Lindsay: Bush’s Second Term: Major Problems, No Easy Solutions

November 19, 2004

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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James M. Lindsay, the Council’s director of studies, says the foreign policy issues facing the second Bush term will be mostly the same ones "that dominated the last four years"--namely, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. He also predicts that the administration will work to soften the tone of transatlantic relations and try to resume Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, if a solid leader emerges on the Palestinian side.

Lindsay says that newly named Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has the potential to be a "very powerful and credible secretary of state" because she will be perceived to be speaking for the president far more than was Colin Powell, her predecessor. He also holds out hope that "things could turn out well in Iraq" if reasonably successful elections can be held.

Lindsay, who is a Council vice president and the Maurice R. Greenberg chair, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on November 19, 2004.

With the Bush administration now in transition to its second term, what do you think its foreign policy agenda will look like for the next four years?

The president’s foreign policy agenda is going to focus on issues that dominated the last four years--his first term. The first issue is going to be Iraq. Finding a way to build a stable government in Iraq has proven far tougher than the administration calculated when the United States invaded Iraq in March of 2003. Two other obvious issues are Iran--where the Iranian regime is clearly moving to the capacity to build nuclear weapons, and North Korea, where the regime has developed somewhere between two and ten nuclear devices. The bad news for the administration is that all three issues are ones with no easy solutions; there are no magic bullets out there.

There is talk of the administration trying to repair its transatlantic relationships. Are those efforts on track?

The administration has an interest in tamping down some of the conflict that has popped up over the past four years with Paris and Berlin. The administration obviously wants more help in Iraq and it has probably calculated correctly that the benefits from its pugnacious attitude towards Berlin and Paris have diminished. By the same token, both Paris and Berlin now realize that they are going to have George W. Bush for four more years, so they have an incentive to find ways to paper over their differences with the administration. So I suspect we’re going to see a different tone in the transatlantic community, but the underlying differences over the nature of the threat and how to respond to it aren’t going to go away.

With Condoleezza Rice named the new secretary of state, would you like to predict the direction of American foreign policy over the next four years?

There are two issues here. One is the makeup of the national security team, and the second is the question of what Dr. Rice brings to the team. First, let’s look at the team. Where we seem to be headed is that the president is calling on people who have been loyal to him and who have served him in key positions over the years, and this is not just at the State Department but in other Cabinet agencies.

That approach suggests that the president clearly wants to establish his control over these agencies. That approach has some pluses and some minuses.

When you are in the White House, it is great to have some people out there who are going to carry out what you really need them to do. All presidents--Democrats and Republicans--complain that they’ve given orders and there is some agency out there that hasn’t responded. There is a danger, however, to having that sort of control. When agencies are populated by people who are loyal to you, you are not going to get the kind of criticism and questions that you might get from agencies that aren’t as docile. In that case, there really isn’t anyone out there to say, "Stop! You’re about to make a big mistake." In an odd way, it actually puts more pressure on the president to have to try to figure out who is telling him what he wants to hear, as opposed to what he needs to hear.

Dr. Rice brings to the State Department something that every secretary of state wants to have: a reputation for having the ear of the president. That is immensely helpful to a secretary of state. When such secretaries walk into a room and talk to a head of state or a foreign minister, the understanding is that when they speak, they speak for the president. It often seemed that Secretary [of State Colin] Powell didn’t have that kind of credibility. I would expect Dr. Rice to be a very powerful and credible secretary of state.

What about the Israeli-Palestinian issue? The Israeli press is quoting the Israeli foreign minister, who says that at the Clinton Presidential Center opening, President Bush told him that he wants to make this the top issue right away. Do you expect the administration to push this in a major way--or will we see a repeat of the previous four years when not much happened?

The second Bush administration is likely to show more effort in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, for the simple reason that one of the obstacles that existed during the first term, the leadership of Yasir Arafat, is now gone. The administration has been clear that it would be willing to talk with Palestinians if it found new leadership. The problem the administration faces is the question of whether someone will emerge in the Palestinian community who can speak for Palestinian society in the way that Yasir Arafat did. There is always the danger that you are willing to speak, but that there is no one across the table to speak to; or perhaps the person you are speaking to cannot speak on behalf of their society. The ability to make progress on this score depends a lot on whether someone emerges as a figure that commands the respect and allegiance of a substantial portion of the Palestinian community, and that still has to be determined.

The U.S. government, specifically Secretary Powell in recent days, has asserted that the Iranians are still conducting a nuclear arms program. Do you think U.S. intelligence on Iran is better than it was on Iraq, where the administration insisted incorrectly that the country had weapons of mass destruction?

We don’t know. Obviously the problems with American intelligence in Iraq raised a credibility issue for American intelligence. What is interesting is that, in terms of the Iranian situation, there is an Iranian dissident group that has been providing much of this information. Past reports have been borne out by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. The tough issue for the administration is that, right now, Washington and its major European allies are not on the same page.

