The longtime diplomat and president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations think tank assesses the situation in Syria.
Richard Haass, CFR president
Tavis: Meetings between President Obama and congressional leaders have been taking place almost nonstop since his decision to postpone any punitive strike against Assad’s regime until Congress gives its approval.
The delay underscores just how conflicted this country is about engaging in military action in Syria. At the same time, the use of chemical weapons raises not just political questions, but indeed moral questions as well, as far as I’m concerned.
Joining me now from New York is Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book “Foreign Policy Begins at Home.” Richard, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Richard Haass: Good to be back.
Tavis: If foreign relations begin at home, let’s start right there. How is it that we can afford to do whatever we’re going to do in Syria, but we still can’t raise the minimum wage, we still can’t talk about poverty, we still can’t deal with homelessness.
I got a long list here. If foreign policy begins at home, why are we once again even considering going somewhere else to engage militarily with all the hell that too many Americans are still enduring at home as we speak?
Haass: Well, the short answer is, Tavis, that the kinds of things that are being contemplated in Syria are quite limited, and even if we were to do them, in no way would that make it impossible or preclude going ahead with whatever domestic agenda individuals may want.
You can blame American foreign policy for a lot of things, but it’s none of that list you mentioned. That’s simply a question of two things: our domestic politics and getting our economy going again and growing at historic rates, rather than low rates.
So I don’t think this is a guns versus butter issue. In this case, we can and should have both.
Tavis: So you’re saying Dr. King is wrong, or was wrong, that war is the enemy of the poor?
Haass: Look, there’s just wars and unjust wars. There’s smart wars and there’s dumb wars. I find it – I’m not a pacifist. I can’t give you a war is good or war is bad answer. Quite honestly, it depends on the circumstances, it depends on the issues at stake, it depends upon what alternative policy instruments you might have.
So there’s wars of necessity that by definition the United States, I would argue, needs to undertake, and there’s wars of choice. Sometimes it’s a good choice, sometimes it’s a bad choice. So I think we need to take each one of these on its own merits.
Tavis: Is this of necessity or of choice, Syria?
Haass: I would argue it’s of choice, that the kind of response to Syrian use of chemical weapons is a choice. I would argue it’s a smart choice. We don’t want to somehow convey the message that Syria or anybody else can use a chemical or a biological or a nuclear weapon.
Coming back to where you began, that’s not just bad for the world, that would be bad for Americans and for the United States. We don’t want the 21st century to go down that path.
Tavis: At the risk of some people who think that love or nonviolence is passive and not a radical form of transformative justice, why is nonviolence never an option on the table when it comes to U.S. intervention? Why does it have to be a military strike, limited or otherwise?
Haass: Well in many cases the United States doesn’t use military instruments. In some cases, say in Africa, the principal tool has, say, been aid, to deal with questions of HIV/AIDS or economic development.
In other cases, the principal American tool is diplomacy. In still other instances we may provide arms, but not use them ourselves. Again, I can’t sit here and argue a one-size-fits-all foreign policy. I can’t argue consistency.
I think we’ve got to take each one of these situations, look at all the options for acting. We’ve also got to look at the pros and cons of not acting. So in some cases, hands-off nonviolence might be the smartest and best way to go. In other cases, it could be folly. That’s the decision we’ve got to make.
Tavis: You and I have had this debate before. I never think, ever think, that nonviolence is folly, but that’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it. But since you mentioned Africa and mentioned that oftentimes in Africa diplomacy is the option, sometimes it’s not diplomacy. Sometimes it’s doing absolutely nothing at all.
Bill Clinton famously did not go into Rwanda. That’s not diplomacy, that’s doing nothing. Somalia, we were late. That’s doing nothing. In Congo, we’re late. That’s doing nothing.
So it’s not just diplomacy. It’s that sometimes we choose to go certain places in Africa and elsewhere, and sometimes we do not. How do you make that distinction, Richard?
Haass: Look, again, inconsistency may or may not be a virtue, but it’s certainly a reality. In each instance I think you’ve got to look at your interests, you’ve got to look at what would happen if you, or what would be likely to happen if you were to, say, use force or another tool of diplomacy.
What would be the consequences, the benefits, and the costs? Then you’ve got to make a decision, both in the narrow. You’ve got to look at the immediate situation, then you’ve also got to take a step back and say if we were to do this, what would this mean for our other interests?
What tools or what resources would this absorb? What might be the consequences of that? So in the case, say, of Syria, you’ve got to ask yourself what would be likely to happen if the United States were to act or not act, and what would be the likely consequences for other American interests not just there but throughout the Middle East or in Asia.
To use a media metaphor, the United States doesn’t have the luxury, Tavis, of narrowcasting.
We broadcast, and anything we do or don’t do, say or don’t say in one context gets heard, and people take their cues around the world.
Tavis: How is it, to your point, though, that we can assume that there are consequences to our not acting in Syria as if there’s another side to that equation? There are going to be consequences if and when we do act in Syria. Why don’t we talk about the former and not the latter?
Haass: Well, we’ve got to talk about both. To some extent, what’s happened in Syria, people have argued with some validity, that this is in part a consequence of the United States doing very little.
I think by and large, I begin from the premise that the world is not a perfect place and that when the United States doesn’t act, some forces, in many cases that are dark or evil, will fill the vacuum.
