Lee Feinstein is deputy director of studies and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A former deputy director of the Clinton State Department policy planning staff, he is now a foreign policy advisor to the presidential campaign of Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. On February 4, 2004, Feinstein participated in a Council-sponsored conference call to brief reporters and editorial-page editors at U.S. newspapers on the role of foreign policy in the 2004 presidential race. The call is part of the Council’s Campaign 2004 project. Following is an edited transcript of the briefing.
At this stage of the campaign, what role do you think foreign policy is playing and will play?
It’s a big question. It’s a volatile world situation, and world developments are going to dictate how they play out. I would say on the Democratic side, there are kind of two strategies about the role of foreign policy in this election. One strategy, which I would call sort of the Clinton 1992 strategy, is to play for a draw. That is, from this perspective, Democrats don’t expect to win on national security, foreign policy issues. They just want to neutralize the issue by demonstrating a certain level of credibility and competence on the foreign policy question. But there would be no effort really to challenge President Bush on these issues, just to play to a draw. I think there’s also a competing strategy, which I would say is sort of a post-Iraq strategy, which is playing to win. And there is a sense among certain Democrats that through the course of the war, general trends in Bush foreign policy are such that there’s plenty of room to criticize the administration. There’s a certain degree of impatience and restiveness in the electorate, in terms of the length of the Iraq occupation, the cost of the occupation, the strain on the troops, etc., and some of the Democrats believe they can win. I think a lot of this will depend on what happens first and foremost in Iraq. By the way, I think that, in terms of candidates, clearly [U.S. Senator John] Edwards [D-NC] is playing for a draw and Kerry is probably playing for a win on this issue or at least signaling that he thinks he can win in this respect.
The Republican strategy, I think, is twofold. First, I would say that there’s a creeping multilateralism evident in the Bush administration strategy. That is, on a whole host of issues, Iraq first among them, the administration has been signaling very clearly that it wants support of allies and others, and wants a vital role for the United Nations in Iraq. That is manifested today in the word that the administration is prepared to accept the deal that [U.N. Secretary General] Kofi Annan’s team brokers with the Shiites and others in Iraq. That, of course, is a 180-degree shift from the position as recently as a few months ago. I would say, at the same time that the administration is trying to put a more multilateral face on its approach to the leading foreign policy issues, there’s also a brasher strategy which was evident in the [January 20, 2004] State of the Union. And that’s the permission slip strategy. That is, as President Bush said, I thought the best line in his speech— a real zinger— “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country.” That was clearly intended as an in-your-face remark to the Democrats. The criticism that the Republicans have made and continue to make is that Democrats are prepared to subcontract out their security to the U.N. and others, and prepared to give the U.N. and others— entrust the U.N. and others with vital American security interests.
Is creeping multilateralism then just an election year foreign policy?
It’s two things. First of all, it’s a function of the reality that Iraq is harder than administration officials thought it would be. It’s taking longer than they thought it would take, and it’s costing more money. Second, it’s part of an election year strategy to soften the image of the president. There has been concern, and polls have indicated that, about this idea that America shouldn’t be doing these things on its own, that allies should be persuaded to open up their wallets and send troops. [Vice President Dick] Cheney’s [late January] trip overseas, for example, intended to sort of soften his image and make nice to the allies who are clearly part of this.
Who’s advising which Democratic candidates? And is there any discernible difference among the remaining major candidates on foreign policy?
Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting article that kind of lines up who is working for whom, and it’s somewhat accurate. Clearly, at a point in time when there is a presumptive nominee, everybody will be working for that person.
For lack of a better description, from left to right, on foreign policy issues, you have [former Vermont Governor Howard] Dean, then Kerry, then [U.S. Senator Joe] Lieberman [D-CT], with Lieberman offering, until he pulled out of the race, the staunchest support for the Iraq operation, and Dean, the most unqualified opposition on Iraq. But apart from that, I think that the differences are actually reasonably small. You don’t have any Democrats apart from, say, [Reverend Al] Sharpton, calling for a reduction in U.S. military spending, for example. You have all of the candidates attempting to take what I would describe as hawkish positions on national security, on terrorism, and on homeland security, and being critical of the administration for its efforts in that area. And you even have several of the candidates talking about the possibility of increasing the size of the U.S. Army. Apart from Iraq, the differences are pretty slight.
Is there a spread on free trade?
Yes, there is clearly a spread on that. Those are swing voters. Those are the voters that were perceived to be primarily for [former Democratic candidate and U.S. Representative Richard] Gephardt [D-MO]. And yes, I do think that there is a range there. And clearly, Edwards is trying to position himself as a candidate who will be representing the sort of anti-free trade plank of the Democratic Party.