The Europeans are holding up the prospect of engagement with Iran, and it is clear that Washington hopes to take a more punitive approach, with referral to the U.N. Security Council and potential sanctions imposed upon Iran. That division causes problems because it would be better if the United States and the Europeans were offering the same package.

Haven’t some Security Council members expressed opposition to the idea of sanctions?

This takes us back to the opening question, which is that the United States faces a number of tough issues for which there are no simple solutions. The Iranians clearly have a strong incentive to create a nuclear weapons program; there is no doubt about that. What the United States and its European allies want to do is to change those incentives--and it’s not clear that they can.

At the Security Council, one obstacle is the potential that the Chinese or Russians could veto any effort to get sanctions, even if you could get the issue to the Security Council. Note that China and Iran recently made a major deal regarding natural gas and other energy resources, and that is one of the cards that Iran has to play. It possesses energy supplies that are in high demand, if you look around and see oil at $50 a barrel. So the administration and the Europeans could potentially come to a situation where they have played their cards--whether that means dangling the carrot or threatening the stick--and the Iranians say, "No thanks." Then what do we do? That’s when our diplomacy gets pretty dicey.

This administration, so far, has shown no interest in negotiating with Iran, except during the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. Do you see any change in that position?

There are certainly no signs coming out of Foggy Bottom or the White House that the administration has changed its assessment of what it can expect from the Iranian regime. The administration is likely, by virtue of the way it views the world, to favor a hard-line approach to dealing with Iran. The real question is: when you push the other guy and he doesn’t back down, what do you do? I think that is one question that has bedeviled the administration’s policy all along.

Could you envision military action being taken against Iran?

It’s easy to envision, if you play out the right scenarios. The question is whether we will get to any of those scenarios, and I think likely not. There are a number of things that mitigate against military confrontation with Iran. The first is that we are already heavily invested in Iraq. We are stretched. That is not to say that we couldn’t take on Iran, but there probably is not much eagerness in the Pentagon to take on more responsibilities. Also, Iran could clearly make life for the United States much more difficult than it already is in Iraq because of Iran’s ties to the Shiites, the majority population group in Iraq. The third problem would be that Iran is a country with three times the population of Iraq, and its government is far more legitimate than Saddam Hussein’s ever was. It’s not likely that you will get the kind of disillusioned society or abandonment of the ruling coalition that you had in Iraq.

Finally, even if you talk about a limited strike against presumed nuclear facilities, from what we know, some of them are either buried deeply underground or are very close to cities. This would maximize likely collateral damage. Then you need to make the calculations about how confident you are that an attack would succeed, and even if it did, how long would it delay an Iranian nuclear program. When you add all those factors up, you come to the conclusion that military force is a last resort, not a first or even a medium-term resort.

What about the situation in North Korea? What do you think is likely to happen with the six-party talks? Will they resume?

Well, the administration clearly wants to resume the six-nation talks. It indicated this summer some willingness to perhaps dangle some carrots in front of Pyongyang, if Pyongyang took a number of very substantial steps. If you look at the administration’s overall diplomacy, it has been very hostile to steps it sees as being appeasement, or even tantamount to appeasement. On the other hand, the administration’s preferred strategy, which is to take a hard line and push back, is compromised by the fact that no one looks at a war on the Korean peninsula as desirable. By all military gaming, it would be a very bloody exercise. The administration’s hope is that the other players in the region can help nudge the North Koreans in the direction that perhaps it is better to suspend its program.

There are two problems with this. One is that for the North Koreans, a nuclear program is the one thing that makes anyone pay attention to them. It is not clear they will be nudged very easily. The other thing is that it’s not really clear that U.S. and Chinese interests are identical. Oftentimes, the argument is that the Chinese also do not want a nuclear North Korea, and so they will work with the United States and use their powers of persuasion to change what the North Korean government is doing. But it is not at all clear that the Chinese government sees the situation the same way as it is seen from Washington. If the Chinese see some merit in this issue just bubbling along--or if their real concern is about a North Korea that falls apart and suddenly sends its citizens across the border--then they are not as worried about a fairly limited nuclear program, one that is not aimed at them. You may find that the six-party talks don’t produce the kind of results the administration would hope for.

On Iraq, how can we proceed at this moment? The end of January seems a tough deadline to meet for elections.

Iraq is not going as well as everyone had hoped it would go, but it is not totally lost. The big question going forward is whether you can make the elections work reasonably well. That is the great unknown. It would be a major setback if the elections had to be postponed. It is important for the Iraqis to have the elections, to have a sense that they are making progress.

If you do have the elections, you might be able to just limp along. It will take some time. It may be the case that Iraq will not be a successful Westminster parliamentary democracy any time soon, but there is still the possibility that things could turn out well. It’s obviously a lot harder to get to the kind of success that people had in mind back when Saddam’s statue fell on April 9, 2003. It is an issue of grave concern to this administration, as it should be, because there is also the possibility that this could go very, very bad.

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