Forum — From the September 2016 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Forum — From the September 2016 issue
As Barack Obama prepares to vacate the Oval Office after two terms, he has earned an odd distinction: the United States has been at war every day of his tenure, a record unmatched in American history. The next president’s performance as commander in chief may well dwarf the importance of any domestic-policy position he or she takes. In fact, the central role of immigration and trade in the current presidential contest suggests that there is no longer any easy way of separating foreign from domestic policy. A serious consideration of the current state of the world, however, has been largely absent from this campaign season. What are the greatest challenges to the current international order? How can the world — and the next U.S. president — meet these challenges? Is military intervention still an appropriate response? If not, what alternatives are available? This summer, Harper’s Magazine convened a panel of experts in international relations to discuss the pressing questions that have not yet been asked. The conversation was moderated by Andrew J. Bacevich, a military historian and a contributing editor of the magazine.
The following forum is based on a conversation that took place at the Warwick Hotel in New York City.
andrew j. bacevich
is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.
is a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University and the author of many books, including Theology of Discontent and Iran: A People Interrupted.
paula j. dobriansky
is a longtime U.S. diplomat. She served as undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs from 2001 to 2009 and as the president’s special envoy to Northern Ireland from 2007 to 2009. She is currently a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Future of Diplomacy Project.
is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and the coauthor of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.
served on the National Security Council and in the State Department during the George W. Bush Administration. She was also a senior policy adviser to the 2008 McCain campaign. She is now a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
dominique de villepin
is a former prime minister, interior minister, and foreign minister of France.
PART ONE: DRAWING THE MAP
andrew j. bacevich: Do you have some type of mental map of the world today? When I say a “mental map of the world,” what I mean is this: Back when I was a kid growing up in the Cold War, I knew what the world looked like. It was divided into two camps — there was a West, there was an East — and the conflict between the two defined the essence of international relations. Fast-forward to the end of the Cold War, and we fancied that we now lived in a unipolar order in which the United States of America had become and was destined to remain the dominant power. Various events since 2001 have called that unipolarity into question. So here we are in 2016. What is your mental map of the world? Hamid?
hamid dabashi: In my book on the Arab revolutions I describe a concept that I call “liberation geography.” I believe that the kinds of bifurcations you’re talking about — the West and the Rest, etc. — are no longer valid. The events of 9/11 signaled to me the collapse of the Islam versus the West binary, not its beginning. So what’s next? The most important factors when I put together my mental map are environmental: deforestation, desertification, and the colossal environmental horrors that are already under way in much of the world. A recent study suggests that by the year 2100, much of the Persian Gulf area will no longer be habitable. If you want to construct a global map, the environment has to be right at the forefront.
Number two is migration, both labor and refugee, which is happening on an enormous scale within the Arab and Islamic world but is also, on a smaller scale, spilling into Europe. The third factor is demographic. The decline in infant mortality and the increase in life expectancy brought about a major demographic change in the Arab and Islamic world. Within their nation-states, young people don’t have opportunities for political expression, as we saw in the course of the Arab revolutions. Through the internet and other forms of global connection, however, their expectations for democratic expression are much higher than their reality allows.
dominique de villepin: My feeling is that we are in a very transitional international order. The map is completely blurred. It’s very difficult to say what the most important developments are, but I would focus on two main factors. The first is the beginning of a real multipolarity, in which we are seeing the rising influence of China, Russia, and other emerging countries.
And at the same time we are seeing the paradoxical hegemony of the United States. I say “paradoxical” because, on one hand, you have the global hegemony of U.S. soft power. A strong monopoly in currency — the privileges of the dollar. A strong monopoly in technology. A strong monopoly in banking and credit rating. And a strong influence over international law — another privilege. On the other, there has been a reduction in hard power, with the pragmatism of the Obama presidency — “leading from behind” — which, of course, creates a lot of uncertainty about what will come next.
While we are in this transitional phase, any changes in the system can affect the entire global order. That’s why I believe that the next political move — who will be the next U.S. president? — is going to affect the whole map. The world can go one way, toward a more broken world, with the continued suicide of the Middle East, with fears about the influence of Russia and China. Or we can go to a new phase, one of harmony and multipolarity. That means more rules and better regulations. That means global governance. We need to build a community that we don’t have today.
paula dobriansky: First, I’d start with the role of the United States internationally and how the United States is perceived abroad. I think that our role has been questioned, and that we have also, in many cases, been missing in action. We have been feckless. This is compounded by the fact —
bacevich: The United States has been missing in action?
dobriansky: Yes, in a number of cases, the United States has been missing in action. Its credibility has been questioned. We haven’t engaged in managing various crises that impact our national-security interests and those of our allies. Our international role has been diminished, and mixed signals have been sent.
bacevich: Could you just specify where —
dobriansky: Syria, for example. President Hollande said that France and the United States were going to move forward together — remember? — on banning chemical weapons. President Obama drew a red line on chemical weapons, promising the use of force against Assad, and then did nothing. We totally changed our course of action. We also said that we were going to take out Bashar al-Assad and ensure that he didn’t stay in power. Nothing ever happened. Hollande said publicly that France was going to join the United States in this effort. Again, there was a total change of policy direction.
