Assessing the Obama Administration

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

 

Richard Haass grades the administration on Iraq and Iran and speculates on who is really running the show.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.