Meet The Press
Alex Wong  /  Getty Images file
Former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), spoke with NBC News about the challenges facing President George W. Bush as the president approaches his State of the Union address.
NBC News

Editor's note: Former Georgia Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn spent 24 years in the U.S. Senate, serving as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and on the Intelligence Committee.  He’s now co-chairman of The Nuclear Threat Initiative, working to reduce the global threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. He spoke with NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, about world events prior to President Bush's fifth State of the Union address.
Here is an edited transcript of that interview.

Andrea Mitchell: Senator, starting first with Hamas, the president spoke very idealistically about democracy being on the march.  A year later, do you sometimes get unintended results?

Sen. Sam Nunn: I believe the president needs to define democracy much broader then one election.  We seem to equate people voting with democracy.  That's part of it, an important part of it.  But it’s institution building, it's economic development, it's having a middle class, it's having people respect the rule of law and having a rule of law that really is enforced and respected.  All of that plays a huge role in democracy and I would say that there's a case to be made, that the votes are not the most important part of democracy building at the very beginning.  They are as time goes on, because they preserve those institutions. But the institutions have not been developed in a lot of these countries and I think America is perceived in the world, whether we mean it or not, to have a very simplistic and rather naive view of the wonderful results that are going to flow from the election process without these other key steps having preceded the vote.

Mitchell: So how big a setback is the election of Hamas?

Sen. Nunn: I think it's full of peril but also has got some paradoxical promise embedded in it.  Because as I view the world and I look at the Muslim extremists, I think American foreign policy and hopefully that of our allies has got to be aligned and focused and take into account the need to get to moderate Muslims, sensible Muslims, whatever you want to call them, nonviolent Muslim community to take on the violent extremists.  And within that framework this may give an opportunity, the election of Hamas, to split off those in Hamas who really do want to see a better future for the Palestinian people from those who really are dedicated to violence and chaos.  If that happens, it may not happen rapidly, but if that happens we may look back on this election as one where the promise actually exceeded the peril. But in the short run I think there is a lot of peril.

Mitchell: Around the world there seems to be a great deal of skepticism about George Bush's notions of democracy solving everything.

Sen. Nunn: Yeah, and I think that American history itself is indicative of that.  We did not have one man, one vote at the beginning of our democracy.  It was really a republic it was based on states and it was based on geography.  If you look at it now with the Senate having equal voice to the House of Representatives, its not based on one man one vote its based on geography, two Senators from each state.  If we had been a pure democracy, simply majority rule, if that had been the founding fathers' principle we probably never would have had a United States of America because the smaller states would not have gone along with the Constitution.  So there have been a lot of nuances in our history and even civil war about some very fundamental principles. And I think that when we believe that we can simply preach democracy to the world as opposed to careful institution building, civil society building, economic development and constant communication about the rule of law, I think we make a mistake. 

The rule of law is absolutely essential to democracy.  It's essential to the elections because if you don't have the rule of law you don't have enforceable provisions that relate to elections and who really won.  The rule of law can be used as an economic development argument and has tremendous attraction, even to countries that have autocratic rule because they have to have a rule of law if they are going to play the world economic game and really be competitive and have their people prosper.  So to me that's a better entry point then simply focusing on elections although elections are an important ingredient of democracy over the long term.

Mitchell: What do you think the president should say in his state of the union to the world about his foreign policy goals?  How would you score what he has achieved in the key areas of Iraq, Iran, North Korea, the axis of evil states that he had identified in a previous state of the union?

Sen. Nunn: I guess, oversimplifying, I would say this president has had a very bold, but in my view, a very challenged foreign policy. We made a lot of mistakes.  We've had tremendous erosion of American credibility and prestige in the world.  I think one of the things I would like for him to convey maybe not in these words but at least implicitly is that we recognize that to lead, which America must do, you also have to listen.  That you cannot simply command the world.  It cannot be you're for us or against us. We've got to listen to people around the world.  I think that is now being done more in the second term than in the first term but I think the president needs to find carefully calibrated words to have people understand around the world that we are willing to listen. That we do care, not just about our own security but the security of other people in the world and that we want to repair that damage that has been done with our friends and our allies and that we recognize on the major problems facing America, whether its economic problem, whether its fiscal problems or fiscal imbalances in the world, whether its the terrorist problem, whether its what John Kerry and George W Bush identified as the number one security challenge, keeping the most dangerous weapons out of the most dangerous hands.  In all of those categories throwing in the environmental challenge, the health challenge, we are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe.  Cooperation means friends, cooperation means leadership, it means listening in order to lead and it means repairing a lot of damage that has been done in the last four or five years.

Mitchell: What kind of damage? What were the damaging steps that were taken in foreign policy?

Sen. Nunn: Well if you name them - I remember very well that a lot of people didn't pay much attention to it - but Colin Powell announced that there would be continuity of foreign policy in America right at the beginning of this administration on the question of the Korean peninsula.  Just about the time he announced it the South Korean president visited America and the White House completed overruled that and undermined it, sending the president of South Korea home to fire a lot of his top people for being blindsided in America.

