US Foreign Policy After 11 September

Date October 10, 2002
Speaker Ian BREMMER(President, Eurasia Group)


I am going to focus on the issues that I think are of greatest interest to people here, which is US foreign policy in Iraq, issues around the Middle East, to a lesser extent India and Pakistan, Russia, and some other political risk issues.

Let me begin by mentioning three basic differences in terms of the way foreign policy decision-making has been handled by the United States under the Bush administration, compared to that of previous administrations.

The first is the dramatically diminished role of economics. If you look back to the Clinton administration, the Department of Treasury--particularly the Secretary--had a formative role in foreign policy decisions, as did other key economic officials. When the Clinton administration was considering its policies around the world, whether they had to do with Europe, Russia, China, or even the Middle East, they tended to be strongly informed by immediate US economic interests, as well as the impact those policies would have on global markets.

The Bush administration is very consciously different. It is not that economics play no role, but rather that foreign policy is more narrowly defined around national security issues. If you want to consider the key institutions with foreign policy influence in the Bush administration, you are talking about Defense, State, Intelligence, and the office of the Vice President. The role of Treasury, Commerce, and other key economic advisors around key US foreign policy decisions really is not there. That is the case if we are talking about whether the United States should push for additional multilateral support for Turkey, or why the US should--or should not--have a strong relationship with Russia.

Furthermore, the decision of whether and when to launch a war against Iraq, is not driven by economic considerations. Issues of how much the war will cost, who will pay for it, and even some of the direct implications for the energy markets, play much less of a direct role in terms of the strategic decision making around the timing of a military strike. For example, to the extent that at present, that there is the possibility of an oil strike in Mexico and that Venezuela is quite unstable, you might think that there would be a lot of discussion about how potential instabilities in global oil supply might impact timing for a war in Iraq. That is not among the highest priorities for whether and when the US will launch an attack. That is the first fundamental change I see in foreign policy of the Bush administration.

Second, the National Security Council plays a very different role in this administration. Over the last several presidencies in the United States, the NSC had been a policymaking organization which, to a lesser or greater extent, competed for influence with the Department of State. In many ways, NSC Adviser Berger had more influence than Secretary of State Albright under President Clinton. They had very similar interests, somewhat overlapping portfolios, and they would compete one with the other for influence.

After President Bush was elected but before he came into office, Condoleezza Rice requested that the NSC position be made into a cabinet role. Bush said no. Not because he wished to penalize Condi Rice--far from it, Bush promised Rice that she would continue to have very strong access to the President (and indeed she continues to enjoy some of the closest access to the President). But the National Security Council was not to be a competing policy making organization. It was meant to be a policy advisory group. As a consequence, the size of the NSC was dramatically reduced, and the role that it has played, and played effectively, has been to advise the President on all of the different constituencies and their views on foreign policy were. Not only in terms of within the administration but also outside, especially when it comes to, for example, British Prime Minister Blair. That means that when Condoleezza Rice makes a statement about policy, it tends to reflect the Bush consensus position while when the Secretary of State Powell, or Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, or others make a statement, it tends to represent their strongly held view which may be in disagreement with other people's views (and which will, over the course of time, become a consensus position).

In the Clinton administration, both Gore and Clinton had very strong policy views themselves, so even though there was a lot of disagreement between various institutions in and around the cabinet, a lot of time those differences did not make it to the public. Clinton and Gore were leading the charge and everyone had to get in line behind them. In the Bush administration, the frission between Defense and State are overstated because they are so very public, because Bush himself does not come to the presidency with as many strong held foreign policy prescriptions. That is the second point.

The third point is that the Bush administration has relatively little interest in international diplomacy. Not international politics, but international diplomacy. They are often insensitive to the constraints of domestic political constituencies of other leaders around the world. I do not believe that that means that the Bush administration is necessarily much more unilateral than the Clinton administration. But I do believe that it appears to be much more unilateral.

The "axis of evil" speech is a good example. The substance of the State of the Union address was a policy that would have been quite close to what we would have heard from Al Gore, had he become president. It was a policy, which could have been agreed to by most--if not all--of America's major allies around the world. But the way that it was presented, the style of the speech, and the Bush Administration's unwillingness to pay attention to the way that that would impact other constituencies around the world; while playing quite well in the United States, played horribly in just about every other country around the world. Bush has not been sensitive to these issues.

To overstate the case, if you could make the argument that President Clinton often got the policy wrong but he almost always got the politics right, you could make the argument that Bush often gets the policy right but he almost always gets the politics wrong.

