Thursday, May 10, 2007

Travels With Condi


Travels With Condi

David Samuels, author of "Grand Illusions," discusses his travels with Condoleezza Rice and her ambitious efforts to secure peace in the Middle East

Also see:

Statecraft and Stagecraft
Author David Samuels interviews former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, and George Schultz.

hen the Secretary of State strides into a room, light bulbs flash and digital recorders slide in her direction. She speaks with an air of measured calm, holding her shoulders erect, anchoring her message in familiar notions of democracy and freedom. But behind Condoleezza Rice’s carefully controlled exterior is a vibrant character with a personal flair the State Department hasn’t seen in decades. As David Samuels relays in his June 2007 profile “Grand Illusions”:

Rice works out regularly with a trainer, has dated NFL All-Pro receivers Rick Upchurch and Gene Washington, is a talented classical pianist, and wears sophisticated clothes that show off her long, athletic legs, facts that may seem trivial, but actually provide valuable clues to an underlying truth about the secretary of state: She is an extreme personality.

Even more striking than her lemon-meringue-colored suits or her taste for professional athletes is Rice’s bold optimism about the world’s future. Her colleagues call her outlook “the theology,” alluding to her unshakable faith that history is moving in a progressive direction. Centuries of bloodshed in the Middle East have not deterred her from promoting free elections in Palestine; years of setbacks in Iraq have done little to cloud her dream of a post-Saddam democracy. When pressed to justify her rosy worldview, she seeks precedents in history. “Not that long ago,” she tells Samuel,” say 1944, or maybe even 1946, would anybody have said that France and Germany would never go to war again? Anyone?”

More often than World War II, Rice cites the Cold War when defending her political views. From 1989 to 1991—the pivotal period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the U.S.S.R.—she oversaw Soviet and East European Affairs for the National Security Council. Later, when she returned to her teaching post at Stanford University, she remained a sought-after expert on Europe’s newly emerging democracies. Today, when Rice speaks of the Iraq War, she tends to frame it as the latest chapter in America’s ongoing story of triumph over oppression, with Islamic extremism filling the role Communism once played. In this, she departs from her predecessor, Colin Powell, who views extreme Muslim factions as a discordant threat rather than a monolithic enemy. Her philosophy also contrasts with that of Henry Kissinger, who does not see history as an upward arc and would opt for a far more gradual transition from dictatorship to democracy in Middle Eastern societies.

Despite these ideological differences with former Secretaries of State, Rice emerges from Samuels’s portrait as a sophisticated thinker who embodies many of the values Americans hold dear: faith, discipline, racial and gender equality, and a diverse palette of personal interests. She is loyal to the president but able to command respect in arenas where he does not. Her ideas are optimistic but they are not simple-minded; her press-perfect sound bites are informed by centuries of world history. In the end, though, Samuels worries that Rice’s lofty vision of an unfolding global drama—with America in the spotlight and time on our side—is “yet another illusion, whose price is likely to be high.”

Samuels has written two previous pieces for The Atlantic, including a recent story on Japanese suicide and a September 2005 profile of Yasir Arafat. We spoke in early April.

—Jennie Rothenberg Gritz


In reporting this story, you were invited to attend certain elite press events in Jerusalem and Ramallah. You also met with Rice in her private study. How did you get this special access?

Well, I don’t want to give away any of my super-secret reporter’s tricks for insinuating myself into situations where I don’t belong. But I will say that most of what I do involves writing letters and making phone calls and writing more letters and following those letters up with more phone calls and e-mails, until someone finally takes pity on me. I find that reporting generally consists of continuing to ask questions and bother people and not being embarrassed by the fact that no one really wants you around. If you go on bothering people long enough, it often becomes easier for them to talk to you once and get it over with then it does to keep saying no. Saying that you are reporting for The Atlantic Monthly doesn’t hurt, either.

Also see:

Interviews: "A Conversation With George Schultz"
George Schultz speaks with author David Samuels about American diplomacy in the Middle East, the Cold War, the global spread of market capitalism, and his relationship with Condoleezza Rice.

In this particular case, I submitted a request for an interview with Rice at the beginning of last year, and no one called me back for months. I finally interviewed her for the first time in her study in August, and then it took another half-year of waiting around and showing up at the UN in September and flying out to California to interview [former Secretary of State] George Schultz until someone became convinced that I was actually writing a piece.

Then I convinced them that I was going to show up in Jerusalem in February, at which point they decided it would be a good idea to be nice to me. Once I had spent all that time with Rice, I think it seemed silly not to give me a second interview so I could update my quotes from the first interview. So we met one more time in her study. Before that happened, I think I traveled back and forth to Washington five times, because the interview kept getting canceled. Each time it got canceled, I got to interview another one of her aides in depth, as a consolation prize. So we’re talking about a process from start to finish that took about a year.

Your article offers an unusual meta-perspective on the relationship between the politicians and the press. Instead of making your role transparent as most journalists do, you spend a lot of this piece describing what it’s like to sit for hours waiting for the Secretary of State to appear and leave with nothing but staged photos and tired old sound bites. What made you decide to report on the actual process of reporting?

I tend to concentrate on the little details of how the Secretary of State uses her hands when she speaks to reporters, or the way the flags are set up, or the way the photographers charge into a room to get the one iconic shot of three politicians holding hands, because those are the things that I actually see in front of me, and that you would see if you were in my shoes. I’m a great believer in the idea that if you put enough pressure on the little details that most reporters take for granted, they will reveal the inner meaning of events that all the self-important blather from politicians and reporters alike tends to obscure.

In general, I think it’s fair to say that reporters pretend to know a lot more than they do and spend most of their time advancing story lines that are created by politicians, or editors, or by some vague consensus of what right-thinking people have decided is the right way to frame a certain question. This is not because reporters are lazy or stupid, although some of us are. As a reporter working a beat, you have very little time to stop and think big-picture thoughts about whether the story lines that everyone uses every day actually explain what you see in front of you. You have other things on your mind. You need to get into the press conference, call your sources, get your quotes, write your lede, talk to the guy on the desk, and get your story in by 6 pm or else you’ll be shut out of the paper. It’s impossible to get up every morning and re-invent the wheel.

I should also say that there are some very bright and very talented reporters who cover the Secretary of State, and who know her much better than I do. I found that the most informative and insightful stuff about Rice came from Glenn Kessler, who covers the State Department for the Washington Post. I owe a number of key insights about Rice to Glenn, who pointed me to sources and people that I would have never found on my own. Glenn has a book about Rice called The Confidante which is coming out in September, and which contains all the real inside dope that he wouldn’t give to me.

You make several references to Rice’s belief in the primacy of “underlying historical forces.” Could you explain what this means to Rice and how it influences her Middle East philosophy?

The fact that Rice comes from a serious academic background means that she sees the world, to some degree at least, the way an academic would, and not the way an oil lawyer from Houston might, for example. Most academics these days would be aghast if you told them that Joseph Stalin alone was responsible for the Soviet Union turning out the way it did, or that Napoleon conquered Europe because he was a genius. Instead, they would explain all the ideological and social and historical factors that led to Stalin playing the role that he did, which should properly be understood against the background of five hundred years of Russian history. By the time they were done explaining, you’d probably come to the conclusion that history is much bigger than any one man.

When Rice talks about “underlying historical forces,” what she means is that the decisions that we make in the present, and the conditions that in turn shape our decisions, are themselves the products of much deeper historical currents, which emerge from the deepest wellsprings of a people’s history and culture. What this means is that our decisions don’t matter as much as we like to think they do, and that it often takes a long time to truly know whether our decisions are right or wrong.

I’d have to say that I am very sympathetic to the way Rice thinks, especially when you start to look hard at the alternatives. For example, there are plenty of people who overstate the case about how the Bush Administration was rude to our allies in Europe, which made them hate us, or how easy it would be to wake up tomorrow and convince the Iranians that they don’t want nuclear weapons, simply by saying that we want to be friends. For people who believe that history isn’t very important, it is easy to see major shifts in the temperature of the world, or the way people understand the world, as passing whims that a clever dealmaker can erase tomorrow. I think that Rice rightly believes that point of view is nonsense. It’s hopelessly condescending to people whose histories and ideas and desires might clash violently with ours, and who actually believe that they will win. I’d be very worried right now if the Secretary of State believed that the only things standing between us and a deal with Iran were good manners or wearing a colorful headscarf when she visited the Middle East.