Another example is our response to Russian revanchism — the illegal annexation of Crimea and the aggression in eastern Ukraine, not to mention Russia’s military intervention in Syria. Russia is in there using military force to prop up the Assad regime and, according to various human-rights organizations, has committed war crimes in the process. Many Arab leaders are now going to Moscow to talk with President Putin, but there have been surprisingly few conversations with the United States. Middle Eastern countries have doubted our reliability in taking action in support of our friends.
bacevich: Forgive me if I’m misinterpreting, but the charge you’re making sounds like a charge against the Obama Administration. I just wonder whether you think that any of the events that happened during the George W. Bush years diminished the status and influence of the United States.
dobriansky: One could argue that actions taken in those years affected how the United States is perceived. People differed over whether we should have done what we did in Iraq. Where people didn’t differ was on the clarity of our purpose. These days, I often hear from foreigners that they don’t know what our strategy is. They are not sure about our role, reliability, and policy direction.
The example I already gave — when the “red line” was drawn jointly with Hollande. We said we would follow the same agenda vis-à-vis Syria, and that didn’t happen. There are countless examples cited by many countries. Am I clear?
dobriansky: Okay. Well, I mentioned Russia. In this case, where there was blatant aggression against Ukraine, there have been a number of global ramifications. This violated the Budapest Memorandum — under which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for the guarantee of its territorial integrity and sovereignty by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia — thereby undermining nuclear nonproliferation. We cannot persuade countries to give up their nuclear programs if they think that the security guarantees we proffer are worthless. So in the Asian press, for example, the question was raised, “What about us? Can we still rely on extended deterrence?”
bacevich: If I can steer you back to the question on the table, which was the map of the world. Forgive me, but what you’re giving us is a critique of the Obama Administration.
dobriansky: : This is not a critique of the Obama Administration. I’m talking about the global ramifications of Russian aggression. Everyone focuses on NATO and the challenges to the transatlantic relationship. But now Asian countries are saying, “Can we count on U.S. support?” There are long-standing alliances being called into question. I’m not targeting one administration or one country over another. Let me go to a broader point. These actions indicate a change of the map of the world: a challenge to the liberal international order as we know it, particularly the values, alliances, and institutions that have preserved peace, stability, and security since World War II and since the end of the Cold War.
bacevich: Your map, Kori?
kori schake: My map is a map of governance. There are societies that are governed by the rule of law, by the consent of their people, with freedom of expression. Where those things exist I think you see stability, and prosperity, and innovation. Where there are deficits in the rule of law, consensual government, and freedom of expression is where we see problems burgeoning around the international order.
What Minister de Villepin described as privileges of the United States I would describe as achievements: a tech sector that’s vibrant and innovative; incredibly fluid capital structures; a rule of law that makes people comfortable doing business here. Those kinds of achievements are, in my judgment, a main driver of change in the international order.
Societies that are not well governed want those achievements without the turbulence that is inherent in having those freedoms. And so I think that one of the big, interesting developments in the international order is authoritarian capitalism. That is, whether societies that are not free, in which power is not consensual, can nonetheless become durably prosperous and stable.
A great example we are seeing at the moment is China, which has for forty years succeeded economically without reliable rule of law, without freedom of expression, and without governance based on the consent of the public. Whether they can get across the middle-income threshold and create an economy that is service-oriented and intellectual-capital-oriented rather than manufacturing-oriented is, I think, the most interesting question right now.
bacevich: Those qualities that you described, which result in efficiently functioning societies, are those things spreading or are they being compromised? Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic?
schake: Mildly pessimistic. In general, I think we have lost confidence in the universality of these values at the very time that they’re succeeding.
bacevich: “We,” in this context, meaning North America and Western Europe, basically?
schake: Meaning those societies that have the privilege of good governance, rule of law, and consensual political power. It’s not just the United States and Western Europe. Those of us who enjoy these privileges are losing confidence that these values are universal or that we need to fight to advance them in the world.
In the societies enduring the greatest tumult, it is happening in part because many positive forces within those societies are fighting for these ideas. People want a different kind of governance and a broader prosperity that they can share in. They want the rule of law. And I think our challenge — those of us who already have these privileges — is helping advance that kind of governance. It seems like we’re stepping back from that challenge, at least in the West, where we are most likely to avert our eyes from many places where I believe that we could help foster positive change in governance.
hassan hassan: Throughout American history, when the United States has faced major challenges, it has usually overcome them, or at least come to understand them, in a very short period of time. The exception being the terror attacks of 2001. Fifteen years later, people are still struggling to understand what world they’re living in and what challenges they’re facing — which means that for most Americans, the mental map you want us to imagine is a map of the post-9/11 world. Whatever epoch we’re in now, it began in 2001.
