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Bush Administration 'Drained and Lessened' American Power in World

Interviewee: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 19, 2008

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Leslie H. Gelb, a former high-ranking national security official and newspaper editor who served ten years as CFR's president, says the Bush administration "drained and lessened American power in the world," and as a result U.S. credibility in the world "was sorely damaged." He says the priority for the Obama administration is to continue the phased withdrawals from Iraq and to seek a negotiated solution in Afghanistan, arguing that history shows no country has been able to impose a solution there.

As a long-time foreign policy expert and a former participant in high-level presidential policymaking, what is your judgment on how the Bush administration did over the past eight years in foreign affairs?

I would say that almost everything it did drained and lessened American power in the world.

Can you elaborate?

The Bush administration didn't use American power to solve problems and basically used it in ways that made the problems worse. We see this on almost every front. Take North Korea and Iran, for example. President Bush threatened those countries not to develop uranium enrichment that could be used to build nuclear weapons. And he made very strong statements saying that nuclear development would be unacceptable. And at the same time, he refused to have serious negotiations with them. The result was that both those countries moved much closer to nuclear weapon capabilities; in the case of North Korea, they probably achieved it.

U.S. credibility, therefore, was sorely damaged. When a great power makes warnings like that and doesn't back them up, and the other side goes forward and does precisely what it's told not to do, we end up having much less standing in the world. That's what happened there. We run into the same set of problems in South Asia. India is a very important country and we need to establish a new strategic relationship with India. But essentially, the relationship this administration established was to totally compromise our nonproliferation policy in order to get closer to India. We accepted the India nuclear capability. We accepted that India would not be a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and we accepted that the nuclear facilities under the control of the Indian military would not be subject to international inspections. Those were huge exceptions for our nonproliferation policy.

The Bush administration didn't use American power to solve problems and basically, used it in ways that made the problems worse. We see this on almost every front.

In the case of Pakistan, once again we accepted their nuclear capability and instead of in any way punishing them for crossing a line we had told them for decades they must not cross, we ended up providing them with billions of dollars in aid for various reasons. We had other reasons for doing it, but nonetheless, the nonproliferation regime is in tatters. And that means we are in no position whatsoever to demand of Iran that it eliminate its uranium-enrichment capabilities, because Iran is a member of the Nonproliferation Treaty. As a member, it is allowed to conduct uranium-enrichment activities subject to international inspections. And when we go to the Iranians and say as we have been, "You can't do this," they say, "We're allowed to do it. You're insisting that we stop the whole program and why didn't you make the same demands of India, or Pakistan, or Israel for that matter." We have an untenable position in Iran today.

And finally, Bush has left us in Afghanistan with another situation that could become mired down as we were in Iraq for many years. We're putting in more troops, more aid, and the situation there is deteriorating for the same basic reason that it deteriorated in Iraq. Namely, we were backing political people and backing a political situation that was not viable. And we were focusing on the military part of the counterinsurgency and not on the underlying political realities: the viability of the government in Kabul, of the government in Baghdad; whether these governments could function, whether they were efficient or legitimate. These are the touchstones of whether or not policy will be successful. And on these fronts, the Bush people really did fail.

Let's talk about Iraq, the issue for which the Bush administration will be long remembered.

Iraq is a complicated matter, if you want to discuss it honestly, and it's hard to do that now because so many people have forgotten what they used to say. I, like almost all of the foreign policy community, supported military threats and even going to war against Iraq. In my case, I argued that we didn't have to do it then and we should have done it with much more international support. But basically, I thought Saddam Hussein was going to be a serious threat sooner rather than later, and that some action had to be taken. I didn't think through the strategic consequences of this and the Bush administration certainly didn't think it through either.

The first strategic consequence was that if you got rid of Saddam, you have automatically opened the door to greater power in the region for Iran. We didn't really realize this until a year or so after we attacked Iraq, when all of a sudden Iran started to exercise much more influence in the area. That was incredibly slipshod thinking by the group that essentially drove us into Iraq, namely the so-called neocons. The country they feared most, Iran, gained the most by our attacking Saddam and removing him from power. But you know, the truth is, and most of the experts on Iraq would agree on this, that if we had adopted a much better insurgent and political policy right after we had toppled Saddam, if we had dealt with our Sunni and Shiite opponents as we later were to do, and if we took our troops out of base camps and put them in the streets as we were later to do, we could have kept Iraq relatively quiet from the outset and avoided a lot of these problems. So, in Iraq there were failures up and down the line.

Many people have said over the years that the Bush administration in the first term really made significant mistakes in snubbing its nose at the traditional U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere by not putting into effect the Kyoto Agreement and alienating the French and the Germans on the Iraq issue. Those people hold that in Bush's second term, with a different secretary of state, the administration tried to patch up these problems and also has been more active in trying to get an Arab-Israeli agreement. Do you agree that the second term is quite different from the first?

There's no question that the second term is very different from the first. But there's also no question that almost everything done in the second term that was new and more adaptive to the reality of the world had been proposed in the first term by the first Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell was arguing for doing every one of these things. He wasn't talking about taking force off the table but he was talking about putting diplomacy on the table. In every one of these areas we talked about--North Korea, Iran, and so forth--his views were rejected. The dominant view in the administration was that we didn't have to negotiate with these "bad guys," that our military power was overwhelming and that all we had to do was shake the stick and others would comply. They had a totally exaggerated notion of the efficacy of military power in the twenty-first century.

In those first years of the Bush administration, which included of course 9/11 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, in hindsight it looks as if the national security apparatus just broke down, that the foreign policy machine was directed by the vice president and the defense secretary, with little input by then National Security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and by Powell. Is that your view too?

Yes. That was basically the case. We'll learn more as the histories come out, but there wasn't a great deal of opposition, inside or outside the administration, until later. In part, that was due to 9/11. In part, it was due to the swiftness with which our troops prevailed in Kabul and then in Baghdad. It looked at first as if military power would be decisive. The view was, "We have the superiority, look what we did with it--got rid of two enemies, the Taliban and Saddam, in very short order." So, for the first year and a half, Bush was riding high and there wasn't much opportunity for people to introduce reality to the discussion. You know, it wasn't all one-sided. You mentioned Kyoto before. Everybody knew that the Kyoto Agreement that the Clinton/Gore administration had signed on global warming was not a viable agreement and they had no intention of submitting it to the U.S. Senate because they knew the Senate would reject it. So even though the Democrats took global warming more seriously than the Republicans, they didn't take it seriously enough. Then there was the problem with terrorism: Who was taking it seriously? Were the Democrats taking it seriously? More seriously than the Republicans? I didn't see much evidence to that effect.

Richard Clarke, who served as the terrorist czar for the Clinton and Bush administrations, seems to blame everybody.

I thought Saddam Hussein was going to be a serious threat sooner rather than later, and that some action had to be taken. I didn't think through the strategic consequences of this and the Bush administration certainly didn't think it through either.

Everybody needs to be blamed because they all failed on this front. The issue then became how well were we preparing ourselves against terrorist threats after 9/11. And the Bush administration and Congress created this Homeland Security monstrosity, which has just not been able to function. And everybody associated with it knows that it is a dysfunctional organization. The biggest threat to our country really is future terrorist attacks and we are not much better off today in being able to respond and recover to major terrorist attacks then we were on 9/11. That's because that department, mainly because of Bush but also because of Congress, is a weakling.

And at the same time, the failure of leadership by Bush first, but the Democrats second, was the decline of America's economic strength. Everybody who understands foreign policy and national security policy will tell you that our economy is the underlying basis of our national security and our military power. Everybody agrees on that. And yet, for eight years, we watched this dissipate with hardly anybody raising his voice, Democrat or Republican. And now we're in a position where the economy has been severely damaged and it will have national security implications. Bush tries to portray himself as the national security president. But in the end he will have done more to weaken our national security by his economic policy than any other thing that he's done. We'll recover from Iraq. Things are better there. It won't come out a mess. And if we don't get deeper in Afghanistan and look for a way to negotiate our way out, we'll recover from Afghanistan. But it's much harder to recover from the economic blows we have dealt ourselves because that's the basis of everything else.

We've had two secretaries of state in the Bush administration, Powell and now Rice. How would you judge the two of them?

I would say Powell was almost totally restricted by Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and not allowed to conduct the diplomacy that he advocated. All he was advocating was what I would regard as common-sense diplomacy. That is, "Let's combine power, threats, and warnings with some carrots and see how the other side responds."At a minimum, that's the way to keep our allies on our side. Powell was just talking common sense but wasn't allowed to do it. They shut him down. In Condi's case, Bush did give her more leeway and she was able to do a number of the things that she and others opposed Powell doing. But by that time, U.S. credibility had been so reduced that she never could get much traction on many of these fronts.

What about the way the administration dealt with big powers like China and Russia as well as our European allies?

I believe that from the time of President Harry Truman and Secretaries of State George Marshall and Dean Acheson, a centerpiece of U.S. policy was to lock in relations with our major allies in Western Europe and Japan--that was absolutely crucial to winning the Cold War. To me, those relations are absolutely crucial today. Those countries represent two-thirds of the world's economy and it's a good deal of the world's military, economic, and diplomatic capabilities. And we've frittered these away.

Now, Bush did not do badly in relations with China. Everyone feels that relations with China are basically on a good course. So Bush gets good grades there. With Russia, they looked good initially but in the end, Russian leader Vladimir Putin judged Bush as a pushover and has since exercised Russian muscle and disregarded American interests and power in Europe. So, that relationship is very touchy at this point.

There's a big agenda for Mr. Obama when he takes office.

It's much too big an agenda for even the greatest president. There are too many major problems out there to solve. The president is going to have to build a policy of triage because there are a dozen or more major problems out there that need solving and there are constituencies for every one of them. You have all of these things and they are all important, but they are not all centrally important. To me, the centrally important ones are successful withdrawals from Iraq, leaving behind some kind of political settlement and stability and a small residual force, and a negotiating process on Afghanistan that limits future deepening involvements in that country and begins to point a way out. No outside power has ever conquered Afghanistan and we won't be the first. The British managed to deal with it through divide and conquer in the nineteenth century. If we're going to manage we're going to have to try the same approach. Those have to be the two priorities. Those are two wars. And getting out of those two wars with some success and credibility will be instrumental in reestablishing American power for dealing with all the other issues around the world.

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