Assessing the Obama Administration

Dr. Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a position he has held since July 2003.  He is the author or editor of eleven books on American foreign policy, including War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (Simon and Schuster, May 2009). He is also the author of one book on management: The Bureaucratic Entrepreneur:  How to Be Effective in Any Unruly Organization (Brookings, 1999).

From January 2001 to June 2003, Dr. Richard Haass was director of policy planning for the Department of State, where he was a principal adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell.  Confirmed by the U.S. Senate to hold the rank of ambassador, Dr. Haass also served as U.S. coordinator for policy toward the future of Afghanistan and U.S. envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process.  For his efforts, he received the State Department's Distinguished Honor Award.

Dr. Haass has extensive additional government experience.  From 1989 to 1993, he was special assistant to President George H. W. Bush and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs on the staff of the National Security Council.  In 1991, Dr. Haass was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal for his contributions to the development and articulation of U.S. policy during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.  Previously, he served in the Departments of State (1981-85) and Defense (1979-80) and was a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate.

Dr. Haass also was vice president and director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, the Sol M. Linowitz visiting professor of international studies at Hamilton College, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.  A Rhodes Scholar, Dr. Haass holds a BA from Oberlin College and the Master and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Oxford University.  He has received honorary doctorates from Hamilton College, Franklin & Marshall College, Georgetown University, and Oberlin College.

Dr. Richard Haass was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1951.  He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

 

 

 

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: What do you think of Obama’s plan to withdrawal from Iraq?

 

Richard Haass: I just come back from Iraq. I was there about 2 weeks ago.

My own view is that the various timelines of getting the United States out of [Iraq city] say by this summer ceasing all combat operations by Europe this summer and beginning all US forces out of Iraq over the next 2 and a half or so years.

I believe that there’s no way those timelines can be met and have Iraq not once again really descend into a lot more disorder. I simply do not believe that Iraq, the Iraqi police and military forces will be able and willing to take on those kinds of responsibilities. I don't believe that the Iraqi, Iraqi society has reached the point where we could be a self-sustaining orderly place without American forces there.

So, my hope and my prediction is, that sometime after next January‘s Iraqi national elections, the new Iraqi prime minister, and the president of the United States, are going to have to work out a new arrangement. So, essentially the reductions or draw downs in US forces will move more slowly.

And secondly we will keep some kind of residual force in Iraq that where there will not be a withdrawal. For my view is if we stick slavishly or automatically to this timelines, I don’t believe Iraq would be ready for the responsibilities that it would inherit if and when we left.

 

Question: Was “The Surge” the beginning of the end of the Iraq war?

 

Richard Haass: Well, not exactly.

The surge which really consisted of several pieces - there was the increase in US combat forces, there was the change of strategy, which is probably even more significant, away from offensive so called kinetic combat operations much more into a traditional counter insurgency strategy of clearing out the enemy, and then providing security to the citizenry, there was the diplomatic part of it of buying off a lot of the Sunni tribesmen and fighters, who had been directly or indirectly supporting radicalism and terrorism.

So all of these came together and indeed it was probably the most orderly decision making process of George W. Bush’s presidency and it showed. We’re a large outside disciplined force that it adapted its tactics and strategy, in this case to counter insurgency, could make a real difference.

In retrospect I think it was a smart thing to do. The problem now is whether we can use the time and space that the surge have created to help the Iraqis build up a self-sustaining police and military capability. And the jury is out. And I would simply say that probably the best we can hope for with Iraq is a somewhat messy future, not a future that looks like civil war, but it also won’t be a shining city on the hill.

And my view is that the best way to keep a floor under Iraq’s future, so it looks okay, is probably by keeping a residual American force for years to come or even longer. Now, this could become a fateful set of decisions for the Obama administration. It’s ironic that Barack Obama run against Iraq, said it was a terrible war of choice. He is going to probably face some fateful choices with Iraq about whether to continue with his timelines and then if he does, my fear is that then things will begin to unravel and any could face again some terrible decisions about whether to recommit US forces into a messy situation.

 

Question: How do you grade Obama on Iran?

 

Richard Haass: Well, he’s doing things that I support. I believe in diplomacy, I don’t believe in talking to…that talking to Iran somehow constitutes a concession or a favour. I think he’s right to drop the preconditions. What matters in the negotiation is not so much where you begin but where you end. So, I think all that is to the good. The problem is that he faces an extraordinarily difficult situation where the Iranians have gotten quite far, they’ve obviously already produced a large amount of low-enriched uranium.

If they were to put it back in their centrifuges and reinforce those centrifuges they could produce the basic stuff of a nuclear device and they would have to weaponize it. So my hunch is he is offering to change American foreign policy at a time when the Iranians are already pretty far down the path of having produced a raw material for a nuclear weapon and it’s not clear to me that the pace of the diplomacy can match the pace of technology and what’s slowing diplomacy down even more is the upcoming Iranian election.

But I think he’s right to try this because the two alternatives to negotiating a shilling, an acceptable shilling on the Iranian program one that we could conceivably live with.

The two alternatives are not attractive. The idea of using military force against Iran is unbelievably unattractive option because it’s not clear whether what would accomplish and it’s also clear the Iranians will retaliate in some expensive ways.

It also would drive the price of oil up dramatically, it’s something we don’t need. And it’s not at all attractive to live with in Iranian nuclear capability given Iran’s retorect, given its support for terrorism and giving that old place the Middle East on hair trigger and giving that other countries in the region could well follow suit and as bad as Middle East is right today, one can imagine a situation that will grow worse to say Iran, Israel, and half a dozen Arab countries over the next 25 years had nuclear capabilities so that would be a nightmare. So, I believe the president is exactly right to try to negotiate our way out of this.

I don’t think though negotiations can be expected to solve this if by solution you mean, come up with an Iran that is not rich in Uranium. My own hunch is that we would have to be prepared potentially to allow Iran to have an amount of Uranium. We could talk about the amount of Uranium, they’ve got the production capacity but it will depend upon I believe the level of inspections. We would have to be able to convince ourselves to a high degree that this is was all they had and what they had was not the sort of stuff that was so called weapon’s grade but rather it was the shortest stuff that you would need for a reactor to produce electricity.

Now, I would feel better if Iraq had the means and place to produce electricity and they don’t. So again you’ve got to be wildly suspicious but so far at least they haven’t cross that red line, they’ve not taken the so called low-enriched Uranium up to high enrichment but if they do, then Barack Obama could face one of the fateful days of his presidency considering that the Israeli’s might decide that isn’t tolerable or he himself might be pressured to declare it intolerable and then act upon it.

 

Question: Who is the Dick Cheney of the Obama administration?

 

Richard Haass: It’s a good question and after less than 4 months, it’s a little bit hard to tell. But, this is a president who obviously listens carefully to his own counsel. He’s got people like Bob Gates as the Secretary Defense who is I believe a lot of influence, he’s got a retired general as his national security adviser in the person of Jim Jones, you’ve got someone like David Petraeus, the Central Commander who obviously has tremendous influence both still over Iraq but also over the conflict in Afghanistan, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mike Mullen, is probably spending more time in Pakistan these days than he is in Washington, you’ve got a Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who is active plus you got any numbers of special envoys.

I would think the difference with the Bush administration is you actually have more players here that you don’t have necessarily any single person who might have quite the weight say of Dick Cheney but what you have is a large number of people and the real challenge with the administration I would think will be coordinating all these people and making tradeoffs because in addition to Iraq, Afghanistan, you do have the challenge in Pakistan, you do have the challenge coming because of Iran’s nuclear program and you’ve got all the issues that arise from everything with dealing with great powers, to North Korea, to the global economy, to climate change, to swine flu so it’s an enormously crowded foreign policy inbox and determining tradeoffs, priorities, sequencing, and so forth is going to be a real challenge for the administration.

 

Recorded on: May 08, 2009

 


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