Bush Gets Taken to the Watershed.

October 17, 2006

Bush Gets Taken to the Watershed.

October 17 , 2006

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, October 17, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: The Bush press conference announcing adjustments in his Iraq policy was a big topic this week. John McLaughlin called it a “watershed.” He says ‘Staying the course is out, correcting the course is in.’ Presumably the change is a move towards reduction of U.S. troop presence, an acknowledgement that there’s a civil war going on and that the original American blueprint for the Iraq situation has not materialized.

Newman: Well, that’s clear.

Salit: That’s clear. We’re looking at shifting from a unilateralist, sole super power, pre-emptive war posture to a more diplomatically oriented – including direct negotiations – posture. They’re talking about Jim Baker saying to the president right after the election, we’ve got to engage with Iran, we’ve got to engage with Syria, we even have to engage directly with North Korea. The presumption is that the change of course is in that direction.

Newman: I think the change of course is taking U.S. troops out of Iraq while recognizing that the Iraqi situation is still unstable. That’s the “cash value” content of the change of course. I don’t think they’ll do it until after the election. But, they’re preparing for it now.

Salit: They won’t do it until after the election because they’ve staked the election on the Iraq policy as the bulwark of our national security. You have to ride that horse all the way to the end.

Newman: The end is not a long ride from now. It’s three weeks away.

Salit: So the change of course is, the cash value, to use your eloquent term…

Newman: It’s actually William James’ eloquent term.

Salit: OK, the cash value is a troop reduction even though the situation in Iraq will remain unstable. It’s an exit without a guarantee of leaving behind a stable and democratic Iraq.

Newman: No, there’s no guarantee. I think they’ll more and more buy in on the “British position,” that, at this point in time, the presence of British troops, indeed of U.S. troops, is contributing to destabilization, rather than reducing it. That will be their rationalization for getting out, and it’s probably a legitimate one.

Salit: So then, how does that change the picture internationally?

Newman: The picture already has changed internationally. The North Korean situation is being handled very differently than Iraq. So the policy has already been transformed, while Iraq is now a residual or leftover problem from an earlier policy and attitude which we have to clean up, at some point. I don’t know who will clean it up, but it’s clear that it won’t be cleaned up before Election Day. Will it be cleaned up before ’08? I think so. Bush and Company are very concerned with maximizing the chances of a continuation of Republican rule. I think it’ll be cleaned up sometime between November ’06 and November ’08.

Salit: Back to your point that the world situation already has changed. Washington has made some significant adjustments.

Newman: The neo-cons’ edict that We should move on our own because the UN doesn’t move, is no longer the posture. That’s not what’s being talked about now in North Korea or anyplace else.

Salit: As was reported, Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton just came back from high level meetings with Iranian government officials and Syrian government officials.

Newman: What’s Iran and Syria’s relevance to this?

Salit: These are countries where our posture was that we’re not dealing directly with them.

Newman: The relevant factor in Iran is that negotiations have so far been conducted by Europe. In the case of North Korea, negotiations are largely being conducted by Japan, China, South Korea, and so on. The U.S. is not in a position to make unilateral moves, for a variety of reasons. There are other powerful countries in the mix. You turn to a military strategy, you run into the fact that this country doesn’t have either the will or the material forces to do that all over the world.

The question of bi-lateral, as opposed to multi-lateral, talks is fundamentally a tactical question. I favor multi-lateralism, but I also favor bi-lateral talks. There’s no particular reason for Washington, at whatever level, not to talk to Kim Jong Il. That’s a propaganda game. And, it’s probably a useful propaganda game.

Salit: Does refusing to talk to the North Koreans have any real upside at this point?

Newman: I think part of why Washington holds on to that tactic is they’re trying to force Beijing’s hand in this. They’re trying to force Beijing into making a stronger move than Beijing would like to make. That’s why they hold on to that.

Salit: “A stronger move” meaning?

Newman: Putting more pressure on Pyonyang. And we’ll soon see what China does relative to facilitating bi-lateral talks within the multi-lateral context. We’ll see how much pressure they can put on Washington, and how much pressure Washington can put on Beijing. It’s a pressure game. That’s what diplomacy is, but it’s a somewhat dangerous game because meanwhile, North Korea is advancing its nuclear program. How much, we don’t know. That’s a serious question, still. Tony Blankley pointed out that different presidents, Democrats, Republicans, over the last 50 years have been trying to deal with the issue of nuclear weapons proliferation. The point is that almost any country which has the will and the desire to create nuclear weapons can and will. And no one is in a position to stop them.

Salit: In this so-called watershed press conference that everyone was talking about this week, Bush said that the main objective for America is that the forces of moderation prevail.

Newman: Moderation? As opposed to what? As opposed to extremism?

Salit: I suppose.

Newman: There’s no concreteness to that kind of talk. One man’s extremism is another man’s moderation. You have to accomplish things on the basis of dealing with concrete situations. The Bush administration has done a dreadful job in handling the Iraq situation. That’s what you have to look at. Are they doing the same thing in Korea or in Iran? They seem not to be. Does that mean they won’t handle those equally badly? I don’t know. They might do a totally different thing and that could be equally the wrong thing for that situation. I don’t think they’re very good at this. I think they’ve been taking advice from the wrong people. I think they’ve been over-determined by the neo-cons, over-determined by Karl Rove, and so forth. I don’t think they handle the international scene well. Domestically? I don’t think they’ve failed as dramatically. Although I don’t think that they’ve done all that well. But that should come as no great shock.

Salit: Because America’s more stable.

Newman: America’s more stable and Republicans, as a broad over-generalization, have never been as in tune with the American people on domestic issues. So, I think they’ve tried to make their mark, since Ronald Reagan anyway, on international issues. Reagan was pretty good at it. George Bush, the father, was pretty good at it. This George Bush is a dreadful failure, ironically, because he didn’t listen to his own advice on this. From the outset, Bush and Company didn’t handle this moderately. It was pure extremism. The neo-cons are extremists.

Salit: Exactly.

Newman: Pre-emptive war.

Salit: It doesn’t exactly galvanize the forces of moderation.

Newman: I wouldn’t think so.

Salit: How does this shift affect the American domestic political scene?

Newman: Which shift?

Salit: The shift in international policy.

Newman: It’s not a full blown shift because Iraq is still in the picture. And, in many ways, Iraq is what Americans are most directly responding to. That’s what the upcoming elections are going to reflect. How far will that go? I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I think what they’re working for now is adjusting sufficiently so that whoever runs in ’08 has a chance to carry on Republican hegemony.

Salit: In watching the Klobacher/Kennedy debate, the Minnesota Senate debate, I thought Mark Kennedy, the Republican, was kind of blowing in the wind. The American people moved away from their support of the Iraq war some time ago and now the administration – meaning, his party – is clearly moving away from its “stay the course” position. He’s left holding the bag on this. We’ll see how the election turns out.

Newman: What’s the story in that race?

Salit: It’s an open seat. It was Mark Dayton’s senate seat so there’s no incumbent. Klobacher’s a prosecutor and she’s up in the polls. Kennedy’s in Congress. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Democratic Party could be a strong beneficiary of the shift in foreign policy, if they can figure out what to do with that shift.

Newman: They’ve not been good at that, in general.

Salit: How true.

Newman: I’m not saying this will happen, but if you think of these issues in the framework of the ’08 election as a race between Hillary and McCain, the Republicans are trying to give McCain his best shot.

Salit: The best launching pad.

Newman: The best launching pad, even though, lots of Republicans can’t stand McCain, because they think he’s too liberal or libertarian on social questions. On the Democrat side, could Hillary opportunize off of what you’re identifying as this post-midterm elections shift? She probably has as good a chance, or a better chance, as anybody else. Is it enough to propel her to victory? I don’t know. When I think about that fantasy of them running against each other – and I don’t think it will come true actually – part of my fantasizing about that fantasy is that the race will end up an absolute tie.

Salit: That would be a hoot!

Newman: And then we will have to figure out what to do.

Salit: I think it gets thrown into the House of Representatives.

Newman: Something like that. But who knows what the House of Representatives will look like after they throw out all the Republicans who have morals charges against them. Even that is unpredictable.

Salit: Let’s assume, for the moment, that Hillary gets re-elected in November.

Newman: She will be re-elected. Even we’re supporting her!

Salit: I forgot! She’s running on our line!

Newman: She will be re-elected.

Salit: And I doubt we’ll be her margin of victory. So, she gets re-elected. We get through the midterms. Now the White House is changing course. Baker comes in and gives Bush an exit strategy. OK. Then Hillary’s in a position to say: When the war strategy made sense, I was with it. So you can’t call me a dove. But when the war went bad, I was a critic of it and it’s people like me who forced George Bush to change course.

Newman: That’s what she’ll say.

Salit: So, how do the left/progressive Democrats go at that? Or, don’t they? Does this new situation validate her as an anti-war candidate?

Newman: They’ll split on that, but she’ll get away with it. The “extremists” will make a lot of noise. But, if Hillary makes it through the primaries, how can they not go with her? I don’t think she’ll be there. But if she’s there, how can they not go with Hillary? They went with Kerry. What could be the excuse for not going with Hillary?

Salit: Exactly. They went with Kerry, number one, and number two, presumably we’ll be in the process of extricating ourselves from Iraq at that point. So, it’s not even like the Lyndon Johnson scenario in 1968, where the whole fight was to change course on the war. Because the course of the war is already changed.

Newman: Plus, the issue is not going to be the course of the Iraq war, it’s going to be the course of upcoming wars. It’s going to be a debate on the position the U.S. should take on North Korea, on Syria, on Iran.

Salit: And on the Palestinians.

Newman: Which, as was pointed out today, has finally come back into the dialogue a little bit, but hardly at all.

Salit: Since we’re talking about the 2008 presidential elections and what the political environment is going to look like coming out of the midterms, I have to reflect on how there was so much talk this year about a third party presidential candidate. Alan Greenspan, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times have observed that the country is polarized, that there’s a real opportunity for some kind of independent/third party presidential candidacy. Maybe it’s a Mike Bloomberg, maybe it’s this one, maybe it’s that one. How do you see that picture, post-November, 2006?

Newman: In some ways, the only viable independent presidential candidate is Bloomberg. But, number one, I don’t think he’s going to run. And, number two, if he’s going to run, he’s surely not going to decide until late. And his decision is going to be based on what’s happening in the Republican and Democratic Party primaries.

Salit: Let’s go back there for a second. What stops Hillary from getting through the primaries? What’s the best argument against her? She’s not electable. She’s a woman. She’s too controversial and she’s just not electable. This is the Democrats’ moment. Bush and the Republicans have been discredited. We need somebody who is electable.

Newman: Totally electable.

Salit: Totally electable. And she just isn’t. So, it’s kind of an “Anybody but Hillary” campaign inside the Democratic Party.

Newman: It’s not quite “Anybody but Hillary.” It’s “Let’s be sensible.”

Salit: Let’s be sensible, OK. Why doesn’t McCain make it through the Republican primaries? He’s too liberal?

Newman: On social issues. There’s still a very powerful right wing of the Republican Party. It doesn’t want him.

Salit: And they’re looking to be really aggressive because they’re unhappy with the turn that things have taken under the Bush administration.

Newman: And they dominate in primaries.

Salit: Yes, they dominate in primaries, even with the 20 plus states that have open primaries where independents can vote. So, let’s say you get through the primaries and it’s not Hillary and it’s not McCain. It’s a conservative Republican and a sensible alternative to Hillary, Evan Bayh, John Kerry. How does that picture look to Bloomberg, in your view? Let’s leave aside that you and I both agree that Bloomberg is not going to run.

Newman: It’s hard to say because all you’re giving is outcomes. You’re not giving a picture of the process that leads to that place.

Salit: Meaning?

Newman: That it could be an enormously divisive process. I think that’s the only thing that might conceivably move Bloomberg. If it’s very intensely partisan, and Americans are profoundly turned off by the process, Bloomberg might say I can come in and save the day.

Salit: In some respects, that’s what he did in New York.

Newman: Yes. So, I think it depends on how the primaries play out, not just the outcome.

Salit: To be continued. Thank you.