Bill Clinton's World: The Former President Tells Foreign Policy What to Read, Who to Watch, and Why There Really Is a Chance of Middle East Peace in 2010

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

If you wanted to know how Bill Clinton thought when he was president, you ignored the scripted set-piece speeches and instead went to listen to him talk off the cuff at an evening fundraiser. At night, he would ruminate extemporaneously on race, religion, science, and the nature of the human soul. His mind would roam widely and yet pull together disparate themes into a coherent narrative as no other politician of his generation. Today, the place to hear him think out loud is at the annual Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York, where he gathers hundreds of heads of state, business moguls, nonprofit executives, academics, and even Hollywood stars not just to talk about the world's problems but to do something about them.

Peter Baker, White House correspondent for the New York Times, and Susan Glasser, FOREIGN POLICY's executive editor, caught up with Clinton there for an expansive conversation about identity, virtue, and riding the steppes with Genghis Khan. Below, the edited excerpts.

Foreign Policy: Last year we did not expect the economy to collapse quite the way it did. This year we did not think the people of Iran would take to the streets after the election. Looking ahead to 2010, what are the strategic surprises we ought to be looking for?

Bill Clinton: We should look around the world and see if there are any places where the political analogue of the financial crisis could occur. That is, what we know about all systems subject to a combination of stress and dynamism is that there are fractures and vulnerabilities that are not immediately apparent because people expect tomorrow to be a replica of yesterday and today. I always say, in a highly dynamic environment, it's obvious you should always be working for the best and preparing for the worst. That's easy to say, but how do you do that? And what are the warning signs? For example, could something go wrong in Nigeria as a result of a combination of economic and political conflict?

On the flip side, which other places in the world could still surprise us by doing something really smart and good? I still think there is some chance the Israelis and the Hamas government and the Palestinian government could make a deal. Because I think that the long-term trend lines are bad for both sides that have the capacity to make a deal. Right now, Hamas is kind of discredited after the Gaza operation, and yet [the Palestinian Authority] is clearly increasing [its] capacity. They are in good shape right now, but if they are not able to deliver sustained economic and political advances, that's not good for them. The long-term trends for the Israelis are even more stark, because they will soon enough not be a majority. Then they will have to decide at that point whether they will continue to be a democracy and no longer be a Jewish state, or continue to be a Jewish state and no longer be a democracy. That's the great spur.

The other thing that has not been sufficiently appreciated is the inevitable arc of technological capacity that applies to military weaponry, like it does to PCs and video games and everything else. I know that these rockets drove the Israelis nuts, and I didn't blame them for being angry and frustrated--it was maddening. But let's be candid: They were not very accurate. So it's only a question of time until they are de facto outfitted with GPS positioning systems. And when that happens and the casualty rates start to really mount, will that make it more difficult for the Palestinians to make peace instead of less? Because they will be even more pressed by the radical groups saying, "No, no, look, look, we are making eight out of 10 hits. Let's stay at this." I think one of the surprising things that might happen this year [2010] is you might get a substantial agreement. Nobody believes this will happen, and it probably won't, because of the political complexity of the Israeli government. …