Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2004; 12:00 PM
Washington Post foreign policy reporter Peter Slevin comes to the Web to discuss the latest developments in U.S. foreign policy -- from the State Department to the frontlines in Iraq, join Slevin every Thursday to discuss the diverse factors that shape U.S. foreign policy and how it impacts our lives and the world.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Peter Slevin: Another day, another spate of bad foreign policy news. Let's get to the questions and comments.
What foreign policy?
Peter Slevin: That about sums it up in these chaotic days. The administration is scrambling to hold things together on some of the biggest national security challenges facing the country. But, funny, a lot of the world isn't cooperating.
What do you make of the Chalibi raid? What does this say about the Neocons and others in this Administration who relied on Chalibi and his Iraqi National Congress for the motives for going to war and the how a post war Iraq would play out? Does this affect the status of Chalibi's nephew as head of the Tribunal slated to preside over Saddam Hussein's trial?
washingtonpost.com: Chalabi's House Raided by U.S. Troops, (post.com, May 20)
Peter Slevin: Today's raid on Ahmed Chalabi's house and offices in Baghdad is a startling turn of events, another sign of how far he has fallen. It is also another piece of news the U.S. architects of the war don't need right now.
Chalabi is a fascinating man and a remarkably savvy politician. What else can you say about a leader who managed to develop strong relationships simultaneously with some of the most important players in the Bush administration and Iranian intelligence? One should never count him out.
It's too soon to know what evidence the CPA has on Chalabi, who you may recall was convicted in absentia on fraud charges by a Jordanian court. (He denies the charges.) It seems likely to further diminish his already low popularity in Baghdad.
My sense is that Sam Chalabi, a lawyer who lived in London before Hussein fell, has impressed people in his own right.
Peter, I was in the State Department for 30 years, and personally I can't remember any time when foreign attitudes about the U.S. were worse than they are today. How repairable do you think the damage is? Is it as simple as changing presidents, or is it going to take years to turn things around, no matter who wins in November?
Peter Slevin: This is a comment I hear from disheartened diplomats around the world. My feeling is that the damage is strongly connected to attitudes toward President Bush -- as opposed to Americans collectively -- and that a change will require a new president with a different and more humble vision of the world. Plus lots of time, no matter who wins.
New York, N.Y.:
There have been many reports in recent days about the role of Military Intelligence, the CIA, and private contractors, but so far little official comment about their involvement, with only the MP's and their commanders being blamed.
Are you confident that this will ultimately be investigated thoroughly, or will the politicians and the public soon lose interest?
Peter Slevin: This one will be investigated, although how deep the inquiries will go remains to be seen. The Senate, in contrast to the House, has plunged into the fray and the military itself has commissioned any number of studies.
Also on the plus side, the shock over the Abu Ghraib prison abuses has triggered a wave of media interest in how decisions were made in the White House about interrogation rules beginning after Sept. 11. Look for much more coverage soon.
What do you think will be the sinificance of the Chalabi episode of last night? I just read a description of the way his home/ofice looked after the CPA troops left. Won't that guarantee another layer of hostility in what can only be described already as a viper's nest?
Peter Slevin: Chalabi is not Sistani and he doesn't have his own militia. Also, there is not much love lost, given antipathy toward Chalabi among many Iraqis who stayed in Iraq and view him with great skepticism, if not outright hostility.
Why do U.S. administrations find it so difficult to criticize Israel?
Peter Slevin: In the case of the Bush administration, I'd point to two primary themes.
One is domestic electoral politics, pure and simple. The administration, like its predecessors, does not want to risk antagonizing Jewish voters. The key number here is 537. Remember the Florida 2000 election?
This president and Karl Rove, his chief political adviser, also hear often from evangelical Christians who favor a strong, supportive policy toward Israel.
The second one is President Bush's own convictions. He sees Israel in the context of the war against terrorism as justifiably defending itself against Islamic extremism in much the way the United States has had to defend itself since 9/11.
I've not worked at State, but know folks who have and do. They have a similar outlook on our image in the greater world. You said it would take regime change here, plus time to fix it. OTOH, if Bush gets another four years, I've read that the world may see this as Americans' approval of his foreign policy, and thus be more likely to hold individual Americans collectively responsible. This might chill even more such things as foreign travel for pleasure, business, students studying abroad etc. Less exposure--less chance to mollify perceptions, on both sides. Your take?
Peter Slevin: That's a depressing thought, isn't it? It could be true; historians have written shelves of books on collective guilt and the way national images shape behavior and the treatment by outsiders.
Yet barring a dramatic shift in the polls, a victory for President Bush seems hardly likely to be the kind of landslide that might suggest overwhelming U.S. support for his policies.
It may well become more dangerous for Americans abroad, but I don't think the electoral passion for Bush would be the reason. Rather, it would be because of real or perceived U.S. intentions and actions in the world.
What went on in western Iraq yesterday?
Accounts from the locals and from the military are not easily reconcilable. It's as if they were talking about two different incidents, and the thought occurs to me that this may in fact be the case. Troops on the ground recovering weapons and cash (from the military's version) would have seen civilian casualties (the locals' version) and vice versa, but neither reports having seen the other. Also, the military reports engaging hostile at near 3 AM local time. Who holds wedding ceremonies at that hour?
At any rate, and knowing only what we do from press reports, this seems like another serious setback to our efforts in Iraq.
washingtonpost.com: Dozens Killed in U.S. Attack Near Syria; Target Disputed, (Post, May 20)
Peter Slevin: The investigation, as they say, is continuing.
The Americans say they were fired upon and discovered weapons, passports, foreign currency and sat phones. The Iraqis say all those finds would be expected at a wedding celebration that attracted many people so close to the border. And firing weapons is indeed a very common form of celebration, even at 3 a.m.
War can be pretty foggy; and this one is playing to type.
Emerald Isle, N.C.:
One of the reasons given for going to war in Iraq was essentially to create a democratic "domino effect" in the Middle east, similar to what was predicted for communism in Southeast Asia forty years ago.
Even if Iraq can become a reasonable democracy, (a very big IF) do you believe that other Middle Eastern countries will accept the new incarnation or will they simply isolate the American "puppet?"
Peter Slevin: I love your dateline.
The ifs are so many that it's hard to answer. But it's also much more difficult to be optimistic now than a year ago, when the expectations from President Bush, Vice President Cheney, National Security Advisor Rice, Secretary Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz were downright cheery.
They themselves would admit that the hoped-for influence on the rest of the Middle East was predicated on a far smoother transition from Saddam Hussein's government to whatever comes after. At this point, I'd wager, they're wondering how they can get out of Iraq with something approximating their original intentions.
It's also safe to say that whatever government emerges in Baghdad will be in no mood to show fealty to Washington, and will not be mistaken for a puppet.
Read this in the Guardian: "I believe we are absolutely on the brink of failure. We are looking into the abyss," General Joseph Hoar, a former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate foreign relations committee.
Sums my feelings up exactly. Kinda makes me pine for Henry A. Kissinger. He may have been just as bad but at least he was competent.
Peter Slevin: Do you suppose that table's still available in Paris, the one they used for the peace talks?
Why is our foreign policy "damaged?" When the countries that are unhappy with us are terror supporting -- Syria, Iran, North Korea, or are Old Europe (France and Germany, one we bailed out twice and the other caused in this century the two most destructive wars the planet has seen). I think we need to work with other country's but some context needs to be understood. We are in a war for survival with terrorists who's goal is our total destruction.
Peter Slevin: It's certainly right that one cannot conduct foreign policy with a goal of being well-liked. And international relations are inevitably messy, confusing and contradictory. Context is indeed essential.
Granted, too, that there is a fierce struggle underway against terrorists bent on doing grave damage to the United States.
The question becomes how to most effectively counter the bad guys. I'd argue that building strong international relationships is critical, as it projecting a policy and an image abroad that conveys strength, principle and understanding alike. It's a difficult balance.
One of the most striking things about the Bush administration's foreign policy is just how many people and governments are disappointed, not just the countries you mentioned.
So, if Kerry wins by a small amount how will that show any acceptance/rejection of the Bush Doctrine? If a narrow win for Bush will not indicate America supporting Bush what will narrow win for Kerry show?
Peter Slevin: That in a close-fought election, one guy beat out the other for a variety of reasons not captured in a sound bite or one specific policy.
A landslide for President Bush, I was suggesting in the earlier answer, could convey a more robust -- to use one of the administration's favorite words -- faith in the direction he's taking the country.
"Do you suppose that table's still available in Paris, the one they used for the peace talks?"
I'm sure the table is still available. The question is, who besides us will sit at it?
Peter Slevin: If it comes to that, I daresay anyone who could help. By then, the administration might actually mean it when it says it wants the United Nations to play a "vital role."
Fort Worth, Tex.:
In Terry Neal's piece today in The Post, he quoted Harold E. Doley Jr., who has served within five Republican administrations, as saying that "the war is not going to be an issue "in terms of the bad news and headlines" because the administration is preparing to "pull a -Nixon Secretary of State] Kissinger: declare victory and pull out... by election day."
In your view, what would this type of quick withdrawal in the next six months do in terms of Iraq and Bush's support at home?
washingtonpost.com: Terry Neal's Talking Points, (post.com, May 20)
Peter Slevin: I don't see it happening. The stakes are too high, President Bush has staked too much money, too much prestige and too many soldiers' lives on a palatable outcome.
U.S. troops will be there come November unless the interim Iraqi government orders them to leave. You might have seen Secretary Powell's comment on Sunday from Amman that if asked, the United States would depart.
Do you think that's the same reason that Kerry came out so strongly for Israel recently (that he needs the votes, and doesn't want to risk offending certain parts of the American electorate)? I get the whole reason behind Israel's need for self-defense, but I fail to see how what they are doing now can be classified as self-defense! It seems more like self-defeating to me.
Peter Slevin: Yours is a widely-held view. It was notable that the White House came out yesterday with a statement that Israel's attack on the Rafah refugee camp "worsened the humanitarian situation" and did not "serve the purposes of peace and security."
The White House did not, however, ask Israel to stop the incursion.
How does the realignment of American troop strength in Iraq vs. North Korea impact the global power balance?
Peter Slevin: Not at all. After the Pentagon redeploys 3,600 U.S. soldiers from South Korea to Iraq, there will still be more than 30,000 American troops left behind.
Hi Peter, thanks as always for your time.
Colin Powell has been way off the reservation in recent weeks. On Sunday he admitted to Tim Russert that the data he presented to the U.N. was inaccurate and possibly based on bogus intelligence. He has also disclosed that the White House saw the ICRC report last year (contradicting Cambone's Senate testimony), and was probably the source for the Gonzalez memo on the Geneva Conventions (Newsweek reported that Powell "hit the roof" when he saw it -- wonder where they got that detail.) Do you think Powell is daring -- or begging -- the White House to fire him? Do you think he'll stay in his job past Memorial Day, or does the White House want to keep him where they imagine they can at least exercise a little control over him?
Peter Slevin: I don't think Secretary Powell is begging to be fired and I doubt he'll quit before the end of the term.
A consistent theme in his many media interviews is a defense of the Iraq war as the right thing to do -- not least in support of a president whom he loyally advises and obeys -- even as he regrets details of his February 2003 speech to the United Nations.
New York, N.Y.:
How are you? There is so much criticism of our current administration for its lack of good judgment with respect to foreign policy, specifically alienating key allies in Europe over the Iraq war, and now we are realizing how much we need international help with Iraq. In your opinion, did our administration really bungle it, and how critical do you think it is that they mend these relationships in order to succeed in Iraq?
Peter Slevin: I daresay the administration wishes it had a lot more friends and allies as it tries to extricate itself from Iraq and leave behind a functioning government.
And a lot of people, including Secretary Powell on the inside and people such as Brent Scowcroft on the outside, are muttering, "I told you so."
Peter Slevin: Thanks for tuning in. See you next week.
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