Mead: Bush Administration Gets Improving ‘Grades’ in First Year of Second Term’s Foreign Policy

October 27, 2005

Interview
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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Walter Russell Mead, the Council’s Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow in U.S.foreign policy, says he has noted a significant improvement in the Bush administration’s handling of foreign policy in the first year of its second term. He saystraditionally, presidents in a second term find international relations more fruitful as they lose domestic political power, and this is no different for the current administration.

“They’re making foreign policy in a more careful, professional, and realistic way now,” Mead says. “And I think you can see that almost across the board. I would say, by and large, things are going a little bit better now.”

He was particularly impressed by the administration’s ability to improve relations with the major countries of Asia—China, Japan, and India—all at the same time. For this, he gave the administration a grade of “A.” He found fault with its ability to present its policy and gave it only passing grades in Europe and South America. In the Middle East, he found reason for hope, although he said the results in Iraq were still “incomplete.”

Mead was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 27, 2005.

It’s almost a year since President Bush was reelected. How would you gauge his foreign policy in the first year of his second term? I have to assume that second terms are traditionally not so great for presidents.

Yes, although often in second terms, presidents concentrate more on foreign policy because what seems to happen is that their domestic authority tends to get undermined. They become more of a lame duck, the people in Congress and the Senate realize they’re running for reelection but the president doesn’t, so the political fortunes start to diverge. Presidents in the second term often find that foreign policy is the one place left where they can make a mark. I see some of those same dynamics at work in this administration, too.

Do you want to give some examples?

Well, I think we’ve seen [this] just recently this morning, when [Bush was] forced to withdraw his Supreme Court nomination [Harriet Miers] fundamentally because the Republicans are revolting on Capitol Hill.

So, this to me is a pretty clear sign he’s lost some authority in domestic politics to the Republican Party. On the other hand, he’s still commander-in-chief, and he can still set the international agenda. I would say that what’s happened in the second term so far is pretty positive from a foreign policy point of view. The divisions in the administration we used to see, between [Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld and [Vice President] Dick Cheney running one type of foreign policy, and the State Department trying to run another, are over.

What that means is the administration now can use the State Department when making its foreign policy. I look carefully at a lot of the things that critics of the Bush administration identified were wrong in the first term, and some of these criticisms I think were correct. It seems to me, to a large extent, [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice, [Undersecretary of State] R. Nicholas Burns and [Deputy Secretary] Robert Zoellick, have taken a lot of these criticisms to heart and they’re making foreign policy in a more careful, professional, and realistic way now. And I think you can see that almost across the board. I would say, by and large, things are going a little bit better now.

Let’s go area by area. Let’s start with Iraq.

Well, in Iraq, you have the problem of an insurgency that won’t quit and what’s, in a sense, a military issue. But in terms of the foreign policy dimensions of managing the situation, what you’re seeing now is the Arab League is on board with the Iraqi government; the United Nations endorsed the legitimacy and the fairness of the constitutional referendum. That was really a big and very important step because some of the Sunnis were criticizing the conduct of the election and to have both the Arab League and the United Nations behind the process is a very solid achievement.

I noticed yesterday that three major Sunni parties agreed to form an alliance to participate in the next elections.

I have to say, as I look back over the administration’s policy in Iraq, I think the era of one mistake after another in postwar Iraq began to end when authority went to Condoleezza Rice [then the national security adviser] at the National Security Council and [Ambassador Robert] Blackwill stepped in to help. Since then, it seems to me that American policy in Iraq has steadily become smarter and more effective.

I saw you on television recently on Lehrer’s NewsHour. You were discussing Condoleezza Rice’s testimony on Iraq before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which to my knowledge got relatively short shrift in the regular mainstream media. Could you talk a bit about that? You thought that was a rather significant statement.

Also, by the way, I thought Bush’s speech to the officers’ wives was also a very important speech. It seems to me one of the big and positive changes you’re seeing in the administration right now is they are finally beginning to understand the need to go public with a serious discussion of where we are and what’s happening.

When was this speech?

It was two days ago. It was a very good speech and again, I think by and large the mainstream media are not following them. I think it’s partly because they were distracted with the Supreme Court fight and the [undercover CIA officer] Valerie Plame investigation [into who leaked her identity], which has sort of obsessed the media. I think a lot of people, particularly in my baby-boom generation, can only see the story of Iraq in terms of Vietnam. To some degree, people who have disagreed with the war originally, or even agreed because they were convinced on the weapons of mass destruction issue and now feel deceived, can only see the situation in Iraq in terms of a morality play. “We did wrong, now we must pay.”

