To Better Understand the World
The United States is squandering one of history’s great moments, says veteran foreign policymaker Richard Haass ’73. To change the world, he propounds, we must become a world partner—not a world bully.

by Michael Doyle ’78

NEW YORK CITY—An old school elevator rises to Richard Haass’ office at the storied center of the American foreign policy establishment.

With its latticed metal gate and handsome wood paneling, the compartment is a cozy fit for three, feeling elegant and archaic all at once. The elevator arrives at the fourth floor and opens to the presidential quarters of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Richard Haass ’73, the council’s president, is running late. The reception area is not ornate, yet it feels hushed in his absence. After a moment, though, Haass rushes in, cell phone to his ear. Time is dear for this former Rhodes Scholar and State Department veteran. Important people are on the line, one assumes; delicate matters of state must be tended to.

And then, there’s the occasional mohel.

Haass, it turns out, was attending a bris this morning—a ritual circumcision. It was behind schedule, but some ceremonies must proceed in their own time … Please Don’t Rush the Mohel. But now it is over, and Haass can greet a visitor curious about his work.

“It’s one of the best jobs in the field,” he says, glancing around his book-bedecked office. “This is the premier organization in the country, if not the world, in dealing with questions of foreign policy.”

Certainly, it’s a job that puts Haass in extraordinary company, past and present. His predecessors as council president include the likes of former CIA Director Allen Dulles, former Columbia University President Grayson Kirk and—way back in the day—former Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis. A whole speakers’ bureau worth of “formers” now serve as the council’s directors: a former secretary of state, a former treasury secretary, and a former congressman.

With nearly 200 employees, an annual budget of about $30 million, and an international rolodex to die for, the Council on Foreign Relations is lushly endowed for its stated mission of enabling people to “better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other governments.” The council’s fellows include some of the nation’s leading foreign policy thinkers. Its younger staffers are up-and-comers.

“This is an opportunity to be around incredible scholars,” says Cambria Hamburg ’03, working as a council program associate following her post-Oberlin Fulbright fellowship in Thailand. “It’s a really good place to be between undergraduate and graduate school.”

Most famously, the Council on Foreign Relations claims an elite membership of about 4,200. Its members hold public office, run major colleges, and dominate Wall Street. The council’s very name has excited fevered theories over the years; try punching in “The Illuminati and the Council on Foreign Relations” on an Internet search engine and see what pops up. So, discretion is sometimes the better part of the council’s valor. Its name does not appear outside its headquarters on New York’s Upper East Side. There’s a protocol at the front desk for handling threatening phone calls.

Downstairs, in a room named for one of the council’s wealthy benefactors, a rack of newspapers stands in the corner. Across the room, there’s a computer terminal. It’s like seeing a conversation between two eras: Herr Gutenberg, meet Professor Google. Library shelves showcase serious, sometimes musty work. The very first volume of the council-published Foreign Affairs magazine, dated September 15, 1922, rests near the latest issue, whose articles warn of pandemics and Europe’s angry Muslims. Some of the books solemnly evoke a bygone era: say, Euro-Communism and Détente. Others are of the present moment, like Haass’ own The Opportunity: America’s Moment to Alter History’s Course.

Published this year, The Opportunity had entered into its third printing by late July. It helped that foreign policy gurus like uber-realist Henry Kissinger wrote favorable blurbs. It also helped that the book offered a buzz-worthy story line, with Haass criticizing the foreign policy performance of his former Bush administration colleagues. And it didn’t hurt, Haass says with a quick smile, that the initial printing runs were relatively small, so that the publishers needed to pump out more copies. In any event, as the author or editor of 10 previous books, Haass knows serious judgment takes a while.

“This is an idea book, and ideas take time to get absorbed and into circulation,” he says. “The real question will be the test of time, and whether the ideas I’ve put forward gain some traction.”
The Opportunity’s ideas combine optimism with realism. It notes that the Cold War is over, reducing armed super-power conflict to a remote possibility. The stage is set for what Haass calls “integration,” the binding together of countries with a common purpose.

Sometimes, he argues, this will mean accepting constraints on unilateral action. Sometimes this will mean re-evaluating notions of national sovereignty, as when the world needs to respond to immense humanitarian disasters. Multilateral institutions get a big thumbs up.

“What history has given us is a rare, precious, but fragile opportunity to usher in an age of considerable peace, prosperity, and freedom,” Haass writes, while warning that “the opportunity that now exists is not permanent. It will over time fade or disappear altogether.”

The United States, Haass fears, “is not taking full advantage of the opportunity.” Indeed, the Bush administration in which Haass served for two-and-a-half years lost some of that delicate opportunity in the Iraqi dust. And Haass knows it all too well.

A New York City native, Haass earned both a master’s degree and a doctorate at Oxford. He climbed the foreign policy ladder the old-fashioned way: a government tour, followed by a think-tank respite, followed by another stint in government, and then back to the ivory tower while awaiting government’s next call.

It’s a cycle, by the way, that did not necessarily cease once Haass became council president in July 2003. Asked if he can envision returning to some future State Department or other government slot, Haass allows that he can. He very easily can.

“Government at its best is a sensational experience,” he says. “I won’t be coy. In this field, it’s one of the things you think about.”

Haass paid his early dues as a Senate aide, joining the Defense Department in the Carter administration and the State Department in the Reagan administration. He worked at the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, two other institutions that often provide the bench strength for administrations-in-waiting.

A veteran of the first Bush administration’s National Security Council staff, Haass was tapped in 2001 to direct the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning. It’s a brainy outfit with a remarkable history, billed as the State Department’s own internal think tank. It gave Haass a seat at the table, which is where he likes to be. That’s where ideas become flesh, and policy moves the world. It’s where vicious bureaucratic battles are waged and real-world wars are planned.

Afghanistan was one such war, and few questioned its legitimacy in the wake of September 11. How well the aftermath is turning out is subject to history’s judgment. The brutally rigid Taliban rule is gone, and so are Al Qaeda training camps. On the other hand, a July 2005 Government Accountability Office report noted that “deteriorating security, increased opium production, and delayed funding” thwart recovery. Aid workers die if they venture too far afield. Consider this one metric: the U.S. Agency for International Development had planned to rehabilitate or build 286 Afghan schools by the end of 2004, the GAO noted. Only eight were completed as of that September.

Iraq was the other war. And since leaving the State Department confines, Haass has made clear his doubts about that enterprise.

Richard Haass with Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations

“There were people in the administration who felt passionately that the Iraq war was necessary,” Haass says. “I was skeptical.”

Iraq’s supposed nuclear weapons program? Illusory. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Haass’ own boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell, all warned of Iraq’s alleged nuclear ambitions. Their firmly stated, crisply sourced, anxiety-producing assertions swayed the U.S. public. But behind the scenes, Haass says, he “didn’t see any intelligence that … made a credible case that they had anything going on.”
Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programs appeared more substantial, Haass says, but he likewise dismissed the immediacy of their threat.

Haass, moreover, was among those seriously questioning the ease of rebuilding the country of Iraq. In public, the Bush administration was famously optimistic. Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, himself a Council on Foreign Relations member, typified the sunny side up-siders with confident prognostications that proved invariably wrong.

The Wolfowitz-Haass dichotomy is an instructive one. Both men have spent their careers alternating between the academy and the proverbial halls of power. Both men are identified with respective foreign policy camps: Haass: a cool-blooded “realist” who cautions in The Opportunity that promoting democracy “cannot be the only or the dominant objective” of U.S. foreign policy. Wolfowitz: a neo-conservative whose belief in spreading democracy through military force if necessary earns him the mantle of an “idealist.” This is an enduring dichotomy in U.S. foreign policy—realism versus idealism—and Iraq offers a case study.

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