Interviews April 2007

A Conversation With George Schultz

George Schultz speaks with author David Samuels about American diplomacy in the Middle East, the Cold War, the global spread of market capitalism, and his relationship with Condoleezza Rice
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What do you think the possibilities are for diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria? And what does diplomatic engagement really mean if we announce that we’re going to pull all our combat troops out of Iraq by the first quarter of 2008 or whenever?

Well, talking to people is fine, but you’ve got to have something to talk about. And in order to talk effectively with Iran and Syria, you have to have some leverage—some things that they want that you have some control over. And I think that that’s been the problem particularly with Iran in the last few years. That they do and say all kinds of things. They’re told, for instance, by the Security Council, “If you restart your enrichment facilities, there’ll be dire consequences.” So they start them. They don’t just start them, they do it flamboyantly. And there are no consequences.

So they support Hezbollah. The United Nations Security Council says Hezbollah should be disarmed. But they aren’t disarmed. There are too many edicts issued that don’t get followed up on. And Iran, by this time, I suppose, must feel that they can do anything and get away with it. So I think you have to build leverage with both Syria and Iran. Then you have a base from which to talk to them.

For example, Syria doesn’t at all like the idea of having the Harari murder investigated, and no doubt the Jamail murder and others that they’ve done, or so it seems. But that should be pressed forward. There is a devastating report by a German prosecutor that’s already on file. I think that process needs to go forward. And Syria wants to get the Golan Heights back. There’s no way that’s going to happen if there is a totally moribund negotiating process between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The leader of Hamas is in Syria. So the Syrians have some leverage there over the Palestinian situation, and they also have something to gain.

Iran is essentially a much weaker country than it manages to portray itself. It has very poor refining facilities, so they’re very vulnerable. People focus altogether on the nuclear facilities and how difficult how they would be to take out. But it’s not difficult for somebody to sabotage those refineries. The Persian population is only about half, so they have a heterogeneous population. It’s a bad economy. And there are people who are restive.

But if America flees from the region, after the complete humiliation of the triumphal American project to spread democracy in the Middle East, where do you expect that leverage to come from?

We need to change the situation. When the Reagan administration took office, our leverage with the Soviets was not great. But we built leverage. And while our first successful deal with the Soviets was a human rights deal, early on in 1983, the real bargaining came after our defense build-up was clear, the economy was strong, and we had deployed ballistic missiles in Germany that the Soviets thought could reach Moscow. And after they got through with all their war talk and so on, they came to the table. So you see strength and diplomacy go together—they’re not alternative ways of going about something.

I followed the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad around for a week when he came to the UN last September, and I saw a man who didn’t seem to have a care in the world. He seemed to enjoy the fact that he can say anything, with no consequences.

Look, I am a marine. And I joined the marines at the start of World War II. I went to boot camp. And I remember the day the sergeant handed me a rifle. And he said take good care of this rifle, this is your best friend. And remember, never point this rifle at anybody unless you’re willing to pull the trigger. So that’s deep in marine training—no empty threats. But we have a world of empty threats now. And that’s one of the big problems, that the discipline that was part of the Cold War period has dissipated, and it’s in part because the so-called international community doesn’t have, apparently, the capacity to agree on anything, or if they agree on anything, to agree to follow through on it. It’s a very broad problem in foreign policy. So on the one hand, you need to be more careful when you make threats. Or when you say there’ll be dire consequences or something. Don’t say it unless you know what the dire consequences are and that you’re capable of bring them into effect.

My Israeli friends keep saying that Bush is going to bomb Iran this fall, even though everyone in Washington tells me that’s nonsense

They should listen to Mr. Gates more closely. He’s a throwback to the Weinburger Pentagon, in a sense, in the belief that it’s important to have a strong military force, and everybody should know that you’ll never use it. And I used to argue, “What’s the point of having it if everybody knows you won’t use it?” It’s got to be a perception not only that you have strength, but that there are circumstances in which you would use it.

What do you see as the consequences for America’s role in the Middle East when Iran announces that they have mastered the fuel cycle and are making a bomb?

Well, it’s a very nerve-wracking period. But obviously that’s what’s going on. They’re trying to learn how to enrich uranium, and if you learn how to enrich it for the grade necessary for a power plant, that’s the hard part. The easy part is to move it from low-enrich to high-enrich once you’ve learned the techniques, or so I’m told by my physicist friend. They’ve announced that they want to wipe out Israel. So if you’re Israel, that’s something you might consider doing something about.