At the same time, there is also something quite alarming about the idea of a chief diplomat who, deep down, believes that diplomacy is nonsense, or, more accurately, a way of managing a flow of events that is largely beyond the control of human actors. The danger of the historical perspective is that you stop paying attention to the details, because in the end the grand sweep of history will take care of the details. Your job is simply to set big events in motion and then manage the visuals. And I think that attitude is very dangerous, and I do think that is something we have seen repeatedly from this Administration.

You mention that Rice, like the president, is a regular churchgoer. This is not uncommon in high levels of American government—even Clinton and Gore were religious Christians—but in Rice’s case, you seem to feel that her tendency toward religious faith is directly related to her “view of life and optimism and larger forces.” Can you discuss this a bit more?

As a person who participates in regular religious observance, and who believes in one God, a God who truly loves mankind but suffers from some very notable lapses of attention, I do think that religious people have access to a kind of optimism, a faith in the future, that secular people do not fully understand. That’s why, for example, religious people have more children on average than secular people do. It’s also why religious people are sometimes capable of subordinating their happiness in the moment to the demands of their faith, and why religious people are capable of sacrificing for their faith in ways that secular people find completely horrifying or misguided.

It would be entirely presumptuous of me to comment on Condoleezza Rice’s religious life after interviewing her twice in her study and watching her at a handful of public events. But I do feel that the idea that history has a purpose, and that it is moving in a particular direction, fits easily with accustomed ways of thinking for many religious people, and is hard for many secular people to understand. The gift of this kind of optimism is that it allows you to truly believe that things can change, and to act on those beliefs, despite the fact that everyone around you insists that you are wrong. And sometimes things do change.

The danger of that, of course, is that history may not be moving in any particular direction. We may simply be caught on a wheel of pain, the way that the Buddhists imagine.

Earlier in her career, Rice was a specialist on the former Soviet Union. It seems that the end of the Cold War had a tremendous impact on her global outlook. Do you think there’s a marked difference between politicians who came of age during that optimistic, fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall era and politicians—like Henry Kissinger—whose views were shaped by World War II and the Holocaust?

Also see:

Interviews: "A Conversation With Henry Kissinger"
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger discusses Condoleezza Rice and American policy in the Middle East with author David Samuels.

Yes. For the small group of people who helped manage the end of the Cold War during the Administration of George H.W. Bush, I think that the innate American confidence and optimism about the future got a pretty big boost, there's no question about it. Imagine being 34 years old and seeing the Berlin Wall come down, and seeing East Germany become part of NATO. Imagine seeing all the captive nations of Eastern Europe turn into functioning democracies, almost overnight. For an American, meaning someone who hasn't been touched by history, and who believes that all problems will yield in response to a can-do attitude and the application of nearly infinite-seeming military and economic power, I think that experience confirmed some pretty deep lessons that we are all taught in grade school. Namely, that Americans are good people, with good ideas, and that democracy is the best system of government, and that in the end the naysayers are always wrong, and the optimists are always right.

You allude to Colin Powell as a kind of foil for Rice, a predecessor with a very different approach to foreign policy. What’s the most significant difference between these two secretaries of state?

Also see:

Interviews: "A Conversation With Colin Powell"
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell talks with author David Samuels about the current state of American diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Powell is an ex-military man who is cautious by nature and doesn’t take big ideas all that seriously. He was shaped by the long, slow, slog through Korea, Vietnam, the Carter years, the small-scale military adventures of the Reagan years, the managed disintegration of the Soviet empire, and the televised and methodical thrashing of Saddam in the first Gulf War. I don’t think he spends much time worrying about Muslim jihadists taking over the world’s oil supply and establishing a new caliphate. That’s paranoid, science fiction stuff.

Rice takes ideas much more seriously than Powell does. She is also much less practical in her approach to the use of military force and is much more driven by her vision of a grand clash of ideas that will determine the future of the world. I think Powell would say that the future of the world is being determined by Wal-Mart, and not by big ideas about Islam or democracy.

I hope that Powell is right, and I believe somewhere in my heart that he is right, but I can’t help also feeling that there is something terribly complacent about his approach. I think that Rice has been much more active on the diplomatic front than Powell was, in the sense that she visits more countries and meets with more foreign leaders. What she lacks is Powell’s ability to project a kind of soothing optimism that everything will turn out just fine. Powell is a guy you can imagine as the head of any large American company whose business plan is to keep smiling and maintain market share. Rice is more of a Silicon Valley type—a revolutionary with big ideas about the future that may or may not have any connection to reality.

Of course, an even more crucial difference between Rice and Powell is that she has the full confidence of the President and is seen as speaking for him directly, which makes foreign leaders and diplomats pay close attention to every nuance of what she says. While Powell’s stature as a military leader and an American hero made him a welcome guest wherever he went, there was often some doubt about how much his views really mattered to the President, whether he was speaking for the President or for himself.

Did the Hamas victory last January have any discernable impact on the way Rice approaches international affairs?

Well, I think the Hamas victory definitely caused Rice to question the quality of the information she was receiving from the State Department people who told her that Fatah was a lock to win. I think it also shook her faith in the wisdom of pressing for elections everywhere in the Middle East. We haven’t heard much recently about the need for free and open elections in Egypt, for example.

You interview a former Mossad head, Efraim Halevy, who seems deeply ambivalent about the role America is playing in Middle East politics. He seems to resent the fact that Israel can no longer take any action—military, diplomatic, or otherwise—without the approval and involvement of the United States. How have the Bush administration and Condoleezza Rice managed to tie Israel’s hands in this way—and why?

I think that the withdrawal from Gaza was a less a case of mean Uncle Sam tying Israel’s hands than something like the Brer Rabbit stories I learned on my father’s knee, where the Rabbit says, “Please, oh, please, don’t throw me into that briar patch!” The truth is that Israel was sick of occupying Gaza. The financial cost was too high, and the diplomatic cost was too high, even if you posit a complete lack of concern for the welfare of the Palestinian population.

When Israel looked around, however, there was no one on the Palestinian side to negotiate with, in the sense that no Palestinian leader would accept Gaza without also getting the West Bank and Jerusalem and the so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants to settle inside Israel. That left Israel with a problem—who do you negotiate with, and how do you leave Gaza, without simply looking like you are abandoning your own people and running away?

So Rice and Sharon’s chief advisor, Dov Wiessglas, cooked up this clever scheme in which Israel would negotiate with America, and get concessions on paper from America, and wave the letters in the air, and then leave Gaza with some supposed dignity and political cover. What America got was that for the first time in history, the Israelis actually uprooted settlers and turned settlements over to the Palestinians.

The problem was that the Palestinian side was not interested in making the Gaza withdrawal work for Israel. No one turned the settlements into beachfront housing for Palestinian refugees. Instead, Hamas uses them as launching pads for rockets. So what looked like progress on paper was actually just a meaningless show that has made life a lot worse for everybody.

All of that makes Halevy angry. But what makes him particularly angry is the idea that by substituting the United States for the Arabs as Israel's main negotiating partner, Israel has agreed to become an active extension of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Everyone now knows that Israel won’t and indeed can’t do anything without the explicit knowledge and approval of the United States. So why bother talking to the Israelis at all? It is easy to see how, through this chain of reasoning, the Israelis lose control over their own foreign policy in a pretty drastic way.

Early in the piece, you describe Rice as “an extreme personality.” What exactly do you mean by this?

I mean that you are not like her, and I am not like her. She is a person with a unique history, as we all are, and a unique collection of talents, many of which I wish I had. I make this point explicitly because I think there is a tendency to normalize her, in the sense that she is a high public official, and we all know what high public officials are like, or supposed to be like. But Condoleezza Rice has very little in common, say, with Warren Christopher, or Larry Summers, or Hank Paulson, or the usual run of talented white men who serve in Cabinet-level positions in the American government.

She is younger than most Cabinet Secretaries. Her background is different. Her interests are different. She has the capacity for doing a number of things at a very high level, any one of which would be pretty impressive in isolation. If I met a fifty year old woman who was in much better shape than I am, and who had a flamboyant love for fashion, and who dated two NFL All Pro wide receivers, I would think, wow, that’s a pretty unique person. I haven’t met anyone like her before. The same with a black woman with a Ph.D. who spoke fluent Russian and became the provost of Stanford University. The same with a woman who was a concert-level pianist but was also an expert on American foreign policy. The same with someone who worked at the NSC, became the National Security Advisor, and then became Secretary of State.

Condoleezza Rice is all of those people, and she leads a physically punishing schedule that makes exceptional demands on her body and mind alike, at a particularly difficult time in our history. To be a black woman in America and to negotiate all those worlds at once is mind-blowing. I don’t have the slightest idea of what that’s like, other to say than it is beyond the realm of normal experience—it’s extreme.

