Safe and Secure: Protecting America in a New Era

Harvard International Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Safe and Secure: Protecting America in a New Era


Is President Obama's withdrawal plan for Afghanistan still appropriate in light of the reelection of Hamid Karzai?

Well, I don't think there is a withdrawal plan. I think we have a plan to escalate US military involvement in Afghanistan, thereby extending for a considerable period of time a war that is already in its ninth year.

I think that when the President made his speech at West Point, he seemed at that moment to indicate that there was a fairly firm deadline for withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan. But everything that has been said since about that deadline by his closest subordinates has transformed that deadline into mush. I think that there is no plan for withdrawal and no clear commitment on the part of the administration to make any such withdrawal. What's clear is they are going to escalate and prolong the war.

In your recent book, you criticized the culture of over-consumption in the United States and suggested that Jimmy Carter is the only president in recent history to take this problem seriously. Do you think Obama will address this question?

I see little evidence that he will do so. It seems to me that most of his economic advisors believe that consumption--increased consumption--holds the key to getting the US economy out of the current recession. So in my book, I tried to identify an economic crisis that had cultural roots. There is very little indication that President Obama or anybody in his administration appears that concerned about a cultural crisis.

Do you think the financial crisis is enough to make Americans finally face themselves in the mirror?

No, not at all. One of the things that strikes me about our recent history is how little effect catastrophic developments have on our willingness to look at ourselves in the mirror. One might have thought that the 9/11 attacks would cause the United States to seriously examine its approach to national security policy. But no such self-examination resulted. And as you suggest, the economic crisis that began in the late Bush years would have caused us to stop and ask ourselves how we have gotten into this predicament. But again, I think there has been remarkably little willingness to ask serious questions. People want to get things back to normal, and people want to avoid any sort of change that implies compromising the American way of life, or acknowledging the limits of US power.

Then what more might be necessary for this cultural realization to occur?

Oh, I am deeply pessimistic that it will occur. I guess it would require some catastrophe, on a scale even larger than 9/11. and on a scale even larger than the current economic crisis. And I certainly don't wish that kind of catastrophe to occur. I think that what we will likely do is cling to the pattern of behavior to which we are accustomed, to ignore uncomfortable facts, and to try to play out this period we might call the American century as long as possible, refusing to recognize that the American century is, in fact, coming to an end.

You have previously said that you don't think a war with Iran is likely anytime soon. Obama announced he was putting off the question of tougher sanctions until the end of 2009. If you were in the President's circle of advisors, what would you recommend he do with regard to Iran?

I'd encourage him to take a deep breath and not to overstate the Iranian threat. Iranians don't have a nuclear weapon. I believe that if Iran comes into possession of a nuclear weapon, then they can be deterred. I reject the notion that the Iranians, including the clerics, consist of a bunch of irrational people that will court the destruction of their own country. It is certainly true that we want to prevent Iran, if at all possible, from acquiring nuclear weapons. The only chance of achieving that objective is at least to take under consideration Iran's own perception of its security requirements. …

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