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Playboy Interview: Fareed Zakaria
  • March 07, 2009 : 00:03
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PLAYBOY: But isn't it a false sense of progress? In a recent Playboy Interview, opposition leader Garry Kasparov charged that Putin has acted as unilaterally as the Communist leaders.

FAREED ZAKARIA: It's a fair point, but Russia isn't just richer, it's freer in a hundred different ways. But yes, in five years there has been regression. Pakistan is similar. Twenty years ago it was basically a failed state going toward jihadist status.

PLAYBOY: In Pakistan what will be the long-term impact of Benazir Bhutto's assassination?

FAREED ZAKARIA: In an odd way it doesn't change things as much as if she had lived. She had the potential to change the political dynamic in Pakistan because she was the only truly national figure who was popular, modern and antifundamentalist. She was a plausible alternative to military rule. Pakistan will probably muddle through, but nothing will fundamentally change.

PLAYBOY: How about next door in Iraq? Initially you supported the war. At what point did you change your position?

FAREED ZAKARIA: One week after the invasion I wrote a column saying the occupation was going badly. I called for a much larger troop level and UN occupation.

PLAYBOY: Like Hillary Clinton and others, do you regret your initial support of the war?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I still believe the idea of creating a modern and democratic Iraq was a good one, and Saddam Hussein's incredibly brutal and tyrannical regime provided an unusual opportunity to do so. I believe we went about it in a catastrophic way that incurred enormous costs. So put me down as somebody who still believes it was a good idea but was very badly implemented. The road to hell is littered with good intentions. Perhaps my mistake was not realizing the Bush administration would be as arrogant and stupid as they were. I thought they would want to succeed. There was a legal framework to go in. I never bought the WMD rationale, but there were the 16 UN resolutions. It was a rare opportunity to get rid of an evil dictator, modernize the region and do it in a completely legitimate, sanctioned way that the international community would sign on to. What would it have required? Waiting three months so the French were onboard? At the time, Indian officials told me [if the U.S. had waited and not gone in unilaterally] they would have sent troops. If India had sent them, Pakistan would have sent them, probably Bangladesh as well. But the success of Afghanistan turned the Bush administration's head and made them power crazy. It made them want to do it all by themselves, and it completely ruined us nationally.

PLAYBOY: Is Iraq hopeless?

FAREED ZAKARIA: If 10 years from now Iraq turns out to be a modern and democratic state, it will make a big difference in the Middle East. Will the price have been worth it? I don't know. The cost has been unconscionable for the United States. But I persist in believing that opening up the Middle East to be more modern and moderate -- more democratic -- is a crucial part of the answer.

PLAYBOY: Some critics of the Iraq war say America is creating a new generation of suicide bombers and terrorists throughout the region. Are we?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I think that's exaggerated. I don't think we're creating a new generation of them, but neither are we doing enough to stop the existing trends of radicalization.

PLAYBOY: How could we?

FAREED ZAKARIA: It's a very powerful thing to want to give up your own life, to kill yourself for a cause. We need to be a little bit humble about understanding that we're not the cause of all the things that go on in the world. This is an internally generated dysfunction, but we could be part of the solution. They all think the United States is out to get them. They all think we're trying to wage war on them, on Islam. At the very least we should ask, Why do people think this way, and what can be done? The vast majority of people in these societies want modernity. Of course they want it with a certain kind of cultural dignity, but that's true everywhere, and it's particularly true in the broken cultures of the Arab world. That means there is going to be a certain anger and rage about the Westernization of the world. At the end of the day, though, they don't want the Taliban. They don't want Islamic fundamentalism. They're searching for some in-between path. Meanwhile, Islamic terrorism is a lethal problem being perpetrated by a small virulent minority. The majority is not in any way supporting it. They are victims of it; they are the ones who die in the cafes. Al Qaeda in Iraq has killed many more Iraqis than Americans.

PLAYBOY: Is much of the anti-American sentiment throughout the world based on a fear that our culture will overwhelm theirs?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Bush feeds this, but life is going to be a cultural cocktail, a strange mixture of West, East, old and new. A lot of what people describe as Americanization is actually the rise of mass culture. Because America got there first -- our companies, our products, our ways of living -- America has become part of what people think of as mass culture, but it's more complex than that. The Chinese are now going to Vegas-style casinos, but these people hadn't been sitting at home in their courtyard, reading Confucius. They were poor villagers who were barely surviving. Now they have a little bit of money, so they go to McDonald's. Mass culture and American culture have been fused, but what's really rising is mass culture. Some of it has overtones of Americanism, but in a lot of places it has local variations and local accents. The future is all about fusion, even in America. New York already is full of sushi restaurants. I mentioned the largest casino in the world; it's an American casino built in Macao that looks like St. Mark's Square in Venice, which is deeply influenced by Islamic and Moorish culture. That's the cultural cocktail of the new world.