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

So right at the very beginning the State Department, through i.e. Colin Powell and the White House were totally different on Korea.  Now that's not the only problem we have got with Korea but we have seen tremendous erosion between South Koreans public opinion and our own leadership in this country.  And distrust of America.  That affects one of the biggest proliferation problems we've got which is North Korea.

On the Iranian situation we now, in my view, are moving the right way although it’s very difficult.  But we have made all sorts of mistakes at the beginning including not being willing to back the Europeans when they first started down the road of firm diplomacy.  But now we are back on track on Iran, we are I think beginning to be back on track on North Korea, because we now have China very much involved in that equation.  So I think there is some recovery going on in the second term and some lessons learned.  The damage is pretty significant and we've got a long way to go.

Kyoto is another example.  I think its one thing to say we are not going to go along with the world on the clean air quest but its another thing to not have any other policy that replaces that when many major corporations of America, including General Electric, and others realize that we are going to have to face this problem in the corporate world as well as the states as well as other countries in the world, way out in front.  So I think the environment, I think there has been some very significant damage. 

These are not irreparable steps but they are steps that have to be recognized and remedied.  The president is certainly not going to make a State of the Union saying, "Here are all the mistakes I've made and I'm going to correct it, I'm sorry."  But he needs to acknowledge that implicitly in his remarks and cast his leadership in a much different direction.  And I think it has to be based on recognizing that the biggest issues we face in the world, as strong as we are, and as much as America has to lead are not going to be solved by America alone but require help and that requires listening to others.

Mitchell: Why do you think that Condoleezza Rice as secretary has been trying to repair the damage with Europe and be more diplomatic? Why do they seem to be a little bit more in a listening mode?

Sen. Nunn: I think they have learned some lessons and I think they have recognized that the first term, whether they intended it or not, we gave the position and we said it "you're with us or you're against us" that implies you are with us right or wrong, or you're against us.  That's not what was meant but that was what was conveyed.  I think when you basically have all sorts of challenges in the world and when you specifically identify enemies in a State of the Union speech, instead of lining up your allies with you, you begin to split alliances with that kind of rhetoric.  And I think they recognize that now. And I think they have learned a good bit but this administration has got some serious repair work to be done.  I must add that the Europeans and our other allies around the world have to also recognize cooperation is a two way street.  They've got to do some listening themselves and they have got to be willing to lead.  And in many areas they have got to be willing to let the world know that we cannot just have diplomacy defined as nothing but discussions.  Diplomacy has to include the willingness to enforce the rule of law and that means the willingness to take hard steps.  For instance, sanctions when required and for instance, the use of force in extremists situations where its a last resort. So its not just America that has to learn, a post cold period, I think our allies have to learn also.

Mitchell: Was it a mistake to use the "axis of evil" rhetoric in that first state of the union?

Sen. Nunn: I think most people would agree that these countries are all real problems.  But I don't think it helped build alliances in the world.  I don't think it helped, for instance, get China to be anxious to help us on North Korea which they're now doing several years later but it could have happened earlier.  I don't think it helped to get the Europeans to lead on Iran which they are now doing but several years later.  I don't think it helped get Russia willing to discuss seriously being firm with Iran and making sure they don't become a nuclear power. That's slowly coming around.  So its taken us two or three years to get away from that and I think it cost us a good bit of time even though in a technical sense you can make an intellectual case the president identified three real serious countries with, you can call them anything you want to.  But putting them all together is not exactly, Id rather separate my enemies than put them together in one basket.

Mitchell: What about Iraq?  What can the president say about how the war is going?

Sen. Nunn: To me it’s frankly, the United States still has a big role to play in Iraq.  We made all sorts of mistakes.  The worst was lack of postwar planning and I think that everybody now recognizes how derelict we were in not anticipating that everything may not unfold as a rosy scenario.  Having said that I think America still has to give the Iraqi government a time to see if they can consolidate to see if they can get the Sunnis to participate, to see if they can be a credible government that's simply an alignment of religious parties.  The verdict is out on that, it doesn't look good to me now but it could unfold in a more optimistic direction.  If without credibility of the Iraqi government than whatever the United States does there, training police and training army in order to support the government that is made up of one religion or another is simply not going to, they are not going to be loyal and police are not going to be loyal and the army is not going to be loyal even if they are properly trained. 

We have had so much problem with security that we don't have the infrastructure we have built.  It’s awfully hard to get people to believe that they've got a bright future if they don't have anything like as much electricity as they did before the war and its awfully hard for the United States not to be blamed.  So we've got both feet and both hands in the tar baby, so to speak.  We've got to give the Iraqi government a chance but in the long run it's going to be up to the Iraqi government itself.  I can't imagine Americans staying in Iraq with a very strong military presence in the midst of a civil war.  Unless they are able to put together a credible legitimate government, that's where they are headed.

Mitchell: Thank you Senator.

Sen. Nunn: Thank you.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments