Walter Russell Mead, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that the Bush administration has “every reason to think it could win a war” against Iraq, but the signs are growing that Saddam Hussein will be forced out without a conflict. “I think the odds are rising in favor of a peaceful resolution in which there would be real regime change in Iraq.” On North Korea, Mead says that the administration has been on a “learning curve.” He says “the reality is that we can only manage the North Korean situation through a process of negotiation” and that there is “a silver lining” to this current problem.
Mead, the author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on January 10, 2003.
Q. How do you think the Bush administration is doing on foreign policy?
A. Obviously, the world is in a state of crisis. So, if you were to say the goal of foreign policy is to prevent crises, they are not doing very well. But in fairness to them, at least some of the crises they are facing are not ones they have caused but ones that have been imposed on the United States by the outside world.
Q. Let’s start with Iraq.
A. The situation with Iraq is something that has been rattling around for 12 years now, and this is the third administration to try to solve that one. Neither of the first two administrations really found a completely satisfactory answer and the problem has clearly gotten worse and more urgent.
Q. Do you think President Bush made a mistake in going to the Security Council and seeking broad international support rather than just going ahead and invading Iraq as he seemed to be inclined to do earlier last summer?
A. No. In fact, I have always been under the impression that at the end of the day the Bush administration would work with the Security Council as long as possible. Also, I believed that the Security Council, despite some of the rhetoric from some of its members, was going to be more supportive of the United States than many people expected. We had that 15-0 vote on the Security Council. And what we are now reading in the press is that the Germans, who said all last year they would not support an American-led attack on Iraq, are now saying that they are not sure a second Security Council resolution would be needed to launch an attack. What a 180 degree shift of position!
The point is that on Iraq, the administration has a pretty good case under international law. The United States has consistently worked under the United Nations system since the early 1990s and the original Gulf War. We’ve played the game by the rules and it is sad but true that unless the Bush administration threatened to go outside the system, other countries wouldn’t have taken seriously our unhappiness with the situation.
Under the Clinton administration when the arms inspection process ran into trouble and began to collapse, some powers on the Security Council felt that they could basically play games and not take United States objections seriously. And these countries really helped sabotage the inspections regime. That helped to create this crisis. It weakened the United Nations.
Paradoxically— and this may not be what some people in the Bush administration hoped to achieve— this crisis is strengthening the United Nations and strengthening the Security Council. It is causing not just other members, but also the United States, to take the United Nations and Security Council more seriously as a force in international affairs, which I think is a good thing.
Q. Let’s say there is no “smoking gun” found, but the United States insists that Iraq has failed to prove it is not developing weapons of mass destruction. Will the American people support this approach, in the absence of concrete evidence?
A. I think they will. We are already seeing a pattern of non-cooperation emerging. The lists of Iraqi scientists provided to the inspectors are not complete and the Iraqi government has equivocated about allowing private interviews with these scientists. So it looks like we are not going to have a situation where Iraq is seen as having done everything that could reasonably be expected of it.
Iraq is still not facilitating an honest process. When this is made clear, you will get public support. And let’s not forget— the administration has a bipartisan congressional vote authorizing the use of force, and expressing the hope it will work with the United Nations, which it has demonstrably done. It doesn’t need another vote from the Security Council, and victory, in any case, is a great ratifier in public opinion. So if the administration has every reason to think it could win a war with Iraq relatively easily, I don’t think it has internal political consequences to fear at this point.
Q. Are you saying that war is essentially inevitable?
A. No, I am not saying that. I am saying that the administration is in a position to wage war against Iraq, if it feels it needs to. But I think Bush is actually sincere in saying that he wants a peaceful solution. You can imagine Saddam Hussein being so intimidated by the threats and pressures that he wants to buy a villa next to Idi Amin [a one-time Ugandan dictator], and leaves. And you get a different regime in Iraq. This would be a tremendous political victory for the president, maybe more impressive than victory in a war.