Do those personal qualities—her love of sports, her fashion sense, her talent as a pianist—reflect anything about Rice’s approach as a politician and negotiator?

I think she has used all of these personal attributes to her advantage. I think they’ve been particularly helpful to her when making nice to Europe, where people still care about playing the piano. I heard more than one story of prominent intellectuals who have met with her and came away raving about how charming and wonderful she is, even though they deplore the Administration’s policies in Iraq or wherever. I think that Rice and her handlers have used her personal style and her talents in a very savvy way.

I would also say that Rice is a very charming and gracious person who does not appear to be driven by her ego. In that sense, she is very different than the politicians I have known and interviewed. She is a very capable public performer, but she is really more of a teacher or an administrator than a politician—someone whose public persona is designed as a means to transmit information to others, rather than as a way to elicit adulation, or loyalty, or love. She has very good manners, which are proper but informal, and which do a lot to put people at their ease, me included. They also create a sense of limits to the kinds of questions you might ask her. She seems least comfortable when people ask her about her feelings. At the same time, she is also an accomplished flirt. I see her as a character in a Jane Austen novel.

You seem to like and respect the Secretary of State. Do you have confidence in her ability to bring stability to the Middle East?

No. I do not. I don’t think that America can bring stability to other places in the world, any more than we can bring democracy. We are not Prometheus, bringing the gift of fire to man. We are a nation, with a particular history and a system of government that has worked well for us, so far, despite some pretty big bumps along the road. To say anything more than that strikes me as a kind of insane arrogance for which the Gods will have their revenge.

I don’t believe for a minute that humanity is moving towards a future global order of liberal states that will practice American-style democracy, and in which Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Chinaman and Jew will live in harmony with their neighbors. I don’t think the future of the planet will look like Bethpage, Long Island, on a global scale. I think it’s more likely that someone will wake up tomorrow morning and turn his neighbor into cat food.

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Statecraft and Stagecraft

Author David Samuels interviews former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, and George Schultz

Henry Kissinger | Colin Powell | George Schulz

s America’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice occupies the most powerful unelected position in our democracy. While Rice may believe that history is evolving toward a world of liberal democracies that look more or less like the United States, the job she occupies is a throwback to the days when French noblemen and Austrian counts drew lines on maps that determined the fates of nations for centuries to come. Foreign policy is where American democracy stops and a combination of executive authority, expert opinions, hard economic and geopolitical realities, and the persuasive skill of deal-makers takes over.

As part of his reporting about Condoleezza Rice and America’s new policy in the Middle East, author David Samuels sat down with three former Secretaries of State to see how they understand America’s current place in the world and the possibilities for diplomatic engagement with our friends and enemies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Here are some excerpts from those conversations.


Dr. Henry Kissinger, 84, is one of the most high profile and controversial diplomats in American history. As National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon, Kissinger helped pioneer the policy of détente with the Soviet Union and opened American diplomatic relations with communist China. In 1973, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam, which led to the withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam, and to the defeat of the South Vietnamese government by North Vietnamese troops in 1975.

Kissinger’s critics, most recently Christopher Hitchens, have insisted that Kissinger’s policies toward Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, East Timor, Bangladesh and Cyprus amount to war crimes for which Kissinger should be held accountable in a court of law.

David Samuels spoke with Dr. Kissinger in Manhattan about Condoleezza Rice and American policy in the Middle East at the offices of Kissinger McLarty Associates, the international strategic consulting firm in which Dr. Kissinger is a principal.

A Conversation With Henry Kissinger

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger discusses Condoleezza Rice and American policy in the Middle East with author David Samuels

Tell me what it was like being a young academic—or a younger academic, a youngish academic—and suddenly coming into the superheated political environment of the Nixon White House with all these powerful—

Well, Nixon wasn’t my first White House experience. My first White House experience was as a Kennedy consultant. So if I hadn't had that, I probably couldn’t have done the Nixon period, because they taught me what can go on in a White House. But you’re not doing an article about me.

The article is about Dr. Rice. But one of the things people tell me is you have to understand what it means for a younger person with some limited experience on the NSC to suddenly find themselves surrounded by these titans, these elephants, Powell, Rumsfeld, Cheney. What qualities of mind and temperament were necessary for you to keep your balance and do your job under similar circumstances, especially at the beginning?

Almost all of the departmental papers try to move an immediate decision. That’s a particular problem at the beginning of an administration because almost every department that was overruled in the previous administration tries to get it reversed in the new administration. And you have the paradoxical problem of having no files, because the previous administration has taken all the files. So you have to spend some time reconstituting the files.

But I was lucky. Nixon was a very conceptual President, and I surrounded myself with the most conceptual people I could find. So we made up our mind at the beginning that we would answer the big questions. First, what are we trying to do? What is the objective here? And actually, contrary to what almost everybody writes, we used the NSC mechanism. The NSC mechanism didn’t necessarily know what we would ultimately do with it, and they certainly had a shot at presenting what they thought should be done. And then I had my own staff. Anyway, that’s how it started.

Going through Secretary Rice’s interviews, roundtables with the press, her published work—there’s an analogy that she draws again and again to this present moment in history and the beginning of the Cold War. It’s something that she does with me, and something that she does repeatedly in interviews. She says we are making decisions now that will set the groundwork for policy for the next 50 years. She talks about Dean Acheson, she talks about George Marshall. What do you make of the analogy between this moment in history and the beginning of the Cold War?

The essence of the beginning of the Cold War was that the state system as we knew it was beginning to drag. A new danger appeared in the center of Europe. And Europe, which had been the leading continent and the leading actor in world affairs, was declining and was no longer capable of carrying out its responsibilities. George Marshall and Truman guided America into an international system. They defined the international system, and conducted debates in this country.

Now, a number of things are going on simultaneously today that are not necessarily concurrent. In the North Atlantic, in Europe, the nation-state is disintegrating, but the new political unit, the European Union, has emerged here as a political non-factor. So in effect, Europe has no mechanisms for conducting strategic policy the way it used to be conducted by nation-states. Maybe that’s not possible for a transnational unit. That’s what we have to find out.

In the relations between states, war is no longer possible. That’s a new factor. How do you conduct foreign policy when you can’t have war, and you have populations that are not willing to make any sacrifice for anything, including domestic changes? On the other hand, America is still a nation, and that greatly affects our relation with Europe.

And we have Asia, which is more like Europe was in the 19th century, with the notion of equilibrium and balance of power, and so forth. Then you have the Middle East, which is like Europe was in the 17th century, torn by religious and sectarian conflicts. And on top of that, you have a new set of problems that have never existed before and can only be solved on a global basis—climate, energy, terror, for which there is no national mechanism really to deal with it.

So if you sit where Condi is sitting, that’s the tableau in front of you.

Do you think that the language of democracy promotion and what some people call the freedom agenda, the invocation of these broad concepts, is a sufficiently large umbrella to enable policy makers to operate in all these radically different environments at once? Or does it cause more problems than it helps to solve?

I used to say to my colleagues, to the greatest minds of your generation, we’re a country, not a foundation. We have to conduct foreign policy for America. So is the word “democracy” enough?

America will always have a human rights component to its foreign policy. And a democratic component. America cannot conduct totally abstract power politics. Not even Bismarck conducted pure power politics. He said that the best a statesman can do is to listen to the footsteps of God, get a hold of the hem of his coat. You need values. But if you say to yourself that I’m going to get this accomplished in 3 years, or in a very finite time period, you’re denying any concept of evolution and of history, and you get in beyond your depth.

So I’m impatient when we lecture everybody on their domestic affairs. I think it’s often counterproductive.

I was in the West Bank and Gaza after Yasir Arafat died. And when I came back, there was no doubt in my mind that the people living there overwhelmingly preferred Hamas to Fatah. And this wasn’t because of my great skills as a political analyst or my great skills speaking Arabic. Anybody could see it. Fatah was hopelessly corrupt, they had been sitting there for a very long time. And Hamas, if they said they’d give money for suicide bombings, money went for suicide bombings. If they said the money would go to the mosque, it went to the mosque. You could see it if you were there for a day, which is why nobody wanted this election to happen on either the Palestinian or the Israeli side. The result of the election was that Hamas won, and the day after, the State Department and Dr. Rice were actually quite surprised.

Well you saw the same thing in Iraq. Whom could they vote for after 40 years of Saddam? The people they were closest to, which were their ethnic or religious group. That then confirmed the divisions. It did not create a consensus. That’s where we have problems.

But as far as your understanding of how this process works, is it that we are getting trapped by our own rhetoric into taking actual decisions on a day-by-day basis that are at odds with our interests in this region?

