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WSJ Correspondent on Bush’s Foreign Policymaking

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Carla Anne Robbins, Adjunct Senior Fellow
May 21, 2003

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Carla Anne Robbins, diplomatic correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, says her impression is that the foreign policy discussions at the highest levels of the administration are relatively civil exchanges. But that’s not always the case lower in the hierarchy. “Where the tensions exist are on the second level down,” she says, “and that’s where you hear about the bitter infighting and the very poor communication” between various government agencies.

Robbins also says that, despite sharp intra-administration differences on North Korea, a consensus has emerged to pursue negotiations. And she says the administration seems intrigued by the possibility of dealing with Iran.

She was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on May 21, 2003.

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How does the Bush administration make its views known on national security and foreign policy issues?

With great reluctance. Of all the administrations that I’ve covered, this administration has the most disciplined people. It starts from the White House at the very top. The president has made very clear to everyone, both publicly and privately, that he does not tolerate leaks. You would think that an administration, particularly [one] at mid-term and with many problems out there to deal with, would loosen up by this point. But they haven’t loosened up, and every time you say to them, “You have to make a better case to the public about why you’re doing what you’re doing,” whether it’s in Iraq or pulling out of treaties or giving the backhand to the French, they basically point to the polls and say, “We don’t need to.”

How much do political advisers get involved in foreign policymaking?

One of the games around town right now is to look for [President Bush's senior political adviser Karl] Rove’s fingerprints on everything. Certainly as the presidential election gets closer, we’ll see them more. This is an administration that said it wasn’t going to be driven by polling, but it is just as poll-driven as any other administration. But it’s hard to see the specific fingerprints of the political side, except on something like the Middle East peace process. But right now that thinking is sort of counterintuitive, even on the Middle East peace process. We all thought that because of his own instincts and the pressures from the right-wing pro-Israeli lobbyists that Bush would not get too involved. But the president in the last few days seems to be hooking his own prestige to the Middle East, much to my surprise.

Is Bush in fact thinking of going to the Middle East?

It looks like he’ll tack on some stop in the Middle East at the end of his trip to Europe early in June, and the betting is that he would go to Qatar or Kuwait, mostly as a thank you [gesture to those countries] for participation in the Iraq war. The idea of turning this trip into a chance to bring [new Palestinian Prime Minister] Abu Mazen and [Israeli Prime Minster Ariel] Sharon together has been bubbling up only in the last few days.

Who is the president’s primary foreign policy adviser? Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, or National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice? How do you figure out this puzzle?

It’s more of a black box than anything else, much more so than in previous administrations. But the feeling one has is that the inner circle on national security issues is Condoleezza Rice and the vice president with the president. And you have the second circle, which is the National Security Council of course. Obviously Rumsfeld’s extremely powerful, and very controlling; someone I was talking to today said that Iraq was Rumsfeld’s oyster. It’s one he may end up seeing as something else, but he has complete control over what’s happening in Iraq right now.

Was the “oyster” comment a compliment?

It was said sardonically. He has complete control over it, if anyone has any control over Iraq. I think that they have serious, healthy discussions among the top power ministries and that Rumsfeld and Powell and Condi Rice all sit down together and, surprisingly, debate everything from Korea to whether to go to the U.N. on Iraq, and all of that. I would say that at the very top, it’s probably done reasonably amicably. Where the tensions exist are on the second level down, and that’s where you hear about the bitter infighting and the very poor communication between the different [agencies].

On a couple of key issues—Iran and North Korea—policy seems to fluctuate regularly. Are the policies clear?

On Korea, I think there is consensus for the first time in quite a while. We’re going to continue with some multilateral negotiations if the Chinese are willing to continue to champion them.

Now, the doves or the moderates, mainly in the State Department, argue that there’s a real possibility of negotiating some way to get the [nuclear] genie back into the bottle. Powell himself has drawn the line and said very clearly: back in the bottle does not mean returning to the [1994] Agreed Framework. They’re not going to allow North Korea to keep any of the means of production for nuclear weapons on Korean soil. So it’s going to be a different agreement, but the moderates or the doves or the State Department or however you want to describe them, can sign on to it that way.

The hawks are willing to go to another [negotiating session] because they think the North Koreans will continue to misbehave—and that’s the best way to make [the hawks’] case for squeezing Pyongyang harder, especially with the Chinese. What the hawks really want to do is squeeze North Korea. They want to interdict their sales of weapons of mass destruction and cut off their money from [sales of] heroin. They think if we get really lucky, the North Koreans will annoy the Chinese so much that we’ll be able to [impose these kinds of punitive measures] through the Security Council. Maybe the Chinese will even cut off North Korea’s oil. The hawks don’t make any secret of their hope that if they squeeze the North Koreans hard enough, this very brutal regime will fall.

That’s not to minimize the deep differences between these two camps. If you look at the way the two sides interpreted the [April 2003 trilateral] meeting in Beijing [of U.S., North Korean, and Chinese diplomats], they even disagree on the translation of the language. They agree that the meeting actually took place, they agree certain things were said, but [disagree about] the wonderful moment when the Korean negotiator pulled [James A.] Kelly [assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs] aside and [according to the hawk account] said to him, “You know, we have nuclear weapons, we can use them, we can export them, we can test them, and it’s up to you.” The doves translation was, “Oh, he didn’t say ’export,’ he said ’transfer.’ He didn’t say ’test,’ he said ’demonstrate.’”

They all then came together and decided they could back another meeting. That’s what the consensus is right now, and it’s a very limited consensus, but the fact that the North Koreans are behaving in such an apparently irrational way makes it easier for that consensus to exist for a while.

Let’s talk about Iran.

The administration is making a very big push on this question of what it alleges as Iran’s defiance of the IAEA [the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency]. The administration is waiting for a report from the IAEA in mid-June, and that’s a very big issue on counter-proliferation.

What about Iran’s alleged links to al-Qaeda?

What I detect from the White House is that there are some members of the administration who are intrigued by the potential for internal change in Iran [but] very uncertain about how to deal with Iran. Things didn’t turn out badly with Iran over Afghanistan, despite some panicked predictions. There are even greater concerns about Iraq. We’re told there were intercepted conversations of al-Qaeda operatives [in Iran], and there are the ongoing charges that Iran is mucking around with the Shiites in Iraq. At the same time, I heard one hawk recently argue that moderate Shiites in Iraq could actually lead to changes in Iran.

What lessons has the administration learned since the Iraq crisis began to loom last year and through the war? There seems to be more discussion with other nations, and today’s Security Council resolution lifting sanctions on Iraq is a kind of invitation to other countries to participate. Is there now a recognition that this administration has been too unilateral?

No, I don’t think so at all. I don’t detect that. I think [the administration officials’] idea was that they were extremely multilateral in this war, but it’s just a different sort of multilateralism: “We had the Poles, the Romanians, the Spaniards, the Italians, and the Australians, and [critics were] too hung up on the ideas of Security Council, Paris, and Berlin.”

And I don’t think they’ve come away from it chastened, desiring to rush back to embrace the Security Council for major issues. They would say that they never rejected the Security Council altogether, because the next step on Korea, for example, is to go to the Security Council for a statement and ultimately—if they want to do this interdiction strategy that they talk about—they would much rather have it legitimized through the U.N. Security Council because it would make boarding ships much easier.

It’s not that [U.S. officials have] completely written off [the United Nations], but I don’t think that they feel that they took a wrong step on Iraq. [Still] the administration needs to have the sanctions lifted, and people seem to be more willing to compromise than they were before. They’re not compromising on the fundamentals on most of these things. Yes, they’ll let the U.N. come in and do relief stuff, but they’re not letting [Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans] Blix back in to look for WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. And they continue to be resistant to that, they want to do the hunt themselves, and themselves means the Pentagon and only the Pentagon. NATO voted today to support the Poles if the Poles send peacekeepers into Iraq to provide logistical support, so they’re sort of bringing NATO in, but once again it’s a very ancillary role.

What do you expect will come out of the president’s trip to Europe early next month?

It is no accident that Bush is going to Poland. And he’s going to Russia and he’s going to the G-8 [Group of Eight] meeting, and he may be going to the [Persian] Gulf [region]. And I don’t think they’re going to refuse to shake people’s hands at the G-8 meeting or be completely obnoxious about it, but there’s no question that they are furious with the French and there is no question that they are slightly less furious with the Germans because in many ways their hope, their strategy, is to get the Germans to come over to our side, thereby further isolating the French. And they tried to let [Russian President Vladimir] Putin off the hook because he was led astray by bad influences—that’s the French.

The French seem to be going out of their way to try to make amends and obviously Paris supports the Security Council resolution.

The impression I get from [the administration] is they say that they’re being magnanimous in victory, but I don’t see an enormous amount of magnanimity.

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