In my view, we are living in a post-2010 or post-2011 world. What happened in those years? Well, of course, you had the Arab Spring, which did not involve just the Arab world — Iran, Turkey, Russia, the United States, and Europe were all involved. You have the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. That was also a defining moment. In 2010, you had the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of the Islamic State. In these years you also have the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and the rise of Nouri al-Maliki and the sectarian politics there.
The one word I want to use to describe this post-2011 moment is “realignment.” Really it’s a multiplicity of realignments in the Middle East and in the world. One is ideological. You have the rise of the Islamic State, which is a symptom of ideological realignment within the Muslim world. In many ways, its savagery clouds our vision and keeps us from seeing its ideological foundation. It is one of several revolutionary movements within the Islamic world that wants to define the role of Islam in the modern world. Its definition of Islam is more like Sunni revanchism. On the other hand, you do have a Shia power. Again, not in the sectarian sense, but in a defining-identity sense.
There’s also a geopolitical realignment. Iran is becoming more dominant in the Middle East. More confident. It shapes events in Iraq, in Syria, and in Lebanon. You have the U.S. withdrawal. You have the return of the Russians.
bacevich: But your bottom line is that it is the events of 2010 and 2011 that fundamentally redrew your map of the world?
hassan: Obviously there might have been previous factors. History is not just a result of one incident.
bacevich: But you wouldn’t identify the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an event that had much to do with what happened in 2010 and 2011?
hassan: It’s not the most important event. The mistake was not the bringing down of Saddam Hussein. The mistake was the political failure that followed. If you want to point to one person, it was Paul Bremer, not George W. Bush, who said, “I want to dismantle the Iraqi military.” The occupying authority took a series of steps that made people want to associate with their own sect instead of with a larger Iraqi state. The rise of these groups followed not out of the American invasion of 2003 but the American policies that came after.
And if you compare that with Syria today, for example, I think removing Assad wouldn’t be the mistake. The removal of Assad would be a mistake if you allowed the Syrian opposition to take over and get rid of the military and the security forces. What needs to be done is to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, take some of the steam off the conflict —
bacevich: Who should do this?
hassan: The Americans have the leverage, and they have the firepower. They are already involved in the Middle East. They are the players that can get the Saudis and Iranians to somehow force some sort of event together. They are the players that can encourage Turkey — their NATO ally — to work toward a specific trajectory that would help Syrians. We know that probably, let’s say, 40 percent of the problems in Syria stem from the involvement of outside actors who can’t agree on what they want. The Americans are the only ones in a position to force that kind of agreement.
PART TWO: “YOU CAN SHARE, BUT YOU CANNOT IMPOSE”
villepin: I’d like to go back to the issue that we raised: What is the responsibility of the United States in the current mess in the Middle East? I think it’s huge. And it has been the beginning of a much worse chain of events. Of course, there are many forces of destruction in this region. But the starting point came when George W. Bush sent the message that the traditional order in the Middle East — which is based on state sovereignty — could be completely destroyed through regime change. His message was: We are so good, our values are so much better, we have so much better knowledge, so what we bring in has to be better than what’s there now.
A better Iraq, and a greater Middle East. You enter in Baghdad, and you go out to Jerusalem to make huge speeches and have all these guys be happy with the Western world. False. Total fiction. Total misunderstanding of the realities of the Middle East, of the world, and of what globalization is today. Missing completely that the starting point of any order in the world is having stable states. This is why France opposed the invasion in the Security Council in 2003. The failed state — much more than anything else — is a danger for itself, for its region, and for the world. And the consequence of regime change is failed states.
bacevich: Since we have failing states today, what is the appropriate response? What can the outside world do about failing states?
villepin: The first point is to understand that military interventions should not create more disorder than already exists. And we have to understand the constraints that globalization places on us. The speed with which images and ideologies travel gives a real advantage to negative opinions. Negative ideas travel faster than positive ideas. Violent images travel faster than any other images. That’s why when a terrorist speaks, you listen to him, more than you do to any leader of the world. This is something we should understand. You cannot play with people. You cannot intervene without having a huge consequence. Military intervention creates the idea that you are trying to force something, that you are illegitimate in doing so. And the day after, you are an occupying force.
