HomeAbout Think TankAbout Ben WattenbergPrevious ShowsWhere to WatchSpecials


Watch Videos and Listen to Podcasts at ThinkTankTV.com

  « Back to America, Quo Vadis? Part 1 main page
TranscriptsGuestsRelated ProgramsFeedback

Transcript for:

America, Quo Vadis? Part 1

Mr. Wattenberg: Hello Iím Ben Wattenberg. Arguments about military strategies for the conflict in Iraq fill the news but do they squeeze out a discussion about Americaís broader foreign policy challenges in the regions. Do all roadís lead to the Middle East? What are the limits of diplomacy? Todayís central question is ďAmerica Quo VadisĒ the latin for ďwither goest thou?Ē To find out Think Tank is joined by ambassador Dennis Ross, a central figure in the Middle East peace process under both President George H. W. Bush and President Clinton councilor and distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of The Fight for Middle East Peace and by Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, former editorial editor of the Wall Street Journal and author of most recently War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History 1500 to Today. The topic before the house; America Quo Vadis, this Week on Think Tank.

Mr. Wattenberg: Max Boot, welcome to Think Tank. Dennis Ross, welcome to Think Tank. Max, youíve been on the program before. This is your first time, and I hope not the last. So Max, why donít you first give us a little bit about your background and then the same with you, Dennis and then letís pick it up from there.

Mr. Boot: Well, I used to be a journalist. I guess you could argue in some ways I still am. I worked for a decade at the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal and for the last five years or so Iíve been a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Iíve written several...

Mr. Wattenberg: The Council is pretty eclectic. I mean, hawks, doves, moderates, is that right?

Mr. Boot: Right. It doesnít have an ideological bend unlike some other think tanks. And you know, Iím primarily a military historian. Iíve written a couple of books in the last two years on -- one called The Savage Wars of Peace about Americaís history of small wars and a more recent one called War Made New about the impact of revolutions and military affairs on the course of world events in the past 500 years, and so while looking to history for guidance on histories of the present day, I also do some journalistic writing and write a weekly foreign affairs column for the L.A. Times as well as for some other publications as well.

Mr. Wattenberg: Great. Dennis, you want to give us a little background?

Mr. Ross: Yeah, I...

Mr. Wattenberg: Youíre also a Californian, but youíre both from California?

Mr. Ross: Weíre both from California, although heís from southern California; Iím from northern California. But I went to school at UCLA...

Mr. Wattenberg: Oh, did you?

Mr. Ross: ...so that makes me almost from southern California.

Mr. Wattenberg: Itís a great school.

Mr. Ross: I went into the government directly out of academia and I was in the Pentagon, in the State Department and on the National Security Council staff. I eventually became our negotiator in the Middle East under...

Mr. Wattenberg: Under both republicans and democrats.

Mr. Ross: I came in in the Pentagon during the Carter administration as a Civil Servant. I worked in the Reagan Administration as both a Civil Servant and then a political appointee because I went to NSC then. I was a political appointee under President Bush 41 and I was a political appointee under President Clinton.

Mr. Wattenberg: Okay. What is the value in diplomacy of steel?

Mr. Boot: Well, I think itís very hard to have successful negotiations against somebody who doesnít fear you or doesnít think that there are serious consequences from not reaching a deal, so I think itís essential to have a strong stick, even if you keep it only in your pocket, but it has to be there and the people you negotiate with know it has to be there, otherwise they have no real incentives to make concessions to you and any deal you reach is going to be incredibly one-sided in their favor.

Mr. Wattenberg: Do you buy that?

Mr. Ross: Well, Iím someone who actually served as a negotiator for a long time and so the fact is, actually I do buy that. I think no negotiation works without leverage. There are different ways to express leverage. Thereís different ways to demonstrate it, but you have to be respected, you have to be feared, there has to be a consequence for non-responsiveness. Now, does that always have to mean that itís the military that youíre wielding? No. But you have to be seen as capable and you have to be seen as being capable of imposing consequences for those who donít go along.

Mr. Wattenberg: Let me ask you to do a little role playing, if thatís what it is. It is said that American foreign policy is a blend of realism and idealism. And the idealists go back to John Winthrop and the city on the hill as Ronald Reagan famously used to point out again, and George Washington sort of said go slow and you can fast forward to Woodrow Wilson who was an idealist and who had isolationism. So Max, why donít you be the neo-con idealist, and Dennis, let me assign you the role of realist and Henry Kissinger of course was a famous realist, and Richard Nixon. I guess Franklin Roosevelt goes to your side and letís have a little colloquy and say...

