Meet the Man Who Should Be the Next Secretary of State
Former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman is that rare thing, an honest and wise diplomat—which is why he’ll probably never be appointed.
Late this past summer, when I mentioned to Andrew Bacevich that I had interviewed Chas Freeman and was working on the transcript of our exchange, the soldier turned critic of US foreign policy wrote back, “Chas Freeman is the person we ought to have as secretary of state, in my view.” As my light edit of our conversation proceeded, the thought seemed ever more brilliant and ever sadder all at once. A career foreign-service officer with nearly 40 years on his clock, Freeman is precisely the kind of person one wants to see occupy the seventh floor at State. Talk to him, however, and you conclude that he is also precisely the kind of person who, in our ideology-ridden political culture, stands roughly one million miles from any such appointment.
Freeman’s record is long, varied and exceptional. He was chief interpreter during Nixon’s celebrated encounter with Mao in 1972. His numerous diplomatic postings include Beijing, Bangkok, New Delhi and Riyadh—the last as ambassador during the first Gulf war in 1990–91. He served as deputy assistant secretary for African affairs and, under Bill Clinton, assistant secretary of defense. Ambassador Freeman now puts “(ret.)” after his name and is a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Affairs. His books include America’s Misadventures in the Middle East (2010) and China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige (2013).
Long before I met him, Freeman’s speeches and journal articles suggested that rich experience had produced a rare creature in the foreign-policy space: a dedicated professional, intellectually engaged, possessed of an impeccable detachment, committed to spotlessly objective judgments. Freeman did not disappoint when I took a Metroliner down to Washington to spend a morning talking at his dining table. No surprise, neither did his blunt critique of US policy as it is now conceived and executed.
Freeman’s kind of diplomat is fated to sail close to trouble given the prevailing winds, of course. His understanding of China matches that of the distinguished sinologists of the late-1940s—John Service, Owen Lattimore, John Patton Davies, several others—and eventually attracted the same sort of denunciations they endured during the “Who lost China?” witch hunts after Mao took Beijing in 1949. Fate arrived in force in 2009, when President Obama named Freeman chairman of the National Intelligence Council. As Ray McGovern, your kindly neighborhood ex-spook and whistleblower, explained on the telephone the other day, “He held the post for six hours.” As reported at the time, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the infamous AIPAC, sank Freeman’s ship because of his clear-eyed view of the Israel–Palestine conflict.
Retirement and writing have followed. So abrupt an exit cannot have been easy, but to go out on a point of principle—especially the one in question—is to me a mark of honor as valid as any of Freeman’s numerous professional awards.
Our conversation, which took place as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began the appalling purge that continues as we speak, started there and ranged widely. This is Part 1 of it. The audio recording was expertly transcribed by Michael Conway Garofalo, to whom go my thanks.
We need to start with Turkey, given recent events. Erdogan seems to suffer some serious case of megalomania, making one destructive judgment after another in my view: Supporting ISIS until it turned on him, now ruthlessly Islamizing a nation that can claim the most honorable tradition of secularism in the region. In terms of Washington’s alliance with him, it’s true, Obama inherited a relationship that exhibited many of the defects typical during the Cold War, but he did nothing to alter course, and now he and Secretary of State Kerry find themselves in a near-impossible situation.
What is your view of the [July 15] coup, the history of American policy toward Turkey, and the alternatives open to this administration or the next?
Most likely the next, because this administration is out of time. I think the relationship with Turkey is uniquely important and has been problematic basically since the end of the Cold War. I say it’s uniquely important because the United States can’t conduct a policy toward a very large number of other countries and issues without Turkish cooperation or acquiescence. The areas that I would include in that list are, of course, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Palestine, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia, the Balkans, Greece, Cyprus, the Eastern Mediterranean, the European Union, NATO, the Black Sea, the Islamic Cooperation Organization member countries, the Arab Gulf and Afghanistan. That’s a fairly impressive list. It may be the longest such list of any country with which we have an alliance.
I can’t think of a longer one.
I can’t think of one, either. There are several issues. We haven’t had coherent policies toward many of those countries. Turkey has, of course, been rejected by the EU for membership—not officially, but in fact repudiated on religious grounds. It’s the French and others who see Europe as part of Christendom who have refused to welcome Turkey, even before the present Islamophobia. So Turkey—like Russia, which has always, for the last two or three hundred years, aspired to a European identity—has turned elsewhere, and turned to the Middle East.
That’s your analysis of Erdogan’s fundamental motivation?
This is the background. Erdogan is a particular problem because of his personality, as you indicated. He is a megalomaniac. That seems to be the trend of the day in political leaders everywhere. But there’s a context here that is independent of personality.
In the post–Cold War era, with Russia greatly weakened, Turkey is able to deal with Russia on its own terms. It can equally pursue its own relationships with Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Kurds, Israel, the Gulf Arabs, and others. It doesn’t depend on the United States to the extent that it once did. So it has been striking out on its own, and as it has done so, US-Turkish relations have become ever more strained. That probably would have happened even if someone more balanced and judicious than Erdogan were in charge, but Erdogan is not balanced and judicious, and it’s clear that he had in hand a purge list which he was waiting for an opportunity to execute. He’s now doing that in the wake of the failed coup…. The only thing I would add is that I believe his accusations against Fethullah Gülen and the Gülenists [moderate Islamists accused of organizing the coup] are essentially preposterous cases of scapegoating.
Just the word: preposterous. The alternatives open to this administration now—I suppose you’d say they are very few.
They are very, very few. The administration is committed to a bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq, and in the case of Syria it’s conducted largely out of Incirlik Air Base. By the way, the presence of nuclear weapons at Incirlik has emerged as an issue, because, of course, Turkey cut off access to Incirlik for the United States armed forces, or egress from it, and therefore Turkey clearly was in a position to seize those nuclear weapons if it chose to do so. That’s a sobering reminder of the fragilities of the post–Cold War order that the United States attempts to manage. Given the (I think, mistaken) commitment to continue bombing in Syria in the way that we are, I don’t think the administration has any real room for maneuver on Turkey, nor does it have any credibility with Erdogan or the Turkish political elite. So it has really very little capacity to shape events there.
Bombing ISIS is a mistake, you say. Interesting. Why?
The self-proclaimed “caliphate” wears religious garb but it is at root an expression of both political rage and self-empowerment fantasies by people humiliated by impotence in the face of historic and current indignities. The conceit that bombing alone can defeat such a phenomenon is at best misleading and at worst tragically mistaken. Political problems cannot be cured by the application of military technology alone. They demand political solutions. Of course, the use of force may be a key element in achieving those solutions. But defeating the so-called caliphate requires discrediting its perverted theology, negating its image of heroism among its followers, identifying its operatives and either deprogramming or killing them. In Iraq or Syria our bombing campaign is not part of any such strategy. In the absence of a strategy, bombing is a political substitute for one, an effort by our leaders to appear to be “doing something.”
But what they are doing is in many respects counterproductive. Even the most precise forms of bombing, whether from manned aircraft or drones, kill many innocent bystanders as well as those they target. Our bombing campaign unwittingly validates the Islamist narrative of Western antipathy to assertive Islam and indifference to Muslim suffering and death. As we have seen, it invites reprisal by bombing our homeland and the homelands of others conducting it. So it feeds terrorism and recruits young men and women to the ranks of those seeking revenge against the United States. Military action, including bombing, may succeed in denying territory to Islamists. But, the issue for the security of the United States is not the Islamists’ control of territory but attacks on the countries they see as victimizing them by their followers abroad, including our own….
Then, too, if we still believe in the rule of law, it should also matter in Syria. There is no authorization for bombing from the international community; we are bombing the enemies of the internationally recognized government of Syria while trying to overthrow that government. By any standard, these are gross violations of international law. Not incidentally, they are also a violation of our constitution, reflecting the unwillingness of this generation of members of our House and Senate to stand up and be counted rather than pass the buck to the president while carping at him. The fact that bombing the so-called caliphate benefits the Syrian government that we say we want to drive from office underscores the fact that the policy is not just illegal but self-contradictory.
We ought to figure out our priorities in Syria. Getting rid of the caliphate seems to me a great deal more important than getting rid of the government there. If so, we need a strategy to accomplish that. Bombing should certainly be part of our strategy. But it is not in itself a path to a solution. In fact, in many ways, it may be making things worse.
Let’s turn to another problematic relationship. As a former ambassador to Riyadh, you’re the best person to ask: Is this another unwise, or indeed even hypocritical alliance of long standing that now comes to bite Washington on the backside?
