05 July 1991

Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture XXVIII

After the Persian Gulf War: American Politics and Policies in the 1990s

Delivered by:
The Honorable Thomas S Foley, Speaker of the US House of Representatives since 1989, Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus (1976-80), House Majority Whip (1981-87) and Majority Leader (1987-89).

I am delighted to be back at Ditchley. It has been too many years since I was last here - I think about six years ago. I have enjoyed this house and these conferences on so many occasions since I was a younger Member that being here brings back many memories.

Lord Hunt suggested that I had held a series of posts in the House, which reminds me that when I became a Member 26 years ago now, in 1964, we had, as we do now, a method of welcoming new Members of the Congress; both Democrats and Republicans are greeted in the month before they take office with warm, largely partisan organisation meetings in which they are given lunches and dinners and instructions on how to organise an office, and how to think about problems and so forth. In my day it was rather brief, now it is quite elaborate. It is also rather bi-partisan today; after they finish their first week, they go off to the Kennedy School and are given lectures by Nobel Laureates and tenured Faculty and so forth. In my day it was very brief. We had a short speech from the then Speaker, John McCormack, who said that it was possible in the Democratic leadership’s opinion for someone to be elected by accident, but seldom re-elected by accident. The message was subtle but clear. Come back in two years’ time and we will take you seriously. And then he went off; and then another greeting was given by a rather crusty Chairman of a powerful Appropriation sub-committee, the man in charge of all the public works money in the House of Representatives. Michael Kirwan was his name; he was also Chairman of the Campaign Committee. He had a sort of a raspy, Irish brogue voice and he said he wanted to warn us against the single greatest danger that could befall a new Member of Congress on entering his or her career - the single greatest danger. And we leaned forward to hear what this might be - some ethical trap or other. And he said, “That danger is ... thinking for yourselves. For heaven’s sake, don’t do that. If it is some matter of parochial interest in your own district, then perhaps. But for the most part,” he said, “trust the leadership. Trust the Chairman of the Sub-Committee, trust the Chairman of the Committee, trust the Chairman of the Democratic Caucus, trust the Democratic Whip, trust the Majority Leader and, pray God, especially trust the Speaker.”

I was outraged. I was furious. I had joined a new class of Members who thought that they had a contribution to give to the country’s future in the ‘60s and beyond, and here a senior Member had actually said that the greatest danger was thinking for yourselves. And he added that there was more likelihood of getting in trouble in thinking for yourself in the House of Representatives than by stealing money. And I can’t tell you the sense of irritation and anger that that brought, to me and to my colleagues.

In the 26 years since that time, it has been my honour to be a Sub-Committee Chairman, a Committee Chairman, the Chairman of the Democratic Caucus, the Democratic Whip, the Majority Leader and now the Speaker. The wise words of Mr Kirwan come across that generation as a refreshing recollection of my first days in the House.

Well, I must unfortunately report that Members of Congress in both parties still insist on thinking for themselves. And, of course, our constituents have that bad habit as well. I’d like to talk tonight about some of the concerns that I have as we look forward to the months and years ahead in the United States, with particular reference to our role in international affairs, and even more particularly with respect to our role in Europe.

From the end of President Bush’s first year in office, until very recently, no discussion of US policy, particularly foreign policy, could be started except with the sort of phrase, “Isn’t it amazing how far we’ve come?” In a few months we witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the liberation of Eastern Europe, of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, even of Albania, the declared end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the unification of Germany - all these things with blinding speed.

It became a matter of celebration in the United States, in both parties, that so much had happened so quickly, things that we did not expect to happen in a long time; the unification of Germany, for example, was an accomplished reality. And it was a sense of common purpose and common policy between the two parties, Democrats and Republicans along of course with the members of the Alliance, that brought this about. We told ourselves that, without exception, Democrats and Republicans in Congress and in the Administration, for 45 years had resolutely and together supported this policy, and it had had these great results. We were about to count among our blessings the possibility of a peace dividend, the changing of large-scale military expenditures into more moderate levels of expenditure and thence into needed domestic categories and domestic attention.

