Commentator Offers Policy Advice to Bush

A Wall Street Journal /NBC poll this week showed President Bush's approval rating at its lowest point ever. This week, Richard Haas outlined recommendations for the president in a New York Times op-ed piece. Haas is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. Haas tells NPR's Scott Simon what new approaches President Bush ought to try.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll this week showed President Bush's approval rating at its lowest point ever. A year after he won re-election, six in 10 Americans in this poll now say they disapprove of Mr. Bush's handling of the economy, foreign policy and Iraq. Past presidents have often responded to a downturn in their second-term popularity by declaring new programs to secure what they hope will be their legacy. And sometimes the results have been surprising. This week Richard Haass has some recommendations for the president. He outlined them in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. Mr. Haass is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served the administration until 2003 as director of policy planning at the State Department. He joins us from the Council on Foreign Relations offices in New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. RICHARD HAASS (Council on Foreign Relations): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And you suggested this week that ironically low approval ratings sometimes present a president with an opportunity to declare new initiatives and approaches.

Mr. HAASS: Well, exactly right. It's not clear to me the president, or the administration, more broadly, can, to use his favorite expression, `stay the course.' We simply don't have the resources and it's not clear to me the American people are prepared to continue giving him a political blank check for three more years of the same. And all this provides, shall we say, incentive to at least reconsider some policies and to introduce new ones.

SIMON: Does the fact that you have so much of the US military committed to fighting an insurgency in Iraq and, for that matter, considerable assets devoted to trying to rehabilitate the country--does that constrict the president strategically?

Mr. HAASS: Very much so. For example, that both North Korea and Iran have taken note of just those facts, that there is this precious little excess US military sitting around to be used somewhere else, and it might be one of the reasons in particular in Iran's case that we have not had the sort of influence that we would like to.

SIMON: As an experienced diplomat, is it just a political fact of life that a president has to get his or her approval rating up to have the flexibility to undertake certain policies?

Mr. HAASS: In foreign policy, interesting enough, the answer is no. It's a combination of our Constitution but simply our politics. There is extraordinary latitude or discretion given to the president of the United States to carry out his foreign policy. So if this president wants to stay in Iraq, I believe he'll have the option to do it. If he wants to come up with fundamentally different negotiating approaches towards an Iran or a North Korea, my hunch is he would have the latitude or discretion to do just that. Not an awful lot of foreign policy has to get formal congressional approval, and Congress tends to be reluctant to force itself to take away presidential foreign policy powers. So more so than in a domestic area, I think this president will probably have quite a lot of room or scope to carry out the foreign policy he wants, even though he's obviously a lame duck as we get closer to 2008.

SIMON: Is the president's commitment to democracy the central tenor of President George W. Bush's foreign policy?

Mr. HAASS: I believe that democracy promotion is more than anything else the interesting theme of this president's foreign policy. He clearly sees it as the long-term--if not answer, at least as close as we have to it to discouraging young men from becoming terrorists. The thinking is that if young men are connected to their societies, if they see a way to change their societies, they will be less prone to becoming terrorists. They'll be less willing to die for their particular causes.

The problem with a democracy-centered foreign policy is that it doesn't give you answers to so many of today's problems. It doesn't help you to deal with today's terrorists. It doesn't help you to deal, say, with a North Korea or Iran, which are not on the verge of becoming democracies. It doesn't help you when, say, you have to deal with an authoritarian Egypt on the Israeli-Palestinian question or with a very much authoritarian China on the question of North Korea.

So we simply don't have the luxury of placing democracy promotion at the forefront of American foreign policy. It's the reason that I've tried to put forward this alternative that I call integration, the idea that American foreign policy must try to build partnerships, build arrangements that are regional or global, to deal with the basic fact that in this day and age the challenge is not some rival great power, but the challenge are these various dark manifestations of living in a global age. I do think we're beginning to see an integrationist impulse from this administration, and my prediction is we'll see it from its successor 'cause I simply can't think of any other approach that's sustainable, given our level of resources, and viable, given the nature of the world we live in.

SIMON: Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. His most recent book is "The Opportunity." Next week we'll have some friendly advice on the president's domestic agenda. Thanks very much.

Mr. HAASS: Thank you for having me.

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