From Cafe and the Vox Media Podcast Network. Welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.
When crises happen, who does the world look to? Who does the world go calling? Who does the world ask to get involved? Who’s been shuttling around the Middle East right now? It’s Tony Blinken. It’s not Wang Yi the Chinese foreign minister.
That’s Fareed Zakaria. He’s the host of Fareed Zakaria GPS, a weekly Sunday show on CNN, that covers a diverse slate of topics in foreign affairs and American policymaking. Zakaria has been one of the nation’s most visible foreign policy commentators for over three decades. He served as managing editor of the Venerable Foreign Affairs, helmed Newsweek International, and has written five influential books. Zakaria and I talk about this perilous moment, from the Israel-Hamas War to Ukraine to the Southern border. That’s coming up. Stay Tuned. Hey folks, as you can hear, I’m a bit under the weather, so to give my voice a bit of a rest, I’m saving your great questions for a future week.
So now we’ll go straight into my conversation with foreign policy expert and journalist, Fareed Zakaria. Fareed Zakaria, welcome back to the show.
Such a pleasure to be on Preet.
It’s been too long, but I do before we start talking about current events and all the things that are going on in the world that are difficult and that you have deep insight on, I do want to revisit our conversation from, I think around five years ago, much of my conversation with you centered on the recent murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the involvement of the Saudis, and not everything was known at the time. Five years later, do you have any lessons you think we should draw from it? And then second, I guess as a segue to the news in Israel and Gaza, does that have any bearing on the role that the Saudi should play in the Middle East? First on Khashoggi, what lessons do you learn or draw from that episode?
Yeah, it’s fascinating that you tie the two together, Preet because there is actually a connection. So on the Khashoggi business … and remember this, Jamal was a friend of mine. He was actually my Sherpa when I went to Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the Saudis, they assigned him as the guy to take me around when I was running Newsweek. So I got to know him quite well.
Should we, just for folks who may have forgotten a little bit, just remind everyone what happened?
Yeah, absolutely. So Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist and like many Saudi journalists, particularly in the old days, he was kind of friendly to the regime. Somebody who the regime permitted to be a journalist. Remember, it’s an absolute monarchy, so there is no real freedom of press. He went from that. He left Saudi Arabia, moved to the United States, became more and more of a critic, particularly under the new crowned prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and felt he was too authoritarian and such. In a absolutely bizarre, brutal event. He goes to Istanbul to get a visa. He goes to the Saudi consulate and basically it turns out that there are operatives from the Saudi government waiting for him there who interrogate him.
And then, murder him and cut his body up into little parts so that presumably they can be smuggled out in some way. And bizarrely I said, because the whole thing … of course, it all came to light because there was video footage of him entering the embassy, but not of him leaving. It exploded into an international story. In particular, Biden decided when he came into office that he was really going to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for it, didn’t meet with MBS for two years. So the whole thing became a kind of international controversy. So that’s the Khashoggi business. Now, what has it done, what has the legacy been? I actually think the legacy has been quite substantial and it has played a part in moderating Saudi Arabia and moderating Mohammed bin Salman.
Remember around the time that Mohammed bin Salman was presumably ordering the execution of Khashoggi, he denies it, but most people think the orders had to have come from the top. At the same time, MBS, the crowned prince had blockaded Qatar for four or five years to try to get them to cry uncle because he felt they were blank footsie with Iran too much. He imprisoned briefly the prime minister of Lebanon who was an ally of his because he felt that that guy wasn’t standing up to Hezbollah strongly enough. Again, not being anti-Iran enough, he wades into a war in Yemen because the Iranians are on the other side of that war. So it’s a very aggressive unilateralist approach, high-handed you might say. And what’s happened?
If you look at the last few years in Saudi Arabia, he lifted the blockade on Qatar and is on now reasonably good terms with them. He made his peace with Hariri and Lebanon. He has largely ended Saudi involvement in the war in Yemen, and they’re trying to broker a peace treaty and he has even normalized relations with Iran. So I think there has been a kind of maturation of Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi foreign policy. How much of it was purely because of the Khashoggi blowback? I don’t know, but I think the whole thing may have had the effect of making him realize that his initial bravado and braggadocio and kind of aggressiveness was not working.
It was producing more costs than benefits, and he’s course corrected in a fairly significant way.
Should the United States have done even more?
Look, I don’t think the United States had much more pressure that it could use. It had a kind of moral pressure and political pressure. Saudi Arabia is a very powerful country because of the role it occupies in the world of energy. It is still true despite all the things that we hear and read. We still use … 79% of the energy used in the world is still fossil fuels. That’s down from 25 years ago when it was 80%. So we’re still largely dependent on them, and Saudi Arabia is the swing supplier, which means it’s the supply that can increase and decrease production at will in a way that almost nobody else can. We don’t buy much oil from Saudi Arabia. In fact, we buy virtually none.
The Chinese are Saudi Arabia’s biggest client. So there was also the possibility of pushing so hard that you would push Saudi Arabia into a closer relationship with China. So that had to be balanced. I think the Biden people basically played this fairly well. In some ways you could argue if they were going to make up, they might’ve decided to do it a bit earlier, but I think that they’ve gotten to a good place with Saudi Arabia and I think it’s partly because of some of the tough flow.
So while we’re on the topic of Saudi Arabia, as I mentioned earlier, what are your thoughts on the role Saudi Arabia can play and the prospects of normalization and those kinds of issues with respect to Israel?
Again, that’s why I thought this is such an interesting question. If you look at the backdrop to why this has happened, this Israeli invasion of Gaza, and think about the last two decades, what is the geopolitical environment been in the Middle East? The geopolitical environment since the second term of George Bush’s administration has been fundamentally shaped by one fact, American withdrawal. The United States starts to withdraw because of the fiasco of Iraq in the second term of the Bush administration. Then Obama says he wants to pivot to Asia. That is the centerpiece of his foreign policy. What he also says quite explicitly is that he’s pivoting away from the Middle East, that we are militarily over-invested in the Middle East.
Trump, of course, basically thinks we should get out of everything. So even though he makes lies with Israel and stuff, it’s still part of this larger American retreat. Now, what we forget is when the Americans retreat from the world, it doesn’t mean you get a happy balance of power with all the other friendly neighbors getting together and singing Kumbaya. No. What happens is a power vacuum develops and into that power vacuum, the leading players all want to try and preserve their equities and interests. The central dynamic as America withdrew and the power vacuum developed was that rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for a kind of dominant position. The Iranians had in a sense, gotten a headstart because of the invasion of Iraq.
Because Iraq, which had always been anti-Iranian, pro Arab, pro Sunni, because Saddam Hussein was an Arab Sunni, now flips because we bring democracy to Iraq, quote, unquote. What that means for Iraqis and for the region is Shia rule. So the Shia now start running Iraq and they’re pro Iran. So the Iranians now have influence and Lebanon through Hezbollah, Iraq through the Iraqi Shiite parties, Yemen through the Houthis, Assad in Syria because that is also a kind of quasi Shiite government. Saudi Arabia is looking at this in getting rattled. That’s why Mohammed bin Salman was so rattled as I described. So he starts pushing back in various ways, and that dynamic leads the Saudis to decide, you know what, we need to ally with the other great foe of Iran, which is Israel.
And that begins this rapprochement between the Gulf Arabs, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel. And who gets terrified by all this is of course, the Palestinian, particularly Hamas, which feels like, wait a minute, we are losing out in this whole game. And the Hamas is supported by Iran. So there’s the Iranian angle again, and Hamas basically decides we’re going to burn the house down because that’s … over there, that’s what they do. They are an extremist violent organization. That is their mojo. I know it’s very complicated, but basically what Hamas … Hamas looks at this world of potential normalization between the Arabs and the Israelis.
And it says, wait a minute, the principal obstacle to this kind of alliance was always the Arabs saying, “Israel, you got to first solve the Palestinian issue. You got to be nice to the Palestinians.” Now, the Israelis are so scared of Iran and the Arabs are so scared of Iran, they don’t care, and we’re going to make them care again. We’re going to force this issue right to the top of the agenda by this violent act of brutal terror.
So that normalization should continue in your mind, but can it?
It should continue in my mind because you do not want to reward this kind of terrorism, this kind of violent extremism. It really is a kind of contest between forces of disorder and order, even though I very much do believe that the Palestinian issue has to be dealt with. What you’re asking is the interesting question of practically. So practically, I think in a sense Hamas has succeeded in putting it on the back burner because terrorism is always designed to provoke an overreaction from the party, you’re terrorizing, and it has done that. The Israelis have gone massively into Gaza producing massive numbers of civilian casualties.
That means on the Arab Street, there is a huge amount of pro-Palestinian sentiment, and while these are absolute monarchies, when we talk about the Gulf state, they are attentive to these issues. A senior Saudi official said to me a few weeks before all this happened before the Hamas terror attack, which turned out to be a prescient comment. He said, “Look, we are modernizing our country very fast. We’ve been opening up to women, we’ve been desegregating the … men and women can now do everything together. We’ve been reigning back to religious police.” They even have actually basically disbanded the religious police. We can’t also fight them on Palestine.
We can’t seem to be totally indifferent to the Palestinian cause. That’s too much … We’ll get too much blowback. So they were attentive even before all this, and now, with this street demonstrations everywhere, they have to be careful. My sense from talking to some of the people in these governments, they very much do want to get back on track with normalization. They just don’t think that in the near term they can do it. So my guess is they’re looking at a one-year delay, maybe more than that. Look, it’s a very volatile situation. If the violence continues, if Israel reoccupies Gaza and there’s continuing violence every week, that’s a whole different game. So I do think this has been a game changer in a very fundamental way.
You just a second ago repeated something that you wrote, which I find striking, and that is the point of terrorism is to provoke an overreaction. I wonder if that’s right, because certain acts of terrorism are singular and massive like Al-Qaeda attacking the United States on 9/11, to some people’s minds for the purpose of showing that the superpower is vulnerable and weak and the forces against them are mighty, and that’s not necessarily for the purpose of provoking and overreacting. I just wonder if you could amplify that thought.
The traditional kind of mantra of terrorism used to be … I think this is an American scholar who coined the phrase, but this is on looking at how terrorists used to operate. The point of terrorism, he said, you want a few people dead and a lot of people watching. The idea was you’re trying to bring attention to your cause. Increasingly, the terror organizations became, in a sense, more brutal. With the bin Laden case, we actually have videotape of him talking about the attack and he says, look at how we are able to bleed the American empire. We send a bunch of Jihadists anywhere in the world with the flag of Al-Qaeda, and very soon, we have the whole American army me chasing them.
And that really seems to have been the point of the 9/11 attacks. Yes, it was to show to demonstrate that Al-Qaeda was real and powerful, but then it has the effect of sending the American army into Afghanistan, and maybe they got lucky. We went into Iraq for 20 years. We spent eight trillion dollars. We killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, alienated huge numbers of people. Was it really all worth it or was it an overreaction? Similarly, with the Israelis in Gaza, they’re now laying siege to a population of 2.2 million people. No food, no water, no electricity, no medicine. In order to get … by their own count it’s 40,000 terrorists, 40,000 Hamas militants.
It strikes me as at least you could argue it is an overreaction, and Hamas knew that there are really some version of this because the Israelis have done it before. This is the sixth, I think, Israeli incursion into Gaza clearly the biggest, but I do think … look, terrorists note, compare Hamas, 40,000 fighters with people say reasonably well-equipped, which means they have some machine guns, some grenades against an Israeli army that once mobilized is something in the range of 500,000, half a million people, the most sophisticated army in the Middle East. By the way, 100 nuclear weapons on submarines, so they are invulnerable. That’s a pretty big mismatch.
So is the purpose of the overreaction in the minds of a rational, if we can call them that. Terrible, despicable, but rational terrorist group to bleed the enemy of resources or to cause that overreaction to turn the world against their perceived enemy or both or does it not matter?
No, it does matter. And I think it’s both. I think that they’re both … they know, for example, that the Israel as the tourist mecca, the fascinating place that religious tourists went from all over the world, the tech hub that people wanted to do business with, all that is now on hold. Israel’s ability to function normally around the Gaza Strip, all those communities that they went into, well, something in the range of two or 300,000 Israelis have moved away and relocated. Israel’s natural gas exploration pipelines that were offshore have been shut down. So there’s been a very significant cost to the Israelis. Life is not normal at all, not to mention the ongoing cost of the military operation.
And then, as you say, all the protests around the world, and very similar with the United States where once it starts these serious military enterprises, you are killing a lot of civilians. You are invading a country without … what many saw as a legitimate cause. I think in some ways, if you look back and ask when did the American Unipolar moment end. I would probably say it starts with the fiasco of Iraq where the US both loses a lot of legitimacy but also loses the kind of aura of American military power. Because once you have to actually exercise military power in these asymmetrical ways that Israel is doing in Gaza, it never looks as good.
You’re doing complicated urban warfare where you’re going street to street, you are killing civilians. The whole thing is a mess, and that’s what’s happening now.
I’ll be right back with my conversation with Fareed Zakaria. In terms of overreaction after 9/11, the desire for the United States to eradicate Al-Qaeda does not seem to be an overreaction by anyone’s account. It’s these other things that people can argue about going against the Taliban, invading Iraq, but going after the precise group that launched the catastrophic terrorist attack, seems to me to be reasonable by most people’s thinking. Here, as you’ve already said, there’s something like 40,000 Hamas fighters in Gaza. Even if you just want to restrict yourself to the, I think arguably reasonable goal of eliminating that fighting group.
How do you do that given the circumstances and the terrain and the mixing together of those fighters with civilians? Is it even a possible goal?
First, I want to agree with what you said. The wisest strategy for the United States would’ve been to single-mindedly focus on Al-Qaeda from the start, not decide that as a result of that, they had to then do what turned into a 20-year occupation of Afghanistan, waging war against the Taliban, a war by the way that we eventually lost after 20 years. The Taliban is now in power. It should not have been the patriot act and the massive expansion of federal power in that area. And of course, it should not have been the invasion of Iraq. So if you look at Israel and you said to yourself what to do? Well, I was very struck by what Stan McChrystal, the general who led the most lethal forces in Iraq.
Who really was instrumental in the success of the surge. He would go in the middle of the night and kill Al-Qaeda operatives. He said, the best thing the country can do in these situations for the first few weeks or even months, is to do nothing, to try to assess what happened. What is the smartest strategy, what are you trying to achieve? And don’t be guided by emotions and rage, be guided by what is the smartest long-term strategy. And then to say to yourself, our goal is to destroy these 40,000 people and root them out, how do we best do it? And remember, we have time on our side. We are a strong, powerful, stable, democratic society.
Israel used to do that often with terrorism. They would take … after the Munich Olympics, they just systematically went about and killed every single person who was involved in that planning. Now, that was easier when you were talking about a few hundred people. This is tens of thousands, but I think a similar mindset that said, our goal is to really destroy this organization and destroy all … Maybe you would’ve had a series of incursions rather than a full-blooded invasion. Maybe you would not have done a siege, which I continue to think is just very, very tough to make the case that it’s not collective punishment because you’re laying siege.
No fuel, no water, no food, no electricity, no medicines to 2.2 million people, half of whom are children. It’s very difficult to see how you can not see that as punishing people who had nothing to do with what happened. And instead, if you had really done a series of Stan McChrystal type operations. Now, the problem with that is Israeli troops are endangered in a much, much more significant way than by doing the siege and massive bombardment. The number of bombs Israel has now used in Gaza is stunning. I mean it is more than the United States did in years in Iraq. So the price of limited Israeli casualties is very, very high collateral damage.
Was there a way to come up with a different strategy, more targeted … more of the kind of counter-terrorism missions going into some of these tunnels, blasting through, no siege? I think so. I don’t think this policy is the only one that could have been adopted. Look, Naftali Bennett, a very right wing Israeli politician was prime minister before Bibi. He argues for a different strategy, which is clear out the population, don’t bomb Gaza, clear them all out and then, lay siege to what is left. In other words, you haven’t moved all the populations south, basically cut off all the fuel, food, electricity for what would then be just the tunnels and the Hamas operatives who’d been in there.
And that way, these tunnels can’t operate without food fuel and such because they’re very deep and you have to pump air into them and things like that. I don’t know if that’s feasible, but again, that’s a kind of long-term perspective that says, we’ve got time. We can take two years to make this work.
You have suggested, and in fact, President Biden has suggested that people, including the Israelis in this instance, should learn some of the lessons of 9/11 and America’s mistakes that were made, some of which you and I have already discussed. My question to you is, and this is an awful hypothetical, has America learned those lessons? So if some successor terrorist group to Al-Qaeda tomorrow launched a catastrophic terrorist attack against some city in the United States or more than one city in the United States, would President Biden and his administration and the American people support restraint in the way that we’re arguing that other countries should?
It’s a great question. I don’t know that we have learned the lessons. I think that we still-
Do as I say, not as I do,
Yeah, and that’s why the Israeli … that’s why I understand what Israel is doing, even though I think it’s overreacting, I do understand the political dynamic that gets you there, the feeling of rage, the feeling of vulnerability. I would hope that we have learned some lessons and the way we reacted to subsequent terror attacks, though none of them nearly as catastrophic as 9/11 does suggest that we haven’t felt the need to jump every time something like this happens, and we haven’t unwound, as you well know, a lot of the provisions of the Patriot Act. And you can see by the way, that same overreaction in Israel where they’re jailing people who are even in mildest possible way, critical of the current military operations in Gaza.
So I think that this is the hard challenge for democratic societies, it’s one of the reasons I think the founders in the United States were so wise because there are so many of their concerns are about tyranny of the majority, about what happens when the majority gets consumed by passion, rage, hatred, bigotry and how to protect human rights, individual rights, minority rights in the face of not a dictator but the mob. I still think those protections are … I’m very grateful that we have them in America, and I think that … I would hope that at the very least, we would have some more conversation, discussion, pushback than we had after 9/11.
By the way, I should timestamp this conversation. We’re talking on Monday, November 13th in the morning, and who knows what developments will happen. Speaking of timestamps, you wrote in the Washington Post several weeks ago on October 20th, a piece entitled Only the US Can Be An Effective Broker in the Gaza Conflict. A, why did you say that and B, has that been born out in the last few weeks?
Absolutely. The reason I say that is twofold. One who has the power in this situation? Israel. Israel is the most powerful actor involved by far. The whole issue we’re discussing is how to shape Israeli policy, how to restrain Israel, how to make it realize what the most wise long-term policy is. The only country that Israel trusts is the United States, and that is why President Biden’s basic approach, I think has been the right one, which is to support Israel, to show them the sense of solidarity in a moment of vulnerability and crisis and then, use that political capital to try to restrain them.
And while I think that in some ways they have not been restrained and they have pocketed Biden’s support and rebuff to all his pressure in a way that Bibi Netanyahu is very skilled at doing, the humanitarian poses, the corridors, all that would not have happened if not for the United States. The larger issue is, I think it shows you the kind of strange world we’re in. I’ve actually just been writing an article for foreign affairs about this. It’s very hard to make sense of the international system as it exists now because at some level the United States is still super powerful. You look at our technology industry, the dollar, our banks.
