threats [and] has both good policy and good politics in mind; the two blend. I mean, if you're in the White House, why wouldn't you want to tell people it's a dangerous world and bad things could happen and we should be vigilant, because, guess what, it is. And we can be attacked. By the same token, from a political point of view, you always want to cover your flank. Why would you want to suggest that we're now over the hump, because then when something terrible happens, that's when you look bad, because you're unprepared.
I think that the general lesson in your question, Helen, I think, for Bush, for this particular Bush, is what Iraq is part of; this is a larger story. And really Barry's sort of notion of what the election of '60s -- what was sort of the meta-issue that sort of tied everything together. And I think for George Bush, the meta-issue, the meta-story, is really about his decisiveness, his determination, his commitment to protect America.
And I think that was sort of -- I had my assistant count up the number of times the president used the word "America" in his State of the Union address, and she told me she quit after she hit 40. Okay? And I think that's a very deliberate thing, because "America," the word resonates with Americans in a way much differently than the words "the United States" does. And I think clearly what the president is doing is the benefit he gets from the war is that what he has demonstrated is that he is a conviction politician, that he really believes in this; he's a decisive man. All of those things play into our archetype of notion of what a leader is supposed to be, whether it's Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper. I mean, watch our movies and you see how we think about the world. And so I think, in that sense, the war does benefit him, because it plays this notion of a man who has beliefs, is willing to act, and is not going to be sort of swayed from his conviction.
What's the old saying? One man with conviction is a majority. And I really think that Americans like that in a leader. Which is why elections are largely about poetry rather than about prose. Prose is getting up in a debate and talking about the Norwood-Dingell bill, as if anyone watching TV knows what the Norwood-Dingell bill is. Poetry is about getting up and talking to people about love for country and what you're willing to do to protect it. And even if you give bad poetry -- and I think Bush in 2000 spouted a lot of bad poetry -- bad poetry will usually beat even the best prose….
QUESTIONER: I just -- I wanted to ask a question that's a little bit off of Iraq. But how does it factor in the election that we're now seeing a world in which the filmmaker tyrant of North Korea, the crazy mullahs of Iran, got some Pakistani nuclear materials -- and we can -- I mean, I think that -- I mean, I don't think it's out of the question to assume that you might see a nuclear test from -- I guess I could maybe think of [Zimbabwe President Robert] Mugabe would be worse than those people getting nuclear weapons.
QUESTIONER: Right. Okay, or maybe not. I mean, the worst -- you know -- what issue -- and I know that nuclear proliferation is not something you hear in presidential politics, but there seems to be -- and, at the same time, a lot of Americans are now learning that the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb is also -- may be an Islamic fundamentalist. So how are these stories, which strike me as very serious from a kind of substantive level, serious national security questions that I don't think the Bush administration has addressed publicly or in any substantive way -- how are they likely to translate into maybe a critique of the presidency? Or does the president need to say, "You know, Musharraf's our friend, but we really need to cut this sort of stuff out"?
BOOT: That goes back to the earlier point that I was making with this imaginary Democrat. And the only actual Democrat I can think of who would foot this bill would be Joe Lieberman, who actually does try to get to the right of Bush, and that is one of the things he could say is that we've been soft on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. I think there's a lot of justification for that argument. But it's a hard one to make, because then you have to say, "Well, what's our policy going to be?" And I'm not sure the Democrats have a clear alternative on that.
But, yeah, I mean, I would say that two of our biggest weaknesses so far have been our failure to address the huge problems that we face with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. And, you know, Bush talking all the time about what a great person Musharraf is and about how the Saudis are really reforming -- "Honest, this time they really are" -- all that kind of stuff is not very credible. But there is not a credible opposition that's able to call him on it in a convincing way.
QUESTIONER: But is there a potential -- I mean, I don't know; it's all pure speculation -- but if there was to be some sort of nuclear attack or some sort of event -- you know, North Korea sort of drops out of the six-party talks [on it's nuclear program], or something like that, would that then sort of -- how would that play in terms of the presidential race?
BOOT: Well, again, I think it goes back to the point we were making, is that the more national security becomes an issue, I think the more Bush is helped. And if there is, in fact -- I mean, I think our North Korea policy is a shambles right now. I'm not even sure what our North Korea policy is. Nevertheless, the fact remains that if they do test a nuke, I think that heightens the sense of danger and means that people are more likely to gravitate towards the incumbent, who's shown a track record on national security, as opposed to whomever the Democrats offer up.