Q. What do you think the odds are for a “victory” without a war?
A. I think the odds are rising in favor of peaceful resolution in which there would be real regime change in Iraq. We’re seeing a lot of Arab countries making no secret that they would like to see Saddam leave. The Europeans, I think, are going to get active in trying to mediate this kind of an end. If you think about it, given where we are now, it is in everyone’s interest— even Saddam Hussein’s— for him to go and take some of his billions with him. It obviously spares the Iraqi people a terrible war. If Europe is able to show they played a role in finding a peaceful resolution to this problem, it shows that Europe has influence in the world. It keeps Europe aligned with America, while allowing European governments to show their people they are a force for peaceful resolution of disputes. It’s a triumph for the international security system and the United Nations; it is a tremendous victory domestically and internationally for President Bush; it is very good for the prestige of the United States; and it spares the Arab countries the divisiveness and costs and real suffering of a war. So there are a lot of powerful stars and planets lining up.
Q. Under that theory, the Security Council meeting on January 27 will probably not be definitive?
A. If you really want to preserve the peace, you have to prepare for war. So what you are seeing are leaks of military planning. The Bush administration is famously disciplined and secretive, and yet over and over again, there are leaks of war plans and preparations. These leaks, I assume, are inspired. So what we are seeing is Washington putting heavy psychological pressure on Saddam Hussein and on the circle of advisors around him in Iraq. I think that circle is being given some signals that if you get rid of him, a lot can be forgiven. The only criminals are those with him in the end, etc. etc. etc. I think what we are seeing is, on the one hand, a genuine preparation for war so that if there is no alternative, we will follow through to the bitter end. But on the other hand, we are seeing the careful orchestration of a psychological pressure game which hopefully will lead to a peaceful resolution. And frankly, I don’t think either one works very well without the other. I think the double track policy they are following here is exactly the right way to go.
Q. What about North Korea?
A. I think the Bush administration has gone up a learning curve on North Korea, which I would compare with the learning curve they went up on China at the time of the spy plane incident. [In April 2001, a U.S. Navy patrol plane collided with a Chinese fighter plane and made a forced landing on Hainan Island. It took weeks to resolve the problem and get China to return the pilot and plane.] In the presence of facts, even the most beautiful dogmas have a distressing tendency to dissolve. And the reality is that we can only manage the North Korean situation through a process of negotiation, or if you prefer the phrase, “talks.” Threats do not avail you of much in this situation. The administration’s initial impulse to find a very hard line road quickly ran into the sand. Among other things, the United States cannot really diverge from South Korea on policy toward North Korea. Nor can we go in a way that Japan fundamentally doesn’t want us to go. This is a case in which we have to work with these countries for the sake of our relationships with them, and because the stakes are so great for all of us there.
So what we are seeing now after a little bit of possibly unnecessary kerfuffle is a fairly rational policy emerging. Whatever happens down the road it is clearly in the U.S. interest not to have this crisis until at least the Iraqi thing is settled— and preferably, of course, not to have one at all. I forget who it was who said that “diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggy, nice doggy’ while you feel around for a stick.” On North Korea, the administration reached around and there wasn’t a “stick” and so it is back to “nice doggy, nice doggy.”
Q. North Korea said it was breaking the non-proliferation treaty but would allow the United States to check on its nuclear weapons if the United States was nice to it. Does this make sense?
A. If you give me an option between a country willing to sign the non-proliferation treaty but plans to develop nuclear weapons, and one which won’t sign the treaty but won’t develop the weapons, I like the second country better. But without going too far out on a limb, I think there is actually a silver lining to this cloud. Up until fairly recently, North Korea always wanted to go over South Korea’s head to the United States. Sort of like the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong never wanted to acknowledge the South Vietnamese as a legitimate government. They wanted to see the South Koreans as puppets, as instruments of imperialism and so they wanted to talk directly to the “big boys.”
For most of the last 40 years, the United States has felt rightly that this was a betrayal of the South Koreans. That has been a factor in maintaining the kind of frozen state of relations. What I detect now is that the South Koreans are so alarmed by some of the short term prospects but so optimistic about the long term prospects that the future belongs to them and not the north, that it is now possible to begin to think through a United States-North Korean settlement that the South Koreans not only would not object to, but will support and will actually see as being supportive of South Korean interests.