Yes. But on the other hand, we also can’t go around just preaching our political interest of the moment. We need to have some larger concept of what we’re trying to do. That can lead to an eventual democracy without necessarily trying to force elections into every framework.

Is it impossible for the United States to get up and say, here are some examples of countries that evolved toward democracy through a functioning market economy: Chile, South Korea, Singapore, take your pick. Is that something that’s outside the language that we’re capable of using?

It’s true those examples should be taken seriously.

You would agree that Dr. Rice has many qualities that are admirable. She’s kind. She’s bright. She’s diligent. She keeps her balance day by day and moment by moment.

Nobody would say that about me.

-- and in some ways, I think she has the potential to be a more effective secretary of state than her predecessor, or than his predecessor, or her predecessor. At the same time, it’s clear that there’s been a terrible lack of connection between this very high-flown rhetoric and this series of thousands of decisions that have been made.

She may well be right—and I think she’s probably right—about the desirability of an evolution in the direction of democracy. The problem is that we’re applying the experiences of parliamentary-type democracy, 19th-century bourgeois democracy, to areas that have a much more complicated history, or a much different history. In the West, democracy developed within a religion that, even when it when it was the dominant religion, elaborated a distinction between what was God’s and what was Ceasar’s. That doesn’t exist in any other religion. Then we had the Reformation. Then we had the Enlightenment. Then we had the age of discovery. None of these precedents exist anywhere else. So to assume that you can exactly apply the formula, it’s probably excessive.

As you know well, this is hardly a cast of mind that is confined to any particular group of people in any particular administration. What is it about Americans that makes us so resistant to looking at our own historical particularity?

People always see the shining city on the hill. Our country has always been comprised of people who turned their back on their previous histories. We’ve never had to deal with contingent issues in the sense that our problems have had absolute answers, or at least answers we considered absolute. So with very little preparation, most of our problems have proved soluble – have always yielded to the application of resources and ingenuity and to finite time scales. Much of this is not true in the rest of the world.

You have a country like China with 4,000 years of history. It has its own present. Of course, it has some aspects like human rights that are less than perfect. But today’s institutional forms are more complex and will probably have to be adapted in the traditional democracies also.

When you say “traditional democracies,” you’re saying—

Western Europe, the United States. When the parliamentary systems and our system were developed, there was minimal government. The problem of how you filter huge masses of information through a democratic process and make it relevant to the people has not been solved even by us. Who understands the national budget?

I sometimes think that this sort of American genius for forgetting is part of our strength as a nation. People say “Oh, poor Americans, they’re so ignorant of history. They don’t know anything. They can’t remember what happened yesterday. Thank God for them they live on a continent without any enemies.” Maybe this is both a tragic weakness of America and also a source of our strength.

Absolutely. It’s a source of our strength. It creates tremendous energy and optimism. And if you know too much—the Europeans were better off when they were a little more naïve. And when they thought they could really solve everything. When you are aware of the complexity of everything, then you wind up paralyzed.

What effect, looking back on it, did 9/11 have on the national psyche? You’ve lived for a long time; you’ve seen this country from a very particular perspective for a long time. Did something change at that point? Did the country go into shock a bit?

The experience of a direct attack on the United States was of course a shocking experience. Of course it started the usual debate; Did we antagonize these people, or were they doing it out of their own their own inner necessities? And that’s one of the basic debates that’s still going on.

But I’m of the view that the President, vilified as he is, ridiculed as he is by many people, is basically right about the nature of the danger. Not necessarily about all the steps that he has taken. But there is a global danger. It is implacable. It needs to be defeated. He’s right about that.

When you look at the increasing strategic rapprochement, I guess you could call it, between the United States and Saudi Arabia, there seems to be an attempt to reshape Middle East policy in some creative way outside the simple framework of democracy or the so-called Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” What do you see as the administration’s goals, and what do you see as the potential points of conflict with the Saudis?

First of all, it’s very easy to criticize Saudi Arabia, until you begin to think of the alternatives. And I have not heard anyone come up with what they would like to see in Riyadh that would be better for us than what’s there. So whenever you start to think seriously about this problem, you probably come to the conclusion, as every administration has, that you’re better off working with the people who are there right now. Because the consequences of turmoil in Saudi Arabia on the oil supply around the world will be catastrophic.

Now somewhere along the road, this may break down in the sense that there may be a revolution you can’t handle. I of course happen to believe that Iran could have been handled. That we did that to ourselves. Now the part about Saudi Arabia that bothers me is the acquiescence, the continued acquiescence in the financing of the Madrasas, and my inclination would be to crack down much harder on them.

The Saudi interest is clearly the Saudi interest. That’s clearly something very different from American interests in the Middle East.

Neither of us wants Iran to dominate the region. But the Saudis have additional interests on the religious side. What we have is a practical marriage of convenience for a finite period of time.

And in terms of being the keystone of a forward-looking new security architecture for the middle east, that would be problematic.

I have sympathy for what they’re intending to do. First of all, if we don’t get Iran out of the nuclear business, we have lost this ground, and more. They’re either going to be out in a year or so, or they’ll be in forever. And if they’re in forever, that means Turkey, Egypt, everybody will be in. And then we live in a world that is uncontrollable.

Assuming that Iran can be brought to the point where it behaves like a nation and not like an empire, and we get into a negotiation with them, the worst outcome is a nuclear Iran and a vacuum in Iraq. So we have to try to fix the vacuum in Iraq. That’s a rough business that has to be done. Iran needs to know that it has the option to negotiate. But in the meantime, we have to work on the incentives to negotiate, and that means again, we do several things at the same time.

When Ahmadinejad came to New York for the UN thing in September, I followed him around for the week just because I wanted to see him. And I saw a person who was having a wonderful time.

He thinks he’s winning.

What do you think the possibilities are, looking forward, for this administration to do something constructive in the next few years? Which areas do you think they’d be best advised to spend their time and resources on?

I think we have a chance to bring the Korean thing to a conclusion. That will be quite important. They have to bring the Iranian nuclear issue to some clear perception of where we are. And I actually believe that if we do it right, there is a chance for meaningful negotiation on Iraq.

Sure, we have a lot of problems right now, but if you look at it from Tehran’s point of view, if you are halfway rational, you are antagonizing a superpower with endless capacities to harass you, even if it looks distraught in Iraq. There are so many ways we can get at them. And there’s always the possibility that we will, in the end, say enough of this, and do a variation of what Israel did in Lebanon, which would be catastrophic for the Tehran regime. It wouldn’t be good for us—they can make life very hard for us in Iraq. But in the end, they might inherit the same situation we are in now. So it’s interesting to me that for these conferences, to which we’re not paying enough attention, everybody we invited came. So this can either mean that they think that we’re looking for a way out, or—- more likely—- that they are all at least looking to see whether there might be a way out for everybody.

Turkey doesn’t want Iraq broken up, because it doesn’t want an independent Kurdistan. But the Kurds may want some international guarantees. For Syria their frontier with Iraq is more trouble than it’s worth. What Syria wants is Lebanon and the Golan Heights. If you go around the countries, you can see motives for a neutralization of the conflict for a while. It’s conceivable to me that if we acted with energy and conviction in both the military and the diplomatic field, we can make a deal. People who want us out are destroying diplomacy. And gaining nothing.

Will a regional bargain with the Iranians and the Syrians last? I don’t know.

What you’re suggesting is that that’s more likely to come in the form of a package deal than it is one by one by one by one.

Absolutely. I don’t think it can get much further piece by piece. I don’t think it’s possible to do it like that.

And do you think that package deal would be likely to include some sort of Saudi-backed pan-Arab recognition or toleration of Israel in some kind of official—

If it’s properly done. If we panic out of there, then any Israeli deal we offer will be part of the retreat. And then the people who make the deal will be accused by the radicals of having sold out. And it will become an additional weapon in the radical armory.

But if America shows that it can keep its nerve and have a vision, then I think progress in the Iraq negotiation should bring progress in the Israeli negotiation. And I don’t think there’s much to be gained by asking the Palestinians to do things. We need some moderate Arab states—- Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia—- to assume the responsibility for this. And let them produce a government that accepts Israel.

When you imagine the show of U.S. military/national resolution that would be necessary to convince all of these actors—

You know the irony is that it wouldn’t even take such a hell of a lot.

That’s what, in your estimate? Is that 20,000 troops in Baghdad?

It’s enough to achieve your objective. 20,000 troops, I don’t know. But it has been a scandal to permit Baghdad and the airport road to be contested for the whole period that we were there.

But part of it was when they set up milestones and objectives, these objectives were things like, We want to see a constitution by this date, or we want to see elections—

This idea that we don’t want to fight. We don’t want a big footprint. So we train the Iraqis to fight instead. That means you’ve wasted two or three years. Which in a guerilla war means that if you don’t win, you lose.

