MICHELE NORRIS, host:
While the race for the White House is heating up, it's worth remembering that President Bush still has a year to go in his second term. And New Year's day is a good time to look ahead to the challenges and the opportunities that are in front of him.
To help us with that, we're joined by Michael Gerson. He's a former adviser and speechwriter for President Bush. He's now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Roger Hertog Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Thank you.
NORRIS: And also with us is Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of The New Republic. And he is also with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Happy New Year, Peter.
Mr. PETER BEINART (Editor-at-large, The New Republic; Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Happy New Year.
NORRIS: Now, let's break this into two parts - foreign and domestic concerns. And let's start overseas, and let's start with Pakistan. It's at the top of the news these days with Benazir Bhutto's assassination and the chaos and the violence that has followed.
Michael, I'm going to begin with you. How big of a concern will this be for President Bush in this coming year?
Mr. GERSON: Well, it could hardly be a bigger concern. I mean, this is a proliferation risk, a risk from al-Qaida and the Taliban. The stakes could hardly be higher and it seems to be coming down to a CSI-like investigation to determine whether the government was either complicit or incompetent. And both of those are bad for Musharraf. And so it matters greatly because what happens in Afghanistan is so closely tied with Pakistan as well. I think it's an interesting moment because we may see in this coming year, against all expectation, that Afghanistan may be a bigger problem than Iraq moving forward.
NORRIS: Peter, are the current events - do the current events in Pakistan pose a test for the White House? And how might the president's relationship with Pervez Musharraf change in the coming year?
Mr. BEINART: I think they do pose a quite fascinating test. I mean, the fascinating parallel, in some ways, is to the dilemmas that the Carter administration faced near the end of its term - having to do with the shah in Iran. It's interesting - the conservative foreign policy has, in somewhat degree, been shaped around the debates about that decision. And now, in Pakistan, it seems to me, the Bush administration faces a version of the same dilemma. How much pressure does it put on Pervez Musharraf, not knowing what the alternatives would bring? And I think, to some degree, it's a test of how much George W. Bush really believes in his own rhetoric about America being willing to take risks in crucial countries to push for democracy even though we don't know what would follow - the kind of pro-American autocrat.
NORRIS: Now, beyond Pakistan, other major challenges the president will face overseas, Michael.
Mr. GERSON: Well, I think the continuing challenge in Sudan. I think this is an issue that the president wants to be part of his legacy. He's focused on it directly and personally. But the situation there is deeply complicated. And you have an irresponsible rebel movement that's been attacking the AU forces there. You have a government that, you know, slows up the process whenever there's an attempt to solve the security situation in Darfur. But the outcome is very important for two million refugees that remain in camps in that country.
NORRIS: Gentlemen, we've been talking about foreign policy. We have not really spent much time talking about Iraq. If the president were to leave office today, he could point to progress on his way out the door and looking at the surge and the drop in violence that has happened because of that. But he still has a year to go so, just quickly, what do we expect will happen with regard to Iraq?
Mr. GERSON: Well, I think it's going to be - we're going to begin to see troop withdrawals, which you saw by the end of the year. I think that's three to five thousand. That's going to continue. I think we'll have a period of three months in the new year where there won't be many withdrawals but then there'll be a lot of assessment done. There's supposed to be a report to the president on continuing withdrawals. And then we'll see how the security situation holds up when those troops are withdrawn. And we also are going to have a status of forces agreements with Iraqis themselves. They're going to have a larger voice in the way that troops are deployed and the role that they play. And that's going to be an interesting question as well.
NORRIS: You hope that we will have that.
Mr. GERSON: Yeah. I think that that's likely, though.
NORRIS: Peter, the president has to prepare to pass the baton to the next commander in chief, particular on military matters and Iraq. What do you think he does in the next year?
Mr. BEINART: Well, I think that the critical decision, I think, will be what number of troops he goes down to. Does he follow the troop withdrawal this spring with more troop withdrawals? I think the Bush administration would very dearly like to see the next president, even if it was a Democrat, basically, continue the policy that they are pursuing on Iraq without radical troop withdrawals. You know, they're often - the Bush administration analogizes itself to the Truman administration and I think that the Truman administration was vindicated when the Eisenhower administration continued the policy containment.
NORRIS: Let's turn to the home front and domestic issues. It seems, like here in the U.S., the economy could be a major issue for the president particular with the subprime mortgage crisis and the next quarterly report that we expect to see.
How will this issue, in particular, affect the president's domestic agenda, Peter?
Mr. BEINART: I think, it's going to be quite significant. It's hard in the last year of a president's term to accomplish a lot on the domestic scene. Historically, you've seen that presidents have turned to focus abroad because they have a freer hand and, particularly, obviously, at a time when Democrats now control Congress.
And Bush made a big effort at some domestic achievements: immigration, social security, partial privatization. And now, with those having failed, it seems to me that it's hard to think that you could have a very - ambitious domestic agenda. But one thing to look at, I think, would be No Child Left Behind. It hasn't been reauthorized. That was a very significant part of Bush's first term agenda, and in the whole way he framed compassionate conservatism.
I would imagine for the White House getting that reauthorized, which, right now, looks very, very iffy, I think, would be an important thing.
Mr. GERSON: You know, I agree with that. I think, the time for major domestic initiatives has probably passed. But I do think that holding onto the gains of No Child Left Behind will be an important, you know, achievement for the president's legacy. That is a case where the constituencies of the Democratic Party in their primaries and caucuses particularly the education, union constituencies are so deeply opposed to No Child Left Behind.
NORRIS: A major applause line…
Mr. GERSON: Right.
NORRIS: …on the campaign trail.
Mr. GERSON: Exactly. But, of course, that's happening at the same that No Child Left Behind is beginning to show some significant results for minorities and closing the gap between minorities and whites on both reading and math. And those are the first gains that we've seen in some of those indicators in 40 years.
NORRIS: Now, the president, as I understand, does not like talk about legacy or, you know, people already talking about him in the past tense. But I have to ask both of you what you think his legacy will be in the short term and, also, in the long term. Because things change when you have the benefit of time and you look back years hence. And Peter, I'm going to begin with you.
Mr. BEINART: Well, the obvious one is the decision to make the invasion of Iraq the single biggest fact about how America responded to September 11. That was the most important post-9/11 decision that the United States made, I think. And wars always have unpredictable consequences and the consequences of Iraq, I think, will be profound and we still don't know what they are.
NORRIS: Michael, is the president's legacy already set or does he still have time to amend or alter this?
Mr. GERSON: No. Almost by definition, legacies are better determined 20 years after the president leaves office. But I agree with Peter's earlier analogy when he talked about Truman. This is, at least, the way the president views himself. Truman left office deeply unpopular and particularly because of the Korean War and because of a series of difficult decisions in the early conduct of Cold War. But his historical reputation improved because the Cold War proved worth fighting.
NORRIS: We could go on but we have to leave it there. Thanks to both of you and happy New Year.
Mr. GERSON: Thank you.
Mr. BEINART: Thank you.
NORRIS: Peter Beinart is an editor-at-large at the New Republic and Michael Gerson is a former speechwriter for the president and he's also a columnist for the Washington Post. Thanks to both of you.
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