And any kind of counter-narrative is a tough one for people, not because people are being deliberately biased, but because it just runs so counter to the way that they’re looking at the world. My impression is that events in Iraqare actually not as dire as people seem to be thinking and that it’s getting better. I mentioned on the Lehrer show that the Pew [opinion] polls show dramatic declines in support for terrorism among Muslims in the Arab countries and more broadly in the Middle East. There is a substantial decline in the percentage of people who think that attacks on Americans in Iraqare legitimate. There is a kind of atmosphere out there that everything has been destroyed, the Bush administration has destroyedAmerica , has destroyed our standing in the world forever, and now it’s just time for the catastrophe. But as I look at the war, that’s actually not what I see.

Let’s talk more generally about the Middle East. We got a sort of shock forward with the withdrawal by Israel from Gaza in August, but things seem to be back in the old tit-for-tat mode now; the terrorists seem to be setting the agenda pushingIsraelinto another cycle of violence. Do you think that’s a fair statement?

I think it took a lot of years to create the mess. This conflict has been building for a very long time. It’s not going to be solved in one day or one week or one year or one presidential administration. I think the illusion that it could cost the United Statespretty dearly in the closing months of the Clinton administration, when people thought they were just going to get the decisive settlement in one master stroke and instead the whole peace process collapsed. I think we’re still in a rebuilding process. There is a steady drift, both among Palestinians and on the Arab side more generally, toward an acceptance of compromise solutions. I look and I see that [the Palestinian militant group] Hamas was expected to win [local] elections in Gaza; it actually didn’t do as well as people expected. The Palestinian Authority, for all its problems, has enjoyed more popular support than many people predicted.

The polling in the Palestinian territories shows a very strong majority in favor of economic improvement rather than ending the occupation.

Well, sure. You look outside and you hear calls from the Gulf and among other Arab groups for progress toward compromise, and again, let’s not forget that on the Israeli side, Sharon has survived his redefinition of conservative nationalist Zionism and the Israeli right is coming to grips, slowly, painfully, and unwillingly, but nevertheless steadily, with a need for a two-state solution and then the need for the Palestinian state to be viable and contiguous.

It used to be said in the Middle East that everything depended on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but now I’m beginning to think that the Arab states are looking more toward Iraq. In other words, if Iraq can get some kind of democracy functioning next year, this might have a big impact. What do you think?

Well, one of the important things about Bush’s speech to the officers’ wives was he made the national-security case for why we have to stay the course in Iraq, and one of the biggest differences in my mind between the Iraq war and the Vietnam war is that when people make the case for why we must succeed and must stabilize Iraq, there clearly is a vital national security interest that we must achieve this.

Even with all the mistakes and misjudgments that have happened in the past and as bitter as some people are—and legitimately so in some aspects—with the administration for the mess that we’re in,  this is something that we must persevere in and must succeed with and if we do, it will make the Middle East a much better place. Meanwhile, by the way, you’ve seen the administration working very effectively with the British and—gasp—the French on increasing the pressure on Syria. I think having Syria maneuvered to some degree out of Lebanon and also so much on the defensive, has a very positive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian situation. If you really look at it, the two most immediate protectors of radical Palestinians and supporters of those who are always trying to derail the peace process, Syria and Iraq, are now out of that game, out of that business.

That’s an interesting point. What about Iran? I mean that’s still a wild card, you have this whole nuclear proliferation issue.

I see the Iranian president [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] called yesterday for Israel to be wiped off the map.

It was at an anti-Zionist rally. It was a fallback to old Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the revolution in 1978-79.

You know, when people talk that way and simultaneously are playing fast and loose with the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] I personally am inclined to continue to want to resist their nuclear ambitions. Again, proliferation is trying to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of bad people and is one of the toughest problems in foreign policy. To some degree, administration critics are holding them to impossible standards in the sense of getting rid of nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran or ending the programs. It’s not as if we had a lot of administrations that have done this in the past, and they’re failing at something.

I think, however, they are managing both of these problems at the moment reasonably well. In that sense, the gap between the American and European positions on Iran isnarrower than it was eighteen months ago. The Europeans have sort of dropped the hope that the Iranians were in fact negotiating in good faith, which doesn’t mean we agree necessarily on what to do now but we are closer in our analysis of the problem.

