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Haass: 'We Can't Meet Most of the Challenges We Face on Our Own'

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
July 7, 2003

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Richard N. Haass, the new president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says “what is noteworthy about this world is how, for all of our power, we can’t meet most of the challenges we face on our own.” Haass, who until last month was director of policy planning at the State Department, adds, “The unilateral critique of American foreign policy is overstated. The most interesting debates are not the debates between unilateralism and multilateralism, but what kind of multilateralism?”

In a wide-ranging interview, Haass expresses concern about dispatching U.S. peacekeepers to Liberia and says that the United States should deal directly with Iran to try to work out a deal to block Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and to reverse Iran’s support for terrorism. He also calls for the resumption of high-level talks with North Korea, at least to demonstrate, if talks ultimately fail, that diplomacy can help rally international support for tougher measures against Pyongyang. “Diplomatic exploration,” he says, “is a no-cost undertaking.”

Haass was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on July 7, 2003.


The United States is clearly the most powerful nation in the world. It is often accused of being unilateralist, of not taking other nations’ interests into account. What do you think of that argument?

The first half of the statement is true. The United States is the most powerful country in the world by almost any measure of power. That said, however, what is noteworthy about this world is how, for all of our power, we can’t meet most of the challenges we face on our own. And we certainly can’t meet any of the challenges we face better on our own than [we can by] cooperating with others.

Take the Iraq war. Lots of people say it was principally unilateral. No. The run-up to the war was a heavy diplomatic effort which, by definition, involved all sorts of states and organizations. The war itself required U.S. access to military bases in other countries; it required overflight rights for U.S. aircraft, as well as the participation of British and Australian forces themselves. We couldn’t have fought this war without military access to Kuwait and other countries. So it wasn’t unilateral. And obviously now, in the aftermath, we need all sorts of help from others. We need special troops that can police. We need financial help. All this is being done against the backdrop of a new U.N. Security Council resolution.

The unilateral critique of American foreign policy is overstated. The most interesting debates are not the debates between unilateralism and multilateralism, but what kind of multilateralism? Is it multilateralism that is formal, in the sense of the United Nations? Is it multilateralism that is still formal, but regional? For example, using NATO, as we did in Kosovo? When do you have to turn to coalitions of the willing? When you do turn to a coalition of the willing, how do you give it a dimension of legitimacy? How do you make it acceptable? Those are the real foreign policy questions, not whether there is a unilateral option, because, quite honestly, there isn’t one.

The United States is under some pressure to lead a multilateral peacekeeping mission in Liberia. Is that something the United States should do?

In the abstract, I can’t answer that. Any time you use military force, you have got to have a clear purpose that military forces can achieve. Before I would put forces into Liberia, I would want to have a pretty good sense of what the context is and what the purpose is. It doesn’t appear to be peacekeeping, and it wouldn’t be peacekeeping unless there was a [peace] agreement to keep. Now, if it is peacemaking, then you had better send in a lot of troops that are heavily armed and prepared to overwhelm any opposition. But historically, the United States, or anyone else for that matter, tends to get into trouble when it sends in forces designed for peacekeeping and the environment turns out to be messier than that, or the mission turns out to be more ambitious than that. That’s what we have to be careful of in Liberia, that we don’t undershoot it.

To avoid another Somalia?

Not just Somalia. Lebanon, too. We don’t want to send forces that are essentially peacekeepers into a situation where there isn’t sufficient consensus and order. Now, we may decide it is so serious we have to get involved anyhow. Fair enough, but that’s not a peacekeeping mission anymore. What we’re talking about is large numbers of troops, heavily armed, prepared to escalate. This is a very different kind of mission. We’ll take casualties, and a lot of people on the other side will die. Essentially, it will be a small war. We just need to be very clear to avoid [a] mismatch, when we send in small numbers of troops designed for peacekeeping and either the situation deteriorates or the ambitions grow.

On Iraq, it seems that the administration didn’t anticipate the degree of opposition U.S. forces are now facing. We seem to be short on troops and other resources. What should be done?