On the other hand, I take your point. I think we’ve got to be really, really careful about saying what are the likely consequences in Syria if we do do certain things? What might it mean on the ground? What kind of outcomes might we set in motion? How might American use of military force, how might it be responded to?
Those are exactly the right questions to ask. Look, to be honest, you’re not necessarily going to get answers you can be 100 percent confident of. There’s always a degree of imprecision here and unpredictability, but again, you can’t throw up your hands and say, “Too hard.” You’ve got to take your least bad choice that’s available to you.
Tavis: I think you and I both agree here, Richard, that this debate about Syria, what to do or what not to do, or U.S. diplomacy or engagement or the lack thereof with Syria did not start with Obama drawing this line.
But I certainly do not see drawing a line and daring someone to cross it as diplomacy. In my neighborhood, we call that playing a game of chicken, and once you lose the game of chicken you had better be prepared to do something.
That’s not the moment to then run to Congress for cover to try to get their support. So let me ask you point-blank whether or not drawing that line was a mistake, and if not a mistake, do you call that diplomacy?
Haass: Well, I actually think the president’s made several mistakes in the way he’s spoken about Syria. One was early on, saying that President Assad must go, and President Assad didn’t go, so already we began, I think, to look weak.
Then, as you say, he drew this line. I only would have drawn it if I were prepared to back it up. I don’t think it made sense to draw it, then to not act in the face of various examples of Syrian chemical weapons use.
Then at the 11th hour on Saturday to introduce now this new consideration of going to the Congress. I just don’t think this is a smart way or a good way to conduct foreign policy, and I believe the president, as a result, has raised the stakes for himself, for the rest of his presidency, and indeed for his successors. I really don’t think this has been well handled at all.
Tavis: Some have made the argument that what the president has done by going to Congress for cover is a number of things, and you’ve laid out a few mistakes you think he’s made. Others have argued that what he has done is to weaken the power of the presidency into the future.
That is to say if you believe that you are right, and if you believe you have the authority and the power to make that decision, why did you not just do it as opposed to going to Congress for cover? Does that not in the future make presidents weaker?
Haass: It was out on Saturday because the president explicitly said he believes he has the authority to act. Then a minute later he said nevertheless he was going to go to Congress.
He’s now raised the risk of not getting congressional support. Then we’re put in the position where either we don’t act, with all the consequences of that, or we have a real constitutional crisis on our hands if the president were to act all the same.
Or just as likely, if not more likely, is the possibility that Congress gives him a yellow light rather than agreeing or a red light. That the Congress essentially says you can only act in certain ways for so long, which would tie his hands. All of this, I think, the president will come to rue.
I think he’ll come to regret all this, and also other people around the world are taking note. I think they’re noticing this in North Korea, I think they’re noticing this in Iran, I think they’re noticing this in Israel.
Friends and foes alike are going to recalibrate their expectations of American behavior based upon this.
Tavis: You mentioned a number of countries just now, Richard, in the region. Off that list is Egypt. So let me ask how it is that whether we want to call it a military coup or not – there are many of us who believe that’s exactly what it was – even if you don’t want to call it a military coups, hundreds of persons, hundreds upon hundreds dead in Egypt now.
How do we justify doing something in Syria but doing nothing in Egypt? To my mind, whether you’re gassed or whether you’re gunned, you’re dead either way.
Haass: Well, seems to me there’s a massive difference in scale between what’s going on in Syria – more than 100,000 people have lost their lives; two million people have been turned into refugees, 4.5 million people are internally displaced – and what has gone on in Egypt.
That’s not to justify or defend what has gone on in Egypt, but I do think there’s a fundamental discrepancy in scale here. In Egypt, again, we were faced with an imperfect situation. The administration, I believe, has taken essentially the right tack at this point, which is giving the military there some rope to try to see of democracy can’t get put back on the tracks, to work with this interim government.
You’re right – the word “coup” was not used, because that would trigger the cutoff of American aid, and I’m one of those who believe that whatever little influence we have would be lost if the United States were to cut off aid precipitously.
Sometimes you’ve got to be practical in how you deal with these situations and think about the long term rather than about the immediate.
Tavis: I think I want to close where our conversation began, and that is back to your book, “Foreign Policy Begins at Home.” I take the point you raised earlier – I’m not sure I agree with it, but I take the point that it’s not either-or but both-and.
That we can address these issues at home and, if one chooses, engage in a limited military strike in Syria. But it still raises this question – how it is that our leaders can agree to drop bombs in Syria or anyplace else, for that matter, but they can’t agree on basic domestic issues at home, like minimum wage, like food stamps.
I can, again, run the list all night long. But how is it that we can agree to go drop bombs and kill some people, but we can’t agree to take care of our own citizens here at home?
Haass: Well first of all, it’s not clear we can agree on foreign policy. This is going to be a close-run vote, certainly in the House of Representatives, and I would say there’s very little consensus right now in the Congress or in the United States about this country’s role in the world.
But at the end of the day, look, we’re going to pay a price on both sides. By that I mean if you think of national security as a coin, and one side is foreign policy and one side is domestic and economic policy, we’ve got to get both sides of it right.
I’m worried about our politics right now, which are getting in the way, if you will, of either dimension of national security.
Tavis: Richard Haass, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations. Always delighted to have him on this program and to hear his unique insights. Richard, thank you for the conversation, and I’m sure in the coming days we’ll be talking to you again as this crisis is just beginning in so many ways.
Haass: Great, Tavis, always good to be with you.
Tavis: Thank you, Richard.
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