We made the same mistake in Vietnam. We fought a war of attrition. You can’t win a war of attrition against guerillas. You certainly can’t win a war if you’re not fighting the guerillas, but waiting for somebody else to fight them. That was an even bigger mistake than the army demobilizing.

One feature of the policy disagreements over the Vietnam war was that there were these memos—- there were McNamara memos, there were Bundy memos, there were all kinds of memos—- that would be leaked in order to show the agonized souls of the policymakers as they wrestled with these difficult questions, and which suggested, of course, that the policymaker who wrote the memo was a good person who should be admired by the New York Times and whomever else. But also present in those memos was a record of hard questions being asked, or critical thinking going on, however self-exculpatory it was. In this administration, we don’t have a record of hard questions being asked, of analytical and critical—

Well, they don’t ask a lot of questions.

You think we’re looking at a year to do a deal and to find out whether Iran is going to be irrevocably committed to having a bomb?

That’s what I think, yes.

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The career of General Colin Powell, 70, gives the lie to the modern idea that diplomacy and warfare are mutually exclusive pursuits. As Chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, Powell became the first African-American leader of the American military, as well as the youngest military chief in American history. Having served as a young officer in Vietnam, Powell has always been famously cautious about the use of American military force, opposing the decision to deploy troops to the Middle East during the First Gulf War and warning President George W. Bush that “if you break it, you own it,” when the Bush Administration was debating the invasion of Iraq.

Powell’s tenure as Secretary of State was crowned by some notable diplomatic successes, particularly when it came to obtaining American bases in the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia (“the ‘stans”), and building and maintaining an unprecedented degree of simultaneous strategic cooperation with historical rivals like India and Pakistan. It was also marred by a significant degree of public and private infighting with other Administration officials and by his decision to represent the Administration at the U.N. to make the case about the danger posed by weapons of mass destruction that were supposedly in the hands of Saddam Hussein.

David Samuels spoke with General Powell about the relative advantages of using “soft power” and “hard power” in spreading American influence and ideas, and about the current state of American diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere, at General Powell’s office in Arlington, Virginia.

A Conversation With Colin Powell

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell talks with author David Samuels about the relative advantages of using “soft power” and “hard power” in spreading American influence and ideas, and about the current state of American diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere

You were famously quoted as saying “if you break it, you own it” about the consequences of an American invasion of Iraq. So do we own it? And, as a practical matter, is it possible for the United States to declare at this late date that we don’t take part in other people’s Civil Wars, and to withdraw our troops?

The famous expression, if you break it you own it—which is not a Pottery Barn expression, by the way—was a simple statement of the fact that when you take out a regime and you bring down a government, you become the government. On the day that the statue came down and Saddam Hussein’s regime ended, the United States was the occupying power. We might also have been the liberating power, and we were initially seen as liberators. But we were essentially the new government until a government could be put in place. And in the second phase of this conflict, which was beginning after the statue fell, we made serious mistakes in not acting like a government. One, maintaining order. Two, keeping people from destroying their own property. Three, not having in place security forces—either ours or theirs or a combination of the two to keep order. And in the absence of order, chaos ensues.

What has been gained and what has been lost by not talking to Syria and to other states in the region?

I did talk to them.

And did you find that to be productive?

Yes. I talked to Syria for four years. I went to Damascus twice. We had low-level conversations with the Iranians. That’s a different account; you can’t compare the two of them. We have diplomatic relations with the government of Syria. As to why we’re not talking to them, you’ll have to ask those who are not talking. They pulled the ambassador out last spring, and have not returned her. I agree with the ISG [Iraq Study Group] that you should talk to people.

Notice I keep using the word “talk.” Not “negotiate.” Negotiate comes at some point in the process of talking. And you can’t say, “I’ll only talk if you give me this.” Because they’ll say “I’ll only talk if you give me that.” And you immediately freeze the basis for talking. So even on those horrible afternoons when I had to spend all my time arguing with the Syrian foreign minister, which we did a lot of—- exchanging vivid talking points with each other—- we were talking.

It took me a year to get permission to do it, because of reservations, but nevertheless, I started talking to the North Koreans, and I met with the North Korean foreign minister in 2002, in Brunai for the first time. But then the nuclear problem exploded in their face and our face.

What were those exchanges with the Syrians like?

They’re always difficult. They’re tough debaters and tough negotiators, but I can hold my own. Sometimes they said they would do things which they didn’t. And sometimes they did things which we suggested would be wise for them to do. So it was a mixed bag. And sometimes nothing was accomplished: we just talked. But when you’re trying to get them to do things, which apparently we are trying to do now, I don’t know any other way to try and get them to do those things, except perhaps to talk to them and not just cajole them and threaten them. And they love to talk.

Does the U.S. military have a role to play in helping to export American values?

We have. We’ve done it for decades. When I was a corps commander in Germany, or a young lieutenant in Germany, I was exporting American values. In fact, after the cold war when we were drawing down our troops from Germany and I was the one doing the drawing down, Joschka Fischer, who was my dear friend and colleague and still is, said you know, “I’m really worried and troubled about this.” He said, “I’m not troubled because there’ll be fewer troops to fight the non-existent Soviet Union. But for fifty years, Germans have had Americans live amongst us. And we always saw that as a sign of friendship and a connection to the United States. Your GIs were our biggest insurance policy, and we liked them, even though there were occasional problems.”

And I think I even wrote in my book somewhere—I better read that book again—that it’s pretty great, as a young lieutenant, to have a German farmer come out in the winter forest and bring you a cup of hot coffee and brodchen, a piece of warm bread, because as far as they were concerned, it was that American lieutenant in the woods who was protecting them.

If there are people who don’t want American troops there, should they be there?

It depends. They’re there because they serve our interest. And they also hopefully serve the interest of the country that they’re in. In the case of Haiti—Haiti is an example where we were not invited in, but there was a horrible civil war that was about to break out, if you’re talking about 2004. And our friends and allies, the French, Canadians, and others said we had to get Aristede to come on out, and he did decide to come on out. I provided him a plane and got him out, and everybody condemned U.S. roundly. Everybody was mad at me. The Haitian people were mixed, but there was gonna be a bloodbath that weekend, and I’ve never felt badly about doing it.

A better example is Panama. We invaded Panama in 1989. It was unilateral, we didn’t ask nobody. We did it on four days notice. I briefed the president and told him they killed one of our navy officers. They had abused a couple of our wives. We’d been putting up with this stuff from this guy Noriega, we had a Federal indictment in on him. There is an elected President who’s in hiding in his country, and we can’t let it go un-dealt with. We were catching a lot of congressional hell. I said if we go in there, we should take out not just Noriega but the whole government, because the whole government is Noriega. And Noreiga’s been in jail since then, and they have had four successful elections and are resting on a pretty solid democratic base. And there are no American troops in Panama. So you do it ultimately in your own interest. You try to do it quickly. The quicker you do it, the quicker you restore a sense of normalcy to a society and get it back in their hands, the more likely you are to survive the criticism you get, and the more likely you are to see a better environment.

Are there features that make America’s current engagement with the Arab world unique?

Six years ago, we were not doing too badly with the Arab world. If you look at the polling back then, we had 50, 60, and in some countries 70 percent favorable ratings. Iraq has dropped it into the tank, and the inability to do something about the Palestinian Israeli situation has hurt U.S. badly in terms of Muslim perceptions and Arab perceptions. Is it our fault that they haven’t gotten a peace agreement? I don’t think so. I mean, believe me, I worked hard for a year and a half on Arafat before I had to give up, he was hopeless. And I found out just what Clinton had told me the last day in office, when he said to me “Colin, he almost drove me crazy. And it’s his fault.” But the Muslim community and the Arab Community measures U.S. not so much against progress as against constant effort. Why don’t you have an effort there, why isn’t the secretary of state living over there? And we decided to take a different tack. And as a result, things got better for a while, but have deteriorated rapidly since two things—one, the revival of Hamas by democratic process, and Lebanon this past summer.

What signal do we send to the Muslim world by refusing to talk to governments that have been democratically elected?

Just because somebody has been elected democratically doesn’t mean that you have to talk to them if you have a great deal of difficulty with some of the positions they’re taking. Now, I wasn’t around when Hamas got elected, so this is again this crowd, not me. But Hamas was democratically elected, and they are now the government. But Hamas won’t recognize the state of Israel and calls for its destruction. It make sit hard for U.S. to deal with a government like that.

