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.

Richard Branson on spaceflight
The maverick British billionaire discussed his plans for private space tours.

I assumed, having seen the moon landing, that I would be able to go into space in my lifetime. But you know … NASA needed some competition. There needed to be a company that could actually offer people the chance of actually going to space, and so in 1991, we formed the company Virgin Galactic Airways. I like the name …

I then set off around the world to meet every zany, mad scientist I could find who was interested in rockets and space technology … and then finally came across Burt Rutan, who’s a genius … So we agreed to sponsor SpaceShipOne with him, and we watched the three magnificent flights in SpaceShipOne, and then—using that technology—we’re now building SpaceShipTwo, which is twice as big as SpaceShipOne … A year from now … it’ll go on its first test flight, and 18 months from now, you know, myself, my children, and my parents … God willing, will go up …

The initial flights will go about 70 miles into space, so basically you’ll take off, you’ll go up to 60,000 feet, you’ll be attached under the mother ship, you’ll then drop away, you’ll then have the biggest rush of your life … From naught to 3,500 miles an hour in 10 seconds. And then in space you’ll unbuckle, and we’ve got these enormous big windows you’ll be able to float around looking back at the Earth. And Burt has come up with this really unique device, which is basically what he calls his “feathering mechanism” … It comes back into the Earth’s atmosphere like a shuttlecock, which slows it up, so you don’t have the problems that NASA has with its reentry system …

If you’ve got a mother-in-law, we can always sort out, you know, one-way tickets.

Joel Kotkin on suburbia
Kotkin, the author of The City: A Global History, defended the suburbs and argued that America is getting more, rather than less, suburban.

Now, there are many things wrong with suburbs … but we have to understand something: We created the first mass middle class in the history of the world, where people actually owned their own land and owned their own home … If there’s anything basic to the American experience and to American success, it’s been this.

Now, is this coming to an end? Well, I think the process is continuing. In 1920, 20 percent of the population lived in the 30 densest counties in the country; today, about 11 percent do. In the first half of the 2000s, nearly 90 percent of all growth in metropolitan areas took place in the periphery … Despite everything you read in the newspaper about empty-nesters moving back into the city and all the real-estate speculation, the growth has been in the suburbs … and particularly outer-ring suburbs.

Now, why is this happening? I think the biggest reason is again what one historian called the “universal aspiration.” And it’s interesting: The same trends are happening in places like Japan and Western Europe, where there’s great transit systems, where gasoline costs … $6 a gallon. Despite all of [these] things, and even where [there isn’t] much population growth, you continue to have this movement. There is something in the human spirit … that wants to live in some degree of privacy and some space of their own.

Dianne Feinstein on Iraq
The Democratic senator from California discussed why the American mission in Iraq needs to change.

This has been going on now for four and a half years. This isn’t World War II; this is a small country … You look at trying to make a democracy out of a country that has never known democracy, that has only known strongman rule, that has no functioning institutions that are necessary for a democracy … It is essentially still a tribal society. And you see a Shia-led government where most of the ministers don’t report to work, or half of the legislature doesn’t show up, where [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki has been saying, “Yes, we will do, we will do, we will do,” month after month, and nothing happens.

… I think we have to really come to grips with where American national-security interests rest. And in my view, they don’t rest with sustaining a government. They may rest with seeing that Iraq is not a safe harbor for terrorists. They may rest with seeing the same thing doesn’t happen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They certainly do rest with seeing a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement. And they certainly do rest … with the restoration of American credibility abroad. I have never known a time in my lifetime of traveling abroad when Americans are as hated as they are today.

… So where am I going with this? … I believe there is a bellwether that is going to change this fall. Whether it is before [General David] Petraeus reports or after Petraeus reports, I don’t know. But the patience has worn thin. And the cost is so great. And, you know, back in Washington, I think it is once a week, they run the photographs of the American men and women killed in action. And you look at these faces, and they are all so young. And at some point you say, “Enough is enough.”

Thomas Friedman on the cost of going green
The New York Times columnist argued that the world needs to “get real” about what it will take to combat climate change.

I am not a skeptic about global warming. It’s happening. I am a total skeptic that we are really doing anything about it. I think we are in the middle of a huge green bubble … You’ll pardon me when I hear people say, “We’re in the midst of a green revolution.” Oh, green revolution.

Did you ever study a revolution in history? You ever seen a revolution in history where nobody got hurt? That’s the green revolution. In the green revolution, nobody gets hurt—we’re all winners … Exxon’s green. They give $100 million to Stanford … Dick Cheney’s green. He’s for alternative fuels, yeah. He’s for liquefied coal. Dick Cheney’s green. We are all green now. Welcome to the green revolution, where nobody gets hurt.

… This isn’t the green revolution, friends. This is a party … Twenty years ago—15 years ago—we all talked here about the [information technology] revolution. Do you think that was pain-free? … Oh, everyone wasn’t a winner in the IT revolution. There are a lot of old-legacy industries that didn’t get it. And they got steamrolled. And ladies and gentlemen, today the old-legacy industries, they control this story; they control that policy mechanism in Washington. They are tough, and they will fight dirty. They are not going anywhere.

And that’s why we are having a green party, not a green revolution. Do not kid yourself for one second.

Sallai Meridor on Israel and Palestine
The Israeli ambassador discussed his nation’s decision to accept the partition of the Holy Land.

Israel has made a decision which I not only diplomatically but personally fully support: that for the future of Israel and the future of the region, we need to compromise with the Palestinians and separate the land that we believe is ours and they believe is theirs, for the future of our children. It’s easy for me to say; it is very difficult emotionally … We are talking about the land that has been promised to us in the Bible, the core of the heritage of the Jewish people. We know it will necessitate the uprooting of tens of thousands of the best of Israel; we know it will mean a change of Israel’s … national narrative. And you open the Bible, you read about the very places, some of which we’ll have to tell our children we have given up forever. Not tactically, not Hamas-like, but given up forever for peace.

But we’ve made this decision, and the decision is, in my view, in the very basic Zionist context … If you go to the text of the mission of the Zionist movement as articulated in 1897 … there were three elements there. One, that it should be a Jewish state, a state for the Jewish people. Second, it didn’t say “in the entire land of Israel”; it said “in the land of Israel.” And it had to conform with basic universal norms, the first of which is the democracy and equality of human beings.

So … we need to make sure that we maintain Israel forever as a Jewish and democratic state, with a large Jewish majority living in peace with its neighbors, and for that we need … to adjust our policy to the original narrative of Zionism.

Bill Clinton on the responsibility for 9/11
The former president was asked whether his administration did enough to prevent the September 11 terrorist attacks.

We prevented an enormous number of attacks. The Republicans, let me remind you, when I tried to get Osama bin Laden, based on good intelligence, they accused me of “wag the dog,” and they made fun of me, and they said we shouldn’t be doing anything about this. And one of the reasons I thought President Bush was disserved is a lot of his neocon advisers said that we were crazy when we told him in the transition that the biggest problem was bin Laden. They said any fool knew that Saddam Hussein was a bigger threat to our security than Osama bin Laden.

… So the same people that are criticizing me now criticized me then, because I was obsessed with bin Laden. We dealt with him four or five days a week, every week, for the last four years I was president. I did not turn down one request for the use of force. We tried to mount a CIA operation to go in and take him out; they couldn’t do it. We contracted with tribals to try to take him out; they couldn’t do it. I was willing to use whatever power I could—we didn’t have, until 9/11, any kind of basing rights, remember, in Uzbekistan or anyplace else; the logistics of doing this were much different.

I would’ve attacked him at the end of my presidency, even though they would’ve accused me of trying to affect the outcome of the presidential election, but the CIA and the FBI had not jointly certified that he was responsible for the USS Cole bombing, even though we all knew it. If I had been president in the spring of 2001, when they did confirm that, I would’ve given the Taliban an ultimatum … But I wasn’t there then.

… I don’t think there’s any question that we were far more obsessed with him—and I don’t mind using the word—than the Bush administration. Their obsession was Saddam. You can draw your own conclusions about who should’ve done what when; I don’t think we should be in the business of blaming anybody for 9/11.

Jessye Norman on the arts and public schools
Norman, an opera singer, argued for the necessity of arts education.

I cannot claim this idea as my own, but it is surely one about which I am passionate … that is the necessity of the arts in our lives, the need for the arts in the education of our children.

I do not mean only the home that I have found in music, but all of the arts—from the written word to the most ephemeral dance step, from the most permanent of carvings in wood or stone to a canvas so covered in ideas that it simply takes the breath away.

… When our schools and our school systems say that they must save money, the arts are the first to go. We have to say no to this … Resolve to be acquainted yourselves with the teachings of your own hearts; as I always call it, your “soul’s music” … Resolve to make sure today’s young minds are nourished completely, and that their spirits are encouraged to fly.

Karl Rove on Iran
The president’s then-adviser discussed the administration’s strategy for containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Look, this is a country with a fragile economy … 40 percent of their gasoline comes from India. They take the oil, send it to India, refine it into gasoline, and bring it back … They depend for most of their food on imports. They grow very little of their food. Their consumer goods are almost entirely imported. They make very little in the way of their consumer-market goods internally. They are a very vulnerable economy.

We have been working through our partners the EU5, Russia, etc. Look, we played our sanction card in 1979. There are other sanctions—little itsy-bitsy sanction cards—that we could conceivably play. Some of them are being played by state legislatures, where they are saying that their retirement systems have to divest of any investment in a company that does a certain amount of business in Iran … But we played our big card in 1979.

Our object now [has] got to be to get the rest of the world to be serious about playing their cards, and convincing them that they would have a problem that requires them to join with us in playing the sanction card … That process has been long, involved, complicated, but it has been moving along … As time has gone on, and particularly as we have seen changes in Germany and in France, we have got greater hopes that we will be able to bring about a serious international regime that will help force Iran back to the table.