Well, the relationship with Saudi Arabia has never been grounded in sentiment or common values. It is grounded in common interests, and many of these have disappeared, while many contradictions in our interests have arisen in the post–Cold War era. For example, during the Cold War, it was possible for the United States and Saudi Arabia to set aside the issue of Israel and Palestine in the interest of addressing a more immediate and potent threat of Soviet ideology and influence. There is no more Soviet threat, and it’s not surprising in this context, even if events had gone better in Palestine than they have, that there has been a falling out between the United States and Saudi Arabia on that issue.
A whole range of policies pursued by the United States in the 21st century have resulted in alienating the Saudis and causing them to go off in their own direction without regard for the United States. These events include the invasion of Iraq, which they counseled against quite forcefully on the grounds that they thought it was both an ambush and likely to prove counterproductive—they were right. The issue of 9/11 arose, of course, with an upsurge of Islamophobia in the United States and a sense of betrayal in Saudi Arabia that the United States had been a false friend and turned on them….
And we’ve had differences over Syria: Although both of us seem to be fixated on removing Assad from power, that is much more an obsession for the Saudis than it is for us….
So the relationship has been pretty bad, and the greatest issue has been the relationship with Iran, where the Saudis see the United States as having empowered Iranian influence at their expense throughout the region, from Lebanon through Syria to Iraq to Bahrain to Yemen, with the result that they, who looked on the United States as their reliable protector, no longer see us in this role….
Causality lies in external circumstances, you’re suggesting.
Largely. And, of course, I would say there are several simplistic fallacies in the conventional wisdom in this country about Saudi Arabia. One is that somehow or another, because they have ideological affinities with Salafi jihadis abroad, that they are in a position to control them. I don’t think that is the case. Another is that the Salafism, or Wahhabism as it is sometimes pejoratively called, is the motivation for anti–American terrorism rather than a facilitating element. Most of the terrorists that we encounter are not religious people, although they fly the flag of religion as they pursue vengeance or other resentments against the West or the United States.
It’s more in the way of anti-Western ressentiment, the French term having a more complex meaning than our “resentment.”
It’s ressentiment for a couple of centuries of Western depredations in the region. Humiliations, denial of dignity.
The mosque being a useful organizing device, in many practical instances.
Well, characteristically the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have been wonderful means of organizing insurgencies and resistance movements.
Can you address the question of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Islamic State? I don’t mean any formal sort of relationship, but this rather opaque web of foundations, clerics and what have you.
Clearly they exist in the same part of the Islamic religious spectrum—“they” being Daesh and the Saudi establishment. They both have their theological roots in austere interpretations of Islam. But that doesn’t tell you very much about anything. It’s like saying that the IRA [Irish Republican Army] and Catholicism have a relationship, which they do, but it doesn’t tell you very much. Or that somehow, because all members of the mafia are Catholic, the pope is responsible for the mafia. So I think this element is vastly overblown.
I stand guilty on this point myself, I suppose, on occasion.
Well, it’s easy. But here’s the thing: Salafism—meaning Protestantism—is very similar to Martin Luther’s conclusion that the church and the Christian religion are corrupt, that the answer is to reexamine the earliest days of the religion before it became corrupted, and follow those practices. That’s exactly what the Salafis believe, and their thesis is that the world and religious universe today are corrupt and require purification, and that the way to do that is to look to the earliest days of Islam. Now the interesting thing is that their vision of early Islam is probably completely counterfactual, and mainstream Salafis are quick to point out that early Islam was not intolerant. There were Jews and Christians who were the main ministers in the governments.
My understanding is that it was notably tolerant.
It was remarkably tolerant, as exemplified a little later on in Al–Andalus, Muslim Spain, where Jewish culture flourished and Christians were able to practice their religion as well. Early Islam also was not xenophobic; it accepted Hellenistic thought into its theology. It created something called the Bayt al–Hikma, or House of Wisdom, first in Damascus and then in Baghdad, where modern physics, chemistry, mathematics and astronomy were pioneered. It’s very much a religion of science and philosophy, and in fact preserved knowledge that ultimately galvanized the European Renaissance.
And finally, it wasn’t misogynist. Muhammad’s wife ran her own caravan as a businesswoman up to Damascus from Mecca, and women had a prominent place in early Islam. They were not locked in the back or forced to cover themselves.
