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Lindsay: Bush Sees Israeli-Palestinian Progress as Way to Improve European and Mideast Ties

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 3, 2005

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James M. Lindsay, the Council’s director of studies, says that President Bush used his February 2 State of the Union address to stress the importance of making progress between Israel and the Palestinians in part because “it helps the United States with the Europeans, who have put a premium on making progress between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Lindsay, an expert on the interplay of U.S. domestic and foreign policies, says he was also struck by the emphasis Bush put on spurring Egypt and Saudi Arabia to promote democratic reform. “In many ways, the two sentences about Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the most remarkable parts of the entire speech, because the president used the high visibility of the State of the Union address to call on two of America’s allies to become more democratic,” he says.

A Council vice president and the Maurice R. Greenberg chair, Lindsay was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org, on February 3, 2005.


How did the president do in the State of the Union speech?

The president’s delivery of the speech seemed to go very well. He gave a reasonably strong speech and, like most State of the Union addresses, it covered an awful lot of terrain.

Let’s focus on the foreign policy part of the speech. He talked about the Israeli-Palestinian situation and mentioned that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was going to Israel and the West Bank next week. And he talked about $350 million in aid to the Palestinians. Do you think the administration truly wants to do something on this issue?

It’s notable that the first substantive issue in foreign policy the president talked about was the Israeli-Palestinian one. And I think that signals where the administration is right now. It sees Israel-Palestine as a major issue it wants to handle in its second term, not just because of its importance in and of itself, but because it’s linked to a lot of other issues in which the administration is interested. Obviously, it helps the United States with the Europeans, who have put a premium on making progress between Israel and the Palestinians. It also helps the Israelis. Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon would like to move forward on leaving Gaza. It has the potential of helping the administration more broadly in the Arab world and in Muslim-majority countries. And from the administration’s point of view, as a result of [Yasir] Arafat’s death, they now see an opportunity where they may be able to actually make progress.

Bush was moved emotionally and helped politically by the Iraqi elections on Sunday. When you and I talked after the U.S. presidential election, you said Iraq would be the key issue, with much depending on how the January 30 elections were handled. They seemed to have gone pretty well. Where do we go now with Iraq?

From the administration’s vantage point, the elections put a lot of wind back in their sails. There was a lot of favorable media coverage. There was the Iraqi woman [Safia Taleb al-Suhail, in the audience] at the State of the Union address, whom the president introduced and who very touchingly embraced the mother [Janet Norwood] of a dead American Marine.

I think it’s a bit premature to start celebrating, because what we saw in the election was a strong turnout among Shiites and Kurds. But we knew going in that the Kurds and the Shiites were going to vote, and vote in large numbers. What is increasingly becoming clear is what everyone feared. A Sunni boycott of the elections, in fact, did take place. That raises problems going down the road, because the election wasn’t a destination, it was a mile marker in a much longer journey to the creation of a draft constitution, which will then be voted on in October, to be followed by elections for a permanent Iraqi government in December.

It’s going to be very difficult to craft that constitution and to make it legitimate and functional in the Iraqi context if you can’t get a buy-in of Iraqi Sunnis. That’s going to be the next big challenge for the administration, and, of course, for the Kurds and the Shiites in Iraq. The strategic decision that has to be made is, do you make concessions to bring the Sunnis on board, or do you simply try to crush their opposition? And there is, I think, going to be a debate amongst Iraqis as to which way to proceed.

Most of the Shiite leaders seem to be talking about making a deal with the Sunnis, but the Sunnis, in fact, may be tough to make a deal with. They might decide not to participate.

As we all know in life, the fact that you want to make a deal does not mean you can make a deal. It takes two parties. And here it’s actually more complicated, because we talk about the Shiites as if they’re a monolithic group and we talk about the Sunnis as if they’re a monolithic group, but there are divisions and factions. In many of the Sunni regions, what many of the leaders have to worry about is the very rough insurgent groups, and the question: If you do strike a deal with the Shiites and the Kurds, are you jeopardizing your life or the life of your family?

What we’ve heard so far from some of the more prominent Sunni groups is that any deal would have to be contingent on some clear plan for American withdrawal or troop reduction. It’s not clear that is going to happen. The president, in the State of the Union address, took off the table the question of whether we’re going to have an exit date.

This doesn’t mean it can’t be finessed. What the Sunni groups have going for them in these negotiations- and it is not lost on the Shiites or the Kurds- is their ability to derail the constitution at the national referendum stage in October. Under the rules that were drawn up, the constitution can be blocked if two-thirds of the voters in three provinces oppose it. Since the Sunnis are a majority in three of the provinces, their leverage is to say, “If you don’t give us what we want or some of what we want, we will do what we didn’t do in January- we’ll turn out and vote the constitution down.”

Bush called on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to take the lead in helping democracy advance. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is having another election this year in which he probably will be the only real candidate. And in Saudi Arabia, there really are no elections, except at the municipal level. Was this just an idealistic flourish?

In many ways, the two sentences about Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the most remarkable parts of the entire speech, because the president used the high visibility of the State of the Union address to call on two of America’s allies to become more democratic. The call to Egypt is notable, given that the Egyptians are going to have elections later this year and the expectation is that Mr. Mubarak will run yet again and win by an overwhelming margin yet again.

