This week, we asked Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, to answer eight questions for us about the “fiscal cliff,” Israel, President Obama’s recent cabinet nominations and more. Check out our conversation below.
1) For those not familiar with the CFR, what is the organization’s primary mission?
Haass: The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. Less formally, CFR is in the business of generating and disseminating ideas, something we do through our many meetings in New York, Washington, and around the country; the research and analysis of our scholars; CFR-sponsored task forces; Foreign Affairs; and CFR.org.
2) The United States Congress came to an agreement to avert the fiscal cliff, but it was an issue that could have been resolved much sooner. A few days before the deal was reached, Sen. Chuck Schumer even called the inability to reach a deal up to that point, “embarrassing” on ‘This Week.” Does a situation of this sort damage the reputation of the United States on the international stage?
Haass: The short answer is yes. The obvious inability of the American political system to deal with the structural challenge of growing indebtedness dilutes the appeal of the American political and economic model and, more fundamentally, of democracy and capitalism. It makes other countries and societies less likely to follow either the lead of Washington or its example. It also leaves the United States vulnerable to the vagaries of markets and the agendas of central bankers. And it could mean that the country will not have the resources required to lead and act effectively in the world.
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3) How do you interpret the New Year’s speech made by North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un? Do you think the new leader is interested in a change of relations with the United States or is this just a distraction?
Haass: I saw nothing in the speech that was materially new or that gave reason to hope that North Korean behavior either beyond its borders or within them is going to change in any meaningful way for the better.
4) The United Nations said earlier this month that more than 60,000 people have died in Syria’s civil war. That’s a staggering number. Does United States have a humanitarian responsibility to help end the bloodshed?
Haass: The United States has an obligation to act to mitigate human suffering. But humanitarian responsibility — what the world terms the responsibility to protect — must be balanced against the projected human, military, political, and economic costs of acting, other calls on American resources, and the likelihood that the action would result in a demonstrably better political and humanitarian outcome. In reality the choice is not between remaining aloof and putting tens of thousands of boots on the ground; to the contrary, there are many other options, some of which are being undertaken, including help for refugees and displaced persons; the arming, training, and advising of selected opposition forces; and sanctions against the regime. I do not believe that the advocates for doing much more than the United States is currently doing to affect the situation in Syria (and, in particular, for direct military intervention) have made a persuasive case that such efforts will have results commensurate with their considerable risks and costs. This is different from an assessment of the pros and cons of acting militarily to assure custody of chemical weapons or otherwise preempt or react to Syrian use of them, all of which could warrant a focused intervention.
5) At this point, what is it going to take to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what role should the United States play in the peace process?
Haass: This is not a moment in which it is realistic to talk about solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The prerequisites of progress in such situations — what I have described elsewhere as “ripeness”— include the presence of leaders on all sides who are both willing and able to make meaningful compromises for peace. Such leaders cannot be identified; what is more, the entire context has deteriorated with the Syrian civil war, the political change that is still going on in Egypt, Iran’s increased influence through the region, Hezbollah’s ascendancy in Lebanon, and the potential for instability in Jordan. This is not an argument for either the status quo or for the United States doing nothing, as bad situations can and often do get worse if ignored. Ideally, the Israelis or Palestinians or both would begin to put forward ideas about the content of peace and how to get from here to there and prepare their respective publics for compromise. Failing that, the United States will have to consider whether to begin to introduce its own ideas about the content of peace into the political debates of the region.
6) Where do the tensions between Israel and Iran go this year? Do they heat up or cool down? Is there something that will be critical to determining how things develop?
Haass: A better way to phrase the question is where do tensions between Iran and much of the world go this year? Iran has been making progress toward putting into place many of the components of a nuclear weapons program. Diplomatic interaction has proven fruitless. But there are growing signs the sanctions are having an effect and that many in Tehran are debating the pros and cons of a nuclear program that is exacting a real toll on Iran’s economy and that may provoke an armed attack. So my sense is that we are on the verge of a major negotiating push that has at least some potential to produce an outcome that would be enough for Iran and not too much for either the United States or Israel to live with. I hope this proves to be the case, as the two alternative paths — an Iran with or close to having nuclear weapons, or a preventive military strike on Iran — have the potential to be dangerous and costly in the extreme.
7) President Obama nominated Sen. John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. What is going to be his biggest foreign policy challenge when he takes office, assuming he is confirmed? And do you have any advice for him in solving that challenge?
Haass: The biggest national security challenges facing the United States fall outside the purview of the secretary of state: the deteriorating condition of America’s economy, schools, infrastructure, and more. It is for this reason that my next book (to be published this spring) is titled Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order. When it comes to traditional foreign policy challenges, there are three dominant clusters: the Asia-Pacific region, where nationalism is asserting itself and where the possibility of an armed incident cannot be ignored; the Middle East, where the old order of authoritarian regimes has given way or is under siege but what is to take its place is up for grabs; and in the large gap between global challenges (climate change, nonproliferation, promoting trade and investment, etc. ) and the institutional arrangements that exist to contend with them. The new secretary of state will have his hands full in trying to narrow this gap, keep Asia stable, and calm the Middle East — all against the backdrop of a polarized American political system and an under-performing economy.
8) Earlier this week, President Obama nominated former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, to be the next secretary of defense and some have raised concern about Hagel’s past statements and positions regarding Israel and Iran. What do you make of the criticism? Overblown or on point?
Haass: I believe Senator Hagel is qualified to be secretary of defense by virtue of his personal military experience, his business background, and his many years in the Senate. I welcome his willingness to challenge conventional wisdom; I also believe that there are many virtues in having a secretary of defense who questions confident predictions of what would stem from recommended uses of military force. Based on all I have read and heard, as well as my own interaction over the years with Senator Hagel, I do not believe that he is in any way hostile to or unsupportive of Israel. Criticism of particular Israeli policies does not make one anti-Israeli, any more than criticism of particular U.S. policies makes one anti-American. As for Iran, wise men and women can disagree on the correct relative weighting of various American interests and the proper mix of policy instruments, including sanctions, negotiations, covert action, and preventive military strikes. I would expect such questions to be raised at confirmation hearings, which is the appropriate venue for them to be addressed.