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Council on Foreign Relations Special Luncheon Briefing on the Middle East [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speaker: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, “The New Middle East”
Presider: Gideon Rose, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
October 19, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations Washington, DC


GIDEON ROSE: Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished members of the press, we are fortunate to have with us today Richard Haass, who you all know. I am going to take very little time on pleasantries because we want to get to him and to you.

Richard is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a distinguished diplomat, former director of policy planning and the author of numerous books, articles and a major authority on American foreign policy and international affairs. The—Richard has a spectacular new article in Foreign Affairs that leads off our November/December issue, and he’s here to talk about it with us today and answer your questions about it and about the subject more broadly as the new era of the Middle East and what the United States—how the United States should operate within it.

So without further ado, Dr. Haass.

RICHARD N. HAASS: Thanks, Gideon. Thank you all. I’m not going to summarize the article unless you want me to just because it is what it is what it is, and I just want to say, you know, sometimes I know that you set out to write articles. This one should have wrote itself, but I was trying to make sense of what was going on in particular after the events of this summer and just trying to add up what had been happening in the last how ever many years, five years or so, and I did add it all up. And I took several walks around Central Park, and I’m not one of those people who writes in front of screen. I sort of write in my head, and then, I sit at the screen. So I wrote this walking around the park.

And when I added up all the things that I thought characterized the Middle East, it seemed to me that we had reached one of those transition points, and I had studied Middle Eastern history at Oxford. I was lucky enough to study with a man named Albert Hourani, and Albert was one of the great historians of the Middle East. And he wrote two things that influenced me heavily, which is probably more than you want to know, so I’ll quickly go through it.

One was this book called “Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age,” which began it—it took it basically from 1798 on, with the late 18 th century being the moment of Napoleon’s incursion into Egypt. And it was a traumatic event for the—not for just the Egyptians, but for Arabs throughout because they had this sort of recollection of themselves running Europe centuries before, and suddenly these Europeans were coming in and slicing through them like a knife through butter. And it was truly traumatic.

And just as an aside, some of the same questioning you see, say, in the Arab Human Development Report about why is the Arab world and the Muslim world fallen behind, you saw then in Egypt in those years.

And then Albert wrote a sensational article on—about the Suez crisis, which interestingly enough was 50 years ago and you’re celebrating or acknowledging its memory. His thesis was the Suez crisis marked the end of the European era of the Middle East because essentially it was early on in the Cold War, it came at the same as Hungary. Eisenhower and the administration saw these enormous stakes and were furious that the Europeans had gotten involved in the Middle East in a way and at a time that interfered with U.S. management of the Cold War and the White House’s hopes at that time to—how would I put it—take advantage of the Hungary crisis and put the Soviet Union squarely on the defensive.

And it was Hourani’s argument—which I think is right—that that was the moment the United States basically said, “Okay, this part of the world, the Middle East, is too important to subcontract it out, thank you very much, and we, the United States, have to essentially become the contractor. Too much is at stake here, given the nature of the Cold War.” More than anything else, there was actually more Cold War issues than it was oil or anything like that.

Then I think (it ?) started coming back what essentially was (persona non grata ?) with this idea, that this one of the most (historical ?) things, that you’ve had a long period of Ottoman decline from the late 18 th century to roughly the post-World War I agreement. Then you had a post-World War I for the, you know, the Sikes-Pico Period and all that going up through Suez, which was a European Colonial period. (That actually ?) then was a period where the United States saw the Middle East—largely, not entirely—through a Cold War prism in a third era.

A fourth era being the post-Cold War period, and I thought it was essentially—you can say it began in ‘89 when the wall came down; it began in ‘90 with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But the United States was able to act for the first time without reflexive Soviet opposition in the Middle East. We—I was at the White House at the time, and it was just very interesting, the idea that we go to the Security Council, as the Bush I administration did repeatedly, and have Soviet/then Russian support for what it was we were doing. And that to all of us was one of the ways—we just knew that it was a fundamentally different era, and it allowed the United States tremendous latitude, I guess you would say, in what it could accomplish. Because it also it didn’t have to worry—I mean, just—we were really conscious of the time that we didn’t have to think about things like a Soviet (counterdeployment ?), which is the sort of thing that the United States always had to worry about for years before, and obviously in ‘73. That was the centerpiece of the diplomacy of the time, a fundamentally different group.

And I think this period—again, beginning ‘89, ‘90, was a period of American primacy. So it was actually extraordinary. I can’t date an end. There’s not a single event that basically said when this period came to an end. I would—for me, it was roughly some time this year. You know, I’d say roughly 2006. And it was just a confluence of events, of a sense that the Iraq war not only wasn’t relevant, was unlikely to. And the real question was how poorly it was going to end up.

The Iranian emergence backed by the wealth of high oil prices, the new, confident leadership, Saddam’s removal, the Taliban’s removal, what happened this summer with Nasrallah, the absence of something like—what we used to call a peace process, and so forth and so on—and then I think I go through a dozen particular features of this new period, which are—that is the flip side of the reasons the American era came to an end.

And so I basically believe—and I haven’t seen any reason to question it yet—that you’ve got these dozen or so factors. Well yes, the United States is still stronger than any other outside factor. But the more interesting thing is not simply that the other outsiders are increasingly going to go their own way, but that inside forces are going to have independent policies or behaviors that will have true consequences, many of these adverse: Iran emergent, quite powerful—(inaudible)—serious peace process; Iraq, which we can talk about, at best messy, at worst a regional war, a growing phenomenon of militia-ization, continued terrorism; Islam increasingly filling the political and intellectual void in this part of the world, the latest “ism,” if you will, to animate not just political life, but life more broadly; top-heavy Arab regimes, uncertain how to cope with the various pressures they face; and so on.

And if you add all this up, and even if I’m mostly right, not entirely right, it’s not an attractive picture for the United States. I think I say in the piece that I do think for the next couple of decades, this becomes one of the two fundamental foreign policy choices facing this country. How do you deal with a Middle East that does not have within it the building blocs of stability, and that can do damage, because of what’s in the Middle East and what—because of the energy, but also because of the ability of terrorism to radiate out, that could do real damage beyond its geographical confines.

Just as a 30-second aside, it couldn’t be more different than the other principal foreign policy challenge facing the United States, which is Asia, which is this area of tremendous dynamism, rising states, translating economic power into geopolitical power; a more assertive Japan, a rising China, an emerging India, Russia now with renewed strength; what’s going on in the Korean peninsula; Australia becoming more (active ?). And there you’ve got to figure out, almost like you had to do in Europe 50 years ago, regional institutions to harness it. And I think that’s the intellectual challenge in some ways, to structure the dynamism of Asia.

For the Middle East, the challenge is not to structure the dynamism because, you know, it’s a fundamentally different challenge. It’s a structure how do you deal with what you might call strategic deterioration; how is it we try to contain it, deal with it, and ultimately reverse it?

And I’ll just say one more thing. It’s not hopeless. I’m not saying there’s nothing that can be done, but there are limits to what can be done. This will, to some extent, have to run its course. Now, we can affect the duration of the course and the depth of the course, but we can’t, I think, prevent some of this from coming to pass; it’s already coming to pass. This is a new era.

Now, there are things, again, we—I talk about some of the “do’s” and “don’ts.” I think we’ve got to be judicious in future uses of military force. Obviously, I have Iran in mind. I think we’ve got to be more realistic about the promotion of democracy, about its prospects and its promises in that part of the world. And I do think the United States needs to be much more active diplomatically, whether it’s with Iraq—I’ll be glad to talk about Iran, the Arab-Israeli situation. I think we are underusing that particular tool in our kit bag. And, obviously, I think we need to take steps on the energy side just to slightly reduce our vulnerability, if I’m right, to this era that will be a Middle East that will be much more unstable and unpredictable than it’s been in the past. Again, the best we can do is reduce our vulnerability. There’s no elimination or avoiding of vulnerabilities.

That’s essentially where I am. Again, it’s a sober analysis. I think there are some things we can and should do. But even if we do all the things I would recommend, it will not undo the analysis. We will still end up, if you will, in an era where the United States is going to lose ground. But again, history is often about degree, and that, to me, is not—doesn’t mean you wash your hands. You can’t. It doesn’t mean you give up. It’s not—and this—so this is not fatalism. It’s just—it’s sobriety. And it’s—so let me leave it there.

ROSE: Will this be an age of diminished expectations, essentially?

HAASS: Well, and that’s—whose expectations? I mean, no one’s ever made a lot of money betting on—taking an optimistic stance towards the Middle East. This part of the world has been, shall we say, something of a disappointment, for decades. That, in and of itself, is not fundamentally new.

No, so I can’t say it’s diminished expectations. Again, to me, it’s going to be an incredibly difficult era. I don’t know if this era’s going to last for five years or 50 years. But there’s a lot of forces in train that I find potentially or actually destructive—they destabilize it—or worrisome or troubling or unattractive. Choose what words you want. And again, what I’m trying to say is, there are things we can and should do to begin to hopefully shape the arc of their trajectory.

But look—but—well, to take one example, we’ve just got to be realistic. Years ago I once wrote a book about ripeness and how to structure diplomacy. This is not a part of the world—let me take the Israeli-Palestinian issue—that’s ripe for solutions. I mean, no one needs to book the rooms at Camp David this week. It’s not clear who you’d invite, and it’s not clear what you’d accomplish if they were to come.

So—but it doesn’t—but the conclusion to draw from that is not that there’s nothing we can usefully do diplomatically. It just—you’ve always got to scale your diplomacy to the degree of ripeness that exists. There’s modest possibilities there. So you do modest things now, and maybe over time you can then do more ambitious things.

So it just seems to me you’ve got to be smart about what the situation is, and then you can scale or target your diplomacy accordingly.

Similarly, in Iraq, you don’t have certain things you can work with now. So it doesn’t make sense that they’re talking about solutions to Iraq this week. You’ve got to think a lot more modestly about what you can do.

Like that—I mean, to put it another way, we reached the point where even modest—even accomplishing modest objectives in the Middle East sounds pretty ambitious. But that’s where we are.

ROSE: Lot to talk about, and why don’t I start opening to our distinguished Doyle McManus.

QUESTIONER: Richard, the framework of your peace is broad and sort of medium-term. It’s a great memo for the next president, of either party. My question is—

HAASS: No one should read into that. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: My question is short-term.

HAASS: Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: If you’d name three, five steps that this administration could do that it could do without having to overturn all of its premises, what would they be?

HAASS: I do think—let me sort of say I do think there are some things the administration can do, not only without overturning all of its premises, but with capacities that are available. I mean, there’s certain things the administration can’t do any time soon, simply because it doesn’t have the capacities. For example, anything that would be heavily reliant on the Army, I would say, is probably not a realistic option for the administration. The only Army we have is busy right now.

But there are some things that I would think that we can do that this administration—it would represent change, but I don’t think would be asking it to do things that it was a hundred percent uncomfortable with, but degrees of discomfort.

Let me just go through a few, in no particular order.

The Palestinian issue. This administration several years ago issued a letter to then-Prime Minister Sharon where it stated certain things—for example, that henceforth, the United States would take into account demographic and strategic realities in terms of any territorial compromise, any Palestinian right of return would be limited to Palestine, what have you.

This administration has never articulated an equivalent set of views about a Palestinian state. This administration was the first administration to support a two-state solution with a Palestinian state, but it has never articulated what you might call phase three of the road map, what would be the principal elements.

