Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass

Council on Foreign Relations president describes why he believes the U.S. has made a mistake by escalating its goals in the Libyan conflict.

A widely respected foreign policy expert, Richard Haass has been president of the Council on Foreign Relations since '03. He previously served in various posts in the Defense and State Departments and was a principal adviser to Colin Powell. He also served as U.S. coordinator for policy on the future of Afghanistan and as the lead U.S. official for Northern Ireland's peace process. Haass is a Rhodes Scholar and author/editor of eleven books on American foreign policy, including War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars.


Tavis: Richard Haass is, of course, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a noted author whose most recent book is “War of Necessity, War of Choice.” He joins us tonight from New York. Richard Haass, always an honor to have you on this program, sir.
Richard Haass: Thank you, Tavis, good to be back.
Tavis: Let’s jump right in. We are now engaged in three wars simultaneously in three Muslim countries. Does that disturb you?
Haass: Well, the answer is yes, but not because necessarily we’re involved in three wars. I can imagine we could be involved in three wars, and in each case you might say this was a good decision and it’s being conducted in a good way. My problem here is I don’t think that applies. As you know, I did not support the 2003 Iraq war. I thought that was a war of choice, and a bad one.
Secondly, while I supported the original decision after 9/11 to go into Afghanistan and remove the Taliban, I do not support what we’ve decided to do over the past two years, which is triple our military footprint in the country and to essentially become a protagonist in Afghanistan’s war against the Taliban.
Then most recently, as I expect you know, I do not support the decision to initiate a no-fly zone or a no-fly zone plus in Libya. I believe essentially now we’ve become involved in yet another war of choice. In this case, we become a protagonist supporting the opposition in Libya’s civil war.
Tavis: You have just laid out your reasons why you are opposed to it. The Obama administration sees it differently, obviously. The line out of the White House today is that a humanitarian crisis has been averted because we got involved. That’s what they’d say to you, Richard Haass.
Haass: I know that argument. Look, I can’t roll history back, and of course, it’s conceivable that that’s the case, but I simply don’t see it that way. This is a civil war, and in civil war when people take up arms against a government they have to expect they’re putting themselves at great risk.
But this was something, Tavis, that was shaping up in any way, say, like Rwanda. This was not a war in which one ethnic group was out to eliminate or commit genocide against another ethnic group. This was not even Iraq, where you had all sorts of sectarian violence between and among Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds.
Rather, this was something that was narrower. It was political. In that sense, again, it was a civil war. So I do not believe that it was the intention of the government of Qadhafi, and this is not to defend that government, but I do not believe it was their intention to essentially try to eliminate a large segment of the Libyan population. I do not think this was a humanitarian crisis on anything like, say, the scale of Rwanda, Darfur or the Balkans.
Tavis: Since you mention Darfur, I think it’s pretty clear to most Americans – it certainly is to me – that we, the U.S., have not stepped up in Darfur as we could or certainly as we, one might argue, should – I’ll let you decide what word you want – but could or should, we have not stepped up as we might in Darfur, and yet we jump right into Libya.
My radio partner on “Smiley & West,” Princeton Professor Cornel West, said this on our show the other day, Richard, that, “Were there artichokes in Libya and not oil, we might not have jumped so fast.” Is that cynical on Dr. West’s part? Because I’m asking how it is that we decide to jump into Libya so quickly but can’t step up our game in a place like Darfur.
Haass: Well, I don’t think we want to have a long conversation about Darfur. I think there were moments the United States could have gotten involved. What made it awfully complicated was the splintering of the various groups and also the fact that you really had two separate conflicts – one in the south and one in Darfur in the west.
Some of the things that you might have done to deal with Darfur could have led to the unwinding of the north-south agreement. So it was an awfully complicated agreement.
I take the argument that obviously one of the reasons we care about Libya is its oil. It produces about 2 percent of the world’s oil. But I don’t think that’s the real reason the United States is involved here. I think it’s in part because some people did see this as a potential humanitarian crisis. I think they misread the situation.
I also believe the administration is worried that if they don’t act in Libya, somehow that will lead to a turning of the tide against progressive or pro-democracy forces throughout the Middle East. Again, I think that’s a misreading of the situation.
I believe Libya is essentially a one-off, and ironically enough the only way you got that Arab League support for the UN resolution to do something was because the Arab League essentially doesn’t much like Qadhafi. They don’t respect him, so they were willing to see the world take action against him, because quite honestly they didn’t see him as one of theirs, so to speak.
