Dr. Richard Haass, Council on Foreign Relations

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The author of Foreign Policy Begins at Home weighs in on U.S. options for the escalating crises in Syria, Ukraine, Libya and other powder kegs.

A widely respected foreign policy expert, Richard Haass has been president of the Council on Foreign Relations for more than a decade. His extensive government experience includes various posts in the defense and state departments, principal adviser to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and serving in the administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. He was U.S. coordinator for policy on the future of Afghanistan and the lead U.S. official for Northern Ireland's peace process. Haass is a Rhodes Scholar and author/editor of 12 books on American foreign policy, including Foreign Policy Begins at Home, in which he argues that the biggest threat to the U.S. comes from within.


Tavis: After taking a beating for his statement at a press conference last week that his administration had no strategy for combating ISIS and the violence in Syria, President Obama has now called for an international coalition to go after the terrorist group and has ordered 350 additional troops to Iraq, bringing the total to just under 1,000.

Joining us tonight to talk about U.S. options for Syria, Ukraine, Libya and other powder kegs is Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations who joins us tonight from New York. Dr. Haass, as always, sir, an honor to have you on this program.

Dr. Richard Haass: It’s great to be back, Tavis.

Tavis: So the president spoke earlier today and, again, last week didn’t know what he wanted to do. But today was very clear that the goal regarding ISIS, or ISIL, is to “degrade and destroy.” That’s the phrase of the day, degrade and destroy.

I saw Chuck Hagel, Defense Secretary, on CNN earlier today saying the same thing, so they are on message; the administration is, with this notion of degrading and destroying. So, Richard Haass, what do you make of that strategy?

Haass: Well, degrading ought to be possible. Destroying is very hard with a terrorist organization ’cause there’ll always be some individuals who will hold out. But if we are going to degrade, we can’t just degrade in Iraq. They ignore the border. We have to ignore the border. We’ve got to go after them in Syria.

And the hard truth is, Tavis, you can only do so much degrading from the air. Air power that the United States can provide can do some of the work, but ultimately we need a partner on the ground.

Now in Iraq, we have three partners. We have the Iraqi government, we have Kurdish forces and potentially we have some Sunni tribes. The problem in Syria is we don’t have a ground partner.

The president is now calling for an international coalition. If that were to happen, fantastic. It would have to be a Sunni Arabs as well as some outsiders. We’d also have to decide where would we leave in place the Syrian government and where would we try to replace it and simply go after ISIS.

The problem is, if you can’t get some type of an international coalition, then what? But we’re right to try. We should have pushed it some time ago, but better late than never.

Tavis: Do you think the president is going to have difficulty trying to assemble that coalition of the willing, as the phrase goes?

Haass: I do. Because in order to have real local credibility, it’s going to have to have a large Sunni element. That would probably mean Jordanians, Saudis, some from the UAE. Not impossible because I think these countries have belatedly come to see ISIS as a threat not simply to Iraq or to Syria, but also to themselves.

So it’s possible the president could do it, particularly if the U.S. were to provide certain types of backing. But it’s not going to be easy and it will take some time.

Tavis: I always shudder, Richard, whenever I hear any president talk about destroying a terrorist group. My sense of this is — and you’re the expert here, not me — but my sense is you can get rid of a terrorist, I-S-T. You cannot destroy an ism.

So why is it the presidents set themselves up and tell the American public that our goal here is to destroy something when we know we really can’t ever do that? As Americans, we might not want to hear that, but you can’t destroy this. So why even use that kind of language?

Haass: I’m actually with you. I often compare terrorism to a disease and you can’t eliminate disease. What you can do is attack it. You can reduce your own vulnerability to it. You can increase your ability to bounce back.

We can do all those things against terrorism, but you’re not going to have, you know, the equivalent of the battleship Missouri surrender ceremony like you had, say, after World War II.

What you’re going to have is, at best, and it ought to be our goal, is to seriously weaken these groups, to put them on the defensive and to limit the damage they can do to the world, including ourselves.

Tavis: So it is beyond fascinating for me and I suspect for you as well as the head of the Council on Foreign Relations that just a few weeks ago literally, certainly a few months ago, Assad in Syria was the devil incarnate and now tonight you and others are suggesting that we work with Syria to get rid of ISIS inside their country.

I mean, I understand that foreign policy shifts and changes and you got to deal with the deck that you’ve been dealt. I understand that.

But what do you make of — I see the smirk on your face already. What do you make of this reality that now Syria is going to be our friend in this effort?

Haass: I wouldn’t say they’re our friend, but you might have to have some tacit or even explicit understandings with them. Look, they’re evil. No one watching this should have any illusions about Mr. Assad and his regime.

But everything’s relative and they’re a local threat, but they’re not a global threat like ISIS. So what the United States may need to do is accept that they would control certain parts of Syria.

But in other parts of Syria where the Alawites are not dominate and where the Sunnis are, there I do think there’s a role either for a Pan-Arab force with some international backing or some kind of an international force. Maybe a secular Syrian opposition would also have a potential role there, but some kind of a large force under a Sunni banner.

And there might have to be certain understandings with Mr. Assad that he could stay in power in his part of Syria so long as he left the Syrian civilians alone and so long as he was willing to target ISIS in the part of the country that he still controlled.