You spoke about Senator Kerry as playing to win, and I wonder what that means in terms of specific proposals he might have with respect to Iraq. Does he have a strategy?
Well, I’m not speaking on behalf of the Kerry campaign. I’m just talking about how these issues are playing out from my perch here at the Council. One of the difficult things about not being in power is what are you for as opposed to what are you against. I think the Democrats, as far as how they would distinguish themselves from the Bush administration on Iraq, for example, go to broadening responsibility for the Iraq occupation, broadening it to other allies, so that they pick up some of the expenses for the occupation, broadening it to some of the allies so that they pick up some of the burden of maintaining security in Iraq. Second is the role of the U.N., where every Democratic candidate has called upon the Bush administration to increase the responsibilities of the U.N. Very early on, there were Democratic candidates who suggested that the U.N. have responsibility for reconstruction in Iraq and play a major role in the political transition. At least on the latter, it seems as if the administration is now supporting a much larger role for the U.N. Those, I think, are the two main criticisms. But in terms of what to do now, again, except for Sharpton, none of the candidates is talking about reducing American troop strength or reducing America’s commitment to the Iraq occupation. All of them are talking about providing adequate resources and troop commitments to get the job done now that the United States is there.
Your colleague, Walter Mead, had a piece in the Los Angeles Times the other day in which he suggested that perhaps Democrats could get some traction in foreign policy by outflanking Bush by saying he hadn’t done enough to protect the country from terrorists and hadn’t handled Iraq very effectively. What do you make of that argument?
Yes. And another one of our colleagues, Max Boot, has said very much the same thing, coming from a Republican perspective. My view about this is that that is easy to say but very, very hard to do. The place where Democratic operatives have thought that the president might be very vulnerable was on this question of homeland security. And you have governors getting together and complaining that they don’t have enough money for homeland security, particularly in an environment where virtually all the states are running deficits. But polling suggests that the country is very satisfied with the job the president is doing, both in fighting the war on terrorism and in terms of homeland security. So for whatever reason, this kind of criticism of the White House has not stuck, and it’s been very hard to outflank the president on that. In terms of Iraq— Iraq is a very difficult issue, and I don’t know you would outflank the White House to the right on Iraq. Would you, as a candidate, want to make a case for a protracted and more expensive American-led occupation? Would you want to argue that the Reserve and National Guard troops that are in Iraq should be staying longer? I don’t know where the politically advantageous hawk position is on Iraq. Now, one area where all of the Democrats, including Dean and including [General Wesley] Clark [USA (ret.)], have tried to be much more critical of the administration is on proliferation questions, and in particular on North Korea. The criticism has been that the administration has been turning a blind eye to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, rather than testing North Korea’s seriousness about a deal that would exchange a freeze or halt to their nuclear weapons programs for some security assurances. That’s the only area where the Democrats could outflank the Republicans on the right, but I’m not sure that proliferation, per se, is an issue that resonates with the public.
Everybody assumes that Iraq will be the main foreign policy issue in the campaign. Do you see any issues that could gain prominence over the next 10 months, for example, North Korea or Taiwan?
That’s an excellent question. I’m going to put Iraq at the top of the list because June 30 is the hand-off date and I’m not sure that enough attention has been paid to that. The administration is paying intense attention to June 30th. This is the date by which sovereignty is meant to be handed off to Iraqis. Today, we saw a trial balloon about postponing that date. From the White House’s perspective, this is the focus of all of their energies in Iraq right now. And how that goes and if it happens or if it doesn’t happen, that’s going to have a tremendous potential to impact the election.
Clearly, the capture of Saddam Hussein had a big impact on the Democratic race and took the wind out of the sails behind Dean’s candidacy. If Osama bin Laden is captured, that would be a major boost to the White House. If there is some kind of a major terrorist attack, I think that will also have a big impact on how the election goes— and let’s hope that that doesn’t happen. If something like that does happen, there would be a rallying-around-the-flag effect, and that would certainly benefit the president. Two other issues, which I think are of a lesser order but could have some impact, would be North Korea and Pakistan. The thing that I would be looking toward as the wild card would be something like a nuclear test by North Korea. I don’t think that that would sway many voters, but I think that would probably be seen as a failure of the current approach. In Pakistan, the stability of the current government is clearly in question. There have been two recent assassination attempts against [President Pervez] Musharraf. If something were to happen to Musharraf, and he were to be replaced by radicals, that, I think, would also be significant.