Tavis: In hindsight, the Obama administration may be right that a humanitarian crisis was avoided, but that, again, is in hindsight. Going into it on the front side, one of the things that concerned me, and I’m curious as to your take, was a lack of clarity on what the goals were.
I was clear on what we were going to do in terms of getting involved with our allies, but I wasn’t clear from our perspective what the end game was, what the goal was. Was it removing Qadhafi? You tell me. But how did you read this on the front side, not the back side?
Haass: Well, there’s a lack of clarity. The United States has talked about the necessity of Qadhafi going, but the UN resolution that the world signed up to does not talk about that. It simply talks about his not going ahead and pressing the attack on a principal Libyan city in the east of the country and pulling back from a number of other cities. So there’s a disconnect, if you will, between the U.S. goals, which are more ambitious, and the goals the international community are signed up to, which are more limited.
But let me say one other thing, Tavis, if I might. Even if the administration was right, and again, I’m not granting it, that it was a humanitarian crisis at hand, there were lots of other things the United States could have done other than implement this no-fly zone. There were other things we could have done with sanctions; there were other things we could have done with diplomacy.
Now we’ve got the problem that we’ve begun a military operation and it’s not at all obvious not just to me, but I would say to anyone about what we do next.
Imagine Qadhafi tomorrow complies with this UN resolution. He pulls back from these critical Libyan cities. Then what? Do we then have to send in an international force to separate him from the opposition? What if you have the situation where he complies with the resolution and the opposition reads it as weakness and they decide to press the fight to him? What then?
I can give you a dozen scenarios, but I simply don’t think the military component of this was at all thought through. We simply haven’t – it’s as if we’re playing chess one move at a time rather than two, three or four moves at a time.
Tavis: When Warren Christopher died, former secretary of State, of course, some days ago, I went, Richard, into my vault to see when the last time was he appeared on this program, what we were talking about, and as a tribute to him in part I replayed a couple nights ago on this program a piece of my conversation with him where we talked extensively about diplomacy. This was a conversation about, quite frankly, the lack of diplomacy on the part of the U.S. in certain places around the globe.
I was raising the question, whatever happened to the notion of real diplomacy? So here we are tonight, you raise this issue again. Again, was it just me, or was there really not the kind of effort at diplomacy on our part before we jumped in this thing so quickly?
Haass: I believe we made a mistake by escalating our goals. By calling for the ouster of Qadhafi and also initiating war crimes proceedings against him, we remove whatever little incentive he had to compromise. So very quickly, we took diplomacy off the board, so we were left then with either sanctions, which were never going to work fast enough to get the outcome we wanted, or using military force.
So I think we were unwise in escalating our goals, and all of this against a backdrop where none of us, not you, not me, can sit here with any confidence and say, “We know exactly what the opposition would do if we succeeded in getting rid of Mr. Qadhafi, whether it was through diplomacy or anything else.” We don’t really know what would be the agenda or the character of the group we’re helping.
So again, I really wonder about jumping in with both feet with so much uncertainty about the consequences of what it is we’re doing.
Tavis: Obviously, nothing we do today is disconnected from what we did or did not do yesterday. That is to say that there are seven presidents that have had relations in one way, shape or form with Qadhafi, oftentimes normalized relations. What do we make of the fact that he now is a tyrant, as if that happened overnight, but seven presidents have dealt with the situation? How do you read that?
Haass: I read that as this is the real world. Yes, he’s a tyrant, but at times he was also willing to make some decisions that we liked. He was willing to give up his weapons of mass destruction. He was willing to work against al Qaeda. We deal in a world – we may not like it – where we’ve got shades of grey. You’ve got people who are at one and the same time evil, but they could also do things that are in our interest.
So it’s again we’ve got to sometimes deal with the world as it is rather than try to force it into an all-Black or all-white setting. Here now we’re only dealing with Qadhafi as if he were simply evil incarnate, and while he has that dimension, there are other dimensions as well.
Again, as you started out this conversation, this is all against the backdrop of two other conflicts in the region, a mounting budget deficit. So we’ve really got to ask ourselves, is this the right policy for the United States at this time? As you can tell from what I’ve said tonight, I have my doubts.
Tavis: The president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass. Always honored to have you on the program. Richard, as always, thanks for sharing your insights. I appreciate your time.
Haass: Thanks for having me, Tavis.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm