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Three secretaries, no waiting

In the closing “conversation” today at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Charlie Rose interviews former Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and James Baker and current deputy secretary James Steinberg. The conversation, unsurprisingly, begins with the recent protests in Iran.

Secretary Baker saw the protests as encouraging, despite the violence against protesters. The protests were fueled by dissatisfaction, and they may be exposing that the Iranian government is less of a theocracy, and more of a hardline military and security government. This might give us options we otherwise might not have, but we don’t have much we can do on the ground. “I’m the only person here to serve in a Republican administration and I think President Obama has handled this just about exactly right.” In Hungary in 1956, “we called people out but weren’t in the position to help them.” We don’t want to make the same mistake in Iran. And we cannot be the whipping boy for the Iranian government.

The violent crackdown can’t stop us from talking, Baker argues. During the Cold War, the Soviets were “equally committed to doing damage to the US, to wiping us off the earth… and we talked to them for forty years.” He gets strong applause for the line, “You don’t need to make peace with your friends, you need to make peace with your enemies.”

Secretary Albright notes, “For a long time, I thought Iran had won the war in Iraq. That may have shifted. Iran, as Persia, wanted to be regional hegemon.” In their confusion of what they’ve done, she argues, they have changed the dynamic of the whole region.

It’s comfortable to say that we’re never going to deal with this government, but not very helpful. The problems are practial – who do we talk to and about what. And the possibility that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons is a genuine national security problem.

Steinberg acknowledges that the most powerful aspect of the Iranian protests “is that the protests were made in Iran – it wasn’t somehow protesters implementing outside policy.”

Baker suggests that the US has options other than doing nothing. He references “sanctions that really bite, financial sanctions,” and then intriguingly reminds the audience that the US still has thousands of nuclear weapons. “We’ve got all these nukes, it doesn’t take but twenty seconds to reaim ’em at Iran. We need to let those hardliners know – they may be flaky and crazy, but they don’t want to be blown off the face of the earth.”

Albright notes that it’s a mistake to equate protests in Iran with certain historical precedents. “The people seeking freedom in Europe were pro-American. That’s not what we see in Iran. People want to be noticed, but not necessarily embraced by the US.” She notes that the past embrace of Iranian politicians has weakened them.

Steinberg is clear that the US isn’t reaiming nuclear weapons any time soon. “There’s no question we can deter them. But our fear is Iranian nuclear weapons as a shield, not as a sword,” allowing Iran to take aggresive action in the region without fear of retaliation. And if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it’s likely to provoke other countries to acquire them.

The conversation shifts to Israel, and Steinberg points out that the US is making preliminary overtures to Syria, engaging to a new degree. Baker suggests that Syria is critical because it has influence with Hamas. He remembers a conversation with Syrian officials in the past – he asked whether Syria could get Hamas to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist in exchange for the Golan. He believes Syria will do it. The trick may be finding ways to talk to Hamas indirectly – he recollects talking to Palestinians who were obviously speaking for the PLO, but maintaining the fiction that the US doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. Albright reminds us that Hamas is so powerful because they actually provide services – we need to acknowledge that they’re more complicated than just a terrorist organization.

We move into a rapid tour of hotspots around the world. Asked about whether the US should restrict air strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Steinberg steers the conversation to nationbuilding. “We’re not going to do nationbuilding – we’re going to allow Afghans to build their own nation.” Baker’s got a different plan – he suggests we should pay off and “flip” members of the Taliban, suggesting that this is a common local practice and will be well-received.

Albright has no easy answers for Pakistan, but has a great line: “I think Pakistan is everything that gives you an international migraine.” She lists problems including corruption, its location, its interconnection to other conflicts, and notes that we’re at a point where we can’t even succesfully deliver humanitarian aid and support to the Swat Valley.

The topic of Russia inspires spirited conversation. Albright notes that in her past trips to Russia and nearby countries, she sees a huge mistrust of the US. She feels that they’re deeply worried about US influence in the “post-Soviet Sphere”. We need to make it clear that NATO isn’t against them, and we’ve got an added complication with missle defense: “I personally wish we’d never gone towards missle defense. It’s hard to persuade the that the missles and NATO aren’t against them.” Albright notes that the new generation in power in Russia, people in their forties, are anti-American for the most part.

Charlie Rose leads the conversation to North Korea via China. Baker reminds us that China owns us, or will soon. “If we don’t do something about our current account deficit, we’re going to be in big trouble.”

Steinberg sees increasing distance between North Korea and China. He believes that the recent provocative acts have been a shock to China as well. “The Chinese are worried about destabilizing North Korea, but are fundamentally committed to seeing the de-nuclearization of North Korea.” They see it as a threat to them – if the program continues, it’s going to change the face of Northeast Asia.

Our world tour includes a quick stop in Europe – though none in Africa or Latin America – before we move on to health care. This quickly turns into a conversation about the difficulty of bipartisanship. Albright offers multiple diagnoses, including the zinger, “With due respect, the Republican party is not exactly functional.” Baker offers a practical suggestion. Given the hatred between Republicans and Democrats in the House, bipartisan initiatives actually need to be written by the President.

Asked about the future, Baker predicts that the US will still be the preeminent power in the world in twenty five years. We’re not falling behind, he tells us, but others are catching up in part by embracing our models. But he worries about our financial future. Albright reminds us that we’re a nation that doesn’t like to go it alone and predicts a future of state to state partnerships. And Steinberg is silent, perhaps because it’s easier to be opinionated on this topic when you’re no longer in office.

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