Carla Anne Robbins, diplomatic correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, says her impression is that the foreign policy discussions at the highest levels of the administration are relatively civil exchanges. But thats not always the case lower in the hierarchy. Where the tensions exist are on the second level down, she says, and thats where you hear about the bitter infighting and the very poor communication between various government agencies.
Robbins also says that, despite sharp intra-administration differences on North Korea, a consensus has emerged to pursue negotiations. And she says the administration seems intrigued by the possibility of dealing with Iran.
She was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on May 21, 2003.
How does the Bush administration make its views known on national security and foreign policy issues?
With great reluctance. Of all the administrations that Ive covered, this administration has the most disciplined people. It starts from the White House at the very top. The president has made very clear to everyone, both publicly and privately, that he does not tolerate leaks. You would think that an administration, particularly [one] at mid-term and with many problems out there to deal with, would loosen up by this point. But they havent loosened up, and every time you say to them, You have to make a better case to the public about why youre doing what youre doing, whether its in Iraq or pulling out of treaties or giving the backhand to the French, they basically point to the polls and say, We dont need to.
How much do political advisers get involved in foreign policymaking?
One of the games around town right now is to look for [President Bush’s senior political adviser Karl] Roves fingerprints on everything. Certainly as the presidential election gets closer, well see them more. This is an administration that said it wasnt going to be driven by polling, but it is just as poll-driven as any other administration. But its hard to see the specific fingerprints of the political side, except on something like the Middle East peace process. But right now that thinking is sort of counterintuitive, even on the Middle East peace process. We all thought that because of his own instincts and the pressures from the right-wing pro-Israeli lobbyists that Bush would not get too involved. But the president in the last few days seems to be hooking his own prestige to the Middle East, much to my surprise.
Is Bush in fact thinking of going to the Middle East?
It looks like hell tack on some stop in the Middle East at the end of his trip to Europe early in June, and the betting is that he would go to Qatar or Kuwait, mostly as a thank you [gesture to those countries] for participation in the Iraq war. The idea of turning this trip into a chance to bring [new Palestinian Prime Minister] Abu Mazen and [Israeli Prime Minster Ariel] Sharon together has been bubbling up only in the last few days.
Who is the presidents primary foreign policy adviser? Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, or National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice? How do you figure out this puzzle?
Its more of a black box than anything else, much more so than in previous administrations. But the feeling one has is that the inner circle on national security issues is Condoleezza Rice and the vice president with the president. And you have the second circle, which is the National Security Council of course. Obviously Rumsfelds extremely powerful, and very controlling; someone I was talking to today said that Iraq was Rumsfelds oyster. Its one he may end up seeing as something else, but he has complete control over whats happening in Iraq right now.
Was the oyster comment a compliment?
It was said sardonically. He has complete control over it, if anyone has any control over Iraq. I think that they have serious, healthy discussions among the top power ministries and that Rumsfeld and Powell and Condi Rice all sit down together and, surprisingly, debate everything from Korea to whether to go to the U.N. on Iraq, and all of that. I would say that at the very top, its probably done reasonably amicably. Where the tensions exist are on the second level down, and thats where you hear about the bitter infighting and the very poor communication between the different [agencies].
On a couple of key issuesIran and North Koreapolicy seems to fluctuate regularly. Are the policies clear?
On Korea, I think there is consensus for the first time in quite a while. Were going to continue with some multilateral negotiations if the Chinese are willing to continue to champion them.
Now, the doves or the moderates, mainly in the State Department, argue that theres a real possibility of negotiating some way to get the [nuclear] genie back into the bottle. Powell himself has drawn the line and said very clearly: back in the bottle does not mean returning to the  Agreed Framework. Theyre not going to allow North Korea to keep any of the means of production for nuclear weapons on Korean soil. So its going to be a different agreement, but the moderates or the doves or the State Department or however you want to describe them, can sign on to it that way.
The hawks are willing to go to another [negotiating session] because they think the North Koreans will continue to misbehaveand thats the best way to make [the hawks] case for squeezing Pyongyang harder, especially with the Chinese. What the hawks really want to do is squeeze North Korea. They want to interdict their sales of weapons of mass destruction and cut off their money from [sales of] heroin. They think if we get really lucky, the North Koreans will annoy the Chinese so much that well be able to [impose these kinds of punitive measures] through the Security Council. Maybe the Chinese will even cut off North Koreas oil. The hawks dont make any secret of their hope that if they squeeze the North Koreans hard enough, this very brutal regime will fall.
