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Lindsay: 'Pessimistically Optimistic' on Israel-Palestine, Says Rumsfeld Likely to Hang On

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
December 21, 2004


Asked to consider the difficult foreign policy issues in the year ahead, James M. Lindsay, the Council’s director of studies, began with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although he sees there is “an opening for progress” in the Middle East caused by Yasir Arafat’s death, he cautions that optimism in the past has tended to backfire. He is “pessimistically optimistic,” he says.

In other matters, Lindsay says he believes the Iraqi elections will take place at the end of January, but there are so many problems ahead that a successful election is only a “milestone.” “There are tremendous challenges in Iraq as we go ahead,” he says.

He holds little optimism about the chances for reconciling Paris and Washington in 2005, and believes that Condoleezza Rice will be a strong secretary of state because she has the ear of President Bush. Lindsay believes that, although Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has had a “rough patch” lately after he came under criticism for his comments about armor for troops, he will survive- barring some new major problem.

Lindsay, who is a Council vice president and who holds the Maurice R. Greenberg chair, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on December 21, 2004.

Let’s discuss what might or might not happen in 2005. First, the Middle East. Will the United States be able to help bring about progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian settlement?

That’s certainly the great hope. Yasir Arafat’s death has created an opening for progress in the Middle East. The Bush administration had made clear for several years that it wouldn’t be interested in pursuing negotiations with Mr. Arafat. So the administration now has what it wished for. But, not to sprinkle pessimism on the discussion, our track record in the past of being optimistic about Middle Eastern events and then being disappointed is pretty strong. So, I would say I am “pessimistically optimistic.”

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being an optimum, where would you come down?

I’d say right about a 5.

You’re cautious?

I’m cautious. The big question is going to be whether all of the individuals involved can seize the opportunity. And there are obviously a lot of pitfalls, not least of which is that the Palestinian community doesn’t have a clear leader right now.

Iran is another major issue facing the United States. There was a December 21 news wire report out of Tehran suggesting that the United States was probing the possibility of direct talks. Is there a chance for a breakthrough, or are relations likely to get worse?

Iran’s likely to stay on hold, in part because the Iranians show no signs they are interested in really ditching their nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration is not in a position, because of its involvement in Iraq, to put a lot of pressure on Iran. I would expect that situation to basically amble on about where it is right now.

Do you see a possibility of any dialogue starting between the United States and Iran?

The Bush administration was pretty clear, in its first four years in office, that it wasn’t interested in engaging with Iran, unless Iran changed its behavior. It is hard to see the administration changing its basic approach to these issues.

On Iraq, will the elections take place as scheduled at the end of January?

Yes, we will have elections, but they won’t occur in all of the provinces of Iraq. There will likely be more violence. We’ll be debating if this is good or not. But I think we will see a fairly large turnout, particularly in the South, where there is a Shiite majority. I would expect an equally large turnout in the North, where the Kurds predominate.

These elections for a national assembly that will choose a new interim government and draft a constitution are based on a system of proportional representation. Can a decent proportion of Sunni representatives be elected, even though voting may be light in the predominantly Sunni center of the country?

That’s going to be the big challenge for the election- given the way the election rules are written- if we don’t have much of a Sunni turnout in the Sunni heartland. You will not have an assembly as representative as people had hoped. Clearly, Prime Minister [Ayad] Allawi has made some efforts to try to address these problems, but I don’t think the government is going to be able to solve them.

There is a bigger issue here, though. We tend to regard the election as sort of the destination: if we can pull off the election, the Iraqi problem is solved. But the problem is that this is just simply a major milestone on a much longer journey. Even if the election comes off swimmingly, there is no problem with violence, and the result is fully representative, you will still have the tremendously hard work of constructing a new Iraqi government. History suggests that when you have assemblies to discuss these things, they don’t always get things right. Even in American history, we had the Articles of Confederation before we got the U.S. Constitution. There are tremendous challenges in Iraq as we go ahead.

Who will be the next president and prime minister?

No guesses. I was wrong on the interim prime minister. I restrict my predictions to the American presidential race, where I have had a pretty good track record.

You were recently in Paris for a meeting of transatlantic experts. And President Bush is going to Europe in February. Is a U.S.-Europe reconciliation likely?

It’s hard to see a reconciliation any time soon in the transatlantic relationship, particularly between Washington and Paris. One of the most striking things at this conference was the disdain many European participants had for the president. They recognized that they have to deal with the Bush administration because that’s the only game on the other side of the Atlantic. But I think what we could call the “neo-Gaullists,” or the “Euro-Gaullists,” basically see this as an opportunity to put their stamp on Europe as something that is, in some sense, not the United States. I think we have a war within Europe right now between what Timothy Garton Ash calls the “Euro-Gaullists” and the “Euro-Atlanticists” over whether or not Europe is going to be a partner with the United States or be a rival to put a constraint on U.S. behavior. It was very clear at this conference that the Euro-Gaullists, at least in Paris, are not small in number.

What about in Germany? In the past, the Germans were very close to the United States.

Germany’s natural inclination has been to want to be part of Europe and also have a close relationship with the United States. That’s been spoiled considerably by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, particularly his decision to run against the Iraq war when he was seeking re-election as chancellor in 2002. That clearly rankled the Bush administration, which believed it had been given a promise by the chancellor that he wouldn’t do that. I think this is really the key question of the future of Europe: you have Britain, which is largely Euro-Atlanticist, and Paris, which is dominated by Euro-Gaullists, and it is Germany that is up in the air. So, in some sense, there is a contest for Germany’s heart and soul.

In Ukraine, the presidential election will be re-run. Will Viktor Yushchenko emerge this time as the winner over Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich?

All the betting money seems to be that Yushchenko will win. I stick with prognostications on American politics, but people who follow the Ukrainian scene seem pretty confident that, if there is a free and fair election, Yushchenko will win.

Will this cause a bitter fallout between Washington and Moscow, given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strong backing for Yanukovich the first time around?

This creates real problems for Moscow. Clearly, Mr. Putin had tried to put his mark on the Ukrainian elections, and it blew up in his face and it strained relations between Moscow and the rest of Europe. This is one of the issues going forward, because one of the questions for the Bush administration is to what extent it will be pushing Moscow in the direction of democratization.

Clearly, under Mr. Putin, we’ve seen a few steps backward in the direction of authoritarianism in recent months. Putin, however, is very popular among the Russian people because the Russian economy is doing reasonably well, with high oil prices playing a major role there. Also, among Russians, Putin seems to be someone standing up for Russian nationalism. So this is one of the longer-term tensions in Europe that is worth following.

Of course, the United States would like to have good relations with Russia, for a variety of reasons, including oil.

Leaving oil aside, it is usually good policy to have good relations with other major powers, particularly ones that can help you accomplish goals in areas like counterterrorism.

What is your guess on how Condoleezza Rice will do as secretary of state?

She has what every secretary of state wants and needs to be successful: the ear of the president.

Does she have the ability to rein in competing voices in the administration?

A couple of things are worth keeping in mind. First, foreign policy is so broad these days, with new issues like crime and health, that it is too big for any secretary of state to control the entire agenda. We have long left the days of John Quincy Adams [under President James Monroe] with a narrow plate of issues. Secondly, you are always going to have tensions between the State Department and other institutions, particularly the Department of Defense. It is going to continue under Secretary Rice. What she has is the ability to speak on behalf of the president. And one of the things to keep in mind is that she is probably closer to where Vice President [Dick] Cheney is, where Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is on many issues, than Secretary [Colin] Powell was. I expect at the end of the day, Secretary Rice will win more bureaucratic battles than she loses.

Will Rumsfeld last through the year?

He’s having an awfully rough patch of it right now. He’s not helped by the fact that some Republicans have come out demanding his resignation. But if he was getting a bit depressed by all the criticism, he almost certainly was bucked up by President Bush’s comments at his [December 20] press conference in which he clearly endorsed Rumsfeld’s staying. So I would expect that, barring any major missteps, Rumsfeld will be around for a long time.

Do you think it is likely there will be another terrorist attack on the United States in 2005?

Unfortunately, terrorism is now something that we have to contemplate occurring. I don’t think an attack is likely. But obviously, in light of September 11, one could always come. Our hope is to either foil it, or if it does take place, that it can be kept small. In the world we live in, it is a very real possibility. And it is a possibility even though we are spending a lot of money, time, and energy trying to foil terrorism. Quite clearly we are going to see terrorist attacks overseas.

There seems to be a problem in increasing the size of the U.S. armed forces. During the recent election campaign, Bush was adamant in saying there will be no draft. Do you think a draft will get another look?

There are two separate questions. One is, are we going to have a draft? The answer is no. The second question is, will we enlarge the size of the military? The answer to that is yes, and to some extent we are already doing so, largely through indirect bureaucratic procedures not allowing people to opt out when their terms of duty come to an end. We are not going to see a draft. It would be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill.

Any predictions of your own?

One, we will not see an Indo-Pakistan war over Kashmir in the coming year. Politics there are going in a good direction. I don’t think we are likely to see a clash over the Taiwan Strait in 2005. And my guess is we will get through this flu season without having the appearance of a virulent strain of influenza along the lines of the Spanish flu in 1918.