So there is a battle going on within Islam over how to revitalize and correct the religion, very similar to the Reformation/Counter-Reformation struggle in a broad sense. This is an argument among Muslims on which we kibitz and which we characteristically misunderstand. We’re in the position of the Ottoman sultan looking at the Thirty Years’ War in Europe wondering why these people are killing each other over logical differences that he can’t understand. That is the case with the religious war now between Shia and Sunni.
The Sunni–Shia antagonism. I wonder if you can talk more specifically about this. What is the origin of this? How did you read this phenomenon as you served in Riyadh and thought about the region?
The split obviously goes back almost 1,500 years. It was not violent. In fact, in Iraq, the tribes that extend from Saudi Arabia to Syria through Iraq were not either Sunni or Shia. There was a great deal of intermarriage, and these tribes contain Sunni elements and Shia elements and so forth. The catalyst for the violence was the US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of secular government there, and our empowerment of a vindictive, mostly Iranian-exiled political leadership that wished to take revenge for perceived slights from the Sunni minority that had ruled the country.
Al–Maliki you mean?
He’s part of that, but it’s quite a group. They were all sitting in Iran when Iraq and Iran were at war with each other. The violence—again the analogy of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe comes up. Once you start that sort of thing it becomes self-sustaining and people have a reason for seeking vengeance or seeking safety by eliminating potential enemies. There have been atrocities of truly horrifying nature on both sides.
To go back to the Saudis, the mistake they’ve made in dealing with this, in my view, is to define themselves in religious terms as Sunnis, rather than as Arabs, because you can’t appeal to Iraqi Shia if the identity you put forward is that of their religious foes. We used to say during the Iran–Iraq War, when I was ambassador in Saudi Arabia, that Iraqi Shia had proven that they were Arabs first, Iraqis second, and, only third, Shia. They fought loyally against their fellow Shia who were Persians and Iranians. But that is all erased now. Identity has become very much sectarian. I think the Saudis would have been far better off had they identified themselves as the original Arabs and said to the Iraqis, “We’re both Arabs. We should make common cause.” Instead they have fallen into the trap of taking sides in civil strife.
I’d like to turn to the US position in the Middle East, beginning with the context you framed in one of your presentations at the Watson Institute. Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt in 1798 began an epoch during which the West insisted on reshaping societies, cultures, and traditions, the assumption being that “modernization” meant “Westernization.” The year of the Iranian Revolution, 1979, marked the end, as you put it, of “passivity and victimization among people who share a common culture by way of Islam, Arab and non–Arab alike.” It’s a wonderfully clear thought, and I want to ask you to talk about the US position as we have it now in this context.
We are seen by those in the region, although not by ourselves, as merely the latest avatar of Western imperialism, and equally devoted to “transformative diplomacy,” which was in fact a slogan that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embraced. I derided that as “the missionary position,” but the fact is that we have wobbled unpredictably between values-based policies—democratization and the like—and realpolitik, often in reaction to the consequences of our values-based policies. It turns out that democratization in the Middle East equates with Islamization, and that the people, if given a voice, use that voice against many American policies, not in support of them.
So I think the Iranian Revolution, in fact, did represent a decisive turn toward self-determination by one polity in the Middle East. The Arab uprisings [of late 2010 and 2011] represented a belated attempt at the same in the Arab part of the Islamic world. You have to realize, by the way, that the Middle East is only something like a fourth of the world’s Muslims. So when we talk about arguments in Islam between different tendencies about how to revitalize religion, how to organize society, those arguments are most extreme in the Middle East, but they resonate in a very wide area.
Yes, you hear them in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Sure, exactly. And in Indonesia, which traditionally has had a far less intense religious identity, they are becoming caught up in the same argument. I thought at the outset that there was a Western conceit in the term “Arab Spring,” because the supposition seemed to be that what people were demanding was Westernization rather than modernization. I think people in the region want modernization, but they want it on Islamist terms.
I had a conversation with an Iranian woman years ago. It was the Khatami period [Mohammad Khatami was Iran’s reformist president from 1997 to 2005]. I spent time in Iran then, and it was a splendid time to be there.
He was a very thoughtful man.
I admired him. I suppose he’s sort of a Jimmy Carter of Iran now, although I don’t buy that at all.
Jimmy Carter will be reevaluated, I believe.