You cannot believe that because you have a good idea, you are going to impose it. You don’t impose traditions. You don’t impose democracy. You don’t impose your values. You can share, but you cannot impose. So, first, forget about military intervention. Second, and this is key for me, forget about alliances that are not inclusive. A good alliance always has an open door to the guy who wants to come in. NATO is more a danger to the world order than a solution, because the only reason for NATO is to exclude Russia.
dobriansky: I do think it’s important to have inclusivity, and I want to give an example. When the Soviet Union broke up, the West reached out to President Mikhail Gorbachev, with the goal of including Russia in Europe’s security architecture. Gorbachev himself used the phrase “a common European home.” In fact, in 2002, the NATO–Russia council was established to address security issues and broaden cooperation. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently announced that he would convene a meeting of the council to address many of the current challenges and differences. So it’s not an alliance that seeks to exclude Russia.
villepin: It’s not just NATO. Trade treaties — the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TAFTA — are dangerous. Why? Because they mean closed doors for China. We need inclusive diplomatic systems, not negative, noninclusive systems, or we are going to continue living in a broken world. We need imagination, and generosity, and a steady dialogue of bridges. We need to have a totally different understanding of the world.
We are not right. We may believe we are good, but the people on the ground, they have something to say. And I will go so far as to say that we don’t understand the sheer efficiency of terrorism. Terrorism today has a very strong legitimacy in that part of the world.
dabashi: Terrorism has no legitimacy in “that part of the world” — by which you mean the Arab and Muslim world. Arabs and Muslims are the primary targets of terrorists.
villepin: That doesn’t mean the terrorists don’t have support.
dabashi: They have support, but it’s because of the de-Baathification process, which was a direct result of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. This is very important. If we are to connect all these nitty-gritty aspects of Syria and Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc., you have to go back to the single most important power in the region, which is the United States. The invasion of Iraq has had catastrophic consequences.
This has nothing to do with the horror of Saddam Hussein. Of course Saddam Hussein was a horrible man, but who enabled him? Who enabled the eight-year war of Iran and Iraq? Within months, Khomeini was ready to sit down for peace, but the United States continued to give Saddam Hussein conventional and chemical weapons.
bacevich: If we take the point that intervention has been catastrophic, what then is the role of armed force in this twenty-first century? When is it appropriate, and how should it be used?
hassan: I want to make a distinction here. In Syria, nobody is asking for American boots on the ground. We already have boots on the ground, which are Muslim boots. People are willing to fight the Islamic State. There are Kurds. There are Arabs. There’s Sunnis. There’s Alawites. There’s Shiites willing to fight. All you have to do is help them in their own areas.
That’s an important distinction. The Americans should not be helping these groups take other areas. For example, the Battle of Tikrit last year was a big mistake. Why? Instead of American bombs aiding Sunnis on the ground in Aleppo or Shiites in Baghdad or Kurds in Erbil, you had 30,000 fighters head into Tikrit, which is not only a Sunni stronghold but also the hometown of Saddam Hussein.
So people in Tikrit and elsewhere said, “This is not only a sectarian thing, it’s also an ethnic war against us.” It repeats. It brings the idea, it tickles the imagination of people, that this is again the Iran–Iraq War. This is the Shia–Sunni war at the same time.
schake: It sounds like you’re saying that while there were clearly sectarian tensions in many states in the region, that sectarianism was fueled for a political purpose.
hassan: Exactly. It’s a politicization of sectarianism. Sectarianism can be a bad thing or a good thing. If not a good thing, a neutral thing: it can just be differences between two sects. In Iraq, the Shiites in the south have welcomed Sunnis running away from the Islamic State. They’ve housed them. Ayatollah al-Sistani, the highest Shia authority in Iraq, said, “The Sunnis are not only our brothers. They are ourselves.”
On the other hand, these natural sectarian differences can be weaponized. You have politicians who say, “In order to go to that parliament you need to be a Sunni, or you need to be a Shiite, or you need to be a Kurd.” This is what they’re trying to do in Syria today. You have now an influx of Iranian-backed Shia militias, from Afghanistan and Lebanon and elsewhere, going to fight in Aleppo, which is historically very important for Sunnis. It’s a Sunni province.
dabashi: I want to say something about this sectarianism. You were probably too young to remember, hassan: , but throughout the Arab world, the Iranian Revolution was seen as a phenomenal event. This had nothing to do with Islam, with Shia and Sunni. The Iranian Revolution was a cosmopolitan revolution. So what did the Reagan Administration do? They created the Taliban in Afghanistan. To fight the Soviets, but also to undermine the appeal of the Iranian Revolution. It was not a Shia revolution until the creation of the Taliban created a Sunni opposition, which allowed Khomeini to say, “This is a Shia revolution.” So the problems you want the United States to solve through intervention were created by U.S. intervention.
PART THREE: ARE UNIVERSAL VALUES UNIVERSAL?
bacevich: I’d like to pick up the point that Kori made about universal values and whether those values are actually universal. And the extent to which using universal values as a basis for policy, particularly U.S. policy, actually produces positive outcomes.
dobriansky: Earlier I mentioned the challenge to the liberal international order as we know it. This does involve values, values that have helped to preserve the peace overall in the post–World War II and post–Cold War world.
They are rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From country to country there may be different models of how they are implemented, but the values are common. There’s a consistency there. Right now, some countries are seeking to redefine these values in fundamental ways. Russia has specifically stated that it no longer identifies with these values. China has also posed the question of what takes priority — economic growth or political freedoms?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has provided a kind of international foundation. It has also undergirded the liberal international order. There’s a universality that I think has to be acknowledged here, which countries have signed on to. Values matter.
dabashi: I do agree the world needs universal values. But did we really have to wait for Russia to reach those universal values? Does the United States itself have to live by them? Did they live by those universal values in Guantánamo Bay? At Bagram Airfield? In the torture program laid out in the Senate report? Was that consistent with universal values? In Saudi Arabia, the chief ally of the United States in the Arab world, a woman cannot drive a car. Is that the epitome of universal human-rights values?
When President Obama joined the NATO bombing of Libya, he said that we cannot intervene in the world except where our interests and our values coincide. And in Libya, where at the time people thought that Qaddafi was about to destroy his own population, our interests and our values coincided.
I go back to Dominique’s point about multipolarity. The world is increasingly multipolar — strategically, politically, ideologically. So sure, yes, we need universal values, but we have to reimagine a world in which the United States is not presumed to be the arbiter of that truth.
bacevich: So who then is the arbiter?
dabashi: Nobody is.
bacevich: So it would be an ongoing dialogue?
dabashi: And a recognition that everybody is at fault. Nobody has a clean slate when it comes to upholding universal values, including the United States.
dobriansky: There are no perfect records, but there are domestic and international institutions that can arbitrate. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and European countries are members of, has a human-rights component.
The O.S.C.E. asked for access but was prevented from coming into Crimea to observe any elections. Even now, they are often prevented from monitoring the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. So there are vehicles for addressing these issues that are open, transparent, and credible.
bacevich: I wonder if you would respond to what I understood Hamid’s point to be, which is that the United States basically adheres to a double standard.
schake: I will address that. We’ve very often failed to live up to our own standards. That’s unquestionably true. But I also think it’s true that values get established in the international order by countries and organizations that will foster and defend them.
For me, the question about American governance in the order isn’t so much, “Do we deserve it?” — because very often we don’t — but, “Who would you rather have do it than us?” Because I’m not sure there’s a better answer than us, imperfect as we are.
bacevich: Does that presume there has to be someone who is dominant?
schake: It presumes that the arc of history isn’t self-perpetuating. It is struggled over by means of ideas, by example, by military force, by law, by institution building, by all of those things.
bacevich: But at the end of the day, you’re saying, there has to be a big dog in charge?
villepin: In terms of the world organization, I think we are seeing the limits of that kind of system of global domination. Whether it was the British in the nineteenth century, the French, the Dutch, or now the United States. We have learned the lessons of history.
There is very little capacity in our world to exert influence through domination — through regime change, through military intervention — because of the nature of globalization. Everything goes so fast around the world. You can no longer put a finger in another country’s affairs without having a backlash. And the price is very high today. The price is terrorism. The price is instability. The price is war.
hassan: So if you don’t?
villepin: If you don’t, you have somebody else to do it, and who can do it today but a world government? That’s what we need the U.N. for. We need a new system, in which somebody is going to do the job in a much better way and a less suspicious way than any states can do.
schake: But one of the reasons the United States is dominant is that our power has been, over time, more acceptable to others than the power of other strong states. And the reason it’s more acceptable is that we attempt to gird it to values that we believe are not unique to us, but to which others also aspire.
We legitimate it through institutions that are consensual in their participation and that, like NATO, have standards for admission. So yes, it’s exclusive. You have to agree that you won’t change boundaries in Europe by military force. Setting those values actually makes America’s power relatively inexpensive to sustain. We mostly don’t have to force the kind of change we want to see in the world. The attractiveness of middle-class ways of life in the United States and in other countries that share our values is an enormous magnet, and that shapes the international order. I do think we are dominant, but I think we are dominant because we’ve played team sports.
dobriansky: I was going to make this point earlier, about the United States and its record. We all have challenges and seek to meet certain standards. But even when we have failed to uphold our fundamental values, there is in our society transparency, openness, and deep self-evaluation with an attempt at correction. We see that whether it’s about international actions or something internal. That’s been part of our process of checks and balances.
And that’s also part of our attractiveness. What country does everyone want to immigrate to? The United States. That hasn’t changed. Consider Russia. In 2011 there were 30,000 Russians leaving the country. Now it’s close to 400,000.
People are looking for opportunity and openness. Again, that doesn’t mean that everything is perfect.
dabashi: As far as this notion that the United States is self-correcting: right now, in 2016, Saudi Arabia still has the power to censor the 9/11 Commission Report through the threat of economic retaliation. Senator Feinstein’s torture report is still censored because of the national-security concerns. This is not to deny that the United States is a haven for many immigrants. I am one of them. I’m grateful for being able to come here.
villepin: It isn’t just living up to these values. The problem is that the universal values today are not totally universal. There’s a strong discussion about what kind of values we should share. If you go to China, they will talk to you about order, about harmony. If you go to France, they will talk to you about liberty, equality, fraternity.
You turn on your TV here. You see a certain set of images. But when you turn on your TV in Dubai, in Doha, or in China, you see other images, another way to tell the story. There is no common narrative in our world.
schake: There’s never been a common narrative, though.
villepin: But that’s why we need to invent one. We are in a world where we can, today. We have the tools. We are able to have a real dialogue. We can put in our narrative that we should try to be respectful not only of liberty and equality but also of order and harmony. The different perspectives.
So this can be done, of course, by a dominating country. But it will be much better to have this done by the U.N. It can be done also at the regional level, through bodies like the E.U. I think the level of world government and regional government is key. If you look at the map, the more organized a given region, the more stable this region is. And there is, of course, a very clear correspondence between the lack of cooperation in the Middle East and the fact that this region is on fire.
Of course, they have no capacity for a dialogue. And the more you intervene, the less these people will talk with one another. So we need to have a referee. Somebody who is going to say it has to be done in this way and not in that other way, and nobody’s going to complain about it.
You can’t intervene in Syria, and — I think that Obama was wrong in setting a red line in Syria. He was right in not going there the way he was supposed to go with Hollande. It was a mistake, and I’m very sorry to say that France was the leading country in the mistake. Right now, French diplomacy is moralistic, militaristic, and based on the imposition of Western values, which I think are three mistakes. So the key today is to have a good use of the military. Who better than the U.N.?
dobriansky: The U.N. recently celebrated its seventieth anniversary. Looking back, it has a mixed record as a referee. As we know, when there are decisions to be made in the Security Council, there is often a stalemate. Russia has blocked many actions. China has abstained or walked out. Even humanitarian issues are not always handled properly. How do you deal with that record, because countries basically do not have the vision that you just articulated?
villepin: I think the reform can take many different types of forms. One could be to have semipermanent members of the Security Council — members for five years, let’s say — and rotating nonpermanent members. The semipermanent members should include nations from continents that are not represented among the five permanent members. We need somebody from South America. We need better representation for Africa. Countries such as India and Germany should have permanent seats. You can keep the veto or not. For now, I would keep it.
But we need to have a renovation of the environment. We need to give the U.N. and these regional governments the tools to show they can do something. The process might be difficult. We’ll have adjustments. But I think nothing could be worse than what we have now.
PART FOUR: “DON’T DO IT BADLY”
dabashi: In November 2015, three events happened simultaneously: the bombing in Beirut, the bombing in Afghanistan, and the bombing in Paris. When a bombing happens in Beirut they say, “It’s sectarian violence in a Shia neighborhood.” The same bombing happens in Afghanistan, they say, “Oh, it was a Shia Hazara neighborhood.” The same atrocious criminal act happens in Paris, and President Obama issues a statement: “This is an attack not just on Paris. . . . This is an attack on all humanity.” Why? Of course an attack on innocent Parisian kids listening to music is an attack on universal values and all of humanity. But that’s also true in Beirut. It’s true in Syria.
During the demonstrations in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt — there was no “Death to America.” There was no “Death to Israel.” It was hurriya. Freedom. Adala ijtimaiya. Social justice. Aish. Bread. Can there be anything more universal than that?
My singular hope after 9/11 was for Americans to realize what it means for a horrid criminal act to bring innocent, beautiful, magnificent buildings down. To feel empathy with the rest of the world. With Africa. With Asia. With Latin America. But there was just a knee-jerk reaction. “Us and them. Us and them. They hate us because they hate our freedom.” The entire Arab world from one end to the other, what were they screaming for? For freedom. Of course they want freedom and democracy.
hassan: What you said is exactly right, people demonstrating during the Arab Spring were seeking bread, social justice, and all these things, but they were looking at America for them. There was a huge amount of pro-Americanism at the time. They were looking at Western values. Whenever people look for greater freedom, for democracy, they look to the United States. They speak the language of the West. They say, “This is what we want. Democracy, freedom, devolution of power.”
This takes me to my point, which is that U.S. and Western values are the closest to universal values. It’s not perfect, but this is the benchmark for many people. This is what people aspire to.
I think the relevance of the United States in global politics is underestimated. There’s been a lot of talk about the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the pivot to Asia, the growing influence of Russia. But the United States is certainly still dominant in the Middle East, and it’s actually becoming more entrenched in the region than it was a year or two years ago.
bacevich: You mean militarily? Is it becoming more entrenched militarily?
hassan: Yeah, they are more entrenched militarily. Americans are getting more involved in Yemen today. They’re sending more troops. But they’re more entrenched in other ways.
The Gulf states and the Americans are working more closely than a year ago in terms of security. In terms of governance. In terms of economics. The United States is more entrenched in Iraq than at any time since the Obama Administration left in 2011.
bacevich: Is that good or bad? Is U.S. intervention in the region producing positive outcomes?
hassan: It’s producing positive and negative outcomes. Why the negative ones? It’s an incomplete mission. This is one of the mistakes that President Obama made: he didn’t complete the mission. He left too early in Libya, and he left too early in Iraq, and he didn’t do anything in Syria.
bacevich: If you were guessing, how long should the United States have stayed in Iraq militarily in order to achieve the mission? We stayed eight years. Should it have been twenty?
hassan: And you left abruptly. You left Afghanistan abruptly as well.
bacevich: Should we have stayed twenty years?
hassan: Not stayed, but there has to be a process where you hand over the power to the right people. Not Maliki in Iraq, and not to the militias in Libya.
schake: I want to address this question. I think there’s a general perception that military force can’t achieve anything.
villepin: Without strategic political aims.
schake: Well, I think President Obama’s view is, more generally, that military force is ineffective. It’s going to make a problem worse. But your point is exactly right: military force has to be embedded in your political endgame. If military force is embedded in a broader political strategy, then the answer to the question “How long should we stay?” is, “However long it takes to achieve the political objective.”
There are two really good examples of the recent successful use of military force. Both began with us asking, “What’s the political end state we’re trying to achieve?” One is the Balkans. That was a coercive intervention. They didn’t want us there. We intervened with military force because we were unwilling to bear the events that were going on in the Balkan wars. We’re probably going to be there another fifty years before those countries play by rules that aren’t zero-sum and don’t plunge those societies back into conflict. And yet, from the United States’s perspective, it’s a fantastic example of a successful intervention.
We had to be heavy in the military operation at the start and then, because we had terrific allies who shared our political goals and our vision of the end state, we very quickly, over a period of a few years, shifted the responsibility to regional allies who had greater interests. Who had at least equal interests to ours, and agreed on the desired political end state. So we’re still in the Balkans. We’re going to be in the Balkans for a long time, and the Balkans aren’t —
bacevich: By implication, you’re suggesting that places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, can be compared with Bosnia?
schake: Yes, I do believe they can be compared. But there are other examples. Look at northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, which was a hugely successful example of American intervention. Iraqis in the northern third of the country had assisted in what we wanted to do in the Iraq War. We created a safe area where we had troops on the ground that allowed NGOs and assistance agencies to come in. We didn’t view this as temporary. We viewed this as a long-term mission where you didn’t have people living in tents. You built long-term housing for people. You had schools. You grew a generation of political leadership.
When I started working on these problems in the Nineties, the Kurdish leadership were killing one another at wedding parties. Now the Kurds are considered the magnificent success story of Iraq. Part of the difference is that we created a safe space for ordinary politics to achieve the legitimate aims of the people.
And we got a lot of help from a lot of friends around the world. We did it for what? Twenty-five years, I guess? It’s a huge success story. It is possible to do this well.
bacevich: Somebody would say, “Okay, I hear that, but gosh, let’s look at Iraq outside the Kurdish region. Let’s look at Afghanistan, where the United States and its partners invested one hell of a lot of military effort, and it doesn’t seem like it’s working out.” You would say, “You’ve got to be patient.”
schake: I would say Minister de villepin: is right. Military strategy has to be embedded in a political end state that has the buy-in of the people whose future you are talking about, and you need a coalition for an alliance working to achieve that end state. In Afghanistan now we are spinning our wheels. We’re now, what? On our fifteenth year? The fifteenth version of a one-year war instead of actually having a political goal and amassing the resources to attain it.
In Iraq, I think a big part of the reason we have such a hard time making the case that military force is important in achieving valuable political end states is because we ran the war so badly. The de-Baathification. The disbanding of the Iraqi army. Averting our eyes from the rise of sectarian uses of the political system. The mistakes are legion. But that we did Iraq badly does not mean this can never be done well. It just means don’t do it badly.
PART FIVE: “WE HAVE NEVER BEEN ISOLATIONIST”
schake: If we want to talk about demilitarizing American foreign policy in the region, my sense is that we have had a real-time test case running since 2011. It’s not a perfect test case, because there’s a lot going on in this. But it is my judgment that the de-emphasis of the military among the tools the United States is willing to bring to these problems makes it more difficult for us to get traction for political and other tools, for a couple of reasons. First, our closest friends in the region will feel dangerously exposed by a progressive demilitarization of American policy in the region.
bacevich: And you’re referring to which friends who are affected?
schake: Not just the countries of the Gulf but also Jordan, which is perhaps the country in the region most reliant on American military assistance. And which, as a result of the confidence they feel from that, makes a braver set of political choices not just internationally but also domestically.
Until very recently, was it not the case that the Muslim Brotherhood was still represented in the Jordanian parliament? The set of choices the Jordanians made about Palestinians coming in such enormous numbers to be permanent citizens of Jordan are incredibly courageous choices that other countries in the region haven’t made. And the choices they have made in the past five years about Syrian refugees. I think the withdrawal of that military cooperation will make them fearful and less likely to make good choices.
The second example I see is the Iraq example, where whatever the mistakes of the invasion — and I agree with most of the critiques of the invasion — by 2010 the American military was actually the major force ensuring that the various parties played by the rules. It protected the Sunnis from the newly constituted Shia majority. It protected Kurds in the north as well. My sense is that demilitarization makes it harder for us to encourage the kind of choices that we think are stabilizing for the region.
I do think our withdrawal will have some positive effects. One is the heightened cooperation among America’s friends in the region. The Saudi–Israeli cooperation that is going on. But, of course, this is really anti-Iranian cooperation, and so in the context of greater regional cooperation —
dabashi: And anti-Palestinian.
schake: Yes, thank you. Also anti-Palestinian. That means that you will also see a continued heightening of the potential for military conflict among the countries in the region. I also think I see a greater possibility of a U.S.–Iranian confrontation.
dabashi: I wanted to make a point about the role of Iran in the region. Of course Iran is involved with everything, but Iran does not create crises. Iran takes advantage of crises. Israel invades Lebanon in 1982 and because of the French colonial history in Lebanon the Shiites are disadvantaged. Iran goes and creates Hezbollah. Iran didn’t invade Lebanon. Israel did, but Iran took advantage.
Iran is not occupying Palestine. Israel is occupying Palestine. Iran moves in and helps with the creation of Hamas. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq happens and Iran goes there and takes advantage. The same in Syria. The same in Yemen. The same everywhere. It is important for us to see Iran and its subversive role in the context of what is happening in the region.
dobriansky: We know that the United States has historically gone through periods of isolationism, but at this point isolationism would be a mistake.
Earlier, we addressed the role of the United States in the world today by asking, “Who is capable of exercising global leadership, and who wants to do it?” My view is that the United States does have a role as a global leader, because of our national-security interests, as well as the values that we hold. We cannot afford to isolate ourselves.
bacevich: I really wish you wouldn’t use that term. It gets in the way of everything.
dobriansky: No, no, it doesn’t, because, I think —
bacevich: I fundamentally disagree with your contention that we’ve gone through periods of isolationism. We have never been isolationist. How did the United States go from being this teeny-weeny country that had thirteen little states on the East Coast to controlling virtually all of North America by the end of the nineteenth century? Is that isolationism, or do we call that expansionism?
dobriansky: You know that we’ve had this debate before.
bacevich: Even in the interwar period, which is supposedly when we were isolated, we had a colony in the Philippines. We owned Hawaii. We had a canal going through the isthmus. We had gunboats going up and down rivers in China. That’s not isolationism.
There was a period of time when in the wake of the First World War most Americans wanted to avoid another military intervention in a European war. That’s not isolationism. That’s a specific choice in a specific context. So the notion that there was this tradition of isolationism is simply bogus.
dobriansky: We could debate over definitions. Let me use the word “engagement.” The United States must be engaged internationally and should lead, that is my basic point. What is the most effective approach? There are times when the United States has to act unilaterally because it is directly in our national-security interest.
But the most effective times are when we act multilaterally and when we are in concert with our allies, whether it’s in Europe or in other parts of the globe where we have common interests.
dabashi: There has never been U.S. isolationism. We have known at least since 1893, when Frederick Jackson Turner published his magnificent essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” how the concept of the frontier has driven expansionism in the United States. When Turner was writing, the “frontier” meant the American West, but it eventually became much of the rest of the world, and even outer space. The frontier theory applies very well to American action in the Middle East, to the point that military camps in Iraq were being named Arkansas, Dakota, etc. They were giving them U.S. names. That’s number one.
The Blowback trilogy, by the late Chalmers Johnson, maps out this tendency around the whole globe, even counting the number of golf courses that the U.S. military has around the world. The entrenchment of the U.S. military around the globe, and beyond the globe into outer space, is so extensive that any notion of isolationism is really a red herring.
You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
More from Andrew J. Bacevich: