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Richard Haass: ‘For diplomacy to work, you have to have leaders who are both willing and able to compromise’

American diplomat Richard Haass joins the JI podcast for a conversation on America’s role in world affairs, the war in Ukraine, the anniversary of 9/11, Saudi Arabia and Iran

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Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department director of policy planning, testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee January 14, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

This week’s guest on Jewish Insider’s podcast is Richard Haass, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, of which he was previously president for 20 years. Before joining CRC, Haass, formerly special envoy for Northern Ireland, held a number of foreign policy-related posts in the administrations of former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. 

Haass is a noted speaker on American foreign policy and has written multiple books on the subject. He joined co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein for a conversation on America’s role in world affairs, the war in Ukraine, the anniversary of 9/11, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Below are excerpts of the conversation. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On the anniversary of 9/11 and making sure that history doesn’t repeat itself: “History can never be assumed, it has to be taught, and you’ve got to constantly explain not just what happened, but why it happened, why it’s significant, and 9/11 is part of that. Even now, think about it: When you mention Vietnam, or World War II or the Korean War. I mean, the Korean War is often called the Forgotten War. Well, at the time, it wasn’t forgotten. Tens of thousands of Americans lost their lives in it. It was in some ways one of the opening battles, if not the opening battle, of the Cold War. But it’s a reminder that history has a shelf life, and it’s up to us to keep it alive…That’s what Passover is all about. That’s why we have the Seder. The whole idea is that the tradition of Judaism, the consciousness of Judaism, identity of Judaism, can’t be assumed. It’s got to be renewed… we want young people, we want children, to basically discover their Jewish identities… we don’t do that as a country, we don’t teach Americans, we don’t connect Americans with their American identity, with democracy, and it’s one of the reasons we are in trouble, I would say, as a society. So for all the reasons you say, I think it’s important to talk about 9/11.

“But I’d say one other thing…you can also over-learn the lessons of 9/11. And think about it, here we are roughly two decades later, the centerpiece of American foreign policy, the geographical center of American foreign policy, is not the greater Middle East. It’s not Iraq, it’s not Afghanistan. Instead, it’s basically Europe and Asia, which is, I would say, where it should be. Those are the two regions of the world where you have major powers, where you have most of the world’s population, where you have most of the world’s wealth, most of the world’s military capability. So I actually think the reaction to 9/11 was, in some way, something of a distortion to American foreign policy. That so much of our focus, our energy, so many lives, so many dollars, were committed to the Middle East, or the greater Middle East, I think historians of the future will scratch their heads, because they will say, ‘There was no way even if you would’ve, quote unquote, succeeded there, it would have been transforming. You were ignoring or not focusing on the big, almost the larger tectonic plates of history.’ So I think in some ways, it’s important that we not forget 9/11, but also the response to 9/11. We didn’t get a lot of things right, and in some ways, I would argue we overreacted to it, and I think that’s also part of the lesson here.”

On American foreign policy practices: “The two choices for American foreign policy cannot be, when it comes to the Middle East, we either try to transform it on one hand — turn it into a Jeffersonian democracy where everyone’s reading the Federalist Papers in Arabic translation — we can’t have that as one option and the other option is we wash our hands of it. But that’s in some ways, what our foreign policy is. I don’t exaggerate all that much. For years, we pursued a transformational policy, and then we left Afghanistan completely. I was against both. I think we tried to do [too] much, and then I think we decided to do too little. So I take your point, we cannot wash our hands safely of the Middle East. But the alternative to that is not getting too involved… I disagreed with this president [Joe Biden], it’s no secret. He and I talked about it, people know about that…And I actually thought that a few years ago, we had reached a pretty good equilibrium in Afghanistan. [It]wasn’t just me saying this, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others [were] saying [it]. We had a few thousand Americans, we were no longer involved in combat activities, operations, so American casualties had plummeted. We had thousands of contractors and we had thousands of NATO troops. And again, it wasn’t enough to win the war — winning the war meant defeating the Taliban — it wasn’t enough to bring peace. But it was enough to keep the government in power and to avoid a Taliban takeover. I actually thought we had reached a pretty good outcome at an affordable price. This is, again, both administrations — the Trump administration negotiated it, the Biden administration implemented it. It’s enough to make you think that bipartisanship isn’t what it’s often cracked up to be.”

On why congressional agreement shouldn’t be the goal: “I don’t see agreement on foreign policy as a goal. I think smart foreign policy ought to be a goal, and where we disagree, we want to have civil conversation. That’s true of any public policy issue. So right now, whether you think we ought to do what we’re doing vis-à-vis Ukraine, or you think the latest with Iran is good or bad, choose your topic, there’s an unlimited number of topics, and what we should be doing on climate, I don’t expect there to be agreement or consensus. What I’d like there to be is intelligent, pretty civil debate. And people should be careful if they’re in power about changing policies radically, because whatever the case on the merits, I think, ultimately, a lack of consistency or reliability undermines American influence in the world and it’s corrosive for our relationships. But again, my goal is not agreement per se, my goal is to build support for intelligent policies.”

On meeting with controversial world leaders: “I was president of the Council [on Foreign Relations] when we probably had one of our more controversial meetings, [which] was with [former] President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad of Iran. In my view, it was the right thing to do. Again, it’s not legitimizing him, it’s not endorsing him, he exists, he has power. Iran’s a nation state, he’s the elected president of that nation state, so sure, I want him to hear firsthand what involved Americans say, I think, which is what we did. And it gives us a better sense of this individual. So I have no problem with that. You know, Putin, you’ve got other problems because of the legal thing. But as a matter of principle, yeah, I believe it’s fine to meet with Xi Jinping, I believe it’s fine to meet with the president of North Korea, I believe it’s fine to meet with the president of Iran. Again, these are not endorsements, this is simply a recognition that these people are actors with capacity, and they make a difference. That’s why they’re in the U.N. That’s why they’re invited to the G20. You’ve got to take them into account. It was [former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin who said, ‘you don’t make peace with your friends, you make them with your enemies,’ and that was his justification for sitting down with Yasser Arafat.”

On Israel-Saudi normalization: “​​I would say the odds are against it. I mean, we know what the Saudis want, they want a security guarantee and they want a nuclear program. What I don’t know is how unconditional they want the security guarantee and how autonomous they want the nuclear program. And I’m uneasy about both. It’s one of the reasons my enthusiasm for this is finite. Secondly, what the Israelis want is normalization, and what the Americans want is progress on the Palestinian front. They want to put, in particular, they want greater self-governance for the Palestinians and they want greater impediments to new settlements. It’s not clear to me the Israelis could live with what the United States is going to want. So there’s the question of will this come together? Can we agree with the Saudis on the security side? Can we agree with the Israelis and the Palestinian side? Maybe… So, call me skeptical.”

Bonus lightning round: Favorite Yiddish word or phrase? “Well, I’ve got two I like: one is a parent kvelling…[two is] shpilkes. I have extreme shpilkes, so I totally get it. It’s a word I live by.” Favorite Jewish food? “[I] love, more than I should on Friday nights, but my kids make fresh challah. There’s very few things in life that are, when the challah comes out of the oven on a Friday night, it may not be good for your waistline, but it is a good moment in life.” Favorite New York Yankee of all time? “New York Yankee is easy, I grew up with Mickey Mantle.” Favorite secretary of state of all time? “The one I worked with the most, out of all the secretaries of state, was Jim Baker. I think the three great modern secretaries of state, I would argue, were George Marshall — maybe four — Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger and Jim Baker. The only one I worked with a lot was Secretary Baker, and [he] just was really impressive.”

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