What about [Russian President Vladimir] Putin? Bush has kind of wrapped his arms around Putin, and Putin seems to be getting nastier in Russia.
Yes, I think that’s true. I think that’s a debating point. I think a Democrat could score points about the fact that this president has personalized U.S. relations with Russia. That’s the perennial criticism, but it’s true of this president, as it was true of the last president. And I think certainly [President Bush’s] comment about, “I’ve looked into [Putin’s] soul,” is certainly going to be brought back into play. But, again, I’m not sure that is going to persuade any voters who wouldn’t already be in one camp or another.
Was trade a major issue followed by the candidates during the South Carolina primary? And let’s assume that Kerry gets the nomination, do you think it will be a major issue in the campaign? If so, is the anti-globalization plank going to work or will it be tried? How do you see that unfolding?
I think the Democrats’ approach, whether it’s Edwards or Kerry or somebody else, is going to have to be the Clintonian approach of having your cake and eating it too. That is, that globalization is possible at the same time that one can protect American jobs, grow the American economy, and expand workers’ rights around the world. An anti-trade, anti-NAFTA approach is not going to be successful for the Democrats. I don’t think it will rally folks who otherwise wouldn’t be in the Democratic camp. I don’t think it would mobilize people to vote who otherwise wouldn’t vote. But the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States— which has been significant— is going to be a major liability for the administration. The administration is certainly going to hope that the current economic improvement continues through Election Day and that they’re going to bank on trends moving in a positive direction as evidence that their economic strategy has worked. But no, I don’t think any viable Democratic candidate can portray himself as anti-free trade.
Pakistani scientist Abdul Kadeer Khan has admitted giving nuclear secrets to other countries. Does this scandal increase the chances that the nuclear proliferation issue will resonate with voters?
First of all, I think that the administration has put points on the board in recent months, and I think they can point to a strategy that they’ve been pursuing to deal with proliferation for the first time. I’m thinking first and foremost about Libya. Here’s an example where the administration used a negotiating space it had created by virtue of its tough stance in Iraq and other tough rhetorical positions with respect to international agreement, and essentially got from Libya a complete concession and a complete handing over of its nuclear infrastructure. And so I think actually this is an example where the administration can and with merit take a lot of credit for how it handled the proliferation question.
North Korea is much more complicated. It’s much more negative for the administration, because over the course of the last three years, you have North Korea transformed from a country which was believed to have had the capability to produce as many as two bombs, to maybe having as many as a half dozen nuclear weapons now. And that’s a distinction with a significant difference. And if there were a nuclear test, I think you could make the case— and I would support that case— that this was an indication of the fact that time has not been on our side, and not testing the seriousness of the North worsened the problem. The six-party talks that have been announced later this month [on the North’s nuclear program] would be a big plus for the administration, if they lead to some kind of agreement.
In terms of Pakistan, what Musharraf has done is a big deal. Whether he knew about stuff in the past or not, whether the Pakistani government or the army tacitly approved or openly approved what A.Q. Khan was doing, is a secondary order issue. Everybody assumed that there was some level of knowledge and maybe open awareness by the Pakistani leadership, Musharraf and earlier, that these kinds of activities were ongoing. But I think it’s very, very significant that Musharraf has basically pointed the finger at A.Q. Khan, staked his reputation on closing down proliferation from Pakistan. And so again, I would say this is in the plus column, not in the minus column, for the administration.
Is the United States still a 50-50 nation? If we are or if we’re not, how do foreign policy issues play into that?
Well, judging by the polls, clearly the United States is a 50-50 nation. And while I think the polls that sort of measure one candidate or other versus the president, at this point, aren’t really very meaningful, they do seem to back up the idea that, at least at the very, very early stages, this is a horse race. This is clearly President Bush’s race to lose and, as the incumbent, he has many advantages. Among them continues to be foreign policy, because the American public strongly supported how the president conducted himself after 9/11, continues to be concerned about the war in Iraq, and is nervous— as an American electorate is traditionally nervous— about changing horses in midstream when there’s some very pressing national security issue in the works. The world situation is quite volatile at the moment and a range of developments— good or bad— will have an impact on how foreign policy plays. You could see something in the general election happen, as happened in the Democratic primaries, in terms of a positive development working to the detriment of a candidate— for example, the capture of Saddam [Hussein] hurt Dean’s candidacy. It’s conceivable that the capture of bin Laden might lower the saliency of terrorism or the war against terrorism in the campaign. I think that might not benefit any candidate, Democrat or Republican, who was focusing on foreign policy as one of his main campaign themes.