And I actually -- I mean, I'm not a pollster or anything and I don't pretend to be one, but my uninformed reading of the polls is that Bush's re-elect numbers are actually pretty strong, that he's got well over 50 percent support ratings in the polls.
And, yeah, I mean, those match-ups against the hypothetical Democrat, I wouldn't read too much into it, because, I mean, you can imagine an ideal hypothetical Democrat who would be wonderful against Bush. But once the actual real-life Democrats start to show up, their imperfections will appear pretty glaring, especially once Karl Rove is done with them.
LINDSAY: I think it's important to keep in mind that we here are very much engaged in the 2004 election. My good friends, still living out there in the Midwest and Iowa, were engaged in the 2004 election. Most Americans aren't engaged in the 2004 election and will not become engaged in the 2004 election until after Labor Day of this year; for many of them, not until after October 1st.
Now, we can get up and sort of whine about why is it they don't care as deeply as we do, but the reality is that most Americans don't care all that deeply about this. So I think anything talking about how he would do against a hypothetical candidate is worse than useless.
And I think in general, what you've also got to keep in mind is by the time Americans start to focus on these issues -- both on sort of taking serious what the president's done, but also on what his Democratic challenger brings to mind -- it's going to be eight months from now, seven months from now.And the administration has one thing going for it, and that's a treasure chest of about $200 million. With $200 million for Karl Rove or anyone else to play with, you can do a heck of a lot of defining of that hypothetical Democrat, which is why anyone who thinks that somehow biography makes you bullet-proof is going to discover he's sadly mistaken. It didn't help George McGovern, who most Americans were convinced didn't have the backbone to stand up for America, which is kind of hard to reconcile with his own personal valor. And as I think Senator McCain has said, he was the original biographical candidate and he still didn't win.
But I also want to go to this issue -- we talk about issues -- what will work with the American public, and I think it really has -- it takes with it sort of the wrong view of how the American public views these issues. We know from all kinds of polls -- you don't have to do polling; just watch Letterman or Leno. Most Americans don't follow these issues. They don't care that deeply about it.
What they really want at the end of the day is they have some faith, when they go in the polling booth, that this president can take care of them, but they have confidence he can decide for them. They're not going to sit there and sort of say, "Okay, there's problems in the Korean peninsula. Let me get Michael O'Hanlon's book and then read it really carefully. I'll weigh the options."
QUESTIONER: But wait a second, because this is great. This administration has spent a lot of time driving into Americans: weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists is the new menace. And this is happening.
LINDSAY: And he did it in the speech last Tuesday night, in the State of the Union, raised it again. And people like me and Lee and Max and you reporters sitting there writing stories about it, you say, "Well, how does this square with that?" Most Americans don't parse these things that closely. The issue -- I mean, the issue comes is that, let's say the case of North Korea. This story's already broken. I mean, Colin Powell said, "Well, they can't eat it." Right? Didn't change their policy. It hasn't taken off politically. Some of the candidates tried to talk about it. It hasn't worked, because people aren't engaged. If a nuclear weapon is detonated, perhaps it becomes a problem. But it's not all clear that works against Bush, because Bush can say, "This is what I've been talking about" and blame it on the French, say the problem is we haven't been able to get other countries to take it serious. And he, on these issues, brings credibility.
The other thing they can argue is the president said -- he anticipated that argument in his speech. He said, "Different situations require different strategies," because he realizes that he's vulnerable to this. And the card they play there is that "We couldn't do what we did in Iraq because you would have very large losses of life and we have had a -- (inaudible) -- policy." And so most people out there aren't going to be able to parse through all the conflicting things.
So I'm not at all sure this works for them, I think, even in the case of Saudi Arabia. People are pretty prudent. They may not be very knowledgeable, but they're pretty prudent. I mean, in your whole life, people are basically trying to blow smoke at you. You learn that a lot of what people say isn't true. I think that's the particular attitude they take toward politicians. So if a Democrat gets up and says, "If I were in office, I would take care of Saudi Arabia," even if he weren't a Democrat, people would say, "Yeah, yeah, right." …
QUESTIONER: A couple of things. How bad does it have to get in Iraq for it to become a legitimate issue for the Democrats? Do we have to see massive American casualties again? Do we have to see the Shi'a turn against us irrevocably, civil war, the country breaking up? How bad -- I address this to you, Mr. Boot.
BOOT: That would probably do it, yeah. (Chuckles.)