So if you call that working with Mr. Assad — and I think it’s fair to say it is — then, again, sometimes in foreign policy, you’ve got to choose and you’ve got to make difficult choices. This is arguably one of those times.

Tavis: I respect that, Richard. As you know, I respect you as a thinker and as a great American. And yet what I’m trying to juxtapose is just months ago, it wasn’t just that Assad was the devil incarnate.

He was the devil incarnate because the Obama administration told us that he had walked across, just obliterated, that line, that red line the president had drawn. The Republicans laughed at Barack Obama because he didn’t do anything when Assad crossed that red line.

And what was the red line? He gassed his own people. He used chemical weapons on his own people. And now I hear you suggesting that maybe the way to deal with this is to allow him under any arrangement to stay in power. This is the guy who just gassed his own people. Make sense of that for me.

Haass: Look, it’s not a place to where any of us wanted to arrive and it’s the result of any number of decisions made over the last three years. I think we made a mistake at first in urging that he depart without thinking hard about what would come after. It’s the same mistake we’ve made in places like Libya and Iraq.

And then once we began that process, we weren’t willing to see it through. We were not willing to make any sizable investment in the Syrian opposition. When he did cross certain red lines such as chemical weapons used, the United States essentially looked the other way.

So we have made a bad situation worse, so we shouldn’t be totally surprised that three and a half years later we wake up and we’ve got a terrible set of options. There’s nothing appetizing out there and we’ve just got to choose the least bad options that are still available.

Tavis: So the president gave Ukraine today — shifting gears — a big fat wet kiss. I mean, his speech was basically a love letter to Ukraine. What do you make of that?

Haass: Well, with limits. The United States is not going to be sending forces to Ukraine. Ukraine is not part of NATO. We have interests there. We have interests in how this plays out, but we do not have legal obligations.

So it’s still a very limited strategy of direct support for Ukraine, arms, intelligence, some training, what have you. But there’s real limits and most of the effort we’re going to make is indirect.

We’re going to try to bolster the rest of NATO where we do have formal obligations. We’re going to look at things like sanctioning Russia even more. We’ll still hold out some diplomatic possibilities for Russia, should Putin want to avail himself of them. We’ll try to reduce Europe’s energy dependence on Russia.

So it’s support for Ukraine, but quite honestly, it’s more rhetorical than real. And under the circumstances, I think that’s probably reasonable.

Tavis: This is nothing new, but today Putin — since you referenced him — took it on the chin vis-à-vis the Obama speech today. If you’re Putin, how do you read what Obama said today to the world community?

Haass: It’s not great surprise, but Mr. Putin doesn’t care so much about his standing in the world community. He cares about his standing in Russia. He cares about his standing in parts of Ukraine and other places where there’s ethnic Russians. So he’s probably pretty comfortable.

What he’s trying to figure out are exactly — in some ways to reference our previous conversation — what are exactly the red lines? What would be the consequences if he were to cross them?

So my own hunch is he’s improvising as much as anything else in trying to figure out exactly what gain versus what pain he will experience depending upon what he does.

Tavis: You created one of the great phrases in foreign policy conversations, “war of choice versus war of necessity,” with your book. A great phrase.

With regard to ISIS and the “war” — I’ll put that in quotes — that we are about to engage in perhaps to try to degrade and destroy, to use the president’s words, is this going to be a war of necessity to your mind or a war of choice?

Haass: I would say it’s getting very close to a war of necessity. And at the risk of getting slightly over-academic here, this is a form of what you would call preemptive self-defense.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves. If we don’t weaken these people significantly, it’s a question of when and not if they attack not only U.S. interests worldwide, but the American homeland itself. So rather than wait for that, I think we do have to act. So, yes, I would put it in the category of necessity.

Tavis: Is it possible for any myriad number of reasons that there are forces, there are leaders in Washington, overstating this? I mean, we know that this is an evil group. But what’s the evidence to suggest that they really have any real intent or any real capability on striking us at the moment?

Haass: Well, there’s been some comments by the head of it that he looks forward to seeing people back again in New York. The fact that they’ve recruited so heavily from the United States and Europe suggests to me that they may well have plans for attacking the United States and Europe through those individuals when they return on their passports. More broadly, what’s so interesting about this group is not just their capacity, but it’s their agenda.

They’re not simply out to destroy and disrupt. They want to create. Now what they want to create is abhorrent to you, it’s abhorrent to me and virtually everybody else tuning in, which is they want to create a seventh century intolerant society where non-believers and others as they see them would have no place in it.

So I take them seriously and I think the United States needs to push back very hard rather than simply wait for them to come after us.

Tavis: Exit question with 30 seconds to go. There’s always the politics. We’ve talked about the policy, now quickly about the politics. How is this going to play on Capitol Hill? Will the president get what he needs to get to do what he needs to do?

Haass: I don’t think the problem is on Capitol Hill. I think there the president’s got quite a bit of support. I think the bigger sales job is with the American people.

There’s a lot of weariness, there’s a lot of reluctance to get involved in the world. The president has got to make the case for why the United States needs to do more in the Middle East, in Europe and I would say also in Asia.

Tavis: Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Richard, your insights are always fascinating. Always delighted to have you on this program.

Haass: Thanks for having me, Tavis.

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Last modified: September 4, 2014 at 2:54 pm