Of course, there is some ideology in some Bush administration policies, like what we've seen with the International Criminal Court, an issue which clearly represents a more unilateralist perspective, but I think these are small issues. In general, I would argue that the Bush administration in substance is not so dramatically different in terms of the kinds of policies they are putting in place, than the previous administration.

So we've started by outlining the differences. Now let me go further. When President Bush came into office, it was pretty clear to everyone that he neither had a particularly strong background in foreign policy, nor did he have a particularly strong interest in foreign policy. The argument was that here is an outsider from Texas who is going to run the country like a CEO, not like a politician, and he is going to focus on issues that really matter to the US taxpayer.

Before he was elected and before he took office, I would say that the Bush Administration had only two strongly held foreign policy priorities. One was to prioritize the dramatic improvement of US relations with Mexico and, more broadly, Latin America. The second was to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Regime change in Iraq was not a post-September 11th policy. Indeed, an argument can be made that September 11th actually delayed a US attack on Iraq. Military plans were clearly being developed, and a certain amount of momentum had already been gathering. Certainly there was every intention to remove Hussein from Iraq before September 11th hit. Further, I do not believe that this was fundamentally meant to be a war for oil. Oil has played a role, but I do not think that was most important. I think there have been three major reasons why the United States intends to attack Iraq, and has intended to attack Iraq.

The first is weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration truly believes that there is a very limited window before Iraq has a dramatically increased capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction. They are not significantly concerned that they will use them in the region--or even that they will threaten to use them in an region. But the Bush Administration is extremely concerned that the Iraqi government will sell their WMD technology for money that they desperately need and that this technology in the hands of terrorists could advance their capacity by a minimum of five to ten years. That is very much a top priority of the Bush administration and it is a consensus position--not just from Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney, but Secretary of State Powell as well.

Number two. The Bush Administration believes that Iraq, and in particular Saddam Hussein, poses a threat to the long-term strategic interests of the United States in the region. If you want to consider those leaders who are most effective at propagandizing and stirring anti-American sentiment which in the long term will be destabilizing for US and Western interests in the Middle East, bin Laden is not your principal problem. Some view bin Laden as a folk hero, particularly some in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but throughout the Middle East if you look at the disenfranchised populations--the so-called Arab street--Saddam Hussein is much more popular and much more effective at thumbing his nose at the United States. That is a second reason.

A third reason, not as important as the first two but worth remembering, is that Saddam Hussein did order an assassination attempt on President Bush, Sr. That is something which is remembered strongly by this administration. Those are the three most significant reasons for a US attack on Iraq.

There is no compelling evidence at this point that Hussein is in any way connected to existing or historic terrorist attacks. From that perspective it is not a mainline enemy in the war on terror.

So that is where we stand in terms of what I think is going to happen in Iraq and why. Now what about "when" is going to happen in Iraq.

Do I think a war is likely? Yes, I do. I think that the US, with British support, probably with Turkey, probably with Russia, perhaps along with other countries, perhaps not, is likely to launch a military attack on Iraq. It is likely to involve large-scale air sorties followed by 50,000 to 250,000 US troops on the ground. How many troops depends in large part on what the initial reaction of the Iraqi defense forces, how many defections you have, how many surrenders. Most in US defense circles believe that a war would end very quickly. Some believe days, others believe a matter of a month. No one really expects a war will last much longer than that.

I find four to six weeks at the outside reasonably convincing. Iraq has far smaller armed forces than they did in 1991. They are trained badly; their military technology is appalling. I have a hard time imagining that they will be able to stand up for long in the face of US attacks. I also believe that initial US bombing will be relatively focused as the United States tries to limit casualties of Iraqi civilians. If initial strikes are unsuccessful, the US will likely expand the scope of targeting, with larger consequent Iraqi civilian casualties (and consequent instability in the Middle East). So that is the way I think an attack will occur.

How about when I think an attack will occur? I think there is no chance of US attack before elections on November 5th, in part because Hussein still has diplomatic wiggle room, in part because the level of volatility which follows a US attack is potentially large and could hurt domestically, in part because Bush will be strongly criticized by the Democrats for a wag-the-dog scenario, and in part because the military is just is not going to be completely ready. I think there is say, a 25% chance-ish of an attack between election time and the first or second week of December, and then an 85% chance of a war before the end of the first quarter 2003. I know they add up to more than 100%, I am just talking cumulative numbers.

