David Frum Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Foreign Policy Ideas in the George W. Bush Administratioton: Conversation with David Frum, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute; 1/20/04 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The Transformation of George W. Bush and of U.S. Foreign Policy

What transformation occurred among the senior staff, and especially President Bush? I mean, clearly in your analysis and observation, there was a change.

More in him than in the White House staff. The White House remains the White House. It is a political operation. Every once in a while, somebody would come in from the world of business or some other world, academia, and go to the White House and emerge and write an indignant article or book saying, "My God, they're doing politics there." Well, yes, that's what they do there. Politics reasserted itself fairly rapidly, and one of the political instincts of the people on the White House staff, after Afghanistan, especially, was to wrap this up. They could see this as a very long war; it was very hard to imagine what victory would like. "Let's get back to what we learned in the nineties about modern politics."

It was President Bush who was changed by it. Part of it was ... You know, like all of us, I would say it's human nature: our virtues and our vices are the same aspects of our character seen from different points of view. What people don't like about President Bush and what they do like are really the same features. He is a man of tremendous tenacity; also stubborn. He's a man of moral clarity; he also sees the world in black and white. He's a man who is strongly committed to a few fixed beliefs; he's not interested in new ideas. I mean, it's the same person, depending on how you describe him. What this event did to him was, it gave him a cause. It gave him a fight. And he is somebody who, when he's in a fight, sees it all the way through. He's like a terrier -- he gets his teeth in the wag and he doesn't let go.

You write in the book, if I can quote you to you: "Bush was not lightweight. He was rather a very unfamiliar type of heavyweight. Words often failed him. His memory sometimes betrayed him, but his vision was large and clear. When he perceived new possibilities, he had the courage to act on them, a much less common virtue in politics than one might suppose."

Well, one thing to do is compare him, and I don't mean this invidiously, because we're on a campus, but compare him to his predecessor. People who met Bill Clinton said it was like having a glass of intellectual champagne. I mean, he was so open to ideas. He was so lively. He was so fresh. He was so fascinated by new things. In his personal life, as we all know, he was an enormous risk-taker, to put it mildly. But as a politician, Clinton may have been our most conservative president since Eisenhower. That the United States in 2000 ... it's hard for me to look back over at any eight-year period in American history where the country changed less than it did between 1992 and 2000, certainly where its politics changed less. The country was deadlocked 50-50 at the start; deadlocked 50-50 at the end. The Republicans came into Congress, but they didn't behave all that much differently. There's a great period of stasis in American life, and President Clinton very cautiously took few risks. He protected his position. He left behind no major new programs, [only] gradual changes in various aspects of the government.

Well, President Bush is the opposite. He is a tough-minded person. He is not always charming. He can be very brusque and dismissive. He's not always interested in the new ideas of everyone who comes into the Oval Office. In his personal life, of course, impossible to be more buttoned-downed. But in politics, a huge risk-taker. And in politics, everything has changed in the past four years. The balance between the parties, I believe, in 2004 is about to go to a radical change.

So you also make a point of emphasizing the fact that he is both disciplined and evangelical. Talk a little about that, because in the media sometimes they don't take those virtues or vices, however you look at them, seriously. It is perceived that he is pretending to be those two things.

Well, on the discipline, this is a man who went through a crisis in midlife. People are often baffled: how can somebody who's born to a wealthy and influential family, as George Bush was, have the kind of accord with ordinary Americans that he seems to have? Isn't that odd? And the answer is this great crisis he went through, that whatever the advantages of his early life, George Bush was someone who needed a second chance. And this is a country in which that's a very familiar experience. You could write the story of his [first] forty, or even forty-five years, and call it a "study in failure," which is the title of the famous biography of Winston Churchill, up until the age of 60 -- not a success at school, unlike his father; he had a very spotty military record, unlike his father; not a great athlete, unlike his father; went into business, failed at it, unlike his father. And a lot of people will say, "Well, he had a wealthy father and his brothers were successful," as if having successful relatives makes one's own failure easier to bear. After the last of his failures in business, which lost a lot of his father's friends a lot of money, he began hitting the bottle pretty hard, and it created a crisis that he had to overcome.