I’m waiting for his revisionist historian—thank you very much for saying that! Anyway, we were at the top of the Azadi Hotel, the old Hyatt, and the bar was a tearoom, of course. She said something I’ve used in print numerous times: “Look, we want to be modern, but we want to be modern Iranians.” It’s a practically immortal expression of the aspiration.
Yes. And without getting into Edward Said and people like that, the fact is that this argument in non–Western cultures is endemic. There was a big argument in Japan about whether Japan could modernize without losing its Japanese identity. Well, it turned out they could. Modern Chinese history is in many respects organized around the same issue. If you accept Western techniques, ways of doing things, do you corrode the national essence? It wasn’t until Deng Xiaoping came in, when he said, “Whatever works,” he adopted a canon of eclectic modernization. He said, “The Chinese identity is strong, it will take care of itself. We just need to figure out how to empower people.”
When you walk around China today you have two things going on: It’s a vast field of aspiration and it’s Westernizing almost frenetically, at a pace and with a dedication that really does require explanation beyond economic need. There’s a psychological dimension. But at the same time, there are these forlorn Confucian revivals and things like this. It’s very hard to explain to somebody who doesn’t know China how both of these things can go on at the same time.
Horatio Alger is alive and well in China, and he’s died here. There are elements of that happening in the Arab Gulf. There’s actually a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation arising, not just in the financial engineering sector, which is an abomination that is now headquartered in Dubai, but in computer software and all sorts of areas.
If KAUST, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, lives up to its vision as the new House of Wisdom in the Middle East, then you will see some innovative basic science translated into technology there. It is an international institution with no gender apartheid, even though it’s in Saudi Arabia, and an international faculty and student body, generously endowed by the late king. So I think it’s a mistake to write off the area as perpetually backward. Certainly people in the region remember when they were relatively advanced compared with Europeans and others.
That’s part of the nostalgia.
It is. But it’s part of the reason for this Salafist impulse to reach back to the original followers of Islam.
Yes, exactly. And it’s not implausible. Not implausible at all.
Along with Andrew Bacevich and others, you are profoundly pessimistic that the United States is capable of finding its way out of the crisis it has done a very great deal to create in the region. In this regard I have to say you’re an affront to my native American optimism, which I can’t do anything about. Why the pessimism?
Let me start by saying that, in fact, the relationship between professional military and professional diplomats is nicely described in the phrase, “Optimism is to diplomats what courage is to soldiers.” Part of my pessimism derives from the excessive militarization of US foreign policy. Other elements of it derive from my sense that the political elite in this country has come up with a formula to enrich itself at the expense of everyone else.
We have a system which worked very well for a couple of centuries that has been subverted and gone off the rails. This is post–constitutional America. The separation of powers does not work; it is abused by both the legislature and the executive, and I would say the judiciary as well. Accountability is at a minimum in any one of these spheres. Our politics is more venal than ever. The only principles that are espoused by politicians are on such a cynically hypocritical basis. We have a system now which seems to be incapable of lifting its head above the immediate. No one has a vision or a long-term strategy for accomplishing anything. In fact, domestically things like the sequester represent national decisions not to make decisions. The attempt to make a decision on priorities is derided immediately as out of bounds. So if this situation could produce optimism I would be delighted, but I don’t see it.
As I look at this election, for a while I thought there was a prospect that we would have a political realignment. I don’t believe that’s going to happen now. The candidates represent nothing very appealing, and certainly don’t represent any serious attempt to structurally address some of these problems. Whether you agreed with him or not, Bernie Sanders seemed to be addressing things on that level.
He disappointed me on the foreign side, but he’s a domestic figure, right?
That’s what he was. In a sense, he was emblematic of a judgment that Donald Trump also represents, namely, that we’ve made such a mess at home that we need to focus on cleaning that up before we run around the world telling everyone else how to behave.
Just as a matter of the logic of history, there has to be some kind of way out in the Middle East. There’s no such thing as stasis in history, I believe. Setting aside the shortcomings of our policy people—maybe I should say, “Setting those aside, Mrs. Lincoln…”—what’s your idea of a constructive way forward in the Middle East?
I think we’ve made such a complex mess that setting aside any one part of it is not going to solve the whole. It once would have been the case, I think, that resolving the Israel-Palestine issue would have taken the impetus out of the radicalization of politics, but I don’t believe that is now the case. I think the radicalization of politics has become so entrenched that it would not be erased if Israel and Palestinians made up, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to address that question.
I would begin by ending our enablement of moral hazard on the part of the Israelis. They have the upper hand on everything, and yet we empower them to take risks, to conduct rash actions they would not conduct if they were not confident of our unflinching support. This issue differs from every other issue in the Middle East in the sense that we are wholly complicit in it. We pay for it.
If we want to sell weapons to people, that’s one thing, and you get cash in return. But we want to give them things with which to kill other people. That represents a level of moral responsibility that’s higher. I would say that adopting an approach designed to enable Israel to serve its long-term interest in survival in the region rather than its short-term interest in territorial enlargement would be a good thing.
But I think the broader issue in the Persian Gulf arena is that we have to find an answer to the balance what we destroyed when we destroyed Iraq. Always, prior to 1993, when the Clinton administration came in, we had followed a policy of facilitating a regional balance of forces that would prevent aggression by any side. When that balance was overturned by the Iran–Iraq War, we were drawn in to rectify it. And we did rectify it [in the immediate term, by way of the first Gulf War]. That is, we cut Iraq back to a size where it could be balanced by Iran and the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council].
In 1993, the Clinton administration, with no prior consultation either within the government or with allies or friends in the region, announced a policy of “dual containment.” That meant that we were no longer trying to balance Iraq and the GCC against Iran, but we were going to put our own forces in and balance both Iraq and Iran, and that, in turn, facilitated our decision to take over Iraq in 2003.
So we are now left with a situation in which Iraq, in many respects, is an extension of Iranian influence and no longer part of the balance equation. How do we restore balance and thereby enable ourselves to extricate our forces from the perpetual presence that we’ve now required?
I think the answer lies in a fair amount of diplomatic tough love with the Saudis, among others. That is to say, we also enable them and create moral hazard by appearing to be willing to back them regardless. I think their policies toward Iraq, which emphasize sectarianism in their own interest as well as the interest of regional stability, require adjustment. They should be attempting to work with Najaf and Karbala [Shia holy cities] which have very different ideas about the Shia and foreign policy than they have in Qom, in Iran. Iraqi Shia are Arabs, and they need to emphasize that in the hope of restoring some measure of balance. Of course they need self-strengthening, too, and there needs to be an accommodation between them and Iran.
The United States is not in a position to broker such an accommodation, in large measure because we have no relations with Iran and we have deteriorating relations with the Gulf Arabs. And we have an extremely problematic relationship with Baghdad. So the United States needs to reposition itself to be able to restabilize the region that we destabilized, and that means confronting client states and friends as much as it does foes.
I’d like to stay with this topic, but bring it into the context of specific people. I have found Obama a very hard read on the foreign-policy side, and after some years of looking at him and, with difficulty, attempting to come up with a coherent thesis about him without contradicting myself, I arrive at this: He has been determined to reduce the American military presence in the Middle East and substitute drones, air campaigns, and proxies. He has addressed the means by which policy is executed. He has not addressed the ends…. Obama has left the objectives of American policy entirely alone, and that’s what has created, as you say, his equivocations. I have a critical view of American policy, and I think the ends are what have to be addressed.
I wonder what you think of Obama’s record, and then I’d like you to talk about what is in the offing under another Clinton presidency—and to the extent that you wish to talk about it, Trump. The question of exceptionalism is the great intellectual, or maybe ideological, matter that needs to be addressed. We’ve got to get past it, in my view.
I agree that the absence of strategy is derived, first and foremost, from the absence of goals, and goals that are feasible are essential to a working strategy. We have no clear goal, other than, de facto, sustaining our military primacy on a global level. [Paul] Wolfowitz [Deputy Secretary of Defense under Bush II and a leading advocate of the 2003 invasion of Iraq] and company, the neoconservatives, succeeded, without debate, in making that our primary objective internationally and it’s gotten us into trouble everywhere we’ve applied it. In the Middle East, which we’re talking about, it has been a major problem. You can’t have a diplomacy-free foreign policy, and yet we have largely attempted that.
It’s not invented by Obama. In fact, I would say of Obama that he came into office a virgin on international affairs and he’s grown worn and cynical as he’s experienced the reality. He started out with a group of people who were essentially inhabitants of the Washington bubble, rather than strategic thinkers or foreign-policy practitioners, running his foreign policy. The foreign policy was very much focused on appeasing various domestic critics rather than accomplishing anything concrete abroad. I think as time has gone on, he has learned a great deal. As you read his most recent interviews [Jeffrey Goldberg’s in The Atlantic], you have to be impressed by the level of wisdom that is evident in his statements, but not in his actions.