Mr. Boot: Yeah, I think I get most of the presidents, Iím afraid (laughter).

Mr. Wattenberg: Most of the idealists.

Mr. Boot: Most of the presidents. I mean, when you look at presidents, there arenít a lot of reale politickers other than Nixon and the elder Bush maybe.

Mr. Ross: Right. Thatís right.

Mr. Wattenberg: And Clinton.

Mr. Boot: I donít think -- I wouldnít...

Mr. Ross: Also an interesting blend.

Mr. Wattenberg: Yeah. I mean, he was, as in a lot of things...

Mr. Ross: But the American ethos is such that most presidents will be idealists because you know, in a sense we have a perception of ourselves. Our own self image sees us in exceptional terms. We see ourselves...

Mr. Wattenberg: Thatís that famous phrase American exceptionalism. We really think we are the city on a hill.

Mr. Ross: Right. So I mean, in many respects, not to prevent us from role playing, but in many respects, itís not surprising that most American presidents who want to have a role in the world are going to have to explain that role in terms that fit the American self image and American values.

Mr. Boot: Keep in mind that America is one of the few countries which is not based upon blood or nationality; it was really based on a principle and an idea and so as Dennis says, itís very hard for us to have a foreign policy where that idea is not central to it. I think the most successful presidents have been those who combine idealism and goals and realism and how to achieve those goals, and my personal heroes are presidents who I think exemplify that such as Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan. I think those were all very generally successful presidents, although not always seemed successful at the time, but ones who kind of transcended this reale politick versus idealism divide and you know, some people, Henry Kissinger for example, likes to create this false dichotomy between Woodrow Wilson, the idealist on the one hand, and Teddy Roosevelt, the cold-eyed reale politicker on the other, which is just nonsense because, you know, Teddy Roosevelt is the guy who had a plaque on his desk which said that fighting for the good is the greatest sport that the world affords and he was the man who wanted us to go into Cuba to free the poor liberated (sic) to liberate the poor oppressed Cubans from Spanish oppression where it was almost impossible to find any kind of national security interest in freeing the Cubans, and yet he was determined to do it. And yet in office he also was very prudent in the use of power and sometimes did very reale politick things such as negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War and playing a broker without any Ė- who is often willing to make kind of hardheaded comprises of the kind that I guess Dennis will admire because Roosevelt was a good negotiator. So I donít want to resist your little colloquy here, Iím happy to do it, but I have to say that, I mean, the people I admire most are those who can weave these two strands most strongly together and I think any president who goes too far in one direction or the other is apt to be unsuccessful.

Mr. Ross: What youíre actually finding from the two of us is weíre each resisting the idea of being cast in that particular pristine category.

Mr. Wattenberg: Thatís because youíre smart people and you know itís a plan, but letís go a little bit, and you can say when you do.

Mr. Ross: Well, let me just say, look, a realist is someone who is Ė- doesnít want to engage in emotional binges in foreign policy, thinks we donít have an interest in what goes on in the internal affairs of other states, and basically is government more by what are known as hardheaded national interests and much less by what is seen as fuzzy values.

What Max was saying before about those presidents that heís most attracted to is that they combine both.

Mr. Wattenberg: Absolutely.

Mr. Ross: They have a sense of important values because they have to reflect who America is. Very hard for us to rationalize involvement internationally if itís based on something seen as having not a purpose that is sufficiently high-minded to justify that involvement. But by the same token, you have to have the means to be able to act on what youíre objectives are and what your values are, or at least what youíre pursuing. So what I was about to say before is that what is key here to any successful president or administration in foreign policy is to know how to define your objectives in a way that respond to what are important values, important purposes, but have the means to do it.

If you create objectives that you can never achieve, then you end up discrediting yourself in the process and building cynicism. Too many realists have a cynical view of the world. Even though Iím asked to be a realist, one of the reasons itís hard for me to be a realist from that standpoint is Iím not cynical.

Mr. Wattenberg: Yes because most Americans are sort of inherently optimistic. I mean, they come from a background where, with ups and downs, it worked. And you know, itís said that Americaís the greatest success story in history and I believe it.

Mr. Boot: Well, and reale politick is really not an American tradition. Itís really a European 19th century tradition which traces back to Talleyrand and Metternich, these great European statesmen of the early to mid 19th century and the reason why they were as they were was because they were representing monarchies which were essentially trying to hold back the tides of history. They were essentially status quo politicians who were negotiating with other status quo politicians who shared their assumptions and would try to freeze in place the political arrangements of monarchical Europe at that time.

Now, weíve never really had that tradition in this country because weíve always been a threat to the established order of things, the upstart young republic dedicated to the proposition that all men are created with inalienable rights. Thereís always been a tremendous threat to authoritarian regimes or totalitarian regimes everywhere around the world, so itís very hard for us to have this engrained tradition of cynical reale politick calculation which is really designed to keep the status quo in place. Thatís not who weíre about. Weíre about changing the world for the better and thatís why I think there have not been that many prominent reale politickers at the highest level of American politics and in fact, the most prominent of all is somebody who was born in Germany, which I think is indicative ofÖ

Mr. Wattenberg: And Poland. Dr. Brzezinski.

Mr. Boot: Right.

Mr. Wattenberg: I mean, I was told of a conversation that George Soros, who was born in Hungary and Felix Rohatyn who was a French Jew and Bernard Schwartz was an American industrialist who happens to be one of our principle funders here, but heís an extremely successful businessman born in the United States. And Soros and Rohatyn were saying, ďMy God, itís never going to work, we have so much inflation. The world is sort of in an inevitable downward spiral and Spangler and all this kind of stuff.Ē And of course Schwartz held the opposite opinion. And he talked to me about it later and he said, ďThey donít get it. Theyíre nice guys, but they werenít born here. They donít get the success line, the through line of Ė- that humanity can be successful.Ē

Mr. Ross: Well, we also have very much a can-do spirit. I mean our own history is a reflection of that. Weíre problem-solvers, almost by instinct. So when youíre a problem-solver by instinct, when you have a kind of can-do ethos, itís pretty hard not to be optimistic or at least see ways to get around problems. Weíre not content to simply look at a problem and say you canít do anything about it.

Mr. Wattenberg: Yeah, but I mean, that of course has its downside. I mean, in the Middle East we say ďWhereís the solution?Ē or in Ireland or wherever, whereís the solution, whereís the solution and itíll be a long time coming.

Mr. Ross: Well, it can be. But that gets back to where we started on the issue of democracy. You also take along the perspective. You know, to be someone who is serious about negotiations, you have to see things as they are; you canít see what you would like to be, you have to see things as they are, have a sense of strategy about how to get from where you are to where youíd like to go, understand where your points of leverage are, understand who can also be helpful in this process. How do you influence those that you want to be able to effect? How do you change the minds or the behavior of those whose behavior has to change? We come back to where we started in terms of you have to have leverage. Where the realist in international relations understands the importance of leverage, what I would call practical idealists also understand the importance of leverage. So there is a relationship of all the tools you have at your disposal when youíre engaging in foreign policy. There has to be a coercive tool by definition because the world isnít such a simple place.

Mr. Wattenberg: Absolutely.

Mr. Ross: But there also has to be the capacity to know how to talk to others, not lecture to them to persuade them. Know how to define your purposes in such a way that others will be willing to identify with you because they also think those are the right purposes.

Mr. Wattenberg: You have been accused of being a woolly-eyed realist now. Will you defend yourself?

Mr. Ross: Yes. Well look, I think that there is a difference and maybe this is a good way to think about ideals and realism. On the one hand Iím idealistic enough to believe that itís possible to ameliorate that conflict. I said ameliorate it; I didnít say solve it. But I also think realism means that you donít just sit on the sidelines when you can ameliorate it. You canít look at conflicts as if, well, we have war; we have peace, because there are shades in between that and the measure of diplomacy isnít always what you achieve; itís also what you prevent or what you limit or what you contain. Itís about creating environments where if peace isnít possible now you create circumstances where it can be possible later on.

Mr. Wattenberg: Let me ask each of you if you were the principle foreign policy advisor for President George W. Bush or whoever may follow him, male or female, what would you whisper in his or her ear as a guiding precept?

Mr. Boot: Well I guess I would say donít give up and stay on the offensive because given what I think has happened in Iraq there is going to be an Iraq syndrome similar to the Vietnam Syndrome where we are going to want to pull back, lick our wounds and hide behind our oceans.

Mr. Wattenberg: But Max, we donít know yet what is going to happen in Iraq. I mean we may prevail.

Mr. Boot: Well it almost doesnít matter at this point even if somehow we do prevail it is going to be so costly, so bitter and so unpleasant that it is still going to be a situation that we will be eager not to repeat in the future. And I think there is still going to be a tendency to ďlook homeward AmericaĒ as there was in the 1970ís and I think that would be a huge mistake. And remember what happened in the 1970ís, we looked homeward, 2 million Cambodians died, Afghanistan was invaded, all sorts of bad things happened before we regained our nerve and our courage under Ronald Reagan. And I would hope that the next president, whoever he or she is going to be, will not let us, will not put us in that defensive crouch that we were in during the Carter administration. Even though we suffered terrible setbacks in Iraq we have tremendous power. As youíve said we are still the only truly great power in the world and we should use our power because as youíve also said, and I completely agree, American power has by and large, not always, but by and large a force for good in the world. And I think the world will really spin out of control if we donít stay actively engaged in global leadership, and we have to do that. But there are going to be strong impulses on the left and the right not to do that and I think and I think that the next president has to resist that, has to make clear that America will stay strong no matter what happens in Iraq.

Mr. Ross: There is a lot of areas where we may diverge but there is also a basic general principle I think where we converge. I too believe that we have to continue to play a very active central role internationally. I think it is not a good thing when Americaís power either isnít respected or we are not feared or in a sense when we say something others feel they donít have to pay attention to it. So I would look to have us actively engaged. I would try to create a better blend between what we say and what we do to reestablish our credibility. I would do a lot to make sure we have a military instrument we can actually use. Iím very worried about how stretched our forces are, how much weíve used up, in a sense the kind of logistic underpinnings for the American military. And I would focus heavily on showing that we can play a positive role in the world in a way that demonstrates that we can deliver goods, certain public goods, so that we reestablish and rebuild the American image internationally.

Mr. Wattenberg: Is America the worldís policemen or the closest thing we have towards a law, a rule of law west of the Pecos?

Mr. Boot: I think we are and we have to be. I think weíve really inherited the role of the British Empire played which was to be this kind of off shore balancer and global policeman. We have to play that role because when you think about I if we donít, whose going to step into the breach? The UN isnít going to do it. NATO isnít going to do it. There is nobody else out there. Now we canít do the entire thing ourselves because even though our military spending is vast and as you say, bigger than the rest of the world combined, our ground forces are fairly finite and much smaller now than they were even 10 years ago. And we certainly donít have the troops or the will to send our forces all over the world to fight these endless empyreal brush fire wars that the British fought. So we have to use our allies to the greatest extent possible. I think we also have to extend the size of our armed forces to get them back to the level that they were at at the end of the cold war. But the important thing is that we have to take on this responsibility of being the worldís international policeman and itís not a simple act of charity.

Mr. Wattenberg: But thatís broadly seen. We are not the constable saying ďyou have to do thisĒ but as a general..

Mr. Boot: Right, but I think we do have to be that constable working with a posse of our allies. And when you say that people kind of rear up and they say ďwe donít like the sound of thatĒ and ďwhat business of that is oursĒ but the fact is this is not an act of charity. We are the greatest power in the world today we are the richest nation, we are the biggest beneficiaries of this liberal international democratic world order that we have to champion. Because if we donít champion it vast parts of the world could easily spin of into conflicts that will have tremendous repercussions and costs for us. It could be direct, like terrorism emanating from Afghanistan or Iraq, places like that. Or it could be arms races in east Asia or in eastern Europe or elsewhere which create instability and which hurt America in the long run. And the cost that we pay for defending the world is still fairly small.

Mr. Wattenberg: Thatís liberal in the old European sense not the contemporary American sense.

Mr. Boot: Right. Yeah, itís this classical liberal order which we can afford to guarantee because even though our spending is vast as you say, we are still spending only about 4 percent of our gross domestic product on defense. 4 cents on the dollar.

Mr. Wattenberg: Which is less than half of what it was during the Vietnam era.

Mr. Boot: Exactly itís a very affordableÖ

Mr. Wattenberg: It was 30 percent during World War 2.

Mr. Boot: Right, itís a good bargain because we are getting a lot of security for it which we often take for granted. The fact, for example, that the US Navy dominates every ocean in the world, we donít think about it. But if it didnít dominate every ocean in the world our transoceanic trade could be in trouble and our economy depends on those cargo container ships getting safely around the world and oil tankers and all the rest of it. So we have to have that sort of guarantee because if we donít do it you could have piracy, terrorism, rouge regimes, weapons of mass destruction, there are huge dangers out there. Everybody else spends all there time castigating the United States as this rouge power out-of-control, but at the end of the day they rely upon us and they realize that there is nobody else they count on in a crunch.

Mr. Ross: I would say that we do have a role to play. Letís also think about a lot of the other instrumentalities that we may have to try to make the world a more stable safe place and to build also the acceptability of American power and influence. Iíd like to see us much more active in terms of trying to mediate conflicts. We are going to have to contend with conflicts around the world that you want to try to resolve. We are going to have to contend with the increasing emergence of failing or failed states which become in a sense sanctuaries for terrorist operatives. So weíve got to have an approach that isnít only a military mindset weíve got to have an approach that looks at where the potential threats are going to be emerging and in many respects they are different than before. We face a world where in a sense fewer and fewer are able to threaten more and more. Thatís a new phenomenon and the answer isnít always going to be the use of military for to deal with it. So weíve got to develop some of the other instruments for dealing with it.

Mr. Wattenberg: Terrorism has been with us for a long, long time and there really is no solution to it.

Mr. Ross: Thereís one big difference though. In the past terrorism was usually a function of state support and with states you can hold them accountable. You had an address. Now we have non-state actors that are able to operate and they use failing states to be able to do it. So itís pretty hard to hold them accountable.

Mr. Boot: They also have more power than states used to have. When you think about what happened on 9/11 when 19 guys armed with box cutters killed more Americans than the entire empyreal Japanese navy did on December 7th 1941. Thatís the threat that we now face.

Mr. Wattenberg: But they were backed by a state. I mean they had a home and they had a mailing address in Afghanistan essentially.

Mr. Boot: Well they had a refuge, but it wasnítÖ

Mr. Wattenberg: But the guy who triggered World War 1 by assassinating the Archduke of Ferdinand. Princep, was that his name?

Mr. Boot: Yeah, Princep, the Serbian black hand group.

Mr. Wattenberg: Iím sorry?

Mr. Boot: the Serbian black hand terrorist group.

Mr. Wattenberg: Were they backed by a state?

Mr. Boot: Well I think thatís a matter of dispute because I think that was one of the reasons why Austria gave the demarche to Serbia because they thought that Serbia was in fact sponsoring them. But I donít know what the truth of that is I think that remains in dispute.

Mr. Ross: In the past there were circumstances were you had reason to believe that states were behind terrorist groups. And when that was the case deterrents could work because you could hold somebody accountable. Its increasingly difficult today, Iím not saying that that reality has disappeared because in many places it hasnít disappeared, but Al-Qaeda as a phenomenon doesnít necessarily depend on state support. So one of the things you have to do is you have to have, you have to think about how you create circumstances where you increasingly discredit radical Islamists in the Muslim world. Thatís not exclusively, thatís certainly not a military project per se. We have to look at what our role internationally is going to be. Nobody else can play the role we do. Thatís a fact. But that role has manifestations: military manifestations, diplomatic manifestations, economic manifestations, intelligence manifestations. And we have to think about how we orchestrate all those tools effectively especially in an international landscape that looks different than it did before.

Mr. Boot: Iím a military historian but I find myself agreeing with Dennis and Iíve long thought, I think the problems in Afghanistan and Iraq show, that we canít simply rely on our military power. And just as we have a department of war, or the department of defense as we call it today, we need a department of peace with experts in reconstruction and state building and all these disciplines which are in such short supply because as Dennis says, failed states are one of the biggest problems that we face and we have to get much better at dealing with those realities.

Mr. Wattenberg: O.K. we will have to end it for the moment. Dennis Ross and Max Boot thanks so much for joining us on Think Tank. And Thank You. Please remember to join us for a future episode when we will continue our discussion about Americaís foreign policy challenges. Also, please remember to send us you comments via email, we think it makes our program better. For Think Tank Iím Ben Wattenberg.

Back to top

Think Tank is made possible by generous support from the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, the Dodge Jones Foundation, and Pfizer, Inc.

©Copyright Think Tank. All rights reserved.
BJW, Inc.  New River Media 

Web development by Bean Creative.