Why couldn’t the administration do that? For example, why wouldn’t it say—why couldn’t it say: consistent with everything we’ve told the Israelis—and it could reiterate it to the current prime minister—we believe that Palestinians should have a state with a significant degree of territorial contiguity; the size of the Palestinian state should be equal to the ‘67—to ‘67 lines; and that where we make adjustments to take into account Israeli demographic and strategic realities, we will support an outcome that provides territorial compensation or other forms of compensation for the Palestinians.

Why couldn’t the administration say, as you know, we only support a Palestinian right of return to Palestine unless—in most cases the Israelis make humanitarian exceptions, but we the United States are prepared to pledge X billions of dollars for a Palestinian resettlement fund in Palestine, and we challenge the rest of the world to match us, say, by some proportion of their GDP; I don’t care, you know, three to one, four to one. Put that together.

The reason we should do this, I believe, is to put—is to basically introduce into Palestinian politics the sense that there’s some possibility for giving up violence and there’s some potential benefit for dealing with Israel. And hopefully, therefore, that would put some pressure on Hamas.

I want Palestinians waking up in Ramallah to basically say, why are we continuing to live this squalid existence when the United States is now prepared to support an outcome which would be pretty good? I want the Hamas leaders to have to explain why it is they continue behaviors that preclude the Palestinian people from having an incomparably better life than they now have.

So that’s one thing I think we, the United States, could do.

Case of Iran. I would think that we should be much more interested in a diplomatic exploration than we’ve been. I think the chances of regime change in Iran are negligible, which has held the administration up for years. So I would be willing to have a negotiation with the Iranians on anything and everything.

And again, I’d go public in this. I would say the administration should put pressure on the Iranian leadership the only way I know how, which is by going over their heads to the Iranian people. Basically say to the Iranian people: you’ve got this leadership that persists in doing all this support for terrorism and support for uranium enrichment; here’s the price you pay for it. You, the Iranian people, you pay the price in terms of sanctions, foregone investment, foregone trade. If your government would simply agree to the following things—and by the way, we will support all the access to uranium for electricity generation you want; we will drop this, this, this and that; we will give you security guarantees; what have you—if your government drops the following objectionable behaviors, here’s how we will respond. And by the way, this means your standard of living would go up 40 percent in the first year.

Why don’t we say that to the Iranian people? The president had a little bit of that in the State of the Union. Why don’t we develop it. It think it was—

(To Mr. Rose.) Was it the State of the Union or more recently?

ROSE: He had it in the April proposal.

HAASS: Right, right. So why don’t we basically, regularly and loudly, flesh that out? Because the principal pressure on Mr. Ahmadinejad, I would think, is pressure from below, in the streets of his country, and we should be willing to sit down with the Iranians. Again, I think Jim Baker had it exactly right: diplomacy is not and should not be seen as a form of appeasement.

You know, as you all know, we had our own meeting with the president of Iran. And again, I don’t think dialogue is a favor; it’s simply a diplomatic tool, and we shouldn’t be afraid to (use ?) it. If it turns out that dialogue goes nowhere and the Iranians continue doing objectionable behaviors, the administration will learn that the fact that having tried to dialogue puts them in a better position to manage the domestic and international politics of escalation.

So it seems to me dialogue is good. It may work. It positions you better if it doesn’t work. And by the way, the last I checked, it’s not like all the alternative policies are so wonderful we should be racing to embrace them. So I don’t see why—

Just quickly, a third thing would possibly be Iraq, what the administration could do. If I could do one thing differently, that would be tomorrow I would call—if I were the president I would call for the creation of the Iranian equivalent of the six plus two that we had from Afghanistan, call for a regional forum of the neighbors of Iran and other relevant parties—of Iraq, rather, to sit down and to begin—and to have a systematic conversation about what could be done to stabilize that country. And it would deal with everything from flows of people, equipment, money, what have you, from the outside. It would deal with economic support, political support and so forth. I mean, if you’re worried about the sectarianization or militia-ization of Iraq, this is one of the ways to get a handle on it. So I would essentially move to a regional diplomatic forum.

Those are three things the administration could—now, would any of those bring us peace between Israelis and Palestinians or solve the Iranian uranium problem or solve the Iraq problem? No. But might all of those play some constructive role in at least contributing to a more positive dynamic? Quite possibly. And so I would say I would recommend, if I were on the inside, to explore all three.

QUESTIONER: Do you think the Bush administration really thinks their policies are failing, though, and they need to change? They seem to be sticking with the script, the new Middle East—

HAASS: Well, I couldn’t speak for the administration when I worked for it, so—(laughter)—it’s hard to speak for it now. But let me put it this way. I’m beginning to get a sense that there’s a growing realization that they are up against, particularly in Iraq, a strategy that is not succeeding.

Or put it another way. The best argument for staying the course is when you’ve reached the intellectual conclusion that you’re doing the right thing, it’s just your investment hasn’t yet had the time to pay off. I believe there’s more and more people in and around the administration are coming to the conclusion that’s not the problem. It’s not that six more months of this or three more months or nine more months will get us to where we want to go; it’s that it won’t, which means you’ve got to start thinking of something different. So I can’t—look, I can’t speak for the president, the secretary of State and others. I’m not going to try.

I would just say that, look, like all of you, I’ve been involved in this business for decades. Like many of you. I won’t age all of you. (Laughter.) Like many of you. I would say two things.

One is, on Iraq I just feel that we are moving towards what someone like Malcolm Gladwell would call a tipping point. I think we are reaching a tipping point both on the ground but also in the political debate in the United States, or in Washington, about Iraq. I think we are reaching the point, and it’s going to happen soon, where simply more of essentially the same is going to be a policy that very few people are going to be able to support. The problem, by the way, is going to be that the options are not rich and wonderful. But we can come back to that.