We’re top of the world, but China is very much a close second and nobody else is close. So then are you really in a bipolar world? Well, not really because the Chinese have power in kind of hard terms. You look at the GDP numbers and all that, but that power doesn’t translate often into influence. If you think of influences being your ability to get another country to do what you want it to do. The Chinese have limited influence, because they haven’t played this game that much. They’re not particularly skilled at it. Look at how much they have produced blowback in so many of the regions they’ve been active in, in Asia. Everything they’ve done, they’ve gotten. The Indian is mad at them.
The Japanese is mad at them, the Australians is mad at them, and if you look in the Middle East, even where they’ve been trying to exercise influence, okay, they managed to broker that normalization between Iran and Saudi Arabia, mainly because the Iranians won’t … We won’t talk to the Iranians. So that’s the one party in the Middle East where the United States can’t be an honest broker, but in every other element of it, when crises happen, who does the world look to? Who does the world go calling? Who does the world ask to get involved? Who’s been shuttling around the Middle East right now?
It’s Tony Blinken. It’s not Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister. And they’re frankly at some level also happy to not be involved because being involved is a pain in the ass. You lose credibility. You’re hustling, and the Chinese don’t see it as particularly benefiting them, and they’re right. The US has taken on this role of trying to produce stability and order in the world where it doesn’t directly help the United States. It indirectly helps it by creating a more peaceful, stable world. And we have taken on that burden on ourselves. The Chinese, I think are much more, self-interested, narrow-minded and as a result, don’t have much influence. The Russians have frankly, mishandled this because they tried to cozy up to Bibi in various ways, but they also love the idea of allying with the anti-American forces in the region.
Iran is their great ally there, so they’re not sure which way to accept. They’ve been careful not to be too anti-Israel and not to be too anti-Palestinian, which leaves them again in a kind of no man’s land.
I want to ask you a journalism question, related to this conflict and then we’ll talk about some other things. So there have been reports that journalists from various publications were embedded with Hamas during October 7th. New York Times and others have issued denials. What do you make of those reports and is there any argument that such an embedding is proper?
I don’t know enough about the situation, but here’s the way I think about it. When you are trying to report on a conflict, inevitably in order to assure your safety, you are going to take protection from some of the armed groups involved. When press goes into Israel right now, when CNN goes in. We’re often embedded with the IDF, and I made it a point to let my viewers know that and explain that there were certain rules the IDF had placed on us when we were doing that and everyone sort of … and this was for 90 seconds of footage that we just wanted people to be able to see what they could … we had previously only been able to get drone footage and things like that.
It produced a lot of blowback on social media saying you are mouthpieces of the Israeli administration. I don’t think that’s true at all. We’re trying to provide us as much information as we can, and when that information is being curated by the Israeli army, we let you know that. And by the way, it was 90 seconds out of a one-hour show. Now, similarly, if you’re trying to get into other parts of Gaza where Hamas has control, is it totally inappropriate for you to try to embed in some way to get the protection of Hamas? I haven’t thought it through well, but my instinct is that we’ve done this throughout history. I mean, I think that when you would try to report on the Spanish Civil War, there were some people who were in with one army and some with the other.
Did we ever do that with the Taliban? I think there were times that Western reporters in order to try to provide a sense of what was going on behind the enemy lines did take protection from the Taliban. I may be wrong. So I think I would need to know a little bit more about the details to be absolutely sure that it’s a terrible idea. I should point out CNN has said they’ve never done it and the New York Times has said they’ve never done it. I think part of getting the story out is trying to get as much information as you can. And I would need to think it through and probably be briefed by people like you, Preet to try to understand what are the rules of war.
I’m not sure that I am as aghast by that prospect. I also know that sometimes … when I was running Newsweek International, sometimes foreign correspondents are in a lot of danger, not entirely … they’ve wandered into the wrong part of the country or things like that, trying to find a good story, and you do need to make some deals with local chieftains, warlords, militant groups, call them what you will. So sometimes it’s a matter of necessity.
Yeah, I mean, I think some people would say there’s a distinction between a nation states army. So even if you think the Russian invasion of Ukraine was wrong or wrongheaded, that’s one thing, but to embed for whatever purpose with a designated terrorist organization is morally different, and I think there might be some argument. We have very broad laws against the material supportive terrorism. So I think there are issues and concerns both moral and legal.
Well, that’s why I said I’d like to have you briefed me before I made any kind of real decision about where I come out on it. I think maybe that is a distinction that’s a bright line, but of course, I’m not sure you’re providing material support to a group by taking photographs while you are … and getting them to agree not to kill you-
No, I’m not saying that. I’m just saying you’d have to analyze it and I think people would be thinking about it, and there’s also First Amendment issue. It’s complicated stuff, but I’m out of that business Preet. So I don’t have to decide. So I have two kids who are still in college, and you have been talking about college and the atmosphere on college campuses. And the one particular … I don’t want to belabor it, but the one particular issue that lots of people are talking about is the propriety of organizations in general, but colleges and universities specifically to issue statements when something big happens in the world. And as you point out in a piece you wrote not long ago, that didn’t use to be the norm.