QUESTIONER: How bad does it have to get? And the other thing is, I question, on another terrorist incident in the United States or something affecting Americans, say large numbers of Americans abroad, maybe in some European country or in the Middle East, why wouldn't that play against this administration, with the argument being that we have concentrated our resources in Iraq, that we haven't been on the ball on al Qaeda? It would seem to me that another terrorist attack, where you could show that the administration had missed signals or had been negligent in some way, could really play into the hands of a Democrat that had strong foreign policy credentials.
BOOT: It could. I mean, it's a wild card. I don't really know how it will play out. But that's one possibility. But, again, I mean, this goes back to the point that Jim was making about having a credible alternative. Now, are people really going to believe it if Wes Clark or John Kerry gets up there and says, "If I'd been in office, 9/11 wouldn't have happened, this wouldn't have happened, and I would have eliminated al Qaeda all together" --
QUESTIONER: Well, say it's cargo that's delivered to the United States. I mean, I keep hearing that we don't examine cargo coming in off ships; you know, some miserly percentage.
BOOT: Less than 2 percent of all containers.
QUESTIONER: Less than 2 percent. You know, if we'd taken all the money we've blown on Iraq and we'd actually examined every one of these, and if one of them turns out to contain a dirty bomb and it blows up in L.A. or something like that, how could a Democrat not say, "This administration has been asleep at the switch"? I mean, it seems like a really obvious argument.
BOOT: They're welcome to try it, but we'll see what happens. I mean, I think there's a very strong rallying around the flag effect. I mean, I think in that kind of case, the Democratic argument would be stronger if there is a paper trail that they can point to that comes out of the administration with, you know, memos saying, "Improve cargo security or else we're going to be nuked" and they ignore it.
But I think that -- (brief audio break) -- between now and the election that it would really be a huge -- a millstone around George Bush's neck. I don't think that more casualties are necessarily going to do it. I think it would have to be something really bad, like a major Shi'ite revolt, where it really seems like we're losing control of the country.
But I don't think -- I am relatively optimistic that's not going to happen, because I think that Sistani is not -- I mean, if we were dealing with [Iran's] Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini, okay, that would be a problem. But we're dealing with Ayatollah Sistani, who doesn't believe that Shi'ite clerics ought to be running the politics of the country. And what he's basically demanding is elections, which is not a crazy demand from the standpoint of the United States, because we believe in elections too. And it's kind of a question of the mechanics and so forth.
So I -- and remember that I think also the Shi'ites have a major stake in not fomenting -- (inaudible) -- because they don't want to be fighting the Sunnis any more than we want them fighting the Sunnis. And they're not sure what would happen if that were to come about. So they have a large stake in supporting us in the end.
So I think, despite all the sound and fury that you're hearing now, I think that we will be able to ultimately work out a compromise that's going to keep the lid on in Iraq and Bush will be able to get through the election on that --
LINDSAY: I think, just on the specific issue of Iraq, I think it's important to keep in mind sort of the general issue that Max just raised, which is that we have shared interests with most Shi'a. It's not like our interests are diametrically opposed. And I think that's important to keep in mind. That's why I'm not worried about driving off the cliff. And with any sort of reasonable amount of politically adept handling of the issue with Sistani, they should be able to avoid sort of the apocalypse that Barry suggested as a possibility.
But I want to go back to the core of your question, Barbara, which is what it highlights in the way you phrased the question, quite rightly, is context matters. If there's a terrorist incident, where does it happen? Is it a container ship where all of a sudden people can say, "The administration talked about their container security initiative but only allocated $62 million, which was a paltry sum." But, you know, even that might not help Democrats, because people might then say, "Well, Senator whoever," if it's a senator, "what legislation did you sponsor to solve this problem? Why didn't you do anything about it? You're on the committee that could have done something about it. You didn't, because you were too busy meeting the hog farmers of Polk County."
So it doesn't -- I think the real problem for the administration would be if you had an attack -- probably even less so for containers, but an attack on chemical plants, where you could really have horrific loss of life. And there you're going to get people in the administration, relatively senior people, saying, "This isn't something worth" -- I mean, my favorite one's on NPR, the gentleman who hails from the Department of Homeland Security said, "Why would we want to have a requirement on chemical plants, because they didn't attack chemical plants on September 11th."
And there you can actually show that at least the vice president had really used a lot of effort to squelch the [Senator John] Corzine bill. But then again -- so it depends upon the kind of attack you have. Context matters, which is why we don't know how an attack would play out, because we don't know -- what matters is less the event than how people interpret that event, what meaning they draw from it.