I went to a Party conference about a year ago and one of my colleagues wrote me a note. He said half of the peace dividend - we spent three days on the peace dividend - half of the peace dividend, he said, must be given over to education; there is no more pressing problem for our nation and future. He said half of it must be given to medical and health care, which the public is demanding. He said half must go in tax reductions, half must go to technology and science, he said; half must be devoted to the infrastructure, which is crumbling in front of our eyes. And, he said, the last half, the sixth half, must go to developing a new mathematics by which we explain to the public how this can be achieved. But no sooner did we add up our accounts in the peace dividend than it disappeared, although Pat Moynihan has been credited, along with others, including, I think, Margaret Thatcher, for having declared that the peace dividend is peace.

But peace did not come immediately. In August, as we know, the Gulf War broke out and so we were into a new undertaking, and a new coalition. Even before the Gulf War, most Americans felt that the continuation of our involvement in international affairs was a matter of assured policy, and should be. Some 60% of the American public believed that we should continue our position and our role in NATO. And it’s not strange that this should be the case, because for 45 years no American election campaign ever featured a challenge to the US position in NATO - or to the US position in foreign and international responsibilities generally, but, particularly with respect to NATO. Every American Presidential candidate - Democrat or Republican - during that period, every Congressional Leader, took our presence in NATO for granted. There was in effect a conspiracy of consensus that we should continue to bear the costs and burdens of our membership. And, as I say, a few months ago we were celebrating its great consequence.

In contrast, in other countries, in the United Kingdom, in Germany, for example, there has been at various times a serious debate about their roles. That’s changed, but there were periods when that was seriously questioned. No such debate took place in the United States. And, with respect to the Gulf War - popular as the war was: it was short, it was, although debated seriously in the Congress, not seriously contested after the decision was taken to give the President authority - Americans believed that the war was an enormous success of policy, and very proud they are of the role of US and coalition troops in that war. There is no question about that. In fact, for a time the Gulf War affected the whole attitude of the country, not only the confidence in the troops and the military and the defence establishment, but it turned around a long period of growing pessimism in the US public about the effectiveness of their government.

The standard question that’s asked in polling in the United States - among other key questions, this is considered among the most important: “Do you think that the country is on the right track, or generally on the wrong track?” For a long time, up to the point of the successful military operations in the Gulf, those figures were very negative; most people thought that the country was on the wrong track. The numbers took a sudden spike upward during the months of November and March and now they’re headed down again. A majority of people today, a slight majority, think that we’re on the wrong track again.

The perception of what the two Parties did about the war is an interesting one. Democrats, most of them, supported the President from the very beginning in the coalition efforts, in the UN sanctions program, in contesting Saddam Hussein, demanding that he leave Kuwait, demanding that there be an end to the aggression. When it came to the question of authorising the direct use of military force, most Democrats voted against that resolution, on January 12th; but a significant and critical number voted for it along with most Republicans, and the President was given the authority. It is the first time in many decades that the Congress has undertaken what I regard as its key responsibility in making such a judgement and in determining under the Constitution to give the President authority to conduct military operations. Unlike Vietnam, unlike Korea, this war will not be challenged in the future as being an usurpation by executive authority of the Constitutional right of the Congress. After that decision was taken, the President made a decision on the 16th of January, notified the Constitutional Officers of the Congress and undertook the attack on Baghdad. Two days later an overwhelming Congressional vote supported the President as Commander-in-Chief, in support of the troops in the field. And as a consequence, perhaps surprisingly, the impression of most Americans is that Democrats and Republicans supported the war equally. It is an interesting conclusion because many people feared, or thought, or hoped I guess, that there would be a distinction between Democrats and Republicans on that issue. But the polls did not bear this out. Something like 75% of the American people believed that the war was equally supported.

But the war enthusiasm is diminishing rapidly in the United States. Again there is great pride in the performance of the troops, pride in the coalition efforts, particularly the efforts of our allies in Europe and I would think particularly with Great Britain, but a growing sense that the results of the war are ambiguous. Many Americans feel today that the President should have given the order to march on to Baghdad and seize the country, and as we have difficulties with the Kurds in the North, and difficulties with the Shia in the South, in questions of nuclear access, and so on, that opinion will probably grow.

I remember saying myself that the President did the right thing in not undertaking to occupy Baghdad and put us in a position of a World War II-type occupation, going far beyond what any of the other countries or the United States had undertaken in the UN resolutions. But, as a result of this calming down of the enthusiasm of the Gulf War, we in the United States are now focusing a great deal of attention on dissatisfaction with the conditions of our domestic policy. The President is enjoying very high ratings of approval. But if one goes beyond that general approval, it is interesting to note that when one is asked about how the President stands on the environment, or how he stands on the economy, or how he stands on education, or how he stands on any of the specifics of domestic policy, the ratings drop dramatically. Not just by a few points, but by a third, and in many cases below 50% levels.

