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Gelb: Foreign Policy Likely to Be Major Topic in 2004 Campaign

Interviewee: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 8, 2004

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Leslie H. Gelb, who headed the Council on Foreign Relations for 10 years until he retired last year, predicts that the November elections will focus on U.S. foreign policy issues like no race has since Richard M. Nixon won re-election over Senator George S. McGovern in 1972. Gelb says the issues will be fought over unilateralism in foreign policy versus cooperation with other countries. He says that, if he were to endorse a candidate this year, it would be Democrat John Kerry.

On Iraq, Gelb repeats his contention that only a confederated state can hold the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites together. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on March 8, 2004.


How important will foreign policy be in the expected Kerry-Bush campaign?

I think for the first time in over three decades, since the race between George McGovern and Richard Nixon in 1972, we are likely to have a major foreign policy, national security debate in a presidential election.

Nixon, a Republican, was running for re-election against McGovern, a liberal Democratic senator from South Dakota. Nixon won in a landslide. What were the issues?

In 1972, the debate took off from Vietnam, but really was about America’s role in the world. The Vietnam part of it was quite clear. McGovern said “get out, and get out as quickly as possible.” Nixon was saying “you could only get out in a negotiated settlement ’with honor.’” As far as the world was concerned, McGovern was saying that the United States had conducted a foreign policy that was overly dominated by a sense of a communist threat: While the Soviet Union was a problem, it wasn’t an omnipresent superior power that was likely to overwhelm us, and every time a conflict broke out in some country around the world, it didn’t mean that our national interests were engaged.

Richard Nixon countered that it was still a very dangerous world, that the communist threat, though perhaps limited to the Soviet Union rather than both the Soviets and the Chinese, was still very dangerous and had to remain the focus of U.S. foreign policy.

There were the makings of a real debate between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980, but the debate never really came to the forefront because it was all overwhelmed by Iran and Carter’s mishandling of the Iran situation, which hurt him deeply.

Carter and Reagan had profoundly different views on how to manage the world, and it is unfortunate that the issue wasn’t joined. Even now, it is going to be hard to get to the substance of it because of all the name-calling. Democrats are going to accuse Bush of unilateralism and arrogance, and the Bush people will accuse Kerry of being weak on terrorism. You will have to break through those slimy slogans to get to the substance. A lot will depend on how the press treats this. The press, for nearly 20 years now, has seemed much more interested in the slime than in the substance. It doesn’t cover the substance, so it doesn’t give the candidates much incentive to focus on the substance.

What do you think the issue will be this year?

Unilateralism versus cooperation with other countries. It is a real issue. Basically, President Bush and his key advisers have come to the view that cooperation with other countries involves compromise, and compromise means selling out important American interests. They haven’t been interested in compromising or cooperating. And by and large we have been isolated on issue after issue because of that. John Kerry will make this a major issue. He will say that anti-Americanism has reached such proportions in countries around the world that the leaders in those countries will find it politically difficult to cooperate with us.

What are the positive aspects of the administration’s approach?

I think the best thing about what President Bush brought to American national security policy was an overall sense of toughness. That was lacking in the Clinton administration. I don’t think countries around the world feared the United States under Clinton. I don’t think terrorists much feared the United States, or countries that might support terrorists feared the United States. They didn’t see the necessary kind of resolve and toughness in Clinton and his key advisers.

Bush changed that. I think [terrorists and their supporters] are afraid of Bush. But they’ve got to be more than afraid of him. They’ve got to fear that we can bring the influence and power of other states to bear against them as well, because I think they understand now that we can’t defeat them by military force alone, and it’s not clear to me that that message has really gotten through at the level of action for the Bush people.

So this is an advantage for Kerry?

I think it is an advantage with some Americans. This election is going to be very, very tight. I think they each start out with roughly 45 percent of the vote. Bush is going to try to convince the remainder that Kerry is not tough enough, that he is a typically weak Democratic liberal, and he won’t be able to stand up to the terrorists. Kerry will have to convince the American public or enough of them that Bush is not winning the war against terrorism with toughness alone; that he, Kerry, will be tough, but that he will bring the dimension of international cooperation to bear as well.

Do you see some signs that the Bush administration seems to recognize this and in recent months has been trying harder to attract international cooperation?

Yes, I think that’s so, particularly in Iraq. After initially rejecting U.N. involvement, the Bush administration a few months ago was practically begging for it, in terms of having the United Nations run the political side of the situation in Iraq, and the elections in particular. In Afghanistan, administration officials want more participation by non-American military forces, so they were more conciliatory on that front. But this has been long in coming and it is still not very substantial.