QUESTIONER: …my question is, I guess, during the State of the Union, it was nice for Bush to say that, you know, "We don't need a permission slip to defend our interests overseas." But it seemed like there was -- I wanted to know what you guys think of this so-called emerging Bush doctrine where it's more preventive maneuvers as opposed to pre-emptive, which means you don't need evidence of something actually in the works to do something; you're preventing it before it even becomes a problem. Do you think that they really are going that far? And if so, the election is a long way away; where do you think that's going to go next? And I don't mean just Iran or Syria, but like Somalia or Kenya. I mean, are they going to be putting troops there or --
OTHER VOICE: We have another military adventure before November.
BOOT: Well, I think you have to look at it on two levels. One is reality and one is rhetoric. On the rhetorical level, I think you can argue that Bush might have made a mistake by placing so much rhetorical emphasis on pre-emption, or preventive action or whatever, when they aren't actually planning to do it in that many places, and it's really sort of an unusual set of circumstances, and that you can argue about the alarm created by the word pre-emption is greater than the gain that we get from it.
On a level of reality and action, however, I think, preventive, pre-emptive, whatever you want to call it -- I recognize there are differences -- action is a part of U.S. foreign policy; always has been, always will be. I mean, why did the Clinton administration flatten that pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan in 1998? It wasn't because we'd been attacked with chemical weapons.
(Cross talk.) …
QUESTIONER: …But the bottom line for me is simply that I think the substance is going to remain there -- preventive, pre-emptive action, whatever. I don't think any president is going to sit by and watch terrorist training camps develop in a place like Afghanistan, and essentially do nothing about it in the future. That's not a viable policy to me. But I think you're seeing in the State of the Union that Bush has decided to tone down the rhetoric. He's not talking about it anymore in quite the same way. He's not using the axis-of-evil preemption type of talk nearly as much. He's toned it down.
LINDSAY: … I think as a general rule, preventative war is on the shelf for a while for the administration.
LINDSAY: I think for quite a while, partly because there weren't a lot of candidates for it. If you look at North Korea, it's a very unappetizing war to fight; Iran also, very unappetizing. And one of the reasons we did Iraq was because we could, and I think that's worth keeping in mind.
But the second thing, I think the very fact that we did Iraq actually makes it hard to do preventive war, particularly in the short term, but I think also in the longer term, because, number one, as a real matter, we have a large share of our military force tied up in Iraq. And I can't imagine that senior uniformed military leaders are going to be particularly eager right now to take on another large-scale military operation that would spread themselves too thin.
But also, on a rhetorical level, the fact that the president justified this war, and I think honestly justified the war in his view, on going into Iraq to go after weapons of mass destruction, and we got there and didn't find them, will make it harder to make that sale again for another country. …
FEINSTEIN: … Let me get a couple more questions and then we're going to wrap it up ..
QUESTIONER: I just wanted to toss a thought out relative to the "what can go wrong in Iraq" argument, and also then following up on what you had said about biography not being enough. One scenario one might see is, after the hand-over to Iraqi civilian control, U.S. troops on the ground in the unfortunate position of no longer having a U.S. authority and control in civilian affairs of a country, a large force protection disaster; 300 troops killed in one fell swoop, and then, at that point, having a clear Democratic front-runner, someone like Kerry, being able to run the kind of -- runs and getting a Silver Star pinned on his chest and Bush in a flight suit. It seems to me that at that point you'd have a relatively potent issue to put on the airwaves. But just tossing that out as a further last train of thought.
I hate to do it, but I'd like to draw you to a non-Iraq, a non-national security issue, the one you mentioned before, which is trade, which, I think you're right, is possibly even the most important in the end for the Democrats. And I wanted to see if you all could lay out a little bit how you think that discussion plays out. Is it China? Is it Latin America? Where are the issues where the Democrats can get traction on that?
QUESTIONER: Isn't that one of the other elements of a unified foreign policy -- (off mike) -- which is the unification point, is that Bush is doing everything on the backs of the little guy, he's doing Iraq and -- (off mike) -- on the backs of the little guys, who are the National Guard families, the Reserve families…It plays in domestic, as well. It's trade on the backs of the little guys: no jobs. It's, "We don't have money for proper health care because he spent the money on his rich friends." You can see how that plays out. You know, let's hear it for good, old-fashioned class warfare.
BOOT: If the Democrats want to run a campaign on class warfare and protectionism, I think there's nothing that would warm the hearts of Karl Rove and the Republicans more than seeing them try to do that. The Democrats have traditionally been the party of free trade. If they are indeed sold on Richard Gephardt's -- (inaudible) …
QUESTIONER: I was going to say, he's gone, isn't he.
BOOT: Well, he's gone.
QUESTIONER: That tells you something.