PLAYBOY: Your new book is about America's place in this new world. Bottom line: Are we in trouble? Do you predict the fall of America?

FAREED ZAKARIA: No. We will still be a powerful country, but it will be a different world. Other countries are growing faster than we are, so at a fundamental level there will be a relative decline. We're still vibrant. We're still vital. We still retain a central role in every game we're playing. But China is growing at 10 percent, and we're growing at three. In 10 years China will have a slightly larger share of the global GDP than we do. We have a great hand, but we have to know how to play it.

PLAYBOY: Exactly what's in our great hand?

FAREED ZAKARIA: We have this amazing quality of still being hungry and energetic, which comes from our openness. But if we give ourselves over to fear, we move in exactly the opposite direction. We close the very doors that have kept us vibrant. What has worked for America is that we take in the best ideas and the best people, mix them all up and invent the future. This is threatened by fearmongering on both sides of the political spectrum, the us-vs.-them mentality, protectionism and those who would isolate us rather than have us embrace and collaborate with and learn from one another.

PLAYBOY: As we speak, there seem to be three serious contenders for president: John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Who would make the best president in the new world you describe?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I think the Republicans have gone crazy, frankly, though John McCain is the one I admire most. He's quite old, though, and seems heavily influenced by neoconservative writings on foreign policy, which gives me pause. The Republicans in general do little but scaremongering on almost every issue from terrorism to immigration.

PLAYBOY: How about the Democrats?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Hillary Clinton is an impressive person, but it's tough to feel as though she's speaking from the heart. It's puzzling to try to determine what she really believes in. I admire her but can't say I am in love with her politically.

PLAYBOY: If she gets the nomination, will you support her?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I suppose so, because the Republican Party has gone insane on national security issues in general and needs to have a kind of nervous breakdown like the one the Democratic Party had -- and maybe needed -- 15 years ago. The Republicans have lost their essential moorings and morphed into a party whose heart seems focused entirely on religion, hypernationalism and a kind of xenophobia. Is that what it believes in? If so, it will be condemned to be a minority party for the next generation. So I would support Clinton, but I am hoping Barack Obama wins.

PLAYBOY: What do you like about Obama?

FAREED ZAKARIA: We need to make broad changes, and Obama represents this. We need a break from the past. He has been a breath of fresh air because he has been willing to look at the world and say, in effect, "Why does every problem have to be a nail just because we have a big military hammer? Why shouldn't we be talking to these people?" I think he's right about every issue he's been criticized on. We should be talking to the Iranians and North Koreans just as we did with the Libyans, Chinese, Vietnamese and Soviets. He proposed something that didn't get much traction, but he said we should look at relaxing the embargo on Cuba. Clinton comes out in opposition to it. She doesn't want to lose the Miami and New Jersey Cubans, but what is the point of electing somebody who won't change even an obviously failed policy like that for fear that more than an incremental shift is politically risky?

PLAYBOY: In the past there has been talk that you could be secretary of state. Well? If the next president calls?

FAREED ZAKARIA: He or she isn't going to call.

PLAYBOY: If it did happen?

FAREED ZAKARIA: People who have speculated don't understand the process. They don't understand the enormous weight loyalty has in these situations. I can't be on a team; it's the nature of my profession. I have to be independent. I piss people off on all sides. Part of my job is not to be partisan. I call things as I see them, which disqualifies me for politics. Maybe I'm kidding myself, but I think I can do more on the outside, at least when it comes to shaping the agenda.

PLAYBOY: You started out in journalism at Foreign Affairs magazine. Would you have happily stayed in that elite world of intellectual journalism, or were you destined for the mainstream?

FAREED ZAKARIA: When I went to Foreign Affairs I still felt I was being true to my academic roots. Something like Newsweek would have been unimaginable.

PLAYBOY: What changed?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Once I got to New York I started writing a lot for The New York Times and The New Republic. When Newsweek called and asked me to write a monthly column, I thought, What the hell? I discovered I enjoy writing for a much broader audience. I never enjoyed the parlor game of intellectual name-dropping and long, meandering New York Review of Books pieces in which you try to impress everybody with your erudition. I simply wanted to communicate about issues because they were important. Then Newsweek asked if I wanted to turn it into a weekly column and edit an international edition. It was a big shift. I was giving up any pretense of the world of elite highbrow journalism. I enjoy doing what isn't supposed to be possible. In Newsweek or on the new CNN show I talk about international