You said that is a far cry from where universities used to be. And then you quote from a legal scholar, Harry Calvin from 1967, in the middle of debates and passionate disputes about the Vietnam War, and you quoted him as saying this, “A university, if it is to be true to its faith and intellectual inquiry must embrace, be hospitable to and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community, is a community, but only for the limited, albeit great purposes of teaching and research.”
It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby. And then you quote him saying, “The university is the home and sponsor of critics. It is not itself the critic.” I trust you agree with that statement and do you have a comment on how we’ve departed from that prescription over the years?
Yeah, I think that is one of the most eloquent statements of what the academic mission … what the core mission of the university should be. Remember, it’s happening, as you say, in the height of the Vietnam War when there were a lot of people on student campuses, essentially siding with the North Vietnamese saying that North Vietnam should resist this essentially colonial war that the United States has inherited from France with people like Jane Fonda were going to North Vietnam and sitting down in that anti-aircraft battery that she did, there were people who thought Pol Pot was a legitimately character to praise.
So in that context, people were asking college presidents to denounce all that activity. And the University of Chicago came out with this report, which was widely praised by the way at the time. And most universities have not taken official positions on political issues precisely because in a sense, you are disrupting the ability to have free open debate inquiry that the university sort of puts its thumb on one side of the scales. You’ve made it difficult for there to be an open conversation and discussion. I tried to research this and it’s a little hard to do, but I could not find a lot of official statements from universities after 9/11.
I certainly couldn’t find them after the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, any of those events. So the university by and large followed the kind of Calvin principles, even if they didn’t formally sign up for them. Then George Floyd happened. Remember, we were also in that moment of what I think at some level was peak woke and universities decide they want to demonstrate their sensitivity, and it’s not just universities. All kinds of companies, and everybody starts issuing statements and the universities, many universities issued statements, but at that point, you’ve now entered. Now it might seem an issue on which everybody agrees, but you’re still taken on … you made a political statement.
And then, when the Hamas attacks happened, a lot of people said, “Wait a minute, if you made statements on George Floyd, how come you’re not making them on this, for the university to make … felt forced to do that,” I think they’ve opened up a terrible Pandora’s box because what happens when the next such thing happens? Are they going to keep opining on these things? And if they don’t, how will they … what is the standard by which they’ll explain that they did opine on this one terror attack, but they didn’t on the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, which is many, many more people, hundreds of thousands, they didn’t.
On the Syrian Civil War in which maybe 500,000 people died. They’re still not talking about things that are going on in Ethiopia where many more people are dying. I don’t understand what the standard is. And I’ve talked to some college presidents in writing that and they admitted it would end up being a kind of weird idiosyncratic choice of when people in America start demanding it, and if they make a judgment that that’s necessary. Well, that feels very intellectually and morally unsatisfying. So I think they’ve gotten themselves into a terrible mess, and I hope that they find their way after this back to the Chicago standard.
And realize that nobody wants to know what a college president thinks about what’s going on in the Middle East. That is not the point of being the president of Cornell.
I’ll be right back with Fareed Zakaria after this. Do you think that the war in Israel and Gaza is having an effect on American perception of, or a focus on, or support for the Ukrainians in their war? How did those two events interact with each other politically and otherwise?
First, let’s talk about how they interact geopolitically because there is, I think a real geopolitical issue here, which is the United States is no longer in that unipolar world, where it just dominated … because there was no competition. I mean, in 1990, to give you some sense, China was one and a half percent of global GDP and the Soviet Union was in free fall, and then, Russia was in free fall, basically became almost bankrupt nation by the mid-90s, defaulted on its debt in ’98. So there was really no competitor to the United States. That world is over and the world order that the United States has built since 1945 is as a result, under some pressure because US, the single biggest sustainer creator kind of repairer of that world order is not quite the power that it was.
And in a sense, what’s happening is you are seeing challenges to that order. The Russians are challenging … as American power in a sense, withdraws in Europe, and Putin thought Europe was so dependent on it, on Russia for energy. The Chinese are challenging in Asia and building up their position in East Asia militarily and the Iranians and other assorted anti-American groups are challenging the American order in the Middle East or the American constructed order in the Middle East. So it is in a sense, part of a larger phenomenon of a changing world order. How it politically acts is I think it just feels like the United States has more obligations at a time when it wants to have fewer obligations.
It interacts because you have more and more people worried that the United States is spending money abroad when we should be spending at home, even though the amounts of money we’re spending are under 1% of the federal budget. I’d say the most important piece of it that I worry about is that the Republican Party has basically seen the revival of a very powerful isolation, a strain within it. People forget how strong that strain was. The Republican party was dominated by isolationists in the 1930s who even in the late 1930s argued after the invasion of Poland, after the invasion of the Soviet Union, argued that the United States should not get involved in World War II, should not get involved in Europe, who after World War II argued the United States should not be involved in NATO.
Robert Taft, the leading Republican, the guy who would’ve been the presidential nominee had Eisenhower not run, was deeply hostile to NATO. So that strain of the Republican Party is returning, and I worry a lot about that because I think that if you end up in a situation where after 75 years … for 75 years, the United States debated very intensely how to engage in the world, but it didn’t … a debate whether it should be engaged in the world. Now, we are beginning to get a strong strain of the Republican Party saying, we should just get the hell out of here. We don’t need to be involved. Well, I mean we’re seeing what the post American Middle East looks like as American power withdrew and everyone else tried to rush in.
Imagine what a post American Europe would look like with a NATO that was crippled and weak. Imagine what a post American Asia would look like with China unchecked. I think you’d be looking at a considerably more unstable violent world. I think you’d be looking at the end of a kind of globalization that we’ve had because everybody knew they could trade with everyone else. I think you’d be looking at an end of a rules-based international system, and it worries me because I think the energy and the Republican Party is with the Trump’s, the DeSantis’ the Ramaswamy’s of the world who say, “Just get the hell out.”
This is an issue. Like the other issues we’ve talked about, we’ve not talked about any simple issues today. It’s fraught and it is a particular closeness I think to people like you and me, both of us immigrants born in India, and you have written that among other things, not to politicize it for purposes of this discussion, but the Democrats underestimate and get wrong the immigration problem and the problem at the border. Not everyone will agree with you, but explain what you mean by that.
I think that my own sense, and I don’t want to pretend to speak for all immigrants, but the way I look at it, I want America to be open, generous, I think that we should have more immigration, not less, because frankly, we face real labor shortages. And one of the things that distinguishes America compared to other rich countries in the world, which are all basically turning into retirement societies, and if you look at the demographic profile of Italy, it looks like Florida, not aesthetically, I mean just in terms of demographic profile. In order to make that work, you have to convince people that we are a society of laws and rules and that those rules are being enforced and obeyed.
That somebody who just shows up at the border doesn’t get priority over somebody who’s patiently waited and followed the procedures. And I think people have a sense that that system has broken down, and I believe they are right. That basically, it’s a complicated story, but as you know far better than I do, Preet, there is a system by which you can show up and you aren’t turned back, you aren’t deported because you say you are asking for political asylum. Now that was meant to be a way of taking in a few people who were individually facing persecution because they were prominent intellectuals or because they were Jews who had been persecuted in parts of the world or people … the Soviet Union was persecuting because they were freethinking liberals.
What has happened now on the southern border is you have hundreds of thousands of people, very often paying cartels to provide them safe passage to get them to the border. When they show up at the border, they say, “I’m applying for asylum status, so you can’t deport me. In fact, I deserve a court hearing. I can then stay in America. I get a second court hearing.” About a third of those people, or a quarter to a third of those people then disappear into the shadows of the American economy. All this just strikes me as an obvious case where the system is broken down, the system is not working. You cannot say, even if there were a few million legitimate asylum seekers, by some standard or definition, the United States can’t take in two and three million asylum seekers every year.
So what I’ve been arguing is we just need an overhaul of the system. Now, to be fair, Republicans don’t want the overhaul of the system because the crisis at the border helps them politically. And so while railing about it, in my opinion, correctly pointing out the flaws, have no desire to solve it because they like the crisis. It gives them votes, and it gives them fundraising. The Democrats don’t want to admit there’s a problem, and if they do want to admit it, they do it very quietly because they don’t want to seem to be anti-immigrant. I think it’s a big mistake in policy terms, but also politically. The single biggest propellant of right-wing populism all over the Western world is immigration.
It is the single issue that got Donald Trump elected. It’s the single issue that got Giorgia Meloni elected in Italy. It’s the single issue that turned Brexit into the vote it was. It’s what is keeping the AFD, the neo-Nazi party in Germany at the second-highest polling numbers right now. It’s what elected what is an openly fascist, a party with an openly fascist past in Sweden. So some people, I think got generally nice liberals living in comfortable lives, think this is not a big issue. It is the rocket fuel that propels right-wing populism.
I mean, part of the problem is that it’s intractable and impossible to solve. I have often mentioned that I worked in the Senate between 2005 and 2009. And during that period you had John McCain, Republican. You had Ted Kennedy, Democrat. Very powerful advocates for overall in the immigration system. Then, you had a willing president who was a Republican, George W. Bush in the White House, and there were enormous pushes made to have a path for citizenship for the people who are in the shadows now, combined with more border security and things that on a bipartisan basis, not just McCain and Kennedy, but people could get on board with and it failed. If it failed then how could something like that succeed now? That’s the problem.
I agree, and it’s a huge tragedy. By the way, I have it on good authority. He didn’t tell this to me himself, but he told it to a good friend of ours that George W. Bush now believes that the single biggest mistake he made in his second term was that at the start of his second term, as you remember, he had this plan to privatize social security and that he wasted a lot of political capital on that, that if he had instead tried to do immigration, that very immigration bill we were talking about, he would probably have gotten it through. And it’s the single biggest example of how America’s political paralysis and dysfunction and partisanship is affecting our actual public policies.
Because this is something we really need to solve. This is what has made America so much more powerful and so much more vibrant than other rich countries. The fact that we know how to handle immigration, and as you and I know, Preet, not only is America handle immigration, it handles assimilation very well. That’s the part that most other countries aren’t able to do nearly as well as America. And the American assimilation machine works fantastically for all those people who think that immigrants don’t assimilate, you and I know having kids here, the greatest challenge for an immigrant father is to get the kids to have some little piece of the old country and the old culture.
The truth is they get so assimilated so fast that all they talk about is football, baseball, Taylor Swift. Getting them to remember a little bit about the old country is the hard part, and we do that so well that all we need to do is fix this damn broken set of rules.
Can you give us, before you go a one-minute preview of the book you’ve been working on?
Sure. I’ll keep it to one minute because I want to be back to talk about it, but it’s called Age of Revolutions, Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present. And what I’m trying to do is ask myself, why does it feel like we’re living in such revolutionary times where our politics is being upended the Republican Party that Reagan has turned into the party of Trump, which is almost the opposite. The Democrats’ coalition has completely shifted from blue collar working class to this … Why does the economics seem so different? There was a period of free trade globalization. Now everyone is talking industrial policy. Why does the world seem like it’s … and what I did is in a way of trying to teach myself about it, I went back.
And asked myself, when have we had previous kind of revolutionary periods in human history and what can we learn from them? So I look at the French Revolution, I look at the industrial Revolution and I draw some lessons and it’s taken me almost a decade because I had to kind of go back to school, but I’m very proud of it.
Well, we will have you back no doubt when the book comes out. Fareed Zakaria, thank you so much for coming back on the show.
Thanks so much, Preet, real pleasure.
My conversation with Fareed Zakaria continues for members of the Cafe Insider Community. In the bonus for Insiders, Zakaria and I talk about his trips to Ukraine and the geopolitical impact on a theoretical Trump return to the presidency.
Their strategy is to wait, 50% chance as they see it, that Trump gets elected and then, their hope is that Trump will sell the Ukrainians down the river and cut a deal.
To try out the membership for just $1 for a month, head to cafe.com/insider. Again, that’s cafe.com/insider.
To end the show this week, I want to mention an incredible event that I had the opportunity to be a part of last week. In my line of work as you might imagine, I’m often invited to speak at events about law and justice, and I enjoy these events. I’m always so humble to meet people who want to hear from me. This particular event meant a lot to me personally. It was a commemoration of the publication of my book, Doing Justice, in Ukrainian. The event was organized by Just Group, a Ukrainian NGO, and their mission is to transform the criminal justice system in Ukraine into a “Fair, efficient and human-centered system.”
The people at Just Group believed so much in the principles I write about in my book, that they wanted to get it to a wider audience in Ukraine. So with the help of a Ukrainian publishing house, they fundraised and got the book published in their native language. And to celebrate the book launch, they organized this event where I was invited to join remotely. They even invited the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, Andriy Kostin, who wrote the foreword to the edition. In his remarks, Kostin emphasized a point that I make in the book repeatedly that no matter how just our laws are as written, how just our constitution is as written, at the end of the day, justice is done by people, by human beings.
And we as individuals must do our best to do what’s right. The publication of the book in Ukraine came with its own challenges. At the event, we heard from Ihor Semak. Ihor is a prosecutor at the Specialized Anti-corruption Prosecutor’s Office, and he edited the Ukrainian edition of my book. He said at one point that they had managed, edit and translate a third of the book, but then they had to pause in February of 2022. For a moment, I wondered, why is that? Then of course, I remembered that’s when Russia invaded Ukraine and Semak was called to serve as a soldier, but he related how important it was for him to continue the work a few months later.
And I was incredibly moved as he recounted how he would leave his shelter to connect to wifi and download the translated pages he would work on for that day. If bombing resumed, he would return to a shelter and continue to work on his phone. I feel very grateful to be among the thoughtful writers, lawyers and judges who were in attendance, and I was deeply struck by something as the conversation unfolded. Even though the Ukrainian people speak a different language, have different cultures and customs, are embroiled in war, the issues and challenges relating to doing justice are not different. The audience asked many questions and I was struck by their universality.
One person asked me about how to measure success as a prosecutor. Another asked about maintaining empathy in the job. Yet another asked about working with limited resources. They asked how to be fair, how to be just, how to do the right thing. As we discussed, these things are vitally important, even in times of war and crisis, maybe especially so.
Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest, Fareed Zakaria. If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics, and justice. Tweet them to me @PreetBharara with the hashtag #AskPreet.
You can also now reach me on Threads, or you can call and leave me a message at 669-247-7338. That’s 669-24PREET, or you can send an email to email@example.com. Stay Tuned is presented by Cafe and the Vox Media Podcast Network. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The editorial producers are David Kurlander and Noa Azulai. The technical director is David Tatasciore. The audio producer is Nat Weiner, and the Cafe team is Matthew Billy, Jake Kaplan, and Claudia Hernández. I’m your host, Preet Bharara. Stay Tuned.