BOOT: Well, it tells me something, although the other candidates seem to be adopting his protectionist planks. And I think that's really poison for the Democrats long term, because I think most Americans -- this is the same thing with -- this is waging class warfare, trying to wage this kind of negative campaign and raising fears about how we can't compete, trying to -- (inaudible), all that kind of stuff that sounds good in theory, but in reality it runs counter to the fact that most Americans basically like wealth creation. They may not be wealthy themselves, but they hope to be someday. And they associate trade with wealth. And I think -- that's not a 100 percent sentiment, obviously.
QUESTIONER: Wait, wait. Before you get into the atmosphere about it, you should be specific about what the issues are that they're going to attack. Is it Latin America? Is it China? What is it?
FEINSTEIN: A final word from --
LINDSAY: Okay. On trade, I think the issue through -- the vulnerable country out there in all this will be China. I think the temptation is going to be -- I mean, when you talk about trade, comparative advantage, outsourcing, 120,000 jobs lost, that doesn't mean anything to people. It's a lot of snow flakes. People can't sort of put it into -- they don't get a picture out of it. When you talk about China, and China unfairly playing the international trade system and flooding our -- taking our jobs…(inaudible) -- in essence -- and something about they're manipulating the currency. Those are all things that people don't need to bring a lot of intellectual capital to get a sense that they're getting jobbed.
And here actually I would again take a different position than Max on, through the point that John raised. What Democrats don't want to do is run on "I'm for protectionism." … I don't think it's going to work. And what they can do, it doesn't have to be framed in a negative way. Okay? In essence it is -- I think of all the speeches I've seen by presidential candidates, Democratic presidential candidates, the one I thought best is the one John Edwards gave in which he talked about "I believe in values." Okay. Republicans talk a lot about it, but it's "I'm for values, too." And then he uses, in essence, the fourth bit, to say, "And in my America, the value is on hard work, or the value is on everyone pays their fair share." And so you put it into a positive frame.
And people are -- there is that opening to create the notion that maybe the president, or maybe not the president, but the president's advisers aren't necessarily interested in "the common good." Okay? Is it easy to do? No, because the great risk is you end up exactly where Max says you will go, into some sort of rank class warfare in which the Republicans say, "Oh, my God, they're raising class warfare. How un-American. That's not polite."
But I think it, in fact, can be done, but in essence you stitch together a bigger message out of a lot of little issues. But I do think, on trade -- and here's where I might have one difference over Gephardt, okay, or the old trade debates. The old trade debates were about the jobs of poor people going away. All of a sudden this textile mill is closed in North Carolina and those shoe factories in New Hampshire. Well, guess what? Now we're seeing outsourcing of what we call middle-class jobs: you know, programming jobs, like the person who went to work at IBM, the job is now being done by somebody for one-fifth the price in India. I can get my economist friends who say, "Well, for all those jobs that go abroad, more come in. Don't worry, it works." You know, this general rule: benefits are disbursed, costs are concentrated. If you get a good job, it's because you worked really hard, not because of trade policy.
If you get canned or your factory closes down, it's because somebody's doing something to you. Is there enough anger there? I don't think so, because if you look at unemployment right now, it's actually, by historical standards, reasonably good, even if it isn't as good as it was a couple of years ago. So can it be done? Yes. Likely to be done by the Democrats? I think no.
FEINSTEIN: Last word, Max.
BOOT: I'm not terribly worried about jobs being shipped overseas unless they suddenly start employing, you know, Indian or Chinese foreign policy pundits, in which case --
LINDSAY: I'm looking into that right now, Max.
QUESTIONER: That's obvious.
BOOT: Perhaps a final point on that. I think issues like the trade deficit or trade protections or jobs going away, or the budget deficit, which is one that we haven't mentioned, I think those kinds of issues become semi-potent if you're in a down economy, because if you're in a recession, people are looking around and trying to blame something and say, "Why is this happening?" But we're not in a down economy; we're in a booming, roaring economy. I mean, the economy is going gangbusters right now. So I just don't see how you could possibly get traction on those kinds of issues during this year. And the final point I want to address is the one made earlier about John Kerry, if there is a huge disaster in Iraq, he could say, well, you know, I told you so, or something like that. I think the problem is that Kerry, Edwards, all these guys, they've been all over the lot on Iraq. They've taken pretty much every single position you can take on Iraq. And I think that erodes their credibility to make a credible critique of anything that happens over there.
FEINSTEIN: All right. On that hopeful note for Democrats, thank you all for coming. And we'll do this again in a few weeks.