Given the chance, will other countries cooperate with the United States?

Yes. There is a much better chance they would cooperate if we try to fashion a policy together with them. If we say it is “my way or the highway,” they won’t do it. Cooperation means taking some of their views on how to handle these situations, and they are much less inclined to lead with force than we are. I don’t think they would dismiss force, and I don’t think they mind the fact that the United States is there playing “bad cop.” But you have to unify the policy. We didn’t do badly with that approach in Iran. It was a breakthrough. The Europeans worked out a deal with the Iranians to open up some of their [disputed nuclear] facilities at least to international inspection. I think that behind [Tehran’s concessions] was the concern in Iran of U.S. military force. But the lead was political, economic, and diplomatic.

Would you say the same about the interplay with North Korea and its nuclear program?

I think the battle is still going on there between the Bush administration on the one hand and our friends on the other— China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia [which are participating in talks with North Korea and the United States to resolve the dispute]. They still want more of a diplomatic lead than we do, and they are willing to have a different element of timing in what they expect the North Koreans to deliver and when. We’re still taking a tougher position on that. I think in the end, if there is to be any settlement there, it will have to be a diplomatic settlement because the South Koreans above all don’t want any chance of military conflict.

Administration officials seem to recognize that now.

I do think they recognize it now. They’ve backed off and are participating in the diplomacy. But there is still a difference on how conciliatory to be in terms of timing and “goodies” for the North between us on the one side and our friends and allies on the other.

Why hasn’t “what happened to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction” been more of a political factor so far?

It is hard to figure out, because the evidence seems pretty clear that, even though people in the administration believed that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, they did not have the hard evidence to back that up and knew they did not have the hard evidence. Nevertheless, they spoke publicly as if they knew Saddam had all the stuff, and as if it were a matter of fact. You would guess that the public by now would be angered, but I think that as the debate has played out, people have been more content with the idea of having gotten rid of Saddam than they were angry at being duped over why we did it.

If in fact the administration can establish an Iraqi government that seems capable of running the country after the United States returns sovereignty at the end of June, how important will that be for Bush?

I hope he can put together a political solution in Iraq, a constitution, elections, and cooperation among the different ethnic groups. I don’t think he will be able to do it. If he does do it, and things are relatively quiet in Iraq between now and the election, there is no doubt it will help him in the campaign.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani gave in on the issues that had been holding up the signing of the interim constitution.

But I see continuing major conflicts of interest among the three ethnic/religious groups, and an unwillingness to roll the dice on their basic interests and values in terms of giving power to any one of the other groups. I just don’t think the Kurds will turn over the running of their three provinces to any Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Nor do I think the Sunnis are going to accept a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad on issues of major concern to them. They don’t have the kind of trust and confidence in each other that is absolutely necessary for the functioning of a democracy. You’ve got to believe that whoever holds power is not going to take your basic interests and rights away. That belief is not widely held or shared in Iraqi society.

They may fashion compromises like [the agreement on the interim constitution] from time to time, but I think underlying it there are deep conflicts of interest that can be resolved only by having a highly confederal Iraqi state: a central government in Baghdad with limited powers— essentially common defense, a sharing of finances— with the three ethnic/religious groups essentially running affairs in their own areas.

If the Democrats win the presidential election, what would they do in Iraq?

I don’t think they know. I don’t think they have had to confront the issue of what, exactly, their policy would be. They basically have been attacking the Bush approach, saying— and this criticism is absolutely justified— that the Bush administration was not prepared to deal with the postwar situation in Iraq, and even now it always seems to be behind the power curve. The administration seems surprised by what’s going on and unprepared.

Who’s advising Kerry on Iraq policy?

I don’t think he has any Iraq experts advising him. He has a foreign-policy team that is too heavily centered on former Clinton administration officials. There is Sandy Berger, the former national security adviser; Warren Christopher, Clinton’s first secretary of state; Bill Perry, a defense secretary in the Clinton administration. I think it is important to broaden that group, to include some people from Congress in it. The Clinton team did not exit power with the greatest reputation in the management of foreign affairs. While it did some things quite well, its overall reputation in Washington and around the world wasn’t all that hot.

The brunt of this interview suggests to me that you are a Kerry supporter. Is that right?

I was asked that on C-Span yesterday. I was really surprised by the question. I said that for the first time since 1970, when I supported [former Maine Senator Edmund S.] Muskie for the Democratic nomination, I am actually considering supporting a candidate. In between, I didn’t support anyone and I didn’t much care. If I do [support a candidate in 2004], I will support Kerry.