Without U.S. Action, "Nobody Follows"

In Part 2 of a Q&A, Richard Armitage defends Washington's weakness in coalition building when executing its foreign policy

Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage is an experienced troubleshooter. A Vietnam veteran with previous stints at the State Dept. and the Pentagon under his belt, Armitage has been involved in everything from handling Philippines' efforts to boot U.S. troops out of the country to the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

He has had no end of troubles to shoot in the Bush Administration. An Asia hand, Armitage helped negotiate the extrication of pilots downed in China early in President Bush's term. He has played a role in everything from Iraq to Iran to North Korea.

Armitage sat down with BusinessWeek Chief Diplomatic Correspondent Stan Crock on Sept. 1 to discuss some of the issues at the top of his in-box, including the challenges in Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow in two parts, Part 1, "Iran: 'A Tougher Nut' than N. Korea", and Part 2 below:

Q: Are there things you think would be different in a second Bush term? A: I think the President will continue to be as decisive. If there's one thing that's quite clear thus far in the campaign, it's that there aren't wild differences of opinion between the two political parties on the direction of foreign policy. Mr. Kerry, as far as I've seen, doesn't seem to have major differences with Mr. Bush's foreign policy. What I've heard the Democrats say is, "We'll just do it better."

That's fine. They can say that. Maybe they would. Maybe they wouldn't. But I can't find any major differences, which indicates to me a pretty strong consensus in the country for President Bush.

Q: The differences are portrayed as less about goals and direction than methods and how you create a coalition -- whether you go out there and hope people will follow or you work on getting them involved at the front end.


They're the same thing. If the U.S. doesn't go out, nobody follows. Name a situation in the world, and we will have started the resolution of the problem: Darfur, Liberia, Haiti, for heaven's sakes. Name one. Afghanistan, Iraq.

It's not sufficient just to try to get people on your side. You don't always have the luxury of time. You have to be leading while you're trying to gather people to you. You can't do one before the other -- or you can't do the other before the leadership.You can't.

Q: The Middle East peace process. Is there really much that can be done as long as Arafat is around?


Not unless Arafat were to empower the Palestinian Authority. Interestingly, in the last two weeks, I've seen some terrible articles in the Palestinian press about Palestinian Authority officials. Now, they don't criticize Mr. Arafat. That's not generally done. But a lot of the officials are really coming into some criticism, and I think Palestinians are tired of the constant internal squabbling and corruption. And that's a very good thing.

Q: That has been true for some time.


Yeah, but you haven't seen it in the press like this -- this sort of public airing of these grievances. I found it quite refreshing.

Q: Some of the hard-core Democratic People's Party in Taiwan folks think that President Chen, who can't run again, wants to leave a legacy. So he may try to move toward independence before the 2008 Olympics, when Beijing might be reluctant to retaliate and prompt an international reaction that could interfere with the event.


That's what the Chinese tell us. My sense is that the Taiwanese are entirely internally focused. It's domestic focus all the time -- they have an unrealistic view of the rest of the world. We're very forthright with Taiwan in making it clear that we oppose any unilateral actions which change the status quo.  

Q: Is strategic ambiguity -- not being explicit about when you would or would not intervene in a China-Taiwan conflict -- a sound policy?


I think it is. You can't be unambiguous. Let me get theoretical: A declaration by the President that we're going for war doesn't carry much weight because it's Congress that declares war. The President can dispatch forces, but you can't keep them there unless Congress is on board. I think Congress would not support a Taiwan that unilaterally changes things. So it's good to keep the ambiguity both in the minds of the Taiwanese and the Chinese.

Here's an anecdote to show you how times have changed. Chiang Kai-shek's wife came to visit Capitol Hill. Every senator, every congressman came. Mrs. Chen came recently. There were two senators, I think, and nine congressman who showed up. Congress was in session. Now, to me, that would be a real warning bell, if I were Taiwanese.

Q: You're one of the signatories on a letter in 2000 that urged an end to ambiguity in favor of Taiwan. Have you changed your mind?


No, I haven't changed my mind. Taiwan had a very predictable President -- Lee Teng-hui. He was very predictable, and he was very steady. Chen Shui-bian, we find a difficult read. Hence, [the situation] makes a lot of people nervous. There was no nervousness with Lee Teng-hui because you were very clear where he was going, what he was doing.

Q: The State Dept. has been portrayed as a cautionary influence on the Administration. If the Secretary were to leave at the end of the first term, as a lot of people expect, what does that do to the interplay within the Administration in the second term of the various factions?


You know, the Secretary and I have long held the view that when you remove your fist from a pail of water, there's no hole. Having said that, as he would say if you were asking him the same question, he serves at the pleasure of the President. Those discussions could take place after the election. The President has to concentrate right now on winning reelection.

Q: Does the President have the same positive view of Russian President Putin that he had when they first met?


I was just this morning looking at the transcript of one of their phone calls recently, and they're personally very close. But there's no question that Russia is trying to assert herself in a different way now. She's having a gangbusters economy. We do have some questions about the Yukos-Khodorkovsky affairs that are differences that we've pointed out to the Russian Federation.

However, on major issues, we feel we still have a pretty reliable partner. For instance, the Counterterrorism Working Group, which I chair with my counterpart, the First Deputy to the Foreign Minister, is one that both Presidents have lauded. We've got some energy cooperation, notwithstanding our disappointment in the Yukos affair or questions surrounding the Yukos affair. The Russian Federation has made some statements, I think, that had a very calming effect on the market.... So it's a mixed picture, as you suggest, but personally they're still quite close.

Q: Russia has an interest in getting revenues from the completion of and supplying Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor -- and thus a resolution of the Iranian nuclear situation. Is there any tension over the resolution of that between the U.S. and Russia?


Not yet, but we're not up in the U.N. [Security Council action would follow action by the International Atomic Energy Agency]. Russia needs this thing to be resolved. They would like it to be resolved so they can work Bushehr in a more beneficial manner to them and to the international community. As long as the Iranians are engaged in subterfuge, there will be brakes thrown on that, and that's not in Russia's interest.

But we have pretty straightforward discussions with them on the question of Iran, and we're not in a situation yet where tensions have come to the fore.

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