Michael Mandelbaum, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says it is still too soon to evaluate the Bush administrations foreign policy. But he agrees with the need to take varied approaches to countries such as Iraq, North Korea, and Iran, which make up President Bushs axis of evil. Mandelbaum, who is also the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the School of Advanced International Studies of The Johns Hopkins University, says that since foreign policy deals with different countries in different circumstances, a foolish consistency can be the hobgoblin of a failed foreign policy. Mandelbaum is the author of The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century (Public Affairs, 2002).
The interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, took place on December 30, 2002.
Q. As 2002 comes to an end, the United States seems to have a problem dealing with North Korea and Iraq. The United States seems to be willing to use diplomacy to deal with North Koreas nuclear weapons program, but is readying for war to prevent Iraq from pursuing weapons of mass destruction. How do you see this paradox unfolding?
A. I think it is worth noting that this general problemthat is, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weaponshas been at the top of the Bush administrations agenda from the very beginning. Indeed, I would say that the most controversial initiatives of the Bush administration have all involved addressing this problem.
First, there was the decision to abrogate the anti-ballistic missile treaty, and proceed to construct a system of ballistic missile defenses. Second, there was the presidents pronouncement in the last State of the Union address of the axis of evil, involving North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. What they have in common is radically anti-Western, anti-American policies, and a desire, at least as the administration sees it, to obtain nuclear weapons. Third, the administration issued a new national security doctrine suggesting that the United States reserves the right to launch a preventive attack on countries in the process of acquiring those weapons. So, this has been, in some ways, the centerpiece of the administrations foreign policy. And it focuses on the three countries that the president designated as comprising the axis of evil. But I think it has also been clear from the beginning that the administration would approach these three countries somewhat differently because of the differing circumstances surrounding their foreign policies and their programs to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Q. Lets deal with them one by one. First, Iraq.
A. For Iraq, the administration has relied on the policy of confrontation and the threat of military force. Here, it is worth making two points. First, this policy has been successful thus far in the sense that when the Bush administration came to office, the world was paying no attention to Iraq. The United Nations inspectors had been evicted in 1998 and the United States had not been able to get them back into the country. The Bush administration has succeeded in placing this issue squarely at the top of the international agenda and has also succeeded in reintroducing the United Nations inspectors into Iraq.
Q. Let me stop you for a moment. Kenneth Pollack, who favors a tough policy toward Iraq in his new book The Threatening Storm, says the Clinton administration largely ignored Iraq in its last years in office. Do you agree with that?
A. There is no doubt that the Clinton administration, after 1998 when the inspectors were evicted and the administration replied by bombing for a few days, and nothing more, did not wish to deal directly, publicly, and in high profile with Iraq. Its clear that the priorities of the Bush administration are very different. But I think it is also important to note, and this is the second point, that the Bush administration has been carrying out foreign policy under the influence of an event that transpired after it took office, namely, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And those terrorist attacks had the effect not only of making the administration take the potential threat from Saddam Hussein more seriously but also of making the country more willing to contemplate serious military operations against Iraq on the theory that it is better to be safe than sorry. The attacks of September 11 persuaded many Americans that what might seem to be obscure or distant potential threats can very quickly materialize and it therefore makes sense to attend to them even before they become urgent.
Q. Lets go on to North Korea.
A. North Korea is a case in which the Bush administration seems to be following a policy of containment. This is similar to the policy the Clinton administration followed with one important difference. The Clinton administration was prepared to offer incentives to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
Q. But wasnt the Clinton administration talking about going to war in 1994 before this agreement was reached?
A. The Clinton administration apparently was serious about preparing for war and, had it not achieved an agreement in 1994, it might well have done so. So this was one case where it seems in retrospect to be more hawkish than the Bush administration. Whether the United States would have launched a military operation, if the accord had not been achieved, obviously we dont know. But certainly some people involved at the time, including William Perry, the defense secretary, thought the chances of conflict over the North Korean nuclear weapons program were more than trivial.
But the Bush policy differs from the Clinton policies in 1994 in the sense that the Clinton administration was prepared to offer incentives in exchange for a North Korean commitment to freeze programs with the potential for nuclear weapons. The Bush administration has pulled back from that policy because the North Koreans have apparently not kept their end of the bargain. So, once again, the Bush administration has a different policy from the post-1994 Clinton policy, but it is also confronting different circumstances.
Q. Lastly, we have Iran which doesnt get much attention at all.
A. In Iran, unlike North Korea or Iraq, there is visible substantial opposition to the regime. That opposition apparently represents the vast majority of the country, at least if we can judge by how the country voted in the last two presidential elections. Moreover, this opposition seems to be democratically inclined. So the hope is that one way or the other, the clerical regime of the mullahs will be replaced by a much more liberal, pluralistic, open regime with which the United States and the international community will be able to deal constructively on the subject of nuclear weapons. Now there are two assumptions embedded in that policy. One is that public opinion will be mobilized in such a way as to change the regime, which is armed and prepared to defend itself. The other is that when and if regime change does come, the question of Iranian nuclear weapons will be easier to deal with.
Q. What bothers many people is that the administration has launched a campaign against Iraq on the assumption that Iraq has the potential to create nuclear weapons and is prepared to go to war. But it has chosen a more conciliatory approach to North Korea, which has acknowledged that it has a nuclear weapons program. Is this a viable policy over time?
A. I think the bottom line is whether the policy is effective. And since foreign policy deals with different countries in different circumstances, a foolish consistency can be the hobgoblin of a failed foreign policy. So the question is not whether the policy is consistent but whether it has a chance of success. For Iraq, the administration makes two points. First, the Iraqi declaration on its weapons of mass destruction, issued in early December, is on the face of it inaccurate. There were many things that were not adequately accounted for. And because of those inadequacies, it has to be assumed that Iraq retains weapons of mass destruction, at least chemical and biological ones, if not nuclear.
The second point the administration makes is to distinguish between Iraq and North Korea. The Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein has a history of using these weapons and behaving recklessly and actually attacking its neighbors in a way that Iran and North Korea have not. And therefore the Bush administration argues that Iraq is in fact more dangerous. Its also the case that toward North Korea, the United States has been practicing deterrence for more than 50 years. And so far that deterrence has succeeded. That has not been the case with Iraq.
So I think the arguments in favor of different policies toward North Korea and Iraq come down to different circumstances and different histories. Whether that differentiation will prove to be politically viable, of course, we do not know. I dont think there will be many Americans who will be saying if we go to war with Iraq we also have to go to war with North Korea.
Q. How would you grade the Bush administration after two years?
A. After two years, any administration has to receive an incomplete. But I do think that the administration has succeeded in getting its issues to the top of the international agenda. It has certainly made some headway in the case of Iraq, although final returns are not yet in. And I think the administration gets a passing grade on the war against terrorism. Although the terrorist threat has clearly not endedand in some sense it will never endit was an important achievement to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and to deprive al-Qaeda of its base. Al-Qaeda plainly still exists but it doesnt have the same resources it had before September 11. Moreover, because of the war against terrorism it has to spend a good deal of time evading American military power, concealing itself. The time it spends on defense is time it cannot use to plan attacks. So although we are certainly not out of the woods, I think that some progress has been made in the war on terror.
Q. The administration has been criticized for not working well with its allies. Is that a fair criticism?
A. I think the Bush administration believes that on Iraq, the only way to get the kind of multilateral action that it thinks is necessary is to threaten to act unilaterally. And so far, that tactic seems to be working. The Security Council has passed a resolution. You hear murmurs of cooperation from governments that previously expressed hostility to the idea of military operations against Iraq.