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Mead: Bush's Foreign Policy Record around the World

Interviewee: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, The Council on Foreign Relations
December 26, 2007


Walter Russell Mead, a leading American historian, says that President Bush’s record in foreign policy has improved a bit in the second term, recovering traditional ground in Europe, and now showing some progress in Iraq. But he says in the Middle East, as a whole, the administration has lacked proper follow-through. He notes that the Democrats are having trouble coming up with a viable foreign policy alternative that will win the party votes. 

President Bush is about to enter his last year in office—how would you grade his term at this moment? Is he getting a D, an F, a C-, a B+?

You’ve got to look at it regionally, and in Asia they haven’t done that badly. We have the North Korea [nuclear disarmament] deal. Nothing is perfect but it seems to me things are on a reasonably good track there. We have good relations with China, with Japan, and with India. There seems to be a little bit more cohesion to the democracies in Asia, so all of this strikes me as a good thing. And let’s also not forget that many people were worried when Indonesia shifted toward democracy—that we’d see a rise of terrorism and instability. Sometimes we need to take a look at the dogs that don’t bark, and Indonesia isn’t barking.

We have good relations with a democratic Indonesia that also seems to be doing okay economically, and in Pakistan things are volatile, but there seems to be a slightly better chance than there was a few months ago for something like a smooth transition. Probably by the time this interview comes out, everything will change again in Pakistan, because things happen that way, but at the moment it looks like the two major opposition parties are committed to participating in the next election, and that does represent the best hope for some kind of a stable transition to democracy in Pakistan. So none of that is bad.

In Europe, certainly if you compare it to the first Bush term, the second Bush term has seen steady improvement in our relations with the key European countries. We just don’t have the kind of polarized relationships with France and Germany that we did in his first term, and even some of the damage has started to heal.  

It’s interesting that the voters threw out the most anti-American leaders in Europe, even though the United States still is regarded very low in popularity polls. It shows that wasn’t much of a factor.

What’s interesting is that Prime Minister John Howard, who was seen as pro-Bush, was defeated in Australia, but on the other hand in Canada, they elected a conservative government [led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper] that is considerably less anti-American than its predecessor. And, as you say, in France and in Germany, the voters consistently chose the more pro-American of the candidates, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in particular, made a point of being quite pro-American during the campaign. So one thing this should teach all of us is, as the Visigoths used to say, “Rome was not burnt in a day.” And it’s easy to sort of hyperventilate about short-term developments in foreign policy.

The U.S.-European relationship has pretty deep roots. The Bush people handled it very poorly in the first term, frankly … But just by clawing back to normal diplomatic standards in the second term, we’ve seen really a pretty dramatic enhancement.

The U.S.-European relationship has pretty deep roots. The Bush people handled it very poorly in the first term, frankly.  Some of the European leaders were not very good either. But just by clawing back to normal diplomatic standards in the second term, we’ve seen really a pretty dramatic enhancement. Now the public opinion remains tragically anti-American in some countries, and actually the damage to U.S.-Turkish relations is something that concerns me and continues to concern me. So you’ve got to give them maybe a C+ in Europe, for the second term.

What do you give them in Asia, an A-?

A-. Yes, with grade inflation, so, why not?

What about theMiddle East?

I would say that since the 2006 election, which was a little bit more than a year ago, things have gotten better, but they are still not where they should be. For the first time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the United States seems to have a strategy in Iraq that’s working, and a commander [General David Petraeus] who is able to carry the strategy out. And while Iraq remains very far from where one would like it to be, I don’t think we should blind ourselves to some very positive developments. 

Let’s talk about the Arab-Israeli problem.

The Arab-Israeli thing, you know, has been a persistent problem for the Bush administration. I talked about this in my book, Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk, arguing that the administration often sees the big picture but isn’t very good at putting together the little steps that are necessary to move in the right direction. So they can talk about how democracy in the Middle East can transform things and make things better, and they’re right about that, but they haven’t been very good about kicking that ball down the road a little bit. In some ways you’d have to say they’ve ended up with less democracy or less hope for it than existed when they started in a lot of countries.  And on the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli problem, they are absolutely right that a two-state solution is the key. They are absolutely right that a Palestinian state has to be viable, and that America has to be seen as promoting the emergence of a viable Palestinian state, but they’re not very good on the follow-through, and on getting a peace process going.

In Asia they haven’t done that badly. We have the North Korea [nuclear disarmament] deal. Nothing is perfect but it seems to me things are on a reasonably good track there. We have good relations with China, with Japan, and with India.

Now, I’m going to be hopeful. Why not be hopeful? It doesn’t cost anything to be. And the meeting in Annapolis did result in a couple of positive steps, but the problem that the Israeli government is very weak, and the Palestinian government maybe weaker, is serious. On the other hand, you’ve got to give the administration credit that Iran is now seen as a bigger factor in the regional balance of power because of the collapse of the strong Iraq. They’ve made that work for them and a lot of the Sunni Arab states have been rallying to the United States, and even softening their positions on Israel, out of concern aboutIran.

So in that sense, they’ve been rather deftly avoiding some of the features of the balance of power in that part of the world. But on balance you can’t give them a terrific grade. In Iraq, they’ve definitely come up. I guess I’d give them a C right now in the Middle East. So both in Europeand in the Middle East we’re talking about significant improvements over the first term, but not enough to get you into a good graduate school, at this point.

And, parenthetically, there’s the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which on the first day just seemed like an utter disaster for the administration. I guess people have calmed down a bit now.

Right. It’s very interesting that one of the first things that happened after that was the Europeans said, “Now wait a minute. This does not actually let us off the hook because we actually need to keep up the diplomatic pressure on Iran.” That statement does help remind everybody of something that was true already, which was that we weren’t going to reach the decision point with Iran under this administration. We weren’t going to be faced with that ultimate choice of, “Which is worse, a war with Iran or an Iranian bomb?” by January 2009, and this statement also makes that clear. So the next administration is going to have to make a decision about Iran, and this administration needs to continue doing what it has been doing, which is trying to assemble the broadest possible coalition of concerned powers, who will try to take the diplomatic steps, and impose the kind of sanctions that may help ensure that when that moment comes, we won’t have to choose, and the Iranians will be able to decide that it’s better to come to some kind of a solution.

So I don’t think the Iranian crisis is over, but we have a longer timeline and more opportunities to try to work diplomatically and build a strong coalition, which is a good thing.

On Iraq, you said you thought General Petraeus had brought some progress through the ”surge,” and that clearly seems to be the case. But how is this going to affect the 2008 elections? In 2006 the Democrats seemed to sweep into Congress on the Iraq issue.

The Democrats have not covered themselves with glory, by and large, with their positions on Iraq. Barack Obama is a special case, because he was against the war from the beginning, but there’s a sense of, “When the war’s popular, you’re for it, when it’s unpopular you turn against it. When things start to go a little bit better you start trying to scramble back onto the bandwagon, or at least reduce your distance from the war.”

Now, let’s not give Bush a free pass here. No one in America really would want Bush to have a third term if it were possible. So if you compare the Democrats with Bush on the war in Iraq, neither has much to brag about. The Democrats run the risk of continuing to make themselves look on national security issues as a party that you can’t quite trust. Now the problem is that the Democrats don’t, like the Republicans, have a single figure. So [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi speaks, [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid speaks, [Congressman John] Murtha speaks, both Clintons speak, not always saying the same thing. Obama speaks, and so on. So in the public mind, there’s a confusion about who the Democrats are and what they stand for, and this creates vulnerabilities for them.

But in American politics, I often, as many people do, find myself thinking about the War of 1812. That’s a joke, of course. Nobody remembers that war. But if you look at the arguments that were made for and against the war, the critics of the war were right about almost everything. Why did we go to war? Because the British had these Orders in Council. Well, it turns out the Orders in Council got repealed before the war was declared, so where are the Orders in Council?

Explain “Orders in Council.”

Those were the orders the British had that allowed American ships to be seized and seamen impressed, and so on. Then we went on to war because the British were state sponsors of terrorism, that is to say Indians were getting supplies from the British and attacking American settlements. The minute we go to war, obviously, the British increase their aid to the Indians. So you have more terrorists than before. You went to war to stop terrorists, well you’ve increased the terrorists, they’re recruiting new ones.

Then the proponents of the war said, “Well, we’ll invade Canada, it will be a cakewalk. We’ll be welcomed as liberators.” Well it was a disaster. It was a quagmire and worse. Then there was a revolution in military affairs. The American coastal defense force was going to be higher tech and defeat all those creepy British frigates. Well, what happened there? The British said, “Burn Washington and stop American trade.” So the war was a complete disaster. Everything that the critics had prophesized came to pass. The consequence of that war, though, was the destruction of the political party that opposed the war, the Federalists. And it cemented the hegemony of the Democratic-Republican Party that had supported the war.

Now I don’t think that George Bush has managed the same thing for the Republicans, but what history shows is that in American politics, you can be dovish and right and end up doing less well politically than people who are hawkish and wrong.

So the Democratic position on Iraq is a very difficult one to play right, and as I look at the record of the party, I’m not sure that they’ve quite managed it well.

So you think there’s a chance that the Republicans can win the presidency?

Well, at the moment there are so many different Republican candidates, it’s hard, but it’s too early to write them off, I’ll say that.

And what do you think it will look like in Iraq, a year from now?

I have no idea. War is just not very predictable. You can see a couple of scenarios. One is that there’s a sort of gradual return to unhappy stability—people really do hate anarchy, and the Iraqis have had a taste of it. So people may be willing to live with second-best solutions. But you can see some other possibilities, too: a kind of fragmentation and warlordism, a kind of return to Lebanese civil-war-type conditions, a breakdown of public order, and you can see all kinds of intermediary points between them.

The most positive thing may well be that, with the return of the moderate Sunnis into the political arena, and the Kurds from the north, it may be possible to see the gradual emergence of an Iraqi political center, which is open to sectarian compromise and is not committed to Iran. That’s a tough thing, though to accomplish.

For the last few years I never really thought that we were building a beautiful democracy in Iraq. You can dream, but I never thought that was very likely. But what we’re trying now is to avoid three outcomes that are unacceptable, and in my mind it is still worth fighting to try to stave these things off: One is an al-Qaeda victory, victory for the jihadis in Iraq. That’s not going to happen now. They’ve been defeated, and that’s a good thing. The next one would be an Iraq that’s dominated by Iran. And that is still up for grabs, but we have some cards in our hand and I don’t think we should write that off. And the third would be an Iraq whose instabilities destabilize the neighborhood.

The signs seem pretty good. I see today the Saudis are talking about wanting to reopen an embassy in Baghdad. So we could end up at the end of the day with a kind of ugly Iraq, but an Iraq that we and its neighbors can live with, and maybe it’s better for the Iraqi people than the Iraq they had under Saddam Hussein.

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