What are the consequences of Iran’s nuclear program for America’s role as the sole great-power guarantor of stability in the Middle East?

It’s a setback, and I think we should be thinking about the whole nuclear posture very carefully. You had the concept of deterrence during the Cold War. And I think you’d have to say it worked, even though it wasn’t a very pleasant idea. Ronald Reagan thought it was immoral. But anyway, it worked.

Now the way the world is going, pretty soon we’ll be having deterrence with Iran, with North Korea, with who knows who. But terrorists are essentially outside the concept of deterrence. They don’t have a return address, necessarily. You can’t practice deterrence with suicide bombers. So you have to think about the whole nuclear weapon proposition in a different way, I think. People are just sort of not thinking about it very much, I don’t believe. And so we should be thinking more clearly about the possibility of saying we prefer a world without any nuclear weapons. And whether or not you can get there is a question mark. But if you set the objective, you can start doing things that will get you in that direction.

Do you believe that the theory and practice of deterrence as we knew it in the Cold War will work if employed against countries like Iran?

Well, I would accept that. I think they have a desire for self-preservation. But it’s a much looser kind of thing. And I think if you were trying to design a strategy of deterrence on a world-wide basis, from North Korea to Iran to who knows who, it would be very difficult, I think, conceptually, to put it together right and feel confident in it.

In some sense, Iran has some very aggressive ambitions, but is in fact a poor, militarily weak, politically unstable country that is dependent on the high price of oil to make mischief. The moment the price of oil goes down, Iran has to worry about feeding their own people, right?

We are providing them with the money to do all these things by consuming oil at such a rate. And I think one of the most important things we can do that would strengthen our foreign policy is to have an all-out campaign to use less oil and make it be effective.

Why didn’t that happen after 9/11?

It’s a subject that I have been struggling with since 1969, and we act like we’re gonna do something, and then the pressure goes off and we go right back. It’s hard. I’ve gotten to the point where I hope and pray that the price of oil stays high, and never goes down.

It is encouraging that really bright, creative people are starting to apply themselves to this subject. And you see evidence of it around; you see all the venture capital around here for the first time, really, taking this subject on. So I have hopes that somebody’s gonna come up with a battery that can take a hybrid car for 400 miles, and if that happens, that’s a revolution. I won’t believe we’re serious about it until we’re willing to remove the tariff on import of ethanol. And take quotas off sugar and a few things like that.

There’s a lab over here in the East Bay. It’s a lab of the energy department. And it’s full of biologists—the genome people. And they’re trying to figure out how you get something from wood, and how you get it from cellulose, and this and that. And they’re studying the termite. The termite eats wood. We don’t like it for that reason, but it turns the wood into useful things. So they’re trying to figure out how does the termite do that? And maybe we can produce termites and take sawdust and feed it to them and we’ll get some use. It isn’t just the automobile people who are doing something with engines. It’s at a much deeper scientific level.

You served Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. You were Secretary of Labor and Secretary of the Treasury under Nixon—you had your name on the money. You were Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State at the climax of the Cold War. How does this moment in history look to you?

I would say, first of all, that the world has never, in its history, been at a more promising moment, as we see countries that have been stagnant for centuries basically suddenly coming alive, and good reasons for it. Look what’s happening in China. India is moving. Other big countries that haven’t gotten anywhere are starting to show lots of signs of life. The IMF put out a chart recently on the world economy showing the numbers for last year, this year, and some projections. There’s not a minus sign on the chart.

In China, there’s still a central repressive regime in many ways, but if you visited China periodically over the last 25 years, it bears almost no resemblance to what it was 25 years ago, politically and socially. Twenty-five years ago, all you saw was people on bicycles with exactly the same clothing on. Now it’s a transformed place, with all kinds of heterogeneity and life. And so it’s a moment of tremendous promise. And in a sense the task is to see that these security threats that essentially emanate from radical Islam—they’re choosing terror—don’t abort this wonderful opportunity. It has seemed to me somehow or other, it should be possible to rally the world to that objective. But it hasn’t been so.