Secondly, what adds to it all is if you add up Northeast Asia, the Iranian challenge and Iraq, the energy situation and several other things, just take those three or four, I can’t think of another time when an administration was being hit simultaneously with so many difficult, yet largely discrete, challenges. This is an extraordinary array of simultaneous things coming at this administration, extraordinary. And it’s strategically as demanding a context as I can recall. I mean, it’s more demanding than the Cold War, because at least then, you could focus on one thing. It’s more demanding than Vietnam because it’s multiple things and, I think, actually of greater stake.

So, this combination of—that the Iraq strategy, I believe, as is, has virtually no chance of succeeding, plus the fact that it’s playing itself out in this ever-more demanding strategic context, yes, I think that change will come. I don’t think if we were having this lunch in six months or a year we’d be having the same conversation. I don’t believe this is a sustainable situation.

ROSE: Can you talk a little bit about the options, before we leave that subject, the options in Iraq—

HAASS: The options in Iraq?

ROSE:—and what you think of them.

HAASS: I think there’s lots of options on paper in Iraq. I think there’s less options in practice. And I don’t think any of the options are particularly attractive—let me just say that.

I mean, I had to give a talk the other day about Iraq strategy. And those of you who know me well will know that probably “modesty” is not the first word you use to describe me. And I know this comes as a shock to all of you—those of you who don’t know me. And I felt so uncomfortable giving this talk because I mean normally when you give talks you kind of have beginnings, middles and ends, and you feel you’ve at least advanced the ball. I felt I had—I was like the Redskins on a bad day. The ball had not been advanced very far, if at all.

So, with that uncharacteristic modesty as a prelude, I think the options range from essentially what we’re doing, which I would call performance-based reductions; i.e., you only reduce if the situation warrants it, to calendar-based reductions, which is—there’s many versions of which, to selective increases, some version of John McCain’s policy. And I think those are essentially, by the way, the three principal options: performance-based, which is some version of the president’s “we’ll stand down as they stand up”; calendar-based—and the only real difference with the calendar-based options is how fast—how quick is the calendar and what’s the end state; to those who want to bring it to nothing, or those who prefer to have it, say, go from roughly 140,000, say, to 40,000, to a couple of divisions. And then, but what they haven’t really done particularly well was answered, okay, where does that residual capability go and what does it do? And so, I mean, there are those who say park it up north to prevent a Turkish-Kurdish civil war—I mean Turkish-Kurdish war. Okay, but another way of translating that is then you’re just letting—that’s letting greater Baghdad burn. I mean, I’m just trying to understand the options.

I think the problem with the jack-up the level of forces is that there aren’t forces particularly to be introduced, and I’m not sure that the prime minister particularly wants more forces. I think internationalization in forms of trusteeship, blue helmets, and all that are simply not on simply because the international community, the U.N., don’t have either the appetite or the capacity.

ROSE: Was it on before, if they had done it two years ago, Richard? Or is it less applicable now than it was as an option—

HAASS: It is inapplicable now, I believe. Could it have been applicable early on? Not so much a blue helmet option, but you could have had a U.N.-authorized option. You could have had—if in the spring of 2003 the United States had basically moved to get a resolution authorizing an international force, an ISAF, if you will, for Iraq, I believe yes, that could have been obtained. The administration didn’t move for such a resolution for about a year, if my memory serves me correctly—you can go back and check that—to get contributions. But yes, I think there were greater opportunities for internationalization in 2003, in part because no one had any idea what would ensue and what it would take. I mean, one of the many reasons people aren’t showing up now is they know how costly it would be. I don’t know if it was the illusion or the reality, but then, at least, it looked like something that was—could be done at a reasonable price.

I think there’s potentially other options, though I think, you know, again, the first three are the basic ones. I think the interesting question to me is, in addition to the military options, essentially the three I gave you—the calendar-based, the performance-based, and the increase—those all deal with military presence. Well, what else is left? There’s a couple of other things that could figure in. One is, there’s those who think if we condition aid, that could affect the internal dynamics of Iraq. I’m not very confident of that because I’m not sure that aid would have that kind of leverage. There is the various schemes for power-sharing, the ideas that Joe Biden and Les Gelb and others have put forward. And I think if the goal is to have a—if by that they mean a decentralized, heavily federalized Iraq, basically weak central government, strong peripheries, lots of power sharing, lots of revenue sharing, I think it’s a desirable outcome.

I just don’t believe it’s a likely outcome. Indeed—you know, if it could be achieved, it would be achieved, but I don’t—I’m not persuaded, I’m sorry to say, that the internal support for it is there. Or to put it another way, I think what would be enough for the Sunnis would be too much for the Kurds and Shi’a. I just don’t think there’s that kind of an internal deal is in the cards, plus there’s messy demographic realities in the center that complicate it further.

All this leaves me to think that the only variable we could probably introduce at this point that the chance of making an appreciable difference—and I emphasize the word “chance”—would be what I talked about a few minutes is a regional forum, because that—if you—when you come take a step back, what’s the thing that worries you most about Iraq right now? I don’t know about you, but to me it’s militias and it is the—it’s the greater intensity of sectarian struggle there, and one of the few handles I believe that exists are external handles. And so if the—if one brings the Syrians in, that might help you deal with the traditional insurgency, possibly, with al Qaeda types coming across. If you bring the Iranians in, there’s at least a chance that that could help you deal with various Shi’a but also non-Shi’a militias or fighting elements.

I would just say it is worth a try. Again, I’m not going to sit here and predict success. I just—at the moment I can’t think of any U.S.—anything else we could introduce that would have the capacity to change things, and I would just sort of say I don’t know any analyst that I talk to who likes—if the two basic options, by the way, are either performance-based reduction, which is a fancy way of saying staying the course, or calendar-based reductions, I don’t know any analyst who has a lot of confidence in the former or who takes a lot of comfort with the latter. Everyone I know is skeptical about performance-based reduction and extraordinarily worried about the consequences of calendar-based reductions.