It’s hard for me to think of a previous presidential speech in which a president singled out a close ally like that and urged them to embrace democracy. What’s also remarkable is that, even for George Bush, this was among his most pointed comments on this topic. The trajectory of the president’s comments on this issue has gone from broad generalities over the last two years to, now, being very specific. It would be interesting to know what the reaction is in Egypt, particularly in the office of President Mubarak.

In the president’s first State of the Union speech, Iran was one of the “axis of evil” countries. He wasn’t that melodramatic in this speech, but he did make a pitch for a regime change.

Nothing in the speech indicates that the president has changed his mind about the government in Tehran. The president’s remark back in 2002, the“axis of evil” speech, clearly stated how he views the ayatollahs. But the political context has changed. The incentive to lay out a stark indictment of the sins of the regime in Tehran isn’t there. The administration knows the Europeans are trying to work the diplomatic track. There seems to be a sense in the administration that they don’t want to say anything that would derail that effort, not that they would expect that effort to succeed but rather, when it fails, they don’t want to be blamed for having sabotaged it. And so the president’s comments about Iran last night were restrained, but I don’t think he left a doubt in anyone’s mind that Washington would like a very different sort of government in Tehran.

He was tough on Syria.

Very tough on Syria, and, clearly, this is part of the war of words between Washington and Damascus. You have the Syrian Accountability [and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration] Act the president referred to, which passed back in 2003. This doesn’t necessarily signal that Syria is next up in terms of the use of military force, but the administration clearly wants Syria to change its policies. Part of the Syrian Accountability Act is that there are sanctions that can be imposed, which the administration has threatened to use and which have some potential cost to the Syrians. One of the big questions, which is hard to judge from the outside because we don’t have access to the intelligence, is to what extent Damascus is cooperating, facilitating, enabling the insurgency in Iraq. It’s clearly part of the claims made by the administration publicly, but it’s necessary to know in order to assess the extent to which the Syrians are responsible for the insurgency in Iraq.

North Korea got just a passing mention. He talked of the need to keep the six-party talks going.

That’s partly because the administration doesn’t have a policy on North Korea other than to pursue the six-party talks [on North Korea’s nuclear program, with North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States]. The administration is stuck between a rock and a hard place. They’re not really inclined to want to make a deal because they don’t trust the North Koreans, but they don’t want to use military force because they know how costly that can be. I don’t think they see themselves as having a good reason to want to focus people’s attention on a problem they have found quite difficult to handle.

The president is going to Europe in a couple of weeks, but he said nothing in the speech directly about Europe. As you pointed out, the Europeans would like what he said about the Middle East. Are we still in a kind of cold war with France and Germany, or is he waiting to say something closer to the time he is there?

Are we still in a deep freeze with our traditional allies in Europe? The answer is largely yes. Everyone right now sees it is in his interest to make nice. It is not clear, however, that the Europeans are persuaded that the president will be willing to go halfway. It’s not clear that Washington expects the Europeans to come halfway. But right now everyone is agreeing to be agreeable.

A couple of things are going to happen in the next several weeks, even before the president goes. We’re going to have Dr. Rice on her trip, and she’s scheduled to make a major address, we’re told, in Paris, in which she is going to speak to issues on American foreign policy. That would be a real signal. And then we will have the president’s trip. I would expect the president’s trip to have a lot of good visuals and people saying the right things. But there is an underlying structural problem, which is that on the issues that matter the most to Europeans- the International Criminal Court, [the] Kyoto [Protocol], or even the [strength of the] dollar- the administration isn’t going to offer them anything.

Given that, the only potential for progress is on the issue of Israel-Palestine. So even though the president wasn’t speaking directly about United States-European relations, when he talks about what he wants to do on Israel-Palestine, seeking a two-state solution, then he’s really also talking to the Europeans. That’s an issue that is being tracked quite closely there. And that’s the one issue where there seems to be a convergence of desires, if not a convergence of motives.

Some criticized Bush for saying little about development aid or other Third-World issues.

Here’s where the president’s speech has the potential to turn back on itself. The first half of the speech is about domestic politics. It’s about the initiative to revamp Social Security. Clearly, if we do go down a path of creating personal accounts, we’re going to have to find some way to pay the transition costs for the current system to the new one. We’re talking trillions of dollars.

On top of that, the president and most economists are well aware that the dollar has weakened, and it’s weakened in part because our fiscal house is not as orderly as it should be, which is why the president made the vow last night that his administration will halve the deficit by 2009. Now, when you actually start to look at the numbers, this becomes a very daunting task because, for all intents and purposes, 85 percent of federal spending is off-limits.

How does that get us back to issues of Third-World poverty? When the president talks about spending more money on such issues, he has the problem that he might not be able to deliver. Because if you say to a member of Congress, “We have a hundred bucks left, and we can either spend it on putting a new sewer system in Des Moines or on providing aid to people overseas,” generally speaking, Congress is going to vote for sewers in Des Moines.

In the past, the president’s talked about upping spending on foreign aid, and he has, but not as much as he promised because Congress is reluctant, given all the other claims on the federal budget, to spend that money. Indeed, one of the things that may end up happening with the proposed $350 million for the Palestinians is that it will take money away from other programs.