In the same way, the British who just a few months ago were trying to make a lot of different distinctions between their views on Iran and ours, have now toughened their line on Iran considerably. And I also would argue that in the case of North Korea, the United States has been working pretty effectively in the six-party framework. So what we’re seeing in both of these cases, it seems to me, is that the administration is employing diplomacy effectively to deal with some very tough problems.

Bush made a big point at the start of the term to go to Europe and to try to make things a little better. I guess he’s succeeded in that.

The Bush administration made a lot of mistakes in the first term and needlessly antagonized a lot of people. I think announcing that the Kyoto Protocol [on the environment] is dead three days before [German Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder comes to visit you, is not the smartest move. There was too much of that. What made it worse was that American and European interests have diverged somewhat since the end of the Cold War and since September 11. To some degree, it’s when your interests are diverging that you ought to be more careful to observe all the niceties and try to concentrate harder on making the relationship go more smoothly. So, there is still some lasting damage and in public opinion too in Europe, there is lasting damage, but I think they’ve stopped digging. And that’s a good thing.

“Stopped digging”?

Well, you know they say the first rules of holes is, when you see you’re in a hole, stop digging. I think they’ve stopped digging.

What about China? That’s a sort of an ambiguous issue for the administration. We have huge trade with China, the Chinese are coming over here in great numbers, and we seem to be worried about the Chinese military.

Well, again, I think overall, if you look at Asia in particular, you see the best side of the Bush administration. Our relations with both Japan and China are better now than they were five years ago. It’s very hard to simultaneously improve relations with those two countries, and particularly now because Japanese-Chinese relations are much worse than they were five years ago.

In the same way, our relations with both India and Pakistan are much better than they were five years ago. These are really tough things to do and it’s a big mistake to underestimate the degree of diplomatic ingenuity and hard work that went into accomplishing this. I think [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell was justly very proud of the work the State Department did under his leadership in preventing a potential nuclear between India and Pakistan.

We’ve continued to move down this road. I think that the key thing that the Bush administration realizes, and certainly the Rice team at the State Department gets, is that what we’re looking at in Asia is not simply the rise of China. If you think about the situation as the rise of China, you instantly get into a very competitive relationship where China is the rising, aspiring hegemon and the United States is the reigning hegemon and all of our theories project some kind of a conflict.

But if you look instead at the situation as the rise of Asia, as the rise of an Asian state system, in which you have not only China, but you have India, a nuclear superpower with more than one billion people emerging; you look at Indonesia, which is actually doing better than expected and is sort of moving forward rather than backward after its transition to democracy; and you’re also seeing economic and political recovery in Japan to some degree. You’re actually seeing the rise of something that looks like a potentially balanced Asian power system where the United States doesn’t have to contain China or confront China but rather has to manage a relationship with this whole constellation of powers that are coming to be. So I think the administration has managed this rather well. We are much closer to India than we were five years ago, and on both the Indian side and our side there is recognition of strategic interests that we have in common, yet we haven’t turned this into an anti-China game.

Overall, would you say the administration gets a sort of A, A-, B+ for its foreign policy in the first year of the second term?

Well, I don’t know. I’m teaching a college course this fall up at Bard, and so I’ve discovered that grade-grubbing is something you have to really watch out for; it’s made me more cautious about handing out grades. I think the weakest point in the administration’s foreign policy remains its inability to explain itself both to American and foreign public opinion. [Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy] Karen Hughes’ trip to the Middle East doesn’t seem to have been a success. I have to say, having tried to do some of that work myself, I appreciate the difficulty she was under. This is not an easy thing to do. We have a long way to go, there.

So come on, give me some grades.

You know, I have to break it down. I give them a “C-“ on presentation—that is to say, explaining themselves. I would have flunked them six months ago; they’re improving there. I give them an “A” inAsia. I give them a “C” inEurope, a “B-“ in Africa, “B+” in the Middle East.

Including Iraq?

Iraq, I’m still giving them an incomplete. Latin America, they have not managed the situation well, I think, a “C” there. But if you kind of weigh all of these for importance, I think Asia, long term, is the biggest set of issues that America has to face. So, I have to say that by making that their diplomatic priority and making that the place, other than the short-term issues in the Middle East, this reorientation, in historic terms, this reorientation of American foreign policy in the light of the new realities of Asia, is an enduring achievement and is something I think that we really needed to do.

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