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

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.

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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