Thats not to minimize the deep differences between these two camps. If you look at the way the two sides interpreted the [April 2003 trilateral] meeting in Beijing [of U.S., North Korean, and Chinese diplomats], they even disagree on the translation of the language. They agree that the meeting actually took place, they agree certain things were said, but [disagree about] the wonderful moment when the Korean negotiator pulled [James A.] Kelly [assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs] aside and [according to the hawk account] said to him, You know, we have nuclear weapons, we can use them, we can export them, we can test them, and its up to you. The doves translation was, Oh, he didnt say export, he said transfer. He didnt say test, he said demonstrate.
They all then came together and decided they could back another meeting. Thats what the consensus is right now, and its a very limited consensus, but the fact that the North Koreans are behaving in such an apparently irrational way makes it easier for that consensus to exist for a while.
Lets talk about Iran.
The administration is making a very big push on this question of what it alleges as Irans defiance of the IAEA [the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency]. The administration is waiting for a report from the IAEA in mid-June, and thats a very big issue on counter-proliferation.
What about Irans alleged links to al-Qaeda?
What I detect from the White House is that there are some members of the administration who are intrigued by the potential for internal change in Iran [but] very uncertain about how to deal with Iran. Things didnt turn out badly with Iran over Afghanistan, despite some panicked predictions. There are even greater concerns about Iraq. Were told there were intercepted conversations of al-Qaeda operatives [in Iran], and there are the ongoing charges that Iran is mucking around with the Shiites in Iraq. At the same time, I heard one hawk recently argue that moderate Shiites in Iraq could actually lead to changes in Iran.
What lessons has the administration learned since the Iraq crisis began to loom last year and through the war? There seems to be more discussion with other nations, and todays Security Council resolution lifting sanctions on Iraq is a kind of invitation to other countries to participate. Is there now a recognition that this administration has been too unilateral?
No, I dont think so at all. I dont detect that. I think [the administration officials] idea was that they were extremely multilateral in this war, but its just a different sort of multilateralism: We had the Poles, the Romanians, the Spaniards, the Italians, and the Australians, and [critics were] too hung up on the ideas of Security Council, Paris, and Berlin.
And I dont think theyve come away from it chastened, desiring to rush back to embrace the Security Council for major issues. They would say that they never rejected the Security Council altogether, because the next step on Korea, for example, is to go to the Security Council for a statement and ultimatelyif they want to do this interdiction strategy that they talk aboutthey would much rather have it legitimized through the U.N. Security Council because it would make boarding ships much easier.
Its not that [U.S. officials have] completely written off [the United Nations], but I dont think that they feel that they took a wrong step on Iraq. [Still] the administration needs to have the sanctions lifted, and people seem to be more willing to compromise than they were before. Theyre not compromising on the fundamentals on most of these things. Yes, theyll let the U.N. come in and do relief stuff, but theyre not letting [Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans] Blix back in to look for WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. And they continue to be resistant to that, they want to do the hunt themselves, and themselves means the Pentagon and only the Pentagon. NATO voted today to support the Poles if the Poles send peacekeepers into Iraq to provide logistical support, so theyre sort of bringing NATO in, but once again its a very ancillary role.
What do you expect will come out of the presidents trip to Europe early next month?
It is no accident that Bush is going to Poland. And hes going to Russia and hes going to the G-8 [Group of Eight] meeting, and he may be going to the [Persian] Gulf [region]. And I dont think theyre going to refuse to shake peoples hands at the G-8 meeting or be completely obnoxious about it, but theres no question that they are furious with the French and there is no question that they are slightly less furious with the Germans because in many ways their hope, their strategy, is to get the Germans to come over to our side, thereby further isolating the French. And they tried to let [Russian President Vladimir] Putin off the hook because he was led astray by bad influencesthats the French.
The French seem to be going out of their way to try to make amends and obviously Paris supports the Security Council resolution.
The impression I get from [the administration] is they say that theyre being magnanimous in victory, but I dont see an enormous amount of magnanimity.