Event Summary: Foreign Policy and the Presidency

October 14, 2003

A Brookings panel of experts this morning discussed President Bush’s foreign policy, compared it to the policies of previous administrations, and examined the internal bickering over the handling of Iraq.

Panelists agreed that President Bush’s foreign policy was not solely shaped by the events of September 11, 2001. Instead, Bush assumed office already convinced of certain principles.

“I think that George Bush, it is pretty clear, by the time he reached the presidency, had an idea of how the world works,” said James Lindsay, a former Brookings fellow who currently serves as the vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Lindsay paraphrased what he believed to be Bush’s world view: “The world is a dangerous place. There are bad people out there. States matter, particularly states with lots of power. The U.S. is the most powerful country in the world and it should be willing to use its power. International institutions aren’t necessary to the exercise of American power and they probably get in the way of it.”

Steven R. Weisman, chief diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, offered his own version of the administration’s belief system. “Let’s act on the basis of the worst thing happening and without going through a process in which you try to imagine whether that set of actions will make things worse than they otherwise would have been.”

A few panelists pointed out potential flaws in Bush’s thinking. “There’s one part of the belief system of George W. Bush which is important,” said Brookings Senior Fellow Ivo Daalder. “George W. Bush believes that the U.S. is a uniquely just power and everyone else in the world agrees so. He believes we are a good people?and the rest of the world knows that. That is a flaw in the belief system: not that we aren’t good people but not everyone else in the world necessarily believes that.”

Karen DeYoung, associate editor at the Washington Post, agreed, saying that “the president’s belief system would be the right one for this country if the rest of the world followed his beliefs and as long as things turned out the way he wanted them to.”

Panelists recognized that Bush, throughout his presidency, has held tight to his beliefs, and they have helped shape his foreign policy.

Lindsay said that Bush created “a mix of hardline conservatives” in his cabinet who would help reinforce his beliefs. DeYoung said, “You look at the people he’s surrounded himself with—The Vulcan Group—they have very strong positions on foreign policy, even if he didn’t have them himself.”

Unlike previous administrations, however, Bush chose to delegate much of the responsibility for foreign policy to the Pentagon.

“Remarkably, this administration decided that the coordination of their policy would not happen at the White House,” said Daalder.

However, the ongoing problems facing American troops and reconstruction efforts in Iraq have forced the White House to reassess its approach towards foreign policy, and, as a result, the Bush administration has recently sought greater control over the situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan, most notably by creating the “Iraq Stabilization Group,” (ISG) which will be run by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

“This is the tar baby that nobody wants, that nobody wants to get a hold of,” said Daalder. “The Pentagon doesn’t want it because they want to take the troops out. The State Department doesn’t want it because they think they can’t do it and that it’s a job that can’t be done. The White House doesn’t want it?because this president’s future is directly tied to what happens in Iraq.”

It was clear, according to Daalder, why the White House chose to tighten the reins on American foreign policy. “The very decision to begin to centralize the postwar planning in Iraq in the White House is a recognition that the president’s decision to hand this over to the Department of Defense in April was a mistake.”

Although recent reports indicated that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was furious that he was left out of the ISG’s planning process, panelists were quick to note that the infighting was perhaps to President Bush’s liking.

“He likes having his subordinates fight, although he doesn’t necessarily like it when it spills out into the public,” said Lindsay.

Weisman, who covered the White House during the 1980s, saw parallels with the Reagan administration. “The Reagan years are remembered as this pastoral, assertive time and yet my recollection of the Reagan years in covering the first term was an administration at war with itself, where national security advisors came and went and where the CIA director was not even on speaking terms with the White House chief of staff.”

“Obviously every president says they like arguments within their cabinet,” said DeYoung. “The stories about Clinton was that he liked for these arguments to go on forever. The frustration?was that [Clinton] tolerated these endless discussions without coming to a decision.”

What has made recent reports of administration bickering so pronounced, according to Weisman, is that such conflicts are so rare in the Bush administration.

“This administration has been unusually disciplined in keeping their internal divisions secret,” he said. “It was inevitable that as the policy generates recriminations, those recriminations become more public and that’s where we are now.”

Although the disputes have generated charges that President Bush is not in charge of his own administration and its policies, panelists were quick to dispute any such notion.

Weisman concurred. “This is a president who has been more in charge than is commonly perceived and likes debate and internal debate and options,” he said.

Additionally, such disagreements were nothing new and Daalder pointed out that recent events were simply business as usual.

“When the policy seems to be getting off track,” he said, “then the backbiting starts and then the questions that are bedeviling the administration are coming to the fore.”

Panelists framed their comments around the topics addressed in a new Brookings book, America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy, written by Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay.