Ideas and Consequences

This July, for the third straight year, The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute co-hosted the Aspen Ideas Festival. What follows are excerpts from this year’s discussions, including Colin Powell on his attempt to avoid war with Iraq, Richard Branson on the dawn of private spaceflight, Thomas Friedman on why the world isn’t really going green, and Bill Clinton on whether he did enough to prevent 9/11.
Colin Powell on the decision to go to war
The former secretary of state talked about his role in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

I tried to avoid this war. I went to the president in August of 2002, after coming back from a trip and seeing all the planning that was under way, and we had a long meeting upstairs in the residence … For the better part of two and a half [hours], I took him through not only the military planning that was being done in the Pentagon but … through the consequences of going into an Arab country and becoming the occupiers.

It is said that I used the “Pottery Barn rule.” I never did it; [Thomas] Friedman did it … But what I did say … [is that] once you break it, you are going to own it, and we’re going to be responsible for 26 million people standing there looking at us. And it’s going to suck up a good 40 to 50 percent of the Army for years. And it’s going to take all the oxygen out of the political environment … He took it all aboard, and he said, “What should we do?” And I said, “Well, we should first inform—let us take it to the United Nations. Because they are the offended party. It is their resolutions that have been offended.”

… I said to the president, “If we can solve this diplomatically, are you prepared to accept that—even if it means that we have a changed regime in Baghdad, with Saddam Hussein still there but no longer a danger or a threat … ?” And it was not something that he was immediately attracted to. But he said yes, he would have to, and we tried. But at that time … I also had to say to him … “You are the president; you will have to make the ultimate judgment; and if the judgment is ‘This isn’t working, and we don’t think it is going to solve the problem,’ then if military action is undertaken, I’m with you; I support you.”

And frankly, when military action was undertaken, it looked like it was extremely successful. It was a lack of planning for these latter phases—and the things that got out of control—that really has brought us to this point. And so, I could have stopped it by quitting? I assure you that would not have done it. And to quit while it was under way was not my way of doing business in serving in the administration.

Michael Sandel on the Supreme Court
Sandel, a Harvard professor and political philosopher, discussed the Supreme Court’s prominence in American political life.

Tocqueville noticed this back in the 1830s … almost every political question is turned into a question about rights, because the idea of rights and of individual rights [is] so deeply ingrained, not only in the Constitution or in the Bill of Rights, but also in American public culture, in the political culture.

We cannot argue so much in the name of the good society, or the good life, or even the common good. It is a more natural reflex to think about every dispute and argument and political controversy … [as] a debate about rights, sometimes competing rights, and how they should be resolved … It is the Court’s business to interpret the Constitution and to define rights. And I think that is one of the reasons that so many of our public political questions are turned into questions first about rights, and therefore they wind up in court.

I am not sure that is an altogether desirable thing … because sometimes what happens is that by pushing everything into the language of rights, and therefore into a legal question, we fail as a society—as a political community, really—to address and to thrash out among ourselves the competing conceptions of the good life and of the good society that underlie a lot of our debates about rights.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Islam and violence
Hirsi Ali, a critic of Islam, argued that there is a deep link between Muslim faith and violence.

I think fortunately the majority of Muslims today will not commit acts of terrorism. But to argue that there is nothing in Islam that leads to violence—that would be a weak argument to a false argument, because if you define Islam as “submission to the will of Allah,” and then you find out what that submission means … you find out that … the sixth obligation is to convert others to Islam, first by peaceful means, then by violent means.

If a wife is disobedient, you beat her. If something is stolen, you amputate the hand of the thief. That’s sharia; that’s the Islamic law … The Vatican City of Islam, Saudi Arabia, has sharia and enforces these laws, and every time any group of people succeeds in establishing sharia or Islamic law, anywhere from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Pakistan to Iran to … the Zamfara province in Nigeria … these laws are applied, they are uniform, and they are recognizable.

So then Islam is violent—you can’t argue … that it’s not a violent religion. Then you will say, “What about Judaism? What about Christianity?” Now, adherents of these religions over the centuries have been pacified to understand and accept the separation of the divine and the worldly … Nowhere in the Muslim world has that profound pacification of Islam … taken place. And I think that is the difference.

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