Can we talk about Democracy to our Muslim and Arab friends? You bet we do. I’ve given some of the best democratic speeches you ever want to read. Go back and look at my confirmation hearing. But I’m also extremely practical. And democracy means one thing for us. To many nations, it creates instability for them to try to go democratic. As one of my Arab colleagues once told me, “Be careful what you ask for.” Because if we had a free, full, fair, open election tomorrow, boy would you be hurtin’. We would be gone, and you would be facing an Islamic fundamentalist regime that would hate you to death. And guess what? There would never be another election. So be careful.

If you look at what I was saying and doing during 2004, I was pushing for reform. Because democracy has to have institutions, it has to have a base upon which it rests. Are you familiar with the J curve? Well, there’s a new book out called the J curve. Imagine a hockey stick. And the blade of the hockey stick is up here, and it comes down, and it goes all the way up the handle. The handle’s at the top. The two most stable kinds of governments are at either end—where the blade is, and way up here at the top of the handle. The United States is at the top of the handle. At the top of the blade are all the authoritarian and totalitarian nations that we see around the world. And the whole theory, and it’s a pretty good theory, says that to get from here to there which is the desire, you have to go down. So any time you break one of these authoritarian regimes, it doesn’t become a democracy. It descends into something that’s really ugly until the institutions that should have been built start to built up.

Now is America really that stable? You better believe it. There isn’t anything you can do to U.S. that we can’t figure out a democratic solution to through our Constitutional process and our history and tradition. We had an election all hung up in Florida in 2000—we’ll figure it out. The vote was five to four, Bush becomes the President—nobody reaches for a gun, no tanks move. Everybody says okay, fine, let’s move on, let’s watch Oprah. That is extremely stable.

Do you think we are currently engaged in a struggle with radical extremists in the Middle East and elsewhere that will be like the Cold War in terms of intensity and duration?

I have a slightly different view. 9/11 was a huge traumatic shock to us. And it changed everything before and after 9/11. But in all the speeches I give around the country, I try to make the point that the Cold War’s gone, China’s selling to Wal-Mart, all it wants to do is sell, and it’s not going to be an enemy. I’m sorry, my best friends want it to be an enemy, but it won’t cooperate. Why would they want to be an enemy? Look how well they’re doing. A trillion dollars in U.S. dollar reserves. [Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson’s over there begging. So why are they going to be an enemy?

Listen, all the theologies and ideologies that were going to supplant ours are gone. I mean, they’re all gone The communists, the fascists—get serious! The few authoritarian regimes that are left around are peanuts. Like Belarus, Turkmenistan, Venezuela. Castro. Give me something to get serious about. Then you have terrorism. One, it’s non-state. Two, most of them have to hide and stay in hiding. We are now better on the offense against them. We’re better on the defense against them. We haven’t had an incident in five years—knock wood. But the point I make to all of my audiences is that it will happen again at some point, and maybe we’ll lose another facility. Maybe we’ll lose some of our fellow citizens. But what they can’t do, what they never can do, is change who we are. They can’t change our form of government. They can’t change we, who we are. Only we can do that.

We can’t let terrorism suddenly become the substitute for Red China and the Soviet Union as our all encompassing enemy, this great Muslim extremist monolithic thing from somewhere in Mauritania all the way through Muslim India. They’re all different. It’s not going come together like that.

At the same time as we are at war in Iraq, we also have good relations right now with both India and Pakistan, with both China and Japan . . .

I had a pretty good four years!

On the other hand, North Korea claims to have gone nuclear, the Iranians are on the way to getting a bomb . . .

North Korea’s trying to sell us something. The Iranians want to have a program. I don’t know yet whether they can get to a bomb, it’s years away, but they want to have a program and they’re not going to give it up just because we threaten them as you said earlier. And the threats that you were alluding to earlier aren’t really go to war threats. They’re just huffing and puffing and sanctions. I don’t think you should utter threats like, “You must answer by the 30th of June, or the 50th of whatever,” and then they end up telling you, as the Iranians did, “We’ll answer you on the 23rd of August.” Okay. That’s not a useful way of doing business.

But the way I summarize this for my audience is, every war must end. Every crisis I’ve ever been involved with is gone. I got decades of this stuff, from Iran-Contra all the way through Panama, to Haiti to Somalia, Bangladesh, Chad. I’ve seen my share. Desert Storm, Desert Shield. I’ve seen a lot. One thing about a crisis is they tend to go away sometime. And when I look at the world right now—let me add this up, 7 billion people? 7 billion people, only 3 of the countries, in my judgment, could ever possibly have the economy, the population, or the national military power to threaten us. China, Federation of Russia, and India. I ain’t worried about Indians. China? They can’t afford to. They’re doing too well. Russia? They got the GDP of Portugal. They’re never gonna go back to being the Soviet Union. They got nuclear weapons. China’s got nuclear weapons. India’s got nuclear weapons. But in neither one of those cases do I lie awake at night worrying about a threat anymore. It’s gone.

So that’s 1.3 billion plus 1.3 billion—that’s 2.6 billion. And a few hundred million Russians who are going to be fewer in 20 years. And let me throw in 800 million Europeans, or however many there are. Half a billion Europeans. Then our hemisphere, 800 million? Something like that. I’m not losing a whole lot of sleep over Hugo Chavez, even though he’s annoying. He’s annoying! Castro is annoying! These are annoyances, these aren’t threats. Castro used to be a threat when he was stirring stuff up all over the region with the Soviets behind him.

Then I go to Africa with another several hundred million people. It’s tough things that have to be done there—HIV AIDS, and infectious diseases, and Darfur. But we ended the North-South conflict in Sudan. I signed it. We saw what was going on in Liberia. I sent in, after a lot of pressure on my colleagues, some marines to help the AU [African Union], and now they’ve had elections. A lovely woman is president. Somalia—you figure Somalia out. It hasn’t been a country in 2000 years. And Congo has just had elections. Hmm. There’s a little bit happening there.

So of the seven billion people in the world, we’re having trouble with 120 million. I’m just telling you! Wait a minute, wait a minute. All this world in crisis that everybody talks about. I’m in the private equity business. I’m in the venture capital business. There is so much money sloshing around looking to invest in open economic systems. China’s main problem is that 300 million middle class Chinese are showing a billion Chinese what their lives could be. They want it. And the Chinese know it. So what are they gonna do with those billion people? 800 million are farmers who can’t be sustained on the land. So they’re gonna create cities. Industrial cities to suck up this labor pool of 800 million farmers. And so they don’t want any war with anybody. They all need good relations with the west, and especially with the United States.

Do you believe that part of what the world needs from the U.S. is simply a statement of old fashioned American optimism, that everything will be OK, that the future is bright?

Yes. I agree with that. I make my living speaking. And I’m part speaker, part entertainer. And I talk about all the problems in the world. I talk about the problems in Iraq, I talk about Afghanistan. I talk about the Palestine-Israeli issue. I talk about any problem they want me to talk about. And I talk about the fact that we’ve gone down the tubes with respect to public opinion in parts of the world. But I start with, “Let me tell you what it was like when I came into the army. You know, kids were ducking under the desks because of nuclear weapons. Let me tell you what it was like on October 1, 1989, when I became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Top of my career, most senior military officer in the world. And the first thing I did that morning was get briefed on whether Russian submarines were off the coast of Virginia, and what the flight time was of the cruise missiles. That’s all gone.” So I tend to see historic forces at work that over time are in our interest.

And I’m not making it up. But all people see are these dunderheads every night on the news saying everything’s falling apart. Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. My grandkids—they’re terrific. Their future looks great.

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At the age of 86, George Schultz remains one of the most influential voices on foreign policy in the Republican Party by virtue of his strong opinions and a remarkable record of public service that began in 1955 when he was appointed by President Eisenhower to serve on the Council of Economic Advisors. A former Marine captain who fought in the Pacific for three years at the height of World War II, Schultz received his Ph.D. from MIT and taught at MIT and later at the University of Chicago. After serving in the Nixon Administration as Secretary of Labor and Secretary of the Treasury, Schultz became head of the global construction giant Bechtel, where he led massive construction projects in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East.

In 1982, Schultz became Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, a position that he occupied for six and a half years from the climax of the Cold War until the end of the Reagan Administration. While Schultz’s favorite metaphor for diplomacy is gardening, he is best known in foreign policy circles for his advocacy of a hard-nosed balance of diplomacy backed by a credible threat of military force. He has also been called “the father of the Bush doctrine,” for his advocacy of the idea of preventive war.

In the 1990s, Schultz became the grandfather, or godfather, to a group of Republican foreign policy specialists who became known as the Vulcans, and who included many of the architects of the Iraq war, including Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice. In 1998, Schultz introduced Rice to then-Governor George W. Bush.

David Samuels spoke with George Schultz about American diplomacy in the Middle East, the Cold War, the global spread of market capitalism, and his relationship with Condoleezza Rice at Schultz’s office at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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A Conversation With George Schultz

George Schultz speaks with author David Samuels about American diplomacy in the Middle East, the Cold War, the global spread of market capitalism, and his relationship with Condoleezza Rice

What do you think the possibilities are for diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria? And what does diplomatic engagement really mean if we announce that we’re going to pull all our combat troops out of Iraq by the first quarter of 2008 or whenever?

Well, talking to people is fine, but you’ve got to have something to talk about. And in order to talk effectively with Iran and Syria, you have to have some leverage—some things that they want that you have some control over. And I think that that’s been the problem particularly with Iran in the last few years. That they do and say all kinds of things. They’re told, for instance, by the Security Council, “If you restart your enrichment facilities, there’ll be dire consequences.” So they start them. They don’t just start them, they do it flamboyantly. And there are no consequences.

So they support Hezbollah. The United Nations Security Council says Hezbollah should be disarmed. But they aren’t disarmed. There are too many edicts issued that don’t get followed up on. And Iran, by this time, I suppose, must feel that they can do anything and get away with it. So I think you have to build leverage with both Syria and Iran. Then you have a base from which to talk to them.

For example, Syria doesn’t at all like the idea of having the Harari murder investigated, and no doubt the Jamail murder and others that they’ve done, or so it seems. But that should be pressed forward. There is a devastating report by a German prosecutor that’s already on file. I think that process needs to go forward. And Syria wants to get the Golan Heights back. There’s no way that’s going to happen if there is a totally moribund negotiating process between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The leader of Hamas is in Syria. So the Syrians have some leverage there over the Palestinian situation, and they also have something to gain.

Iran is essentially a much weaker country than it manages to portray itself. It has very poor refining facilities, so they’re very vulnerable. People focus altogether on the nuclear facilities and how difficult how they would be to take out. But it’s not difficult for somebody to sabotage those refineries. The Persian population is only about half, so they have a heterogeneous population. It’s a bad economy. And there are people who are restive.

But if America flees from the region, after the complete humiliation of the triumphal American project to spread democracy in the Middle East, where do you expect that leverage to come from?

We need to change the situation. When the Reagan administration took office, our leverage with the Soviets was not great. But we built leverage. And while our first successful deal with the Soviets was a human rights deal, early on in 1983, the real bargaining came after our defense build-up was clear, the economy was strong, and we had deployed ballistic missiles in Germany that the Soviets thought could reach Moscow. And after they got through with all their war talk and so on, they came to the table. So you see strength and diplomacy go together—they’re not alternative ways of going about something.

I followed the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad around for a week when he came to the UN last September, and I saw a man who didn’t seem to have a care in the world. He seemed to enjoy the fact that he can say anything, with no consequences.

Look, I am a marine. And I joined the marines at the start of World War II. I went to boot camp. And I remember the day the sergeant handed me a rifle. And he said take good care of this rifle, this is your best friend. And remember, never point this rifle at anybody unless you’re willing to pull the trigger. So that’s deep in marine training—no empty threats. But we have a world of empty threats now. And that’s one of the big problems, that the discipline that was part of the Cold War period has dissipated, and it’s in part because the so-called international community doesn’t have, apparently, the capacity to agree on anything, or if they agree on anything, to agree to follow through on it. It’s a very broad problem in foreign policy. So on the one hand, you need to be more careful when you make threats. Or when you say there’ll be dire consequences or something. Don’t say it unless you know what the dire consequences are and that you’re capable of bring them into effect.

My Israeli friends keep saying that Bush is going to bomb Iran this fall, even though everyone in Washington tells me that’s nonsense

They should listen to Mr. Gates more closely. He’s a throwback to the Weinburger Pentagon, in a sense, in the belief that it’s important to have a strong military force, and everybody should know that you’ll never use it. And I used to argue, “What’s the point of having it if everybody knows you won’t use it?” It’s got to be a perception not only that you have strength, but that there are circumstances in which you would use it.

What do you see as the consequences for America’s role in the Middle East when Iran announces that they have mastered the fuel cycle and are making a bomb?

Well, it’s a very nerve-wracking period. But obviously that’s what’s going on. They’re trying to learn how to enrich uranium, and if you learn how to enrich it for the grade necessary for a power plant, that’s the hard part. The easy part is to move it from low-enrich to high-enrich once you’ve learned the techniques, or so I’m told by my physicist friend. They’ve announced that they want to wipe out Israel. So if you’re Israel, that’s something you might consider doing something about.

What are the consequences of Iran’s nuclear program for America’s role as the sole great-power guarantor of stability in the Middle East?

It’s a setback, and I think we should be thinking about the whole nuclear posture very carefully. You had the concept of deterrence during the Cold War. And I think you’d have to say it worked, even though it wasn’t a very pleasant idea. Ronald Reagan thought it was immoral. But anyway, it worked.

Now the way the world is going, pretty soon we’ll be having deterrence with Iran, with North Korea, with who knows who. But terrorists are essentially outside the concept of deterrence. They don’t have a return address, necessarily. You can’t practice deterrence with suicide bombers. So you have to think about the whole nuclear weapon proposition in a different way, I think. People are just sort of not thinking about it very much, I don’t believe. And so we should be thinking more clearly about the possibility of saying we prefer a world without any nuclear weapons. And whether or not you can get there is a question mark. But if you set the objective, you can start doing things that will get you in that direction.

Do you believe that the theory and practice of deterrence as we knew it in the Cold War will work if employed against countries like Iran?

Well, I would accept that. I think they have a desire for self-preservation. But it’s a much looser kind of thing. And I think if you were trying to design a strategy of deterrence on a world-wide basis, from North Korea to Iran to who knows who, it would be very difficult, I think, conceptually, to put it together right and feel confident in it.

In some sense, Iran has some very aggressive ambitions, but is in fact a poor, militarily weak, politically unstable country that is dependent on the high price of oil to make mischief. The moment the price of oil goes down, Iran has to worry about feeding their own people, right?

We are providing them with the money to do all these things by consuming oil at such a rate. And I think one of the most important things we can do that would strengthen our foreign policy is to have an all-out campaign to use less oil and make it be effective.

Why didn’t that happen after 9/11?

It’s a subject that I have been struggling with since 1969, and we act like we’re gonna do something, and then the pressure goes off and we go right back. It’s hard. I’ve gotten to the point where I hope and pray that the price of oil stays high, and never goes down.

It is encouraging that really bright, creative people are starting to apply themselves to this subject. And you see evidence of it around; you see all the venture capital around here for the first time, really, taking this subject on. So I have hopes that somebody’s gonna come up with a battery that can take a hybrid car for 400 miles, and if that happens, that’s a revolution. I won’t believe we’re serious about it until we’re willing to remove the tariff on import of ethanol. And take quotas off sugar and a few things like that.

There’s a lab over here in the East Bay. It’s a lab of the energy department. And it’s full of biologists—the genome people. And they’re trying to figure out how you get something from wood, and how you get it from cellulose, and this and that. And they’re studying the termite. The termite eats wood. We don’t like it for that reason, but it turns the wood into useful things. So they’re trying to figure out how does the termite do that? And maybe we can produce termites and take sawdust and feed it to them and we’ll get some use. It isn’t just the automobile people who are doing something with engines. It’s at a much deeper scientific level.

You served Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. You were Secretary of Labor and Secretary of the Treasury under Nixon—you had your name on the money. You were Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State at the climax of the Cold War. How does this moment in history look to you?

I would say, first of all, that the world has never, in its history, been at a more promising moment, as we see countries that have been stagnant for centuries basically suddenly coming alive, and good reasons for it. Look what’s happening in China. India is moving. Other big countries that haven’t gotten anywhere are starting to show lots of signs of life. The IMF put out a chart recently on the world economy showing the numbers for last year, this year, and some projections. There’s not a minus sign on the chart.

In China, there’s still a central repressive regime in many ways, but if you visited China periodically over the last 25 years, it bears almost no resemblance to what it was 25 years ago, politically and socially. Twenty-five years ago, all you saw was people on bicycles with exactly the same clothing on. Now it’s a transformed place, with all kinds of heterogeneity and life. And so it’s a moment of tremendous promise. And in a sense the task is to see that these security threats that essentially emanate from radical Islam—they’re choosing terror—don’t abort this wonderful opportunity. It has seemed to me somehow or other, it should be possible to rally the world to that objective. But it hasn’t been so.

