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Playboy Interview: Fareed Zakaria
  • March 07, 2009 : 00:03
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Fareed Zakaria has been called the Muslim Cary Grant and mentioned as a candidate for secretary of state -- not the usual praise heaped on a journalist. One thing is certain: Americans increasingly rely on the articulate columnist and television commentator to interpret world events, whether they be the September 11 terrorist attacks, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan or the latest inflammatory ravings of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At a time when political discourse is often limited to sensational sound bites, whining and bloviating, Zakaria's analysis and opinions are reasoned, complex, bipartisan and coherent. No wonder his fans range from Jon Stewart, who reportedly has a "man crush" on Zakaria, to Condoleezza Rice, who has said Zakaria is "intelligent about just about every area of the world." Esquire named him one of the 21 most important people of the 21st century. Before September 11 Zakaria was a rising star in the rarefied world of foreign policy; The Nation called him the "junior Kissinger." Then came the terrorist attacks and Zakaria's response, a seminal Newsweek cover story called "The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?," a bold critique of the "dysfunctions" of Arab society. In the piece Zakaria argued for an American and international effort to help Islam enter the modern world; he was rewarded with a fatwa. Since then Zakaria has become the go-to commentator on terrorism and the Middle East, as well as India, Pakistan, China, Russia -- in fact, just about every one of the world's hot spots.

In addition to his columns for Newsweek
and The Washington Post
Zakaria will soon host his own weekly hour-long show on CNN. He's also the author of books about terrorism, international politics, economics and globalization, including The Future of Freedom
, a New York Times
best-seller translated into 20 languages. His latest is The Post-American World
, essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand the future of the United States. America has a choice, Zakaria contends: accept and adapt to the new paradigm -- the inexorable rise of the rest of the world -- or suffer economically and politically.

Zakaria, 44, who lives in New York City with his wife, Paula Throckmorton Zakaria, and their two children, was born in Mumbai, India, where his father was a scholar and politician and his mother a newspaper editor. He was educated in India before coming to the U.S. to attend college at Yale, where he became president of the Yale Political Union. After graduating he earned a Ph.D. at Harvard, followed by his appointment as the youngest managing editor in the history of Foreign Affairs
magazine. Then Newsweek
called. Along with his column and occasional features, he oversees the magazine's international editions. He's a frequent guest on talk shows, including The Daily Show
, and an analyst for ABC News. He also hosted the Foreign Exchange
show on PBS.

Playboy tapped Contributing Editor David Sheff, who last interviewed Russian dissident and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov for the magazine, to meet with Zakaria in Manhattan. "I knew Zakaria would be smart," Sheff reports, "but I was struck by his graciousness. Even as he talks about a new world, he has old-world manners and class. That's not to say he didn't keep me on my toes. Name any place and not only does Zakaria know its pressing contemporary issues but he puts them in their historical context. It's all the more remarkable because Zakaria's beat -- that is, everywhere -- with its elections, coups, terrorist attacks, assassinations and wars, is a perpetually moving target. Whether about Iraq, Iran, Russia, China or the U.S., he challenged me, as he regularly does his readers and viewers, to think deeply about my assumptions."


PLAYBOY: For many of us the idea of a post-American world is unthinkable. We're too big, too significant -- the world's only superpower. Are we wrong?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I began with the same confidence. I thought America was unstoppable too, that our position in the world was assured. But then I began noticing things that a short time ago were unimaginable. The richest man in the world lives in Mexico City. The tallest building in the world is in Taipei, and Dubai is building a taller building. The next-tallest building in the world will be built in Dubai a year and a half later. The largest factory in the world is in China. The largest refinery is in India. I was in Las Vegas one day and thought, At least we have this. It turns out we don't. The largest casino hotel in the world now is the Venetian in Macao, and Macao just overtook Las Vegas with the largest gambling revenues in the world. Shopping, America's great leisure-time activity? The last time I was in Beijing they showed me the largest mall in the world, which has since been eclipsed by another Chinese mall. It turns out the top 10 malls in the world are all outside the United States. Just three years ago almost every category I gave you would have been topped by America. The change is fast and has only just begun. It's still true there's only one superpower, but things are changing in every dimension other than the military.

PLAYBOY: Some people would argue that our military trumps everything else.

FAREED ZAKARIA: From history we know that if a superpower relies solely on its military might, it will fall behind. At the end of their empire the British were obsessed by minor political disturbances throughout the empire, where they could go in and stabilize a situation with their military strength. It's the trap of hegemony: You begin to believe the only thing that matters is the thing you can do better than others and without others' support. It's the quick and easy path to decline.

PLAYBOY: But the United States also still has the world's number one economy.

FAREED ZAKARIA: Which is in jeopardy if we don't adapt to the changing world, if we don't embrace it, if instead we dig in our heels, close our borders, close our minds and try to stop change.

PLAYBOY: How are we trying to stop change?

FAREED ZAKARIA: First, we're in denial, and there are two or three streams feeding the denial. We've always thought of ourselves as exceptional. We are exceptional. But this country was created in rejection of the Old World. We were the New World. We think we still are, but a newer world is being formed, newer than ours. We're also in denial about globalization. We talk about it, but more than 80 percent of the U.S. economy is domestic. Meanwhile, we react with absolute horror at the prospect that there might be Americans who speak a second language -- Spanish, God forbid -- as if our big problem as Americans is that we know too many foreign languages. Also, there's very little foreign travel by Americans. Our parochialism means we really haven't noticed things have changed. U.S. businesses get it, though. It's a very competitive world, and they've had to hustle. American universities get it too. Students are coming from everywhere, and research is being done everywhere. The place they don't get it is Washington, D.C. The rhetoric of Washington is absolutely pernicious -- rhetoric that views the outside world as evil. In Washington it's all chest-pumping machismo. Our foreign policy is trying to convert people to nirvana -- that is, our way -- or beating them up, humiliating and punishing them. The idea of talking to them is ridiculed. There's no other country in the world where talking to people -- just talking to them -- is regarded as treasonous. As a result we know nothing about these places in the world that are rising and becoming vibrant and powerful. We talk incessantly about Iran, and Bush demonizes the country. But we know nothing about Iran, and the administration doesn't even want to talk to Iran.

PLAYBOY: So you favor talking to a rogue nation like Iran?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Of course. Iran is a very complex country with a very complex culture. Unless we talk to them, how will we know who they are? We don't even know anything about Cuba, though it's only 90 miles from Florida. For four decades we've had a fantasy that we were achieving regime change in Cuba; meanwhile Fidel Castro, until very recently, was the longest-serving political leader in the world. You'd think those two facts would be prima facie evidence our policy hasn't worked, but we don't go back and look. It's unthinkable we would learn from anyone else. Instead, they are all bad, and we are good. Everyone is out to get us.

PLAYBOY: Do you deny there are dangers that justify caution?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Of course not, but they're blown way out of proportion, and we in the media have culpability here. Bad news sells. We say this blithely. We say it and kind of titter, but we should really think about it. We have an obligation to place things in context. The truth is we are safer than at any other time in history. Where's the news in that?

PLAYBOY: Safer? With Al Qaeda and similar terrorist groups still threatening us?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Al Qaeda has been very successfully defanged. Every government in the world realized it was a problem, and now it's on the run.

PLAYBOY: You charge that, since September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda has basically been a producer of bad videos. But what about the bombings in Madrid and London? What about suicide bombings throughout the Middle East?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Every motley crew calls itself Al Qaeda but has no operational or financial links to the outfit that directed 9/11 and the embassy bombings. Since 9/11 Osama bin Laden has done nothing except issue threats in videos.

PLAYBOY: Are you denying the threat of terrorism?

FAREED ZAKARIA: It's fundamentally important that we recognize terrorism and Islamic extremism as real problems, but we must put them in context. We're told the Arab world is out to get us, but it's a small fringe. Polls in every Muslim society show most people reject the message of extremism and fundamentalism. Do they reject it loudly enough? Maybe in some cases they don't, and we should push them to. The Taliban is unpopular. Al Qaeda is unpopular. The idea of jihad is unpopular. Yet we're constantly given the message that they're all out to get us, which of course in some weird way is doing Osama bin Laden's bidding, feeding the message of Al Qaeda and giving it more power than it deserves.

PLAYBOY: How about Iran? Do you agree that Ahmadinejad and a nuclear Iran are a threat?

FAREED ZAKARIA: On one occasion Ahmadinejad said he wanted to wipe Israel off the map. There's some debate about what he actually said, but let's assume he said it. It's a horrible thing to say and absolutely deserves to be condemned, but isn't it worth our pointing out that in the 1970s every Arab leader routinely said this? The big shift in a 30 or 40-year perspective is that he's the only guy in the Middle East saying it now. The Arabs -- the Egyptians, the Syrians -- have all moved to a reluctant acceptance of the reality of Israel. Now that's the big story but not what we often report. The polls I've seen suggest there is a disturbingly large number of people who think Iran is a core security threat that should be dealt with by military force. Why? The press keeps saying World War III will take place if the Iranians get the capacity to make nuclear weapons. Bush does. Americans are basically optimistic, open-minded people, but the press and politicians have this amazing ability to convince people we're living in a dangerous world and there are people out there trying to kill us. It used to be the crazies -- the Joe McCarthys of the world -- who were trying to convince you nuclear Armageddon was approaching. Now the people doing it are in high office.

PLAYBOY: Is it because they believe it, or are they manipulating the public?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I've never met a politician who is unaware of the effects of his rhetoric on his poll ratings. Politicians are aware that when they talk up this rhetoric, it makes people think it's better to have tough, hawkish people in charge. We do live in a troubled world, but this is not Armageddon. Just because a two-bit dictator in Iran has some strange musings about religion doesn't mean he's going to end the world as we know it. Nor can he.

PLAYBOY: But it seems dangerous to minimize the threat of terrorism.

FAREED ZAKARIA: We should certainly be tracing these groups, tracking their funds, doing everything we can to obstruct and intercept them. We should also make a much more active effort to engage this struggle at cultural, political and economic levels to make these societies understand that we share their aspirations for modernity. We want to partner with them. We see our future as being linked with theirs. We shouldn't convey that we think Islam is the enemy. Look, if 1.3 billion Muslims were really trying to revolt against the West, you would hear about it a lot more often than the occasional cafe bomb in Istanbul.

PLAYBOY: What about Iran? What would be a rational approach there?

FAREED ZAKARIA: We have to come to terms with the fact that Iran is a real country and has legitimate security concerns. Look at the neighborhood: You have a nuclear India, a nuclear Pakistan, a nuclear China, a nuclear Russia and a nuclear Israel. The United States has 150,000 troops on one Iranian border, and 50,000 U.S. and NATO troops are on the other border. You have an American president who keeps saying this is an evil regime that has to be changed. Iran is not just being paranoid. If you were in that situation, you would buy some insurance, and in the world of international relations nuclear weapons are insurance.

PLAYBOY: But doesn't a nuclear Iran concern you?

FAREED ZAKARIA: If you want Iran to denuclearize, you must recognize that it will need some assurances relating to security. The first step would be having a dialogue. Barack Obama said he would talk to them, and he was vilified, called naive, but you want to talk to these people.

PLAYBOY: The counterargument is that they want to kill us and that talking to people like Ahmadinejad is irresponsible as well as useless.

FAREED ZAKARIA: And it would be rewarding them. To which I say, "Look, we don't actually know much about them." Some people around the world have heard a lot of things George Bush has said and think he's crazy too. I would say to them, "Meet him. Find out." The reality is that Iran is a serious country. No matter who governs it, Iran has security concerns. The nuclear program was started by the shah of Iran, not the mullahs. Negotiating with them does not mean they won't be very tough. Remember that the best thing for Castro, the Iranian hard-liners and so many others has been to have the United States as their enemy. We play into their hands. If we were to take a more sensible view of Iran and North Korea, to name two, we would recognize that time is on our side, not theirs. We in the modern world have the answers; they don't. Iran has a totally dysfunctional economy. The government isn't particularly popular. It's not a recipe for long-term success.

PLAYBOY: You argue for engagement, but doesn't China disprove that engagement leads to regime change and democracy?

FAREED ZAKARIA: We started talking to China at the height of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao, probably a certified lunatic, was running the country into the ground. It's difficult to describe how cataclysmically bad and antimodern revolutionary China was. From there we've ended up with a China that is peaceful, increasingly prosperous and modernizing. There's a rule of law, and the country is dealing with environmentalism, including global warming.

PLAYBOY: But China has no religious freedoms, and critics of the government are routinely locked up.

FAREED ZAKARIA: The Chinese haven't moved all the way, but compared with 1973? In 1973 anyone who told you China would be where it is today would have been accused of smoking dope. We move the goalposts when we say "But they're not a full liberal democracy yet." Yes, but there is more openness than you would believe. If you want to be an entrepreneur and own things, you can. If you want to sue the government in court, you can.

PLAYBOY: What about Russia? Do you agree it's actually backsliding in its progress toward democracy?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Putin has struggled with constitutional issues relating to whether or not he can keep his position. In the old days it would have been easy. "What constitution? I am the constitution." I regard that as progress.

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