This may indicate an interesting change in the attitude of our country, our citizens, about the Presidency and Congress generally. Today, and for several years past, I think, what Harold Lasky once said to Oliver Wendell- Holmes in a letter, has been proven true. Lasky wrote, “Every American President is more and less than a Prime Minister, and more and less than a King”. Of course he was referring to British Prime Ministers and British Kings. But the point, I think, has been emphasised, particularly since the Administration of President Reagan, that many people in the United States see the President much more as a constitutional monarch, if that’s not too strong a word for our republican traditions, than as a Prime Minister. And when asked what their attitudes are towards selecting a President, they very often reply with answers such as this: “to make our country proud”; “I would like our President to make our country proud”; “to bring our people together”; “to give us something to unify us”.

All of those attributes you will recognise are attributes of kingship, or attributes of a constitutional head of state rather than a policy Prime Minister. In fact, when they’re asked about how the President has power to change the domestic problems of the country, it is remarkable how few Americans believe that the President has great power. I believe he has great power. I’ve been in Washington for 30 years; I’m terribly impressed with the domestic and foreign policy power of the President of the United States. His veto is enormous, for example. If you try to override one sometime, you will find how enormous it is. But only something like 12% of the public think the President is the most powerful person in Washington; 25% will say that they believe that the Congress is a more powerful institution, and something like 30 to 40 to 50% believe special interest lobbyists hold the real power in Washington. They control the Congress, the Congress controls the Presidency, and that’s why nothing is accomplished.

We have, of course, since the end of World War II had divided government, we’ve had Democratic Administrations in the Congress and Republican Presidents, or occasionally a Democratic President and a brief period of Republican administration of the Congress. But it has been typical of us to say that despite this divided government, which confuses so many others, much has been accomplished and can be accomplished: it does not necessarily produce gridlock.

But in recent months I think many Americans believe that we are not making headway against key domestic problems that they identify and find deeply troubling. The first is the perception that’s growing in my country, in the United States, that the coming generation of Americans may not enjoy the same opportunities, the same improved living standards that their forebears have enjoyed into the late memory of the 19th century, if not beyond that. Home ownership, as an example:- only 9% of the renters today in the United States are thought to be eligible to buy a home, and only 37% of those who own a house are thought to be eligible today to meet the standards of ownership required financially today. In education, our higher education is among the most esteemed and sought after in the world: we have 300,000 students from other countries studying in the United States at higher education levels. But our secondary levels are in serious trouble. By one study, half of the 17 year-old school boys and girls in the United States cannot easily read and understand a newspaper editorial, which has a tragic consequence, not only for higher education, but for the life of work and citizenship that many will need to follow. We have 15,000 independent school boards in the United States, which makes any change in this extremely difficult.

In the area of poverty, in the United States one in seven Americans was living in poverty in 1970; in 1980 one in six; in 1990 one in five; by the year 2000 one in four. Now, I’ll grant you that standards of poverty have been raised perhaps more specifically than they were before. As always the burdens of poverty are falling disproportionately on blacks, on Hispanics and on inner-city residents. One in every three American children will receive some form of public assistance before the age of 17. Among black children the percentage rises to nearly half. At the same time, the United States, in the late twentieth century, by several measures, leads its partners in the alliance in a gap dividing the upper fifth of the population from the lower fifth. The richest two and a half million Americans will have as much money this year, as the one hundred million poorest.

As for crime, the United States is the most murderous nation in the world, with a homicide rate ten times as great as Britain and Japan. Expenditures for criminal justice in the 1980s increased four times as rapidly as for education, and twice as fast as for health and hospitals. Over the decade the number of adults behind bars doubled. We have twice as many people incarcerated today in proportion to our population as we had in 1960. One of the shocking statistics for me is that nearly one in four black males, aged 20 to 29, is now behind bars, on probation, or on parole on any given day.