The question of what he might have done had he not been stymied at every level by congressional opposition is really an interesting one. But consider this: His great diplomatic achievement in the Middle East is the nuclear deal with Iran, which I think was certainly better than no deal. We could have had a better deal had we moved earlier, but we weren’t able to muster the will.
It slipped through Bush II’s hands.
Yes, exactly. But leave that aside. That agreement generated a letter from 49 members of the US Senate to the leadership of Iran saying, “Don’t pay any attention to this man behind the curtain. He does not speak for his country.” Something that was, I think, treasonous, and in an earlier age would have been branded as such. It is a repudiation of the constitutional separation of powers of an egregious sort, and deference to a foreign leader that is excelled only by the 29 kowtows to Netanyahu in a joint Congressional session [held in March 2015].
So Obama leaves office very well prepared to be the next president, but he won’t be.
A very good point. You focused on Congress and its resistance to any sort of innovation in policy that Obama might implement, but what about—strong term—the so-called “invisible government”? This is simplifying, but what about the extent to which the Pentagon and the national security apparatus actually tell the president, “OK, this is how much you can do”?
I don’t agree with that. I don’t agree with it because I think the permanent government, the bureaucracy, by and large, on many of the issues that have arisen, has been on the right side rather than the wrong side. There was no enthusiasm among the US military for the invasion of Iraq. Quite the contrary. There was great skepticism in the intelligence community about the justification for that. In fact, the vice president and the deputy secretary of defense, Mr. Wolfowitz, set up an elaborate structure of alternative, politicized intelligence fabrication to justify it. So whatever the problem is, it’s not, so far as I can see, professional civil servants, whether they’re professional military, professional foreign service, professional intelligence officers, and so on.
And I will buttress this conclusion by a brief recitation of the history of the National Security Council staff. This was created by John F. Kennedy, because he found Eisenhower’s set-up too cerebral, and passive rather than active. Eisenhower had a long-term planning board; he didn’t really have an NSC staff. Kennedy wanted to take control and act. He started with six people, [Walt] Rostow and others whose names are famous—[McGeorge] Bundy [Kennedy’s National Security Adviser; Rostow was Bundy’s deputy]—who proceeded, by the way, to manipulate us into Vietnam over the objections of the bureaucracy. So this institution began with a kind of political coup against the permanent establishment, and by the end of the Nixon administration, the Carter administration, six had grown to 50. Brent Scowcroft, under Reagan, tried to hold it at that level and did successfully impede its growth, but Clinton expanded it greatly, and by the end of George W. Bush’s administration it was at least 370, plus additional temporary-duty assignments, bringing it to around 600. Which is where it is now.
That is astonishing. Six hundred?
Yeah, it’s over that. The original purpose of the NSC was to serve as a staff to the president that would coordinate policy—that is, it would coordinate the policy process, drawing on the expertise of the government to present the president with choices, which he would then make, and then it would monitor the implementation of the policies that he had decided upon. That was the original concept. And it held until we got to a point of critical mass in this organization. Now, the NSC staff imagines, and in many ways behaves, as if they make policy. Junior people there outweigh assistant secretaries of state and defense in bureaucratic deliberations. They’re in the White House—not physically, but figuratively—which is where the power is centralized, more under Obama than anyone else.
So who are all these people? The first thing you know about them is none of them has been confirmed by the Senate; none of them is required to testify to Congress. They are completely unaccountable to anyone other than the president. The second thing to realize is that this staff has grown like this not to achieve foreign-policy results, but to protect the president from the domestic consequences of foreign affairs. It is entirely focused on managing the Washington bubble. The third thing to realize about them is that they now duplicate the expertise of the government at large, in great detail. So there are experts on Syria, there are experts on North Korean nuclear proliferation, etc., etc., in this group.
Where we end up, the metaphor that I use, is that they’ve come to resemble the machinery of a planetarium. You know: You’re in the planetarium, this machinery turns, the universe appears to turn. But outside it may be snowing, you don’t know. This is all illusion. It’s self-delusion that you imagine solipsistically—that you can manipulate the world by changing your own mentality, and it’s also autistic. We have the world’s first genuinely autistic government, because the nerves don’t extend to the exterior world. They run into the Washington bubble.
So why do we do things that make absolutely no sense? Why do we get into tangles like the one in Syria, where we’re opposing the main opposition to Islamist fundamentalist extremists we hope to defeat and we’re helping some jihadis against others, and we have differing programs, none of which are effective, and we either cooperate or we don’t with the Russians? We have a mess. For a long time, instead of staging a serious peace process with regard to Syria, we ran public relations exercises in Geneva excluding those who were in the position to make decisions about peace—the Iranians, the Assad regime, and so forth.
So what is all of this? It is the planetarium putting on a show. I don’t accept the thesis that it is the permanent structure of the government. It is the political superstructure that is mis-performing.
A useful correction. You must have a view of all that’s being said about foreign policy on the campaign trail. What’s your take on Clinton’s foreign policy? And maybe more interesting, your view of Trump’s, notably his willingness to recognize the legitimate interests of others, particularly Russia’s and China’s, and the lambasting he’s getting for this?
Judging from her record as well as her most prominent advisers and campaign surrogates, Mrs. Clinton proposes to pursue a somewhat more militaristic version of the policies that have brought us where we are in the world. She would issue an even larger blank check to Israel, step up the effort to overthrow the Assad government, treat Russia as a military problem rather than a factor in the European balance to be managed, and try to keep China down in East Asia and internationally. What would she do differently in Afghanistan or Iraq to replace current policies, which are in advanced stages of failure? What would she do differently about North Korea, Iran, or Turkey? We don’t know.
But there is no evidence that she regards diplomacy as anything other than a supplement to the threat or use of force against foreign nations that do not subscribe to the American agenda. She seems, in effect, to assume that current alliances and relationships are self-sustaining and that international interactions can therefore be dealt with transactionally in accordance with the desires of our military-industrial-congressional complex, without concern for the impact this will have on the underlying relationships that facilitate our policies and leverage our power.
In this, she perpetuates the hubris and complacent assumption of omnipotence that are the essence of American exceptionalism and the defining characteristic of the Washington bubble. Meanwhile, her flip-flop on TPP [the Trans–Pacific Partnership], quite aside from gutting the non-military element of the “pivot to Asia” she advocated, leaves her without a coherent policy on foreign trade and investment. It is hardly surprising that, while those with vested interests in current policies find her stands in the main reassuring—or assume she will expediently adjust her views if elected—few find them inspiring.
The thing about Clinton is that she does have a very extensive record on foreign policy which includes a long list of misjudgments that encourages very little confidence in her ability to judge correctly what is and is not feasible, or to ask the key question in foreign policy, which is always, “And then what?”
That is essential. If you start a war how are you going to end it? What is your war- termination strategy and how do you prevent the goalposts from being moved by your domestic political process? These are attributes of leadership she has not shown. So that’s the first thing. The second is that you are, in a sense, as Obama has unfortunately demonstrated, defined by the company you keep and the staff that you hire. And she is surrounded with neocons in much the way that a rotten banana is surrounded by fruit flies.
[Laughter] And Trump?
Certainly he has no respect for expertise, in which he mirrors the American public’s attitude at the moment. It’s more than populism.
It’s the anti-intellectual strain long familiar in our history and politics.
There is no reason to believe any statement that he makes, because he clearly reserves the right to retract and revise it. Or, in fact, turn it on its head. He sees unreliability as a virtue, as a bargaining tool. There’s something in that. One could argue that what is wrong with US foreign policy, in general, is that we remain entrenched in the structures of the Cold War. That we conduct diplomacy to hold the line rather than to advance our interests. That we respond to crises by invoking deterrence, which freezes the crisis for a later explosion rather than addressing the causes of it and disarming it. And Trump may be onto something in this regard, in theory. In practice, it’s very hard to see him as living up to his own insights.
A minor industry has sprung up devoted to extracting imagined policies from his populist rants, which resonate with widespread voter anger and frustration with the results of recent policies, or the lack of them, on a wide range of issues, including adventurism abroad…. But he is long on populist clichés and short on the feasible means of pursuing them, still less examination of the probable consequences of recklessly implemented change…. Trumpism is a disjointed set of objections to the results of past policies and pledges to junk them, with no coherent ideas or proposals for new approaches that might improve on them. It distills popular rage at everything that has gone wrong—and that is a lot—but remains all repudiation and no plan.