On August 15, inFOCUS editor Jonathan Schanzer interviewed former White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer. From 2001 to 2003, Mr. Fleischer delivered the daily White House briefings, and was the spokesman for President George W. Bush. Mr. Fleischer served previously as senior communications advisor and spokesman for the Bush-Cheney and Elizabeth Dole presidential campaigns. He has also served as press secretary to New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici. The author of a best-selling book, Taking Heat, Mr. Fleischer is now president of his own firm, Ari Fleischer Communications, Inc.
iF: What will be the top item on the next president’s “to-do list” upon taking office early next year?
AF: The most important challenge for the next president will be a seamless transition from one national security team to another given the fact that we have troops engaged in hostilities in two different places around the world.
iF: With that in mind, what advice would you give the next president about the ongoing operations in Iraq?
AF: First, President Bush is doing a huge favor for whoever comes next because he is doing everything in his power right up until 11:59:59 on January 20, 2009, to make that country as secure as possible. He’s taken all the political hits for it, but because he’s never wavered, he’s given the next president the best chance to see a secure, peaceful Iraq emerge.
I think it’s going to be one of the remarkable things he’s done. George Bush was standing virtually alone in his decision to tough it out in Iraq. He doubled down, announced the surge, and then changed the reality on the ground. I think it’s an example of remarkable leadership. And the sad part is he’s probably not going to get credit for it.
iF: What about the challenges of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Analysts increasingly assert that this is a resurgent problem.
AF: I think it’s going to test the character of the next president to recognize that there is an entrenched group in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is deadly, somewhat capable, and likely will be around for a long time. The next president can pretend it doesn’t exist, or he can go after it. And I hope he goes after it.
iF: Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf recently announced his resignation. What are the challenges of cooperating with the Pakistani government?
AF: The central government is traditionally a friend, but there are regions that the central government can barely control or can’t control at all that are clearly foe. Pakistan contains some of the world’s most remote, backward, inaccessible, and violent hotbeds that the world has ever seen. It’s going to be a thorn in America’s side for years to come.
It’s not so simple that the United States can cross the border and go after them. Pakistan is a sovereign government. So, lots of tests remain for the next president and I just hope that the next president is determined to take whatever actions are necessary to protect us.
iF: What about the Iranian nuclear threat?
AF: Well, that’s unfortunately a ticking time bomb that most likely will land in the lap of the next administration. It will be a massive problem and will be the ultimate tough judgment of whoever is next.
iF: What role do you see the Palestinian-Israeli conflict playing in the next presidential administration?
AF: The Middle East is an eternal headache for American presidents. In my judgment, as long as there is no strong and capable Palestinian leader, there’s very little any American president can actually do. There’s very little Israel can do, other than remain strong and protect herself. If the next American president knows where to find the Palestinian Anwar Sadat, go find him. Short of that, it will be as it always has been, a vexing issue that is always close to breaking into war.
iF: Does the Arab-Israeli conflict have to be an albatross around the president’s neck? Does the U.S. always have to play the role of peace broker?
AF: The press will help make it an albatross. If a U.S. president judges that the Palestinians don’t have anybody that can make peace and therefore doesn’t force peace on the parties, the press is inclined to say that president is disengaged. However, if a president risks all, and tries to force peace, history shows it never works and always leads to more violence.
iF: What are your thoughts on the conflict that recently erupted between Russia and Georgia? Was it as much a surprise to you as it was to so many other Americans?
AF: It’s a surprise. Any time a nation like Russia uses military force to achieve an objective in the modern world, it’s a surprise. And if the result is that the other Eastern European nations move even faster toward the West, then Russia will get what it deserves. I hope that happens. I hope that the Baltic states, Poland, and the Ukraine move quickly toward the West and quicker to democracy, and then bulk up their own militaries.
This conflict between Russia and Georgia is a reminder of how fragile global stability is.
iF: Larry Haas wrote an article in this issue advising our next president to create a League of Democracies as a counterweight to the United Nations. What do you think of that idea?
AF: I think that the United Nations is good at delivering humanitarian relief. Sometimes they are good at inserting peacekeepers in regions around the world. However, they have a very bad track record of keeping peace and preventing violence. They are largely a disappointment, and I believe that a League of Democracies is a wise idea. Competition is good in all arenas and the United Nations could certainly use some.
iF: What about advice to the next president on energy policy? Do you advocate offshore drilling? What about battery powered cars, ethanol, and methanol?
AF: The all of the above approach is the right approach. We need to develop renewables, we need to increase use of wind and solar, and we need to develop more fossil fuel resources, particularly within America’s borders so it’s all controlled and used by us.
Every drop we get, whether it’s wind power, solar power, or oil power, reduces our reliance on foreign supplies and increases supplies for Americans, which means the price goes down. I hope that our elected representatives in Washington can reach an eventual compromise to get it all done.
iF: Author Robert Zubrin advocates a congressional mandate for flex fuel vehicles so that methanol and ethanol compete in the open market with oil. Do you endorse this idea?
AF: I don’t like it. Any time the government tries to pick the technology that’s supposed to work, the government will get it wrong. Let the markets dictate the direction. One day, somewhere in the not too distant future, someone is going to make themselves richer than Bill Gates when they invent an energy breakthrough. The private sector will figure that out.
iF: Speaking of oil, what can you say about the leverage that Saudi Arabia has over the United States right now?
AF: Well, it’s another reason we need to develop our own domestic resources. The more we rely on ourselves, the less we are dependent on the Saudis or others. But the Saudis are a society of dangerous contradictions. The top levels of the government are essentially pro-American who, when no one is looking and if no one finds out, want to help us. We don’t have to dig very far below them, however, to find powerful princes who fund and support terror. It’s a very messy internal contradiction that Saudi Arabia has no intention of resolving.
iF: How would our policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia change if we were to find technology that breaks our dependence on oil?
AF: If today somebody invented a way to get energy from seaweed, and we never needed oil again, Saudi Arabia would resume its place as a very large, untraveled nation with lots of sand.
iF: One article in this issue addresses the way in which extremists are using our own laws against us to suppress criticism of Islamism at home and abroad. How does the next president cope with this challenge?
AF: This is where it starts at the top. A president who speaks with certainty, who isn’t afraid to call things evil or good, sets a good example. On the other hand, a president who doesn’t explicitly recognize the threat sends a terrible signal to those who would speak out against radicalism, and empowers the radicals. It legitimizes them.
It starts with just a gut and a heart and a president who isn’t afraid to use terms like “Muslim fanatics,” “Muslim terrorists,” or “radical Islam.” Those who are afraid to say “radical Islam” because they don’t want to offend allies will inadvertently empower the Islamists.
iF: What insights can you provide on the relationship between the media and the presidency?
AF: The press corps’ first and worst bias is in favor of conflict. They prefer, however, one side’s ideas over the other. So it will be fascinating to watch how they proceed if the next president is not a conservative.
iF: Any final thoughts on the challenges ahead?
AF: Well, foreign policy always has a way of intruding upon everything presidents do. You wake up one day, it’s a beautiful sunny day, and moments later America is under attack. Or you go to bed, and a bombing takes place somewhere around the world, and Americans are killed. The judgment and strength of a president always get tested. The problem is you never know when and you never know where. That’s the reality of the White House.
iF: Thank you, Ari.
AF: Nice talking with you, Jonathan.