In my view, we probably want to increase the number of forces in Iraq. Perhaps more importantly, we should change the mixture of forces. We should have a greater percentage of forces that are specifically trained and equipped to deal with what we might call the problem of muscular policing. These are not combat operations. Tanks and aircraft are not the answer. We really need something much more discreet, much more mobile, something that’s much better able to [operate amid] the civilian population. We can’t provide all of that ourselves. Even if we could, we wouldn’t want to. We want the military burden shared both for military and economic reasons, but also for reasons of political acceptability and legitimacy. This argues for trying to get as much international support as we can, whether it is from some of the NATO countries that do have the kind of muscular police [forces] that we need, or from other countries.

Friendly Arab countries, for example?

I think that would be great. You want to have a Muslim or Arab presence. Probably you don’t want to have neighboring countries involved, because of historical questions of borders and minorities and the like…. But I like the idea of bringing in some Arab and Muslim countries…because it makes clear that the U.S. and other forces are a presence and not a long-term occupation [force].

In the prewar planning, did planners anticipate the kind of disorder that has occurred?

First of all, there was a lot of planning. But planning is only as good as the assumptions. Second of all, one should not assume that all planners have the same set of assumptions. Different people weighed things differently, had different predictions on how things would go. What’s interesting is that a lot of the planning was predicated on the scenario that, ironically enough, did not come about, which was a massive humanitarian catastrophe. A lot of the planning was predicated on an assumption that we probably would have large amounts of internally displaced persons, enormous refugee flows, tremendous human needs for the basics. And the fact that we had someone like retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner [the first U.S. administrator in Iraq, who was subsequently replaced by L. Paul Bremer III] in charge reflected that. He was someone with great experience in handling a massive humanitarian crisis.

People always say that sometimes people plan for the wrong war. One can say in some ways that the administration planned for the wrong peace. There was an emphasis on the humanitarian. Also, people underestimated the impact of winning the war so quickly and so discreetly. When you look at other large-scale occupations after wars, as in Germany and Japan in 1945, these are occupations that took place among totally defeated societies, which had really borne the brunt of years and years of physical devastation. One of the ironic consequences of fighting the Iraq war so discreetly or surgically is that a lot of the population hadn’t really suffered to any significant degree. As a result, the situation in Iraq was somewhat different from what people had planned for, and the population wasn’t as laid low and wasn’t as accepting of a public foreign presence. For interesting reasons, some of the prewar assumptions just turned out to be wrong.

When the British took control of Mesopotamia after World War I, which later became Iraq, a popular uprising killed thousands of Iraqis and British troops. Does that kind of Iraqi nationalism persist?

For all the divisions within Iraqi society, it is a mistake to underestimate Iraqi nationalism. We are also seeing strong signs of Sunni resistance. It is understandable why. Sunnis have enjoyed a special place in Iraqi society that is far greater than a narrow calculation of their numbers would suggest. So when Sunnis see all this political activity involving the Shiites, and look up north and see the Kurds, we get a lot of Sunni resistance. This suggests the need politically to think about an Iraqi society that doesn’t degenerate into almost a crude majoritarianism. There have got to be checks and balances to safeguard individual as well as group minority rights.

Is democratization proceeding at the right pace?

I tend to be one of those who does not equate democratization with the holding of elections. The emphasis ought to be on such things as rule of law, economic reform, and promotion of a free media. In short, essentially independent free institutions. Iraq had virtually none of them. It really was one of the more totalitarian societies in the world.

The first priority is to start distributing authority around the society. Against that backdrop, I think we should have a gradual Iraqization of the political process. But again, I wouldn’t equate any of that with holding elections tomorrow.

On Iran, it is difficult to fathom the administration’s policy. What should be done with Iran, particularly its nuclear development program?

Let’s take a step back. What are our goals on Iran? It seems to me we have three goals. One is, as you suggest, stopping nuclear weapons development. Two, stopping the terrorism. And three, promoting dramatic political change. There is no reason why we would want to perpetuate clerical rule. People across the political spectrum could agree on those three goals. The real question, as is almost always [the case] in foreign policy, is the means to achieve these ends. My view is that we should be willing to sit down with the Iranians to see what it would take to get them to give up their nuclear ambitions in a way that gave us confidence. And secondly, what it would take to get them to give up support for terrorism. If we could get them to agree to those two objectives, I think that would justify a major reconsideration of our policy.

Will they sit down and talk?

Let’s test them. The answer is, I don’t know.

There have been lower-level discussions?

We’ve had discreet discussions, usually about specific issues, for example, Afghanistan. What we’ve not had are comprehensive discussions. My view is: Why not?

Why have such talks not taken place?

Historically, most of the resistance came from Iran. It was too loaded for them to be seen with The Great Satan. From our point of view, in recent years, the resistance to having a dialogue has been that to do so would appear to bestow legitimacy on the current leaders. For good reason, people are loath to do that. That said, I don’t think it is wise to put all of our eggs, to put it bluntly, in the regime change basket, that somehow we can help encourage a change in regime soon enough to solve the nuclear and terrorism problems for us.

The regime change theory is based on a supposition that protesting students and others will overthrow the government?

Maybe those who believe that are right. At some point, Iran will have, I believe, a very dramatic regime change. I’m just not willing to base all of our policy upon that. It seems to me more of a wish than a strategy. I think, though, that we could have very hard-headed conversations with [senior Iranian leaders], in which we could get on the table [Iran’s] nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism. And we could potentially enter into a deal with them, particularly if we had the Russians and the Europeans with us. I am encouraged by signs that Russia and the Europeans now are interested in such a structured conversation.

There are [other] things we could continue doing that would promote the so-called winds of change within Iranian society. That’s, in a sense, what we did during the Cold War. We engaged the Soviets on [matters] like arms control where it was in our interest to do so. At the same time, we did things through broadcasts and Helsinki Accords [on East-West cooperation in the 1970s] and so forth to try to foment internal change. The two need not be mutually exclusive.

Should the United States talk to North Korea?

Again, I’d say yes. If one goes back to the last meaningful conversation, which was held this past autumn when Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly went there, the North Koreans clearly put a lot on the table. Now what they put on the table was flawed, unacceptable, inadequate— choose your adjective. But again, the message I took from that is that at least certain things were potentially in play. My view is to test them. It is a long shot. It is just possible we could negotiate a deal with them that would meet our requirements in the nuclear area and the missile area. If not, the mere fact that we gave that a good-faith effort helps us manage the multilateral politics with China, the South Koreans, the Japanese, and others about ratcheting up the pressure on the North. I think the diplomatic exploration is a no-cost undertaking.

The last time the administration had a conversation with the North, in the three-way meeting with China and North Korea earlier this year, a North Korean official apparently said that Pyongyang had nuclear weapons.

They have made lots of comments that are at times more bluster than substance. In any event, the United States government believes that North Korea either has several nuclear weapons or enough nuclear material to make several. We clearly don’t want to reach a point at which they have done this. The idea of a desperate regime in possession of enough material to make dozens of weapons is a strategic nightmare. I would be willing to see if there was a possibility of negotiating out of that. If not, we can then look at all the possibilities for putting greater pressure on North Korea, all the escalatory steps. But again, our ability to keep regional and international consensus with us in this more robust approach will depend in part on our having demonstrated that diplomacy doesn’t work.

Finally, what are your goals as Council president?

Let me say first that I’m fortunate enough to be coming into a situation where you have an institution in very good shape. There’s no fire here. So I haven’t come with a hose. Thanks to outgoing President Les Gelb and to Pete Peterson, chairman of the Council’s board of directors, and to others, I can pick and choose the innovations. One area I am clearly interested in is focusing some of the work of the studies program. The three areas that I am most interested in are: First, the basic question of what does the United States do in the world, and how do we do it? This is the first-order question about American foreign policy. How do we use our power, how do we use it wisely? Second, is the question I worked on in government, and I would like to continue [working on] here: How do we promote political, economic, and social change in the Arab and Islamic world? How do we make sure these countries make it? Because if they don’t, we all pay an enormous price. And third is a whole grab bag of issues, tightening up the nonproliferation regime, tightening up the anti-terrorism regime, dealing with trade, dealing with global climate change, essentially all the transnational phenomena. Other than that, I am interested in improving outreach around the country, and around the world as well.

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