You talk about the analogy between the present moment and the Cold War, and the need for an effort like Radio Liberty to counter anti-American propaganda and convince Muslims that we can deliver a better society than the ones they’ve got. But do we know enough about Islam? Are we capable of getting inside the dynamics of a Muslim society?

Well, we should try. And I think we can learn a lot. The Cold War analogy is not to say that these are similar in their understructure, as you suggested. But to say that this is a long process that we’re engaged in. That’s why you have to set it up on a basis that can be sustained. What do you have to do? Well, we have to learn about the society. We haven’t even really tried much. There’s a lot that you can do to understand better.

With all due respect to what you said about the lack of similarities, with the onset of the Cold War, we didn’t really know in this country a lot about what was going on in the Soviet Union—it was kind of an alien place. And so you had Soviet studies centers emerge at Harvard and Stanford and Columbia and so on. People worked at it and became very knowledgeable. Condi Rice speaks Russian. Why? Because at Stanford there was a center and she got interested in the subject.

The money for those Soviet studies centers came from the United States. So they weren’t beholden to anyone. A center financed by someplace else, like Saudi Arabia, might say they’re independent, but that’s just not believable. What is going on at our universities about the world of Islam right now? Damn little. What there is is sort of a romanticized version of Palestinian interest. And it’s unimpressive, I think. So we need to mount a serious effort. Bernard Lewis is the leading guy—he’s 90 years old. Where are the younger people?

Watching the clumsiness and irrelevance of American attempts to talk to people in the region, I am struck by the fact that the language of politics is so different here and there. Here, we believe that everything happens the way it is presented in the newspapers. In the Middle East, everything is a conspiracy.

 So you have to have a conspiracy desk in the State Department. It is s amazing; you go and talk to people that are sensible people and good businessmen and so on, and the things that they believe are very strange. So you have a lot of work to do. You don’t give up. You realize what you don’t know, and you try to make some contact.

You were Secretary of State when most Americans first heard about Hezbollah—-when they bombed the us Marine barracks in Beirut. What do you remember about that event, and how about we thought about Hezbollah then. Who were they?

We really didn’t know a lot about Hezbollah at that point. We had information about a training camp in the Bekka Valley that we tried to trace down, and we were ready to try to retaliate there, but the information was not reliable. The Iranian connection was not particularly clear. I think we know more now, a lot more, than we knew then. And we were basically in a passive phase. I was a hawk on terrorism when I was Secretary of State. And it was an uphill struggle to get people to see that we have this phenomenon on our hands that’s different, and we have to think differently; we have to structure our military capability differently, and so on. But I don’t claim that I understood it then the way I understand it now. I don’t know that anybody did.

Was there the thought that all terrorism was essentially state-sponsored?

There was some of that. There was the Iranian influence, but it was not something you could pin down well enough to feel that you could do something about it. There were a number of times that we were going to strike at something, and the intelligence just didn’t hold up. Our capacity to gather intelligence about that part of the world—and it’s part of this problem of understanding that we’re talking about—is very limited. You say to the CIA, “Tell me about Iran.” And they say, “We can tell you more about London. We have a big station in London.” And I say, “Thanks a lot, but I can read the newspapers from London.” And so our capabilities are limited.

Back then, you had all kinds of terrorist organizations. You had the IRA. They had a specific background. You had this group in Germany that was somehow distinctive and different. You had the narco-terrorists in Colombia. And then you began to see that these people would show up interacting. It’s kind of like reporters. They may be from different papers, but they’ll talk to each other. Or physicists. Or whomever.

Why are we facing this threat from that region of the world? Well, here’s one reason. If you’re going to do a big construction job in Saudi Arabia, who does it? Koreans. Phillippinoes. Thais. People you bring over. Why? Is it because there aren’t any Saudis to do the work? There are plenty of Saudis that are unemployed. But their culture is such that they don’t think about picking up a shovel and digging—it’s demeaning. So they’re detached from reality.

I’m a big advocate of work. Work is good for you. You have to perform. You have to write a decent article, or you won’t last. Work connects you with reality. And when you don’t have a connection with reality, then you become a prisoner of conspiracy theories. You hang around the mosque, and people can talk about anything.

Don’t you think that many people in these cultures will choose Hezbollah if the choice is framed to them as a choice between Hezbollah or America?

That’s what people are thinking right now. But at the end of the Cold War, people didn’t think that. The choice was very clear: America. And we’ve somehow lost a certain magic. But it can come back.

Of course, it’s a different situation. Back then, during the Cold War, it was a world in which there were a relatively limited number of variables and some very clear constants. Now we have a world in which there are a huge number of variables. And the constants aren’t as clear as they were. The result is a kind of chaos that’s difficult to come to grips with. You can’t quite as easily wrap your mind around it and say, “This is the key.”

Would you say that what we have to offer the world is a model for economic progress, and not the particular trappings of democracy?

No, I don’t think so. I think what we have to offer the world, and what other people have to offer too, is a blend of political and economic openness that works. Those two things are connected. I still can’t quite come to grips with Milton Freeman not being with us anymore. But that was his central premise. Freedom is the big deal. And it applies everywhere. Free to choose. Don’t have conscription, have a volunteer armed force. Don’t give money to institutions. Give them to people. Give money to the people and let them choose the institutions, create competition. And so I think that’s a vision that’s been very important.

Condoleezza Rice is often referred to as a protégé of yours. When did you first meet her and how did she come to your attention?

I got to know her quite well after she returned from her first stint in the National Security Council. And I forget when that was, probably 1991 or something like that. We were good friends and saw a lot of each other around here.

On the Stanford campus?

Yeah. It was here on the campus. She was a colleague, and then she became provost and I watched that process. We had a little lunch group here. It started out after I came back, with me and a guy named Sid Drell, who was a physicist, who took an interest in arms control. So we’d start having lunch together. We had a good time, and I learned something about physics. And we had the habit of if somebody interesting came to campus to see one or the other of us, we’d invite that person to lunch. So when Sakharov came to the United States, he made a beeline for here, because Sid was head of the Physicists for Sakharov. So I got to have lunch with Sakorov. And so then we decided, this is going to be a very exclusive club, but we both liked a woman named Lucy Shapiro, she’s a brilliant biologist. So we invited her to join our lunch club. And then we decided that Condi was pretty interesting, so we’d have her. So she became a member of our lunch club.

And of course Condi has dropped out, but when she comes back, we’ll invite her to the club again. That kind of conversation is fun, and it’s also very illuminating, and you learn about people, and how real they are. Condi’s very real. Smart. Thoughtful person. A lot more to her than people realize.

I’ll give you an example. The Treasury has a tradition that goes way back. The former secretaries give a dinner for the new secretary. Everybody comes, Democrats, Republicans. It’s supposed to convey that we’re all proud of the Treasury and its capability. And we want the new secretary to uphold that tradition and also realize that he or she has a group of people they can talk to off the record or whatever. And it’s nice. So I thought, well, we ought to get that going in the State Department, and I talked to some of my colleagues, and I found that everybody said not just okay, but that they were enthusiastic about it.

So we put together a dinner for Condi. And everybody came. And it was really fun. We invited the former secretaries, and also the president, the vice-president, the national security advisor, and the chairman and ranking members of all the committees that you deal with. So we had this thing that everybody—even Joe Biden was warm and cuddly there. And we went around the room and everybody had something to say.

And toward the end, a congressman named Tom Lantos who was ranking on the international relations committee, or whatever it’s called in the house, he said, “Well, there’ve been a lot of nice things said about Condi at this dinner, but in my family we have a different attitude. We love her. And let me explain why.” He said, “I have a granddaughter, who’s the most beautiful young girl you ever saw in your life. And she’s blessed with an operatic-quality voice. And she has a disease that’s come along that’s a threat to her voice, and even to her life, and we’re all staggered by it. Condi found out about this. So she said to my granddaughter, Why don’t you and I give a concert at the Kennedy center? So they got together and they picked out the music. Condi would play the piano, and my granddaughter would sing. And they practiced to get ready for the concert. And then the concert came, and it was a big success.” And he says “My granddaughter just was—it was so wonderful. So we love Condi.” That’s an aspect of her make-up that reaches out to people, and I think people are not aware of it. A very human quality.

What qualities of mind and character and personality did you see in her that you think are going to help the country over the next two years?

She’s got a big task. And she’s got to get more people in the State Department, I think. She doesn’t have a deputy right now, she lost Bob Zoellick, who was very good. And the name of the game is people. She’s got some very good foreign-service people working for her. But in order to really do the job, you have to have big people who can go and be listened to on their own. That’s the biggest challenge she has right now.

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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