Keep in mind, you have to get through all of the negotiations in the UN, you have to go through the resolution process, you have to give Hussein a few days to say okay (as he will at the last minute in all likelihood), then you have to send inspectors, if you do, then there will be wrangling about that, and how the inspectors go. Once you get through all of that and before US truly loses its patience on this issue, you are probably talking first quarter 2003. Also, US will not have full numbers of troops on the ground in the region until the first or second week of December. They can attack before then, you can certainly have massive airlifts. But I think the Defense Department would certainly rather have all of their ducks in a row and so they are likely to want to wait. You have Ramadan, with at least some importance (though it certainly was not an enormous issue for Egypt when it attacked Israel in the past). And the weather will not be conducive until January for American troops on the ground wearing biochem uniforms. Those are the basic issues around when and why.

I only said 85%. What is the remaining 15%? One thing that could happen is that Saddam Hussein himself could get deposed. Now we have heard some news about this on the wires in the last couple of days. Intelligence organizations in the US believe that is a plausible scenario. I would not say it is very likely. It becomes more likely, ironically, the more multilateral the US is. This is in a sense one of the ironies of the war that the greater the strength of the coalition, and the less the potential of surprise, the greater the possibilities for Iraqi preemption.

If Iraq truly believes they have no diplomatic wiggle room left, then they could conceivably use their weapons of mass destruction against Israel, or perhaps threaten such behavior. Hussein could be deposed, I think more likely in that scenario than the former. Perhaps most likely if they really feel an attack is forthcoming, is that they would withdraw all of their troops from their border areas and they concentrate them in Baghdad. That of course, if it happens and if you really have no surprise of the US attack leads to, again, a tougher military engagement and more Iraqi civilian casualties if the US then goes in.

So that is the most likely thing at this point that would lead to a delay. I think there is a negligible chance of Hussein really and truly adhering to weapons inspectors. Even if he did, the United States and perhaps Britain would likely create all sorts of reasons why those inspections would not truly be complied with. I think in that situation, you have a situation where you have troops going in, you have members of the international community saying, "wait, you haven't given peace a chance." The political fallout is more volatile as a consequence but a military intervention still happens.

Keep in mind that if Hussein is removed, and there is a new regime on the ground in Iraq, one thing which suddenly happens is that the US has a colinearity of interest with our allies in the Middle East, with Japan, with China, with the Europeans, that everyone suddenly will want stability in Iraq. So the United States will, of necessity, no matter how much other countries may have complained about an attack, work very closely with other countries to ensure in this key part of the world that you have a level of stability. I also expect the United States to commit a large number of troops on the ground in Iraq following a regime change. I think that Rice has been fairly clear about that in the last couple of weeks.

If we attack, as I said, I believe that the outcome is likely to be relatively quick. I think there will be relatively small numbers of US casualties. I think even Iraqi casualties will hopefully be limited--though it is extremely difficult to be certain about that. I think the US will commit troops on the ground afterwards. You will have probably have a temporary government in the north that looks like the Kurdish joint parliament that has recently been established, and a temporary Shia Arab government in the south. The middle of the country will be a power vacuum, they will not have legitimate leaders, there is not going to be an Iraqi loya jirga in the near future in the Sunni Arab section of the country, but we will have large numbers of international troops maintaining security. The Iraqi military is likely to be the one institution that continues to hold together, and if I had to speculate about a future leader of Iraq, I would expect a Sunni Arab general, formerly of the existing Iraqi army.

From the internal Iraqi perspective, that sounds pretty good. Having said that, there are three major factors which make this war much more dangerous and volatile for global markets than the Gulf War was. Let me go through them briefly now.

One, terrorism. There is a virtual certainty of large-scale terrorist attacks against particularly western assets in the Middle East, against Israel, and western assets in South and Southeast Asia following a US attack on Iraq. Such attempts at attacks are likely to intensify as we get closer to an attack and they are almost certain to be widespread following an attack. Now, hopefully most of those attacks will be prevented before they are successful. Nonetheless, there will be a lot of psychology, a lot of jitteriness in the markets around those attacks, and, of course, it is more difficult to prevent attacks from occurring in the Middle East and South Asia than it is from preventing them happening in the United States. Given the fact that that is the most likely target, I think the US is actually a less likely target though obviously possible, that is a danger.

Number two. Al Jazeera and other major Arab news organizations have far greater penetration throughout the Middle East than they did in 1991, 1992. That means it will be much harder following this attack for moderate Arab leaders to maintain control of information about the war with their own local populations. It will also be harder for them to contain demonstrations within their own countries. Does this mean that Abdullah will fall in Jordan? Not likely, but it does mean that you should expect more instability in those countries. I do, by the way, think that Saudi Arabia will be quite stable, at least for the next year or two. I also think that a war may well cause reformers in Iran to believe that here is an opportunity for a move against the conservatives in more decisive fashion; so you will probably see more instability there.

Number three, Israel-Palestine is in a much worse situation today than it was a decade ago. I think there is a danger that if there is intensified Palestinian attacks against Israel in the coming months, that Israel's Sharon may well respond by attempting to remove Arafat from the West Bank altogether. Obviously the US is pressuring Sharon strongly not to do that, but Bush's influence on Sharon has been less than completely effective. I am not so concerned about the Lebanon border in the run-up to a war because I think that Iran has a lot of control over Hezbollah and the reformers in Iran in particular have a strong interest in allowing the United States to attack Iraq and remove Hussein. (If you look at the Taliban and now Hussein, one would argue that the US has a lot of strategic interests in common with Iran but it does not mean we are going to improve our relations with them anytime soon.)

Those are the things I think that will lead to more volatility. As a consequence, you could easily be in a situation where you have the war, Iraq looks pretty good and the Middle East looks pretty bad. I think that is actually the most likely scenario at this point.

Okay, a couple other quick points. First of all, Pakistan-India. We have had over 800 people die in the Kashmiri elections over the course of the last month. But instability between Pakistan and India is still quite low. I do not expect any real surprises in the Pakistani elections. I think there will be some isolated violence. There will probably be some terrorist incidents. But Musharraf has done a surprisingly good job at building and maintaining his own security in the past six months. He looked very weak after September 11th. It looked like there was a chance that he could be ousted. I do not think that is a plausible scenario right at the present time. I also think that the chances of serious conventional war or nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan are de minimus. I think the real danger in Pakistan is if you have, because the dangers of conventional war, nuclear war between India and Pakistan are very low, that means that both sides are willing to ratchet up the brinksmanship much higher than they would otherwise be, because they do not see much danger there. And, of course, there could be another major terrorist attack in India. Still, even in that case, I think there is less cause for alarm than has generally been sounded.

Also Russia. I think Russia is on board, generally speaking, with the United States. US-Russia relations are quite good. They are looking for money and it is difficult to blame them. I mean, they are looking for their best possible deal on Iraq. The Russian and the US positions are interesting and understandably different. Russia's position on Iraq is that if they have eight, nine billion dollars in debt owed to them. They want that money guaranteed by the US and the new regime. They also have oil concessions at favorable rates that were promised them by Hussein, and they want those guaranteed too.

The American position is that, yes, Russia has legitimate interests in Iraq, but the chances of Iraq actually making good of its obligations or its oil concessions as long as Hussein remains in power, are exactly zero. As a consequence, what those concessions are worth, and what that debt is worth, is considerably less than the price put on it by the Russians. There is a negotiation going on. The reason why the Russians are being so obstreperous at the UN is because they recognize that this is the time they have to leverage the United States for the best possible deal.

I expect the Russians will get a better deal from the Americans. It will not be everything that the Russians want; it will not be as little as the Americans would like to pay, but the deal will be specifically around Iraq. I should add that this is not an Iraq-for-Georgia deal. The US and Russia are cooperating quite closely on Georgia, particularly in terms of intelligence on the ground. Russian comments on Georgia have been for domestic political consumption and should not be read as anything more than that.

Iran is a problem for Russia and the United States. The Russians have been somewhat more open about what kind of conventional weapons they have been sending to Iran, but they have not been willing to stop building the Iranian nuclear plant. The US opposes this. Having said that, there is big difference between a nuclear plant and weapons of mass destruction. A nuclear plant does not move. We know where it is, we know when it is going to be finished. My expectation is that if the Iranians continue to build their nuclear plant and it gets close to completion, it will not be functional, for one reason or the other. I do not think that is a show stopper in terms of US-Russia.

Let me finish with one other issue, which is just about Japan. I think that Japan-US relations from the US perspective have improved strongly in the past six months. A year ago, if you would ask someone in the Bush administration about Japan, the first response that you would have gotten would be "economic cesspool." Huge problems in the international markets; the US has to pressure the Japanese to reform, reform, reform, and then reform.

More recently, Prime Minister Koizumi has played a very helpful strategic role to the United States on North Korea. The bilateral meetings between Koizumi and Bush went very well as a consequence of that. The conversations that the US has had with Japan on Iraq have been more positive than many of the conversations the US has had with main allies in Europe, certainly with Germany. So as a consequence, Japan is increasingly seen as a potential strategic partner more globally as opposed to just a drag on global markets.

I warn, I caution you, that I do believe that if there is a war in Iraq and it is successful, that Japanese investment in Iran would be scrutinized much more closely by the US government. I do not expect that the United States is going to improve relations with Iran any time soon unless there is a change of regime in Tehran. I would caution Japan about that. Okay, that is 35 minutes and that is probably more than enough.

Thank you very much.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.