In the public infrastructure, the physical condition of the country, we are investing only about four tenths of one percent of our gross national product; we have 200,000 bridges: 4 in 10 are structurally deficient, or obsolete, and will cost $5lbn to repair. 62% of our paved highways need repair: it takes $3 l5bn over the next 10 years; airports - you could go on and on. The public impression is that these problems are not being addressed. And yet strangely enough, if you ask Americans how they feel about themselves, they’re fairly optimistic and fairly happy. Whether this is a truthful response, one doesn’t know, but the level of happiness, satisfaction with one’s personal life, is probably as high in the United States as it is in any country I know - something like 84% of Americans respond that they are personally satisfied with their lives. I tend to doubt that: I think it is a little bit more sanguine a response than people would give if they were totally truthful, but it’s interesting because in other countries the figure is dramatically lower than that.

What is the difference? The American public doesn’t believe its government is working very well. That’s one of the reasons there was such a sharp increase of confidence and approval during the Gulf War. Everything seemed to work, there was no political wrangling at home, there seemed to be a united purpose of the nation, it seemed to be carrying on with despatch and efficiency and success. Our relations with our allies were cooperative and cordial; there was no difference or dispute and in a matter of a very short time - and Americans love short wars - we achieved all of our purposes. And we achieved them with fewer casualties on the coalition side than could be expected by military experts from a large-scale manoeuvre of that kind, much less a war. It was, in Teddy Roosevelt’s term, a ‘splendid little war’. And Americans were very, very happy and proud about it.

But, we are now returning to reality and we still have the problems of crime and education and particularly health, which is a growing concern in the United States; we spend more money than any other country in the world on health and 37 million of citizens are without adequate insurance. All this is pointing toward what I think will be an important political debate in the coming years, in fact in the coming months. It is a debate in which I hope we do not take a seriously wrong course in deciding that in order to deal effectively with our domestic problems, we need to sharply reduce our international presence and role. There is a great risk that that can happen. We have had n serious debate of that kind, so it will be new to the country if it occurs. Secondly, the involvement of the United States in Europe will decline in dollar terms; we will reduce our forces, as almost every country will, but it will still be very substantial.

And if I could give a dark scenario, this is what I would fear: the United States and the other participants in the Uruguay Round fail, there is a catastrophe in the Uruguay Round - I hope and pray that will not happen - but suppose it should, and there is the beginning of a serious retaliation on trade between the various trading countries in the world, Europe, the United States and Japan; and along with that, the United States’ recession ends very, very slowly, which I think will perhaps happen, with very, very low growth rates and increasing tension over its international trade relations; the problems of the domestic economy continue to gain prominence in our political attention; and someone begins to say “why are we spending $l00bn or $75bn or $50bn or whatever the number is, in our involvement in Europe, when we have pressing domestic problems that need attention, where that money is critically needed?”.

The budget agreement of last year, a wise agreement in my view, was bi-partisan but it put great constraints on spending. I suspect that Members of Congress will look, some of them wildly, about the international scene, to see where money can be saved. And this might be suggested as away. Members of Congress report to me that one of the things that they sometimes fall into saying, almost accidentally, that receives the most enthusiastic response, is something like this: “After all of our 45 years of work, bringing about the end of the Cold War and the defeat of communism - and we did that well with our allies, we accomplished a great deal -; and after our brilliant success in the Gulf with the coalition partners, now isn’t it time for us to turn our attention to our problems at home, paying less attention to what goes on abroad and more attention to our problems?”. And audiences break out into spontaneous and prolonged applause.

There is a member of the Congress, whom I won’t name - he is well known to all the Members - who comes from Youngstown, Ohio. He makes a speech almost every day in the House, he makes a one-minute address as it’s called, that invariably castigates Japan and Europe and almost every country in the world except his own. And it is the only occasion usually on which• as a presiding Speaker, I have to call the galleries to order. He is very good at short, pithy, dramatic statements. He is the only Member of Congress of either party that ever says anything that makes people in the gallery from South Carolina, Washington, and Oregon and California - very few of them from his own constituency, if any - break into wild applause.

So I believe that there is a nerve there and public consciousness in the United States that could be touched. A political campaign directed to addressing these serious problems at home, and turning deliberate attention away from the United States’ role abroad, and particularly in Europe and in Asia, could bring political purchase and success. And I’m troubled by it.

My view is that the United States’ political leadership, which sustained this relationship for so long, needs to go about the business very promptly of explaining the importance of a continued US role in Europe and a continued US leadership responsibility around the world. But we also need some help. We need some help in improved burden-sharing because the United States will not be able to bear the kind of proportionate responsibility or role, either in military or financial terms, that was typical immediately after World War II and the decades that followed. The American people are not particularly desirous of being the pre-eminent member of a coalition as much as they are interested in being a part of a coalition. And they will welcome enthusiastically a closer coming together of the ranks of our allies and coalition partners in playing a responsible role in international affairs in the coming decade.

It is going to be important as well that we succeed in trade, in our trade relations. The Uruguay Round is an example of very important and critical significance. If it fails, it will be extremely difficult to avoid some political consequence as well as economic consequence in the United States. There’s a poll published today that indicates that in Japan 23% of those polled believe that the United States is a greater security risk to Japan than the Soviet Union. This mirrors the US poll of a year ago in which a majority of Americans felt that the Japanese were a greater economic threat to the United States than the Soviet Union was a military threat. So to maintain US involvement in foreign affairs and international leadership, it will be important that we address our domestic problems, that we address them seriously, and I hope much more effectively than we have in the past - and that’s the American side of the problem. But it is also important that in those discussions we not permit a trade-off between domestic attention and concern and international retreat from responsibility. It is also important, as I say, that our coalition partners help in that process. And, for example, to hear a very important European official suggest that the United States should not meddle, not meddle I think was the word, in a decision about European defence, is not helpful, because it could become an important and dangerous adjunct to the desire of Americans to pull away, if they thought that Europe indeed wished us to leave.

In all of this we have important allies throughout Europe - there are many Ambassadors here tonight from our allies in various places, where our alliances and allegiances are strong. But I hope it will not be offensive to anyone if I suggest that Americans do have a sense of the special relationship that exists between Britain and the United States. And it is and may be more important in the coming months and years that that relationship remains strong, and consciously so on both sides of the Atlantic, as it ever has been, perhaps since the late days of the 1930s.

Americans are concerned about where Europe may go after 1992. The presence of Great Britain in the European Community is an assurance to many Americans that Europe will not become an instrument of opposition and distance from the United States. And so I believe that we have a common need and a common purpose in assuring that that long association, after so many years and so many difficulties, becomes a means by which the United States, at the end of this century, and at the beginning of the next, will take its proper role - perhaps a new dimension of that role - but its proper role, along with Europe and Japan in what we broadly call the free world in dealing with the problems of our national and international interests in the next century. I believe that the United States will succeed in doing that. We are an optimistic people by instinct, by background, and almost by definition, and at the moment there is a sense of more talk of decay and more talk of failure than I have heard in the United States for some time. But I think we will rise above that and with the understanding and cooperation of our allies we can look for similar successes in the decades ahead as we have enjoyed in the immediate decades past. We do it, however, without a central adversary. And, if as one assumes will happen, the Soviet Union will move toward a market economy and toward more democratic institutions, it will leave the scene as the great threat to stability and to peace that has been an extraordinarily unifying factor in the West for the last four or five decades. The challenges for us will be whether in an era of relative international stability, in which the Soviet Union and thermo-nuclear war is replaced as the principal threat by the dissolution of Yugoslavia, we can maintain the allegiance and support and constancy of our peoples, which constancy has been responsible for so much of what has occurred in advancing freedom and liberty in the past four decades and the glories we were celebrating only a few months ago.

I want to thank you all for the opportunity to be here and I look forward tomorrow to an opportunity to defend whatever outrageous opinions I have expressed tonight. But again, for me, this has been a marvellous opportunity to return to this beautiful park and vistas of Ditchley before I go back on Sunday to take up the rigors of Congress.

I was visited shortly after I became Speaker by a number of Speakers and Presidents of other national legislatures, including Bernard Weatherill, the distinguished Speaker of the House of Commons, and he asked what number of Speaker I was. I said “I’m the 49th, I believe.” He said he was the 187th, or some such number - I’ve forgotten the exact number. I said, “Well, Mr Speaker, that’s what we call in the United States a ‘put-down’.” And he said, “No, no, no. We started in 1377, earlier by some accounts, and a number of us were beheaded.” We do not have that problem in the United States for Speakers; we do not resist being taken to the seat of the Speaker as British Speakers do, symbolising the danger that it was at one time. But both in Britain and the United States, I think, we can recognise that freedom has had its price and that both countries, with our partners in the alliance, paid a very heavy and important price. But we can be very proud of the result and, I hope, confident of the future.

Thank you very much.

© The Ditchley Foundation, 1991.  All rights reserved.  Queries concerning permission to translate or reprint should be addressed to the Communications Officer, The Ditchley Foundation, Ditchley Park, Enstone, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 4ER, England.