So it seems to me if those are really, at the end of the day, your two most fundamental choices—and I don’t know anyone who has a lot of confidence in either—it just forces you to say, “What else could we do to introduce into this mix?” And that’s why—I’ll stop—I’m sorry to go on so long—when I gave the talk the other day, I ended up so gloomy because I find myself—I hate it when I’m in the position of an analyst, which is all I am now, and you look at something and you—your capacity to say—it’s easy to critique, you know. I think it was Kissinger once wrote, you know, the person in government who puts in the president’s inbox a critique and doesn’t tell him what to do hasn’t really done much for the president’s day. And I’m not sure on this one right now there are that many things to do.

QUESTIONER: I think your first suggestion on the Palestinian—(word inaudible)—question, I don’t see why we cannot have a Madrid II conference involving Palestinians and Israelis, Syrian and Lebanese. Just can you imagine for a moment if this is settled, the whole area is neutralized vis-a-vis American foreign policy in the region.

HAASS: I have two problems with that. One is—I mean, I was heavily involved in Madrid I, and there are those that might believe there were certain preconditions in place. I just don’t see the preconditions here. I mean, who’s going to represent the Palestinians? What is going to be—what are they prepared to accept or not accept? Is Israel at the moment—does it have a government that’s both willing and able to make certain types of compromises? Which way do the Syrians want to go at this point? Do they basically see the historical trends going in the favor of radicalism? Do they want to stay close to Iran? And so on.

So I think while the Sunni-Arab regimes would love what you say, I’m just not sure that they control enough of the regional dynamics that we can preposition peace. You got to remember, why did Madrid I work in 1991 in that October? Well, it worked because the United States had just won an overwhelming military victory, and essentially, the Syrians and the other Arabs wanted to get on the right side of what they saw of the dominant force—if I’m right—of the beginning of the new era of the Middle East.

They basically said, “A new era is dawning with the end of the Cold War. We want to get on the right side of the Americans.” It could not be more different now. If I’m right—and I’m wrong all the time—but if on the off chance I’m right, (if ?) they see this as the dawning of a new strategic era in the region, what is their incentive to work with us at a Madrid-like gathering? I just don’t see necessarily that you’ve got the pieces in place.

Just secondly, one quick point. Even if I’m wrong on all of this, and you could pull something off like this, why do you necessarily think it would fundamentally change the dynamics of Iraq? It doesn’t seem to me that what’s animating or fueling 99 percent of the ground activity in Iraq is somehow to affect the contours of a Palestinian state. I don’t think these characters are fighting for Ramallah or for this or that piece of Jerusalem. I think they’re fighting very much for the character of the future of Iraq when they’ve got larger goals beyond Iraq.

So I know this is politically incorrect, but the idea that somehow the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian feud somehow holds the key to so much else—I know my—one of my closest friends and my former boss, Brent Scowcroft, argues a version—or a vision of this—I just don’t—(I said it ?), which, but don’t take me wrong, I still this is something we ought to try, and you heard me throw out what I think we ought to do. I just don’t think—and—we ought to be that ambitious at this moment.

Years from now, we could maybe get to the point where Madrid II would make sense to convene. But I just don’t think we’re anywhere near that point.

QUESTIONER: That’s two years. (Laughs.)

HAASS: Yeah.

ROSE: Linda Robinson’s next.

QUESTIONER: Yes. I want to take you back to Iraq to just play out your thinking a little bit more on this.


QUESTIONER: If you really don’t see any way of compelling agreement among the parties in Iraq or any solution, and you see—(you get to a point ?)—it seems to me you get to a point where there’s already (politicking ?) here in this country where you simply say, “We’re not going to keep going and force, really, a withdrawal.” And then are you left with really just a containment strategy? And what does that mean as far as increasing reliance on Gulf states, traditional allies and perhaps also with regard to Iran? But how do you see the map as these things come pass?

HAASS: That’s a great question. I’m wrestling with that myself. I’m not avoiding your question. I’m not sure I know the answer to it.

But, you know, people are now using the phrase “containment strategy,” and I’m trying to understand what it really means. I think what it means—if you deconstruct it, if people are going to be intellectually honest—tell me if I’m wrong—it seems to mean that something like a civil war or sectarian conflict is allowed to play itself out. And what you basically try to say is, okay, that’s awful, but there’s nothing much we can do about it, and let’s at least try to avoid it spilling over into a regional war. Let’s try to limit how much outsiders poor fuel onto it. Let’s try to avoid it spreading to the north and south of Iraq. Let’s try to avoid it poisoning Shi’a-Sunni relations throughout the region and so forth. That seems to me what it means.

Now, what I haven’t figured out yet and I’m thinking about is, okay, imagine you come to that conclusion, that that’s the most we can hope for, the least bad we can—we hope for. Then what does that actually mean for the deployment of U.S. forces and all that? I’m not sure yet, I mean, exactly. I don’t like the idea of U.S. forces in the neighborhood while that is going on, the idea that you would still have tens of thousands of U.S. forces on the—“neighborhood”—I mean, in the center of Iraq—while the center of Iraq is burning that way I don’t think is a good idea. I don’t think the forces are safe. Or even if you can somehow find a giant Green Zone, I don’t like the image of U.S. forces standing there and this type of chaos happening all around them. I think the juxtaposition—it’s a little bit too much like the looting pictures on steroids, where we were there, but we weren’t willing or able to do stuff about it. I’m not sure, though, what the—where the containment thing actually leads, and which—which is again why I want to get this regional process under way, because I want to deal with some of those issues earlier, rather than later.

QUESTIONER: Richard, a number of us were at a breakfast morning with Avi Dichter, you know, the—

HAASS: Yeah.

QUESTIONER:—he’s the public security minister in the Israeli government. He was talking about how they cleaned up the West Bank to such a degree that if Abu Mazen wanted—created a robust security force there, that was possible, and sort of different from what Hamas is doing in Gaza and so on. And he had a line something like, you know, we’re waiting to see if he’ll do that.