The way he overcame it was by locking himself inside this iron carapace of discipline: he gets up early, he goes through the day, he does the same thing. He watches his words. If you've seen him on television in close-up, that thing that he does with his mouth, which looks like he's swishing mouthwash around, what he's doing is holding back words. And a lot of his problems with the English language come not because the words don't come into his mind, but because the words do and he's trying to bite them back and look for other words that are maybe less harsh. So he's a person under tremendous restraint. The religion is part of it. It is from the religion that he gets the strength to do that. It's not phony. It's who he is. I don't think anyone who's ever had contact with him has any doubt that the religion is completely genuine and an important key to understanding his personality.

So the events of 9/11 occurred, and then he begins. The first address from the Oval Office you were critical of. Why? Because it reflected the politics of the nineties, which you just referred to?

Republicans got their brains beat out through the 1990s. The politics changed. The Republicans knew how to do the politics of the years from 1968 to 1991. We understood how to deal with years in which people were afraid of crime, when the problem was inflation, when the Soviets were on the march. Then the world changed. We did not change. The punishment for not changing when the world changes is we're thrown out of power and we didn't know what to do about it, and we stumbled about.

Looking back on it, I think one of the ways you can understand what happened to the Republican Party of the 1990s is when people are baffled by a problem, they often get very angry. And so we got very angry. That Republican anger and bafflement is a lot of the story of the Clinton years. George Bush's breakthrough was he found a way for Republicans to do the politics of the 1990s. His talk of compassionate conservatism, his emphasis on small bore issues, the modesty of his domestic agenda. This was all a response to the politics of the 1990s.

He had been sealed in an aluminum tube through 9/11. His closest advisors were locked in a basement many stories below the White House. They're cut off from the country and from the emotional changes that those of us who ... I mean, I was in an office building with phones that worked, I could talk to people. I was spending a whole day watching on TV. These things course through you, and you get live access to e-mail. You could hear from your friends how the world had changed in the short eight-hour span. But they were insulated. So that night, President Bush went on television and he gave a 1990s speech, not a 2001 speech. But he said one very important thing that made up for everything.

And that was?

He said in that speech -- I'm not going to be able to quote it verbatim; you may have the quote in front of you: "We're going not only after the terrorists, but all those who harbor them." What he did was, he changed the whole definition of the terrorism problem, and accepted that there were states implicated in this, and the United States would deal with them. Now, when he said that, and I do not know -- I don't know that any of us will know -- how broadly he defined what he just said. Whether he meant only Afghanistan, or whether he meant to include even such states as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which have official links to terrorism, and tolerate it and sometimes abuse it. But whatever was in his mind exactly, he laid it down. It's like the Constitution: the founding fathers did not imagine any of the problems that we face today, but they laid down principles to guide our decisions. He laid down a principle for his own decision that was very radical. It was the Magna Carta for the war on terror. Everything that has happened since, he has checked his actions against that principle, and he has come back again and again to it. It's taken him to places where I don't know if any of us thought on 9/11 itself we were going to go.

In your book you actually have the quote: "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." You also say that it was very important that he saw what had happened as an act of war.

Yes. Up through the 1990s, there was an escalating series of terrorist acts, as there had been through the seventies and eighties. You can pick off the series: the first attack on the World Trade Center, which killed a number of people but was ultimately unsuccessful; the assassination attempt on the first President Bush by Saddam Hussein; the Khobar Towers [in Saudi Arabia]; the embassy bombings [in Africa]; the [U.S.S.] Cole. Through these, the United States reacted pretty much as it has traditionally done by understanding these as lunatic acts, works of criminals.

The primary responsibility for dealing with them was given to the FBI, which is an institution that's not very good at counter-terrorism -- in fact, quite wretched at it. I mean, they're terrible. You go through the record, there are terrible, embarrassing stories, like in 1990, an Egyptian illegal immigrant -- or I think he may have been legal, I don't know -- shot and murdered a rabbi named Meir Kahane, who was a Jewish fanatic, an extremist and quasi-fascist -- killed him in New York. The assassin, a man named Nosair, was part of the same cell that blew up the World Trade Center in 1993, or tried to. The police went into his apartment and they got a bunch of documents in Arabic. They boxed them and put them in a basement somewhere, and nobody read them until after the blowing up of the World Trade Center, and then they discovered, "Oh, he was not a lone nut; he was part of a larger conspiracy." But because it was a police investigation, they approached it the wrong way. The same thing happened after the bombing of the Cole, the FBI took the lead.

We never thought, in the 1990s, of terrorism as being essentially political. This is one place where the right and maybe the left agree that we should understand terrorist acts not as the work of deranged small groups -- not that small groups are deranged people -- but as political acts seeking to achieve political ends. Now where the right and left differ is the left says, "Aha, well, if somebody is mad at us, he must be right. So we need to understand what he wants, so we can give it to him." Whereas the right says, "We need to understand him, so we can find him and kill him."

As a speechwriter, is this a fertile ground? I mean, this terrible thing has happened; but it is a fertile ground for new ideas? I guess that's one of the motivations for being a speechwriter, that you're in the right place at the right time, and the words that you carve will have a much broader impact.

Compared to, say, a prime minister of England, a president has actually astonishingly few legal powers. A prime minister of England can take England to war all by himself. He doesn't have to have a vote in Parliament, nothing. The President of the United States has to get a Declaration of War. The Prime Minister of England can pick anyone he wants to be in his cabinet, or it can be a judge; the president is subject to the Senate. The great power the president has is that he is the most prominent person in the biggest media event on the planet. He has the attention of the nation and the world. When he speaks, everybody listens.

I often compare going from journalism to speech writing -- I'm just old enough to remember this -- to making the transition from playing tennis with a wooden racket to playing tennis with a graphite racket: suddenly everything you say sounds too loud. A journalist always has the problem, "How do I get people to pay attention?' The president never has that problem.

I can see how the influence of your background came to play here, because it's the best game in the world for a person interested in ideas.

Actually, I don't know if I would agree with that, because the politics of the United States is not always about ideas. In fact, usually it's not. One of the things that disillusions people and excites others, and the thing that gives this country its extraordinary stability, is that most of the time, politics is about dams and bridges, and free eyeglasses for old people, and new weapon systems; it's about the concrete stuff. But in many ways, that [practicality] is an idea. The founding idea of the United States is that the great thing about discussions about money is that you can always split the difference, which you cannot do in many other kinds of discussions. The American political system is extremely practical. This is both what disgusts people, but it's also kind of inspiring; that the flip side of all this talk about interests in Washington is, yes, there are interests in Washington and they are engaged in a constant process of neutral compromise. Unlike some other political systems, which are based on principle, in which the only recourse people have is to kill each other.

How important was your background in history for understanding the importance of 9/11?

Enormous, and in two ways: One was in the first minutes, one of the first things I did was to pull out FDR's "Day of Infamy" speech from December 8, 1941, to read it. I had been reading FDR's speeches anyway. There's an argument about who is the greatest presidential orator; for my money, it's Roosevelt. Everything pre-radio is different from everything post-radio. He is the master of simple, direct communication, without a lot of flowery effects.

Roosevelt, on December 8, had a terrible problem, and it was exactly like the problem President Bush had, which was that the United States had been attacked by Japan. There was a tremendous isolationist movement in the United States. After Pearl Harbor, they were ready to fight Japan, but they did not want to fight Germany. Now, the Germans solved this problem for the United States by declaring war on the United States, but when Roosevelt stood in front of Congress, he did not know that they would do that. He had been deliberately goading Germany since 1938, trying to drive Germany into the war. And he was waging an undeclared naval war with them, but the Germans had not given him his reason.

Now, the isolationists had hated him for this, just the way modern isolationists hate George Bush and say he's trying to lead the country into war. Well, he was. But he had a problem. He had a war with Japan. He wanted a war with Germany. So when you read that speech, there's one sentence where you can see his political strategy. It's like an undeveloped embryo, because you didn't need it. He said, "I know I speak for the Congress and the American people --" he didn't! "-- I know I speak for the Congress and the American people when I say that we will fight this war in such a way ..." and, again, this is not an exact quote, "... not only to defeat this enemy, but so as to ensure that we are never threatened by this kind of treachery again." In other words, "Congress, my war policy is going to be planned not for just defeating Japan, but for protecting ourselves against Nazi Germany so that they can't threaten us." Well, what do you have to do to make sure that Nazi Germany can't threaten you? You have to destroy it.

We had the same problem, that we'd been attacked by al Qaeda, maybe, arguably, the Taliban; but there was not an immediate interest in Congress and the country in waging war against militant Islam. It was very hard to make Americans see that that these were all manifestations of a larger struggle. So President Bush has been, step by step in his speeches, laying the predicates to make Americans understand that this is a big war against a big enemy.

As a speechwriter, you write that with all that extra power in your hand you have to learn to hit the ball much more softly. Now, you are credited with being a key writer in the famous State of the Union Address in which the term "axis of evil" came about. I actually have that quote, which I can read. President Bush said:

States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and a growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies, or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.

What was your contribution to the drafting of this speech? I know it's a group process.

It's always ... It's like a ... One of the jokes that I heard as soon as I got there was -- you would always have two or three guys around a computer working on these things; it was like Tin Pan Alley -- and one of the senior staffers one day referred to the writers as the "light bulbs." I thought what a fabulous compliment, that the administration was supposed to be the best and the brightest, and we're the light bulbs, so, presumably, we're the brightest. The next time I heard the phrase, I said, "You know, that's really fabulous; that's really great. It's quite a compliment." They said, "Oh, no, no, no, no, no, it's based on the joke about how many does it take to screw in a light bulb. It's always two or three of us, and often more." Two or three on a draft, and then the drafts circulate.

That phraseology, that paragraph and the material around it, began as sort of a memorandum. The question was: If you were to say that we are extending our definition of the war beyond simply al Qaeda, beyond the Taliban to this wider problem, how would you say it? So I wrote some notes. The phrase I originally used was "acts of hatred," and Michael Gerson, the guy who hired me, looked at it and was sorted noodling around and said, "Well, the president has been calling the terrorists evil-doers," based on, by the way, his favorite psalm, the 27th Psalm, where the psalm talks about being confronted by evil. And so tinker, tinker, tinker, "acts of hatred" becomes "axis of evil." The president likes it, and bingo, the rest is history, to coin a phrase.

I can't speak for the others, but I immediately knew that this was a phrase that would resonate. I knew because ... not because it's necessarily even such a great phrase, because there are a lot of great phrases that don't resonate. Phrases resonate when they match the times. One of the worst speeches -- it wasn't badly written -- but one of the worst is, I think, Gerald Ford's second State of the Union speech, where he quotes a famous Longfellow poem that was contained in a letter that Roosevelt wrote Churchill. And the poem was,

... sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!

So Ford quotes this, and clearly So Ford quotes this, and clearly the writer had loved this letter, loved the poem, was waiting for a chance to use it. Ford quotes it and then says, "Of course, our situation isn't like that." Well, so what's it doing there, right? And that's what I mean, that most of the time you have to be soft. But this was a moment where you needed to grab the world by the lapels and say, "We're not joking. We're not joking. We're really coming after you to deal with this problem."

In the next paragraph Bush says, "We will be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." So this is an important assertion of what will be done in the future. But as you said earlier, it harkens back to that Roosevelt speech.

Yes. And what he's saying there, and what he went on to say in 2003, and what he's been saying throughout, is we have to deal with this problem as a totality. The problem is not just one criminal gang.

Now, when you discussed this speech in your book on Bush, you touch upon the debate between realists and idealists in foreign policy. And what I believe you're saying is that this speech combines both, or leans more toward the idealist. Talk a little about that.

This is a distinction, by the way, that I think breaks apart in the hands. I know it's sort of a staple of schools of international relations, so I don't want to tell you your business.

And my students will be studying the differences, but please.

But I'm not sure that in practice it ever works. Here are some reasons why it doesn't. First, whenever anything important happens in foreign relations, you need to mobilize the American people. As I mentioned before, governments are not one-man shows, and presidents do not rule by fiat. They rule by consent. They rule with Congress. If you want to mobilize the nation, you have to speak to its values as well as its interests. You can never speak to just one. If you speak only to its values, you get the Kosovo war, which is something of total lack of interest to the country. If you speak only to its interests, you get the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy, which collapsed. It was attacked by both right and left. You have to talk to both. Every president has to do both.

But second, and especially in the Middle East, one of the things we discovered after 9/11 was that the realists had not been realistic. The realists said the internal character of states like Saudi Arabia doesn't matter, all that matters is their external behavior Well, wrong! Wrong! And when you think about it in retrospect, obviously wrong. The internal character of a state predicts its external behavior. As the world gets smaller and smaller, and as the warning time for the use of catastrophic weapons get shorter and shorter, we have to be interested in, and at least aware of the internal character of states. Partly because there are certain states with certain kinds of internal characters who will seek external confrontation as the solution to their internal problems, as many of these Islamic states have done and as the Saudis, in particular, have done.

Now, in crafting a speech like this, are you trying to tap American political history? Well, obviously, you are because you've talked about Roosevelt. But I guess where I'm leading is, is George Bush a Wilsonian? Is he harkening back to that view of the world?

Was Woodrow Wilson a Wilsonian? I mean, do these categories exist in real life? You know, Wilson did a lot of pretty cynical things. Yes, he spoke the language of democracy. Other times, he did a jumble. I don't know how much you achieve by saying, "Let us construct a series of intellectual categories and then see whether an event fits into this." Let's understand it on its own terms and say: What was President Bush trying to achieve? What does he think about these? And how does he think? Believe me, he would not say he's a Wilsonian or a non-Wilsonian. What he would talk about is his very clear perception of the problem.

One more thing on this realism business. President Bush's foreign policy has been highly criticized by people who call themselves realists. They have all kinds of unflattering terms for the people whom they are criticizing. The favored is the term neo-con, neoconservative -- a word that used to mean something and now seems to mean nothing, except it's an epithet. But the reason that the people who call themselves realists lost major arguments in the first two years was because when you asked them, "What would you do? New York's on fire. The Pentagon's been blown up. Thousands are dead. What would you do?" -- their action list sounded exactly like the list the United States had followed through the 1990s: "We would pursue individual terrorists. We would work with our Middle Eastern allies and our European allies to try to track them down. We would try to achieve progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace. We, maybe, would make some nods toward internal reform." If the largest catastrophe in American security history -- the greatest intelligence failure, the greatest foreign policy failure -- if that does not suggest the need for some new approach, then your adherence to the idea is not very realistic. Even in Washington, complete abject and conspicuous failure will discredit a policy.

So is it fair to say, then, that President Bush not only was taking a stand of defense, but really going on the offense, and saying, "We stand for something, namely liberty and freedom, and we're going to go into the world and change countries to make them more like us"?

Well, we're going to change countries to make them less dangerous.

Less dangerous.

He gets a lot of brush-off for this talk about liberty and freedom. But this is an argument that we pursue, which is now in the new book. When people say, "That's ridiculous; Islamic terrorists aren't concerned about our freedom," they forget that they're very concerned about the freedom, not just of our men, but of our women. It is profoundly evident. They get MTV; they see a culture that accords a position to women which they think is profoundly offensive and threatening. They look at the place of religious minorities, including Jews, [and including] Christians [although they] aren't a religious minority -- of non-Muslims in our society -- and they find it profoundly offensive. It is the response to those things that largely inspires them. They feel profoundly threatened. I say this not as an excuse. The Soviets also felt profoundly threatened, and when authoritarian people feel profoundly threatened, they respond with profound aggression. What threatens them? What makes them feel that the West is coming after them in their havens? It is precisely the dynamism and creativity of the West.

There's a suggestion that all of this would go away if we created a disarmed, neutralized Palestinian state on a few acres in the West Bank of Gaza. That strikes me as nuts. You could do that. It would still be true that Muslims would feel that their civilization was under question and jeopardy from an outside world that was more dynamic and that was surpassing them in ways that were profoundly offensive to them.

You're speaking of the Muslims who are terrorists and not necessarily the whole Muslim world?

Well, I think we need to think of this as concentric circles; that there are those who are terrorists; there are those who support and assist terrorism. Then there's a larger culture, which is much bigger, of Islamic extremism, not all of whose members resort to terrorist violence, but where there's a large climate of opinion in the Islamic world that is very sympathetic to what the terrorist do and that creates the intellectual framework that justifies and condones it. One of the problems that the United States has had in making its case in the Islamic world is we'll talk about 9/11 and the attack on innocent human life, and we'll discover that people disagree about who is innocent and who is not.

Now, I think both the terrorists and then the extremists are minorities within this larger world. One of the things Richard [Perle] and I profoundly believe is that in important ways human beings are similar, and that the aspirations for dignity and opportunity and a say in one's own life are universal. Even if they originated in one culture, they are rapidly perceived, desired, and imitated in others. But we ought not, also, blind ourselves to the fact there is a large infrastructure that supports terrorism, and that is part of the job for American foreign policy.

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