You talk about the analogy between the present moment and the Cold War, and the need for an effort like Radio Liberty to counter anti-American propaganda and convince Muslims that we can deliver a better society than the ones they’ve got. But do we know enough about Islam? Are we capable of getting inside the dynamics of a Muslim society?

Well, we should try. And I think we can learn a lot. The Cold War analogy is not to say that these are similar in their understructure, as you suggested. But to say that this is a long process that we’re engaged in. That’s why you have to set it up on a basis that can be sustained. What do you have to do? Well, we have to learn about the society. We haven’t even really tried much. There’s a lot that you can do to understand better.

With all due respect to what you said about the lack of similarities, with the onset of the Cold War, we didn’t really know in this country a lot about what was going on in the Soviet Union—it was kind of an alien place. And so you had Soviet studies centers emerge at Harvard and Stanford and Columbia and so on. People worked at it and became very knowledgeable. Condi Rice speaks Russian. Why? Because at Stanford there was a center and she got interested in the subject.

The money for those Soviet studies centers came from the United States. So they weren’t beholden to anyone. A center financed by someplace else, like Saudi Arabia, might say they’re independent, but that’s just not believable. What is going on at our universities about the world of Islam right now? Damn little. What there is is sort of a romanticized version of Palestinian interest. And it’s unimpressive, I think. So we need to mount a serious effort. Bernard Lewis is the leading guy—he’s 90 years old. Where are the younger people?

Watching the clumsiness and irrelevance of American attempts to talk to people in the region, I am struck by the fact that the language of politics is so different here and there. Here, we believe that everything happens the way it is presented in the newspapers. In the Middle East, everything is a conspiracy.

So you have to have a conspiracy desk in the State Department. It is s amazing; you go and talk to people that are sensible people and good businessmen and so on, and the things that they believe are very strange. So you have a lot of work to do. You don’t give up. You realize what you don’t know, and you try to make some contact.

You were Secretary of State when most Americans first heard about Hezbollah—-when they bombed the us Marine barracks in Beirut. What do you remember about that event, and how about we thought about Hezbollah then. Who were they?

We really didn’t know a lot about Hezbollah at that point. We had information about a training camp in the Bekka Valley that we tried to trace down, and we were ready to try to retaliate there, but the information was not reliable. The Iranian connection was not particularly clear. I think we know more now, a lot more, than we knew then. And we were basically in a passive phase. I was a hawk on terrorism when I was Secretary of State. And it was an uphill struggle to get people to see that we have this phenomenon on our hands that’s different, and we have to think differently; we have to structure our military capability differently, and so on. But I don’t claim that I understood it then the way I understand it now. I don’t know that anybody did.

Was there the thought that all terrorism was essentially state-sponsored?

There was some of that. There was the Iranian influence, but it was not something you could pin down well enough to feel that you could do something about it. There were a number of times that we were going to strike at something, and the intelligence just didn’t hold up. Our capacity to gather intelligence about that part of the world—and it’s part of this problem of understanding that we’re talking about—is very limited. You say to the CIA, “Tell me about Iran.” And they say, “We can tell you more about London. We have a big station in London.” And I say, “Thanks a lot, but I can read the newspapers from London.” And so our capabilities are limited.

Back then, you had all kinds of terrorist organizations. You had the IRA. They had a specific background. You had this group in Germany that was somehow distinctive and different. You had the narco-terrorists in Colombia. And then you began to see that these people would show up interacting. It’s kind of like reporters. They may be from different papers, but they’ll talk to each other. Or physicists. Or whomever.

Why are we facing this threat from that region of the world? Well, here’s one reason. If you’re going to do a big construction job in Saudi Arabia, who does it? Koreans. Phillippinoes. Thais. People you bring over. Why? Is it because there aren’t any Saudis to do the work? There are plenty of Saudis that are unemployed. But their culture is such that they don’t think about picking up a shovel and digging—it’s demeaning. So they’re detached from reality.

I’m a big advocate of work. Work is good for you. You have to perform. You have to write a decent article, or you won’t last. Work connects you with reality. And when you don’t have a connection with reality, then you become a prisoner of conspiracy theories. You hang around the mosque, and people can talk about anything.

Don’t you think that many people in these cultures will choose Hezbollah if the choice is framed to them as a choice between Hezbollah or America?

That’s what people are thinking right now. But at the end of the Cold War, people didn’t think that. The choice was very clear: America. And we’ve somehow lost a certain magic. But it can come back.

Of course, it’s a different situation. Back then, during the Cold War, it was a world in which there were a relatively limited number of variables and some very clear constants. Now we have a world in which there are a huge number of variables. And the constants aren’t as clear as they were. The result is a kind of chaos that’s difficult to come to grips with. You can’t quite as easily wrap your mind around it and say, “This is the key.”

Would you say that what we have to offer the world is a model for economic progress, and not the particular trappings of democracy?

No, I don’t think so. I think what we have to offer the world, and what other people have to offer too, is a blend of political and economic openness that works. Those two things are connected. I still can’t quite come to grips with Milton Freeman not being with us anymore. But that was his central premise. Freedom is the big deal. And it applies everywhere. Free to choose. Don’t have conscription, have a volunteer armed force. Don’t give money to institutions. Give them to people. Give money to the people and let them choose the institutions, create competition. And so I think that’s a vision that’s been very important.

Condoleezza Rice is often referred to as a protégé of yours. When did you first meet her and how did she come to your attention?

I got to know her quite well after she returned from her first stint in the National Security Council. And I forget when that was, probably 1991 or something like that. We were good friends and saw a lot of each other around here.

On the Stanford campus?

Yeah. It was here on the campus. She was a colleague, and then she became provost and I watched that process. We had a little lunch group here. It started out after I came back, with me and a guy named Sid Drell, who was a physicist, who took an interest in arms control. So we’d start having lunch together. We had a good time, and I learned something about physics. And we had the habit of if somebody interesting came to campus to see one or the other of us, we’d invite that person to lunch. So when Sakharov came to the United States, he made a beeline for here, because Sid was head of the Physicists for Sakharov. So I got to have lunch with Sakorov. And so then we decided, this is going to be a very exclusive club, but we both liked a woman named Lucy Shapiro, she’s a brilliant biologist. So we invited her to join our lunch club. And then we decided that Condi was pretty interesting, so we’d have her. So she became a member of our lunch club.

And of course Condi has dropped out, but when she comes back, we’ll invite her to the club again. That kind of conversation is fun, and it’s also very illuminating, and you learn about people, and how real they are. Condi’s very real. Smart. Thoughtful person. A lot more to her than people realize.

I’ll give you an example. The Treasury has a tradition that goes way back. The former secretaries give a dinner for the new secretary. Everybody comes, Democrats, Republicans. It’s supposed to convey that we’re all proud of the Treasury and its capability. And we want the new secretary to uphold that tradition and also realize that he or she has a group of people they can talk to off the record or whatever. And it’s nice. So I thought, well, we ought to get that going in the State Department, and I talked to some of my colleagues, and I found that everybody said not just okay, but that they were enthusiastic about it.

So we put together a dinner for Condi. And everybody came. And it was really fun. We invited the former secretaries, and also the president, the vice-president, the national security advisor, and the chairman and ranking members of all the committees that you deal with. So we had this thing that everybody—even Joe Biden was warm and cuddly there. And we went around the room and everybody had something to say.

And toward the end, a congressman named Tom Lantos who was ranking on the international relations committee, or whatever it’s called in the house, he said, “Well, there’ve been a lot of nice things said about Condi at this dinner, but in my family we have a different attitude. We love her. And let me explain why.” He said, “I have a granddaughter, who’s the most beautiful young girl you ever saw in your life. And she’s blessed with an operatic-quality voice. And she has a disease that’s come along that’s a threat to her voice, and even to her life, and we’re all staggered by it. Condi found out about this. So she said to my granddaughter, Why don’t you and I give a concert at the Kennedy center? So they got together and they picked out the music. Condi would play the piano, and my granddaughter would sing. And they practiced to get ready for the concert. And then the concert came, and it was a big success.” And he says “My granddaughter just was—it was so wonderful. So we love Condi.” That’s an aspect of her make-up that reaches out to people, and I think people are not aware of it. A very human quality.

What qualities of mind and character and personality did you see in her that you think are going to help the country over the next two years?

She’s got a big task. And she’s got to get more people in the State Department, I think. She doesn’t have a deputy right now, she lost Bob Zoellick, who was very good. And the name of the game is people. She’s got some very good foreign-service people working for her. But in order to really do the job, you have to have big people who can go and be listened to on their own. That’s the biggest challenge she has right now.

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