And my question is, how long do you think that the Israeli-Palestinian situation can just keep grinding on, I mean, this status quo of conflict? Or do you think that Israel is also reaching a kind of point of unsustainability, you know, in its neighborhood and with the Palestinians, given all the other pressures?

HAASS: Well, let me try to answer it this way, Margaret, and if you don’t like it, come back at me. I think the Israeli government has a little bit more time than people realize, largely—more for reasons of weakness right now, politically, than strength. I don’t think a lot of the Knesset wants to go to the polls. So I actually think it gives Mr. Olmert more time than people realize. I think the fuse, if you will, is longer.

And it also possibly gives them a funny sort of strength to do some dramatic things. I mean, if I were advising Olmert, I would say a policy of incrementalism isn’t going to work for you. So I would actually think of something ambitious, potentially, and you can blame it on the Americans. But I actually think that the only way he can change the political dynamic in Israel and popular perceptions of his government is by doing something different. I don’t see where “steady as she goes” essentially works. But I don’t think anything’s imminent, again, because I don’t think people are anxious to rush to the polls.

I think too—I think the problem with what Dichter says—and I know there’s a lot of other people running around saying things like it; it’s this kind of Abu Mazen first Palestinian strategy—I’m skeptical of it. I’m just not sure he is ever going to be in a position—the combination of power but also disposition—to do that. I think he’s going to disappoint. And I say this as someone who’s met with him many times and admires the man and all that. But I’m just not sure he’s going to be enough of a—(inaudible).

A very different kind of Palestinian policy would be one which was also willing to meet with Hamas, which is what I would do. And this is me, the former envoy to Northern Ireland. But I would—and I spent, you know, more hours and days meeting with Sinn Fein, whom—everybody knew that Sinn Fein, shall we say, had an organic connection to the IRA.

So clearly there’s the Hamas civilian leaders in Gaza and elsewhere, who have an organic relationship with militias, with fighting units. But I would begin the process with meeting with them to basically lay out here’s what’s expected of you and here’s what you can expect in return if you do these things. And again, it’s part of a larger strategy of making it clear what’s in it for them if they act legally and legitimately, and then what—and what—the consequences and opportunity costs if they don’t. I would make all that public, again, to put pressure on them.

But I would begin a long process, because I don’t think, at the end of the day, that one can construct a Palestinian partner for Israel that will totally exclude groups like Hamas. So I would begin—and it’s quite possible—let me say one last thing: that down the road, there will be splits within Hamas. I think there’s quite honestly big differences between the locals and those sitting in places like Damascus, and there are—that’s always the case. Invariably, distance breeds radicalism. The farther you are away, the more likely you are to be pure.

And I would begin the process, I think, of trying to—it might be a five-, 10-, 15-year process. I don’t know. But at the end of the day, the only kind of Palestinian partner I believe that will be able to make and keep a permanent peace, a final peace, which is what you want if you’re going to give back your last cards, I want the next peace agreement to be the final peace agreement. I don’t want it to be a way station for Palestinian radicals. I think you’ve got to bring Hamas into that process. So I am willing—I would be willing to start that dialogue now.

QUESTIONER: But you don’t think Israel is really in a more perilous situation than it has been in a very long time?

HAASS: No, if by—

QUESTIONER: Given all the disorder. I mean, now you have Palestinians fighting Palestinians. I mean, it’s just—

HAASS: No, I don’t see Israel—no, I think the fence has improved Israeli security. I think the Israeli-Palestinian situation is not particularly perilous, I just don’t think Israel has a negotiating partner worthy of the name right now. I think, you know, for Israel, the danger—I mean the dangers are more medium and long term. It’s, obviously, Iranian capabilities, and it’s the radicalization of a lot of the Arab world. So it means—because I mean right now, Israel has the strategic advantages of, you know, Egypt being the way it is, Jordan being the way it is, and so forth. Israel doesn’t want to see the neighborhood get Islamized and radicalized. So—but no, I don’t think Israel is in peril right now, and I think its immediate security situation is actually okay; it’s the medium- and long-term security horizons that would concern me, if I were an Israeli strategist.

ROSE: David Sanger.

QUESTIONER: Richard, if I can return you to the containment problem—and we have a lot of containment strategies now. We’ve got one for North Korea that may be having a rough moment or two; we’ve got one for Iran. But it strikes me that the Iraq containment strategy is the one that’s the hardest for the president to get out and sort of verbally endorse because the core of his argument has been that if we pulled back, if we allowed that chaos to go on, that we have created the al Qaeda Petri dish that he went in to stop.

If you had to advise the president about how you pull back—forget for a moment where you put the troops—how do you get him from an objective of keeping this from being an al Qaeda center to this?

HAASS: I’d say one thing mechanically, if you will, and one thing rhetorically. I think the Baker-Hamilton commission gives him something of an opportunity to do that. I mean, commissions, historically, in the United States have often played an important role, and they’ve often played an important role when the traditional body politic was unable or unwilling to come up with politically controversial or difficult proposals or solutions. And this may be one of those times. Democrats are not particularly putting forward, for the most part, creative ideas. The administration, for all the reasons just mentioned, David, has been resistance to move off its policy. So this could be a place where essentially a commission could say things and the president could wrap himself, or one way or another find a way to accept or embrace what it puts forward.

Secondly, I don’t think anyone should or would ask the president to give up his long-term goals. And if the goal is a more representative, a more democratic region, if the goal is a comprehensive peace between Israel and all of its neighbors, if the goal is a non-nuclear Iran, if the goal is a stable Iraq, those goals—those objectives are all just fine and those should remain U.S. objectives. The United States may suffer, if you will, a tactical setback of—yeah, without sugarcoating it, you know, a significant tactical setback in Iraq. And historians can argue how much it was an impossible project and how much it was a possible project done poorly. You know, we could all write our books—and as I look around the table, several of us are writing our books about just that. But there’s time for that argument.

I think the—indeed, one thing the president could do, a third thing, I would think, besides acknowledging it as a tactical setback, but he’s sticking with the goals, would be to look at some other aspects of what we’ve been talking about this morning. And if he basically said, okay, things that we tried, for whatever set of reasons it didn’t work, in downtown Baghdad, here’s what we’re going to try to do to limit it, here’s the incentives we’re still going to keep in place for the Iraqis to hopefully help them sort it out; in the meantime, here are the other things we’re going to do in the region, possibly on the Palestinian issue, possibly on Israel, Syria, possibly on the Iranian equation, I think the United States could still have a very forward-looking set of diplomatic initiatives. So I think all of that could be true.

But look, it is going to be—it’s a setback. I mean, you can’t sugarcoat that. And I actually think we’re there now. I got criticized for saying this, but so be it. I think we’ve reached a point in Iraq where we’ve got to get real. And this is not going to be a near-term success for American foreign policy. The Iraq situation’s not winnable in any meaningful sense of the word “winnable.” So what the United States needs to do now is look for a way to limit the losses and costs, and paying those, if you will, and in the meantime try to advance on other fronts in the region and around the world, and again, try to limit the fallout of Iraq. But that’s what you have to do sometimes when you’re a global power. You know, you’re not only playing on one piece on the—(inaudible word). Indeed, there’s a case to be made for freeing up U.S. capacities because that would give us conceivably other options or at least other leverage.

Actually, let me say one other thing. I think when you talk about a strategic setback in Iraq, it’s—it’s always dangerous to think out loud. Let me think out loud. I think you’ve got to distinguish between the actual diplomatic—I mean, the actual strategic fallout, which is one thing, kind of the direct consequences, and what you might call the consequences of perception, that because you lost there, somehow you’re weak everywhere.

And I would simply suggest that analytically, you say, okay, what do we need to do to limit the direct consequences for the region? And that’s where you’re going to have the so-called containment strategy, what can we do at the regional forum, what can we do with this initiative on Syria, this initiative on Iran, this initiative on Palestinians, this initiative with the Kurds, this initiative with Turkey, this initiative with—that’s one set of things, how do you limit, or offset, even, some of the direct, immediate follow-ons to what happens in, if you will, greater Baghdad. That’s one thing, and I think that’s an addressable foreign policy problem.

The second set, which is kind of perception arguments, I think history suggests those are overblown. If one looks at other crises, whether it’s Vietnam, think look—you know, not that many decades later, things look pretty good in Asia for the United States by contrast. Or even something as bad as, say, Lebanon, Beirut, in the early ‘80s. Well, if I’m right, less than a decade later you had the dawn of the American era in the Middle East.

So I think the argument that because we would suffer a strategic or whatever setback you want to call it in Iraq, that somehow that undermines American foreign policy everywhere else at all times, I think that’s exaggerated. History doesn’t support it. And we have to be careful we don’t kind of talk ourselves into it. I just think we need to take a deep breath and say, “Okay. We’ve got a lot of other things going for ourselves as a country. We’ve got a lot of other instruments of power we can bring to bear. There’s opportunities elsewhere and so forth.” I don’t think we should talk ourselves into that we’ve got to stay with Iraq, no matter what the cost for all time, or else we’re not longer an effective player on the world stage. At some point, the United States has to be able to limit costs and free itself up to act elsewhere.

I think—there’s this argument that we’ve got to be very careful on, that we don’t trap ourselves into thinking that any loss, if you will, in Iraq is somehow unsustainable.

ROSE: You know, we have a few minutes left. We have a lot of people who want to get in.

HAASS: Sorry. I apologize.

ROSE: I need to modify the schedule if we’re going to wrap it up on time, so I’m going to put the last three questions together—John Barry, Janine Zacharia and Paul Richter.

QUESTIONER: My question relates to the comment you made a moment ago.

By the early ‘90s, the U.S. was seen as the—it was beginning of the American era in the Middle East. Madeleine Albright referred to the U.S. as the indispensable nation. My question is really whether actually the U.S. is now seen in much of the Arab world as being an indispensable nation. I mean, the notion that it was indispensable was based upon a decent presentation that it could be an even-handed mediator as between Israel and the Palestinians. It seems to me the administration has blown that.

And also there was a commitment by the U.S. to support the regimes that were what we like to call moderate Arabs. It seems to me the administration has blown that, but as we talked about democracy being the leitmotiv now of the policy. So there’s good reason why they should now distrust much of what Washington does.

And also there seems to be—that there’s an increasing price to be paid by Arab leaders domestically for being seen to be in bed or even around the table with the U.S. because of the great radicalization. I wonder, therefore, whether we are in fact still the indispensable nation.

HAASS: Ms. Zacharia.

ROSE: Ms. Zacharia?

QUESTIONER: How do you persuade Iran and Syria, even if—say James Baker recommends, “Let’s talk to Iran and Syria, and the administration says, ‘Okay, I’m reversing. I’m going to talk to them.’” How do you get them to work with you on Iraq? Is it a quid pro quo that you set up? Do you offer them incentives on other things?

HAASS: Paul?

ROSE: Okay, Paul Richter.

QUESTIONER: Janine brilliantly just asked my question.

HAASS: (Laughs.)

ROSE: Really?

MR. : Don’t hide behind—

QUESTIONER: What I’m asking basically is, do you—wouldn’t you have to basically give up too much? Wouldn’t we have to get out of Iraq to get their cooperation?

ROSE: Your answers and closing comments, and not too long.

HAASS: Ever editing me, Gideon.

ROSE: (Laughs.)

HAASS: Is there a word limit on my answer here?

John, your question about whether we’re still seen as indispensable, whether people are uncomfortable with signing up to us—I think we have—I think they are—how do I put it?—I’m going to start over the answer. I never much liked the phrase. If you are an indispensable power, I’m not sure you should necessarily shout it from the mountaintops.

That said, we’re still the most important external power in the region. That is a fact of life. And again, it’s part of not overreading into this. I mean, even if we left Iraq tomorrow and it was a mess, we’d still have tremendous capacities we could bring to bear elsewhere. We just shouldn’t discount ourselves too quickly or too—certainly.

And a lot depends upon—power is also not something to think of as a—this is—it’s like money in your account and you spend it down and it disappears. Power can also be generated by acting. The United States could become more influential again if it were to say and do certain things, if it’s not a given stock, if you will. So I think if the United States were prepared to do some of the things they’ve talked about here today diplomatically, I actually think that its capacity to be influential, which is what you really care—you don’t care about power; you care about the translation of power and influence—I think that could go up.

I think—so the answer is we’re still—we are and still would be players, but to the extent, you know, to which we could have influence would, I think, in large part depend upon what the United States is prepared to play into. I also think, yes, the United States is going to have to decide how much to emphasize democratization. I would do so less. I think we made a mistake by emphasizing it so much. I think we made a mistake by so emphasizing elections. I think we would be a lot wiser, for example, to emphasize economic reforms in this part of the world and civil society development and so forth. I think it’s hard to persuade a government to work with you, you know, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays if on Wednesdays and Fridays you’re hammering them on their imperfections. It’s just—it’s a hard way to conduct a foreign policy.

So I just think that as part of a larger debate—which I would recommend be held in the United States, about the centrality of democratization and how we go about it—I think it’s the—it’s something that cries out for a systematic look.

On the question of Iran and Syria, how to persuade—well, the answer is—the honest answer to your question is I don’t know. But let me say, as a going-in proposition, I would say—I would try not to put other stuff on the table. I think that at least initially I would say we all have some stake that Iraq work well. The Iranians do not want an Iraq that’s hemorrhaging. The Syrians and the Iranians do not want an independent Kurdistan. And I also I would basically, at least initially, go in with a narrow agenda. Would I be prepared to put more on the agenda? Sure. But also it’s possible that if I put more on the agenda, including certain bilateral issues, I might also then require other things of them. I don’t know.

I would begin, though, with an Iran-centric conversation. I’m sorry—Iraq-centric conversation with everybody there. If, however, bilaterals develop where other things came into the mix, I would actually welcome that, because quite honestly with both Syria and Iran, the United States has concerns that go beyond Iraq. So I would not shy away from a broader diplomatic engagement with either.

Indeed one of the things I was hoping for when I was in the administration—(word inaudible)—was when the United States began to talk with Iran on Afghanistan, which I was involved in, I was hoping it would lead to more. But I thought that might be an entry point. I can’t remember the timing on it, whether it was six months ago or a year ago, when Zal Khalilzad basically got a green light temporarily to talk with the Iranians about Iraq. I said great because, again, if it’s limited to Iraq, it could accomplish something, and if it went beyond Iraq, so much for the better.

So I’m not afraid of that, and I think what you’ve always got to ask yourself in any diplomatic equation whether—the balance between what you give and what you get. And obviously, the United States would have to ask itself that in this situation. But I wouldn’t go in there, if you will, with—let me take one last general point. We make, I believe, a mistake when we go into negotiations or refuse to go into negotiations because of preconditions. We would be wiser to spend a lot less emphasis on preconditions and where we go into negotiations, and instead spend a lot more time worrying about where we come out.

And so I wouldn’t set up so many preconditions with the Iranians or the Syrians or anybody else. I would basically—

QUESTIONER: The Palestinians as well?

HAASS: Or anybody. I would basically go to them and say, “Here’s where we are. Here’s our concerns about what you’re doing. Here’s what we’re prepared to do, but only if you start doing X or stop doing Y.” Again, I think this whole idea on preconditions are yet one other way in which we limit our ability to use the negotiating or diplomatic tools of American foreign policy. What matter is is where you end up in a negotiation, not where you begin.

So that’s my answer to your question here. I wouldn’t set so many rules about what it was we were allowed to put on the table or not. I would simply say, “I don’t like where things are, and I’m prepared to explore how diplomacy might get us to a better place.” If it does, great. If not, we’ll look at the alternatives.

QUESTIONER: And—preconditions—you say they’re a luxury we can’t afford?

HAASS: What?

QUESTIONER: Things like preconditions.

HAASS: For the most part, I would say preconditions are a luxury we cannot afford. I would say that more generally the United States needs to get away from the idea where diplomatic interaction is a value judgment. We ought to see diplomatic interaction as no more and no less than simply one of the arrows in the quiver of the national security arsenal. And it may work, if not, again, it may put you in a position to justify going to other tools. And it may or may not be the best tool. I think one of the things you want to say is here is the outcome we believe we can get using diplomacy; this looks better or worse than the outcome we can get from doing nothing, or the outcome we could get doing military force or economic sanctions or what have you. We just ought to approach it almost neutrally and get out of the idea, again, that somehow we are—it is a gesture, a favor, a value statement, what have you. It just ought to be neutrally—because we’re tying our hands too often. And it’s not like we’ve got unlimited options or wonderful options outside of diplomacy in many instances.

So I really do think it would be useful, whether it’s this administration or the next one, that it just announced early on, “You should know, by the way, ladies and gentlemen of the country, and ladies and gentlemen of the world, that henceforth, we’re going to conduct diplomacy simply as the day-to-day of what we do, and we’re not going to confine it to people we like or people we approve of. We’re simply going to do it on a regular basis to explore what we can get from informal or formal agreements so we’re in a better position to make foreign policy and national security choices.” And I would recommend that to the next president.

ROSE: On that note, I know everybody has a lot of questions, but he also has a lot of other commitments and obligations. Richard has an address and a phone number, and so if you want to continue the conversation—

HAASS: Even an e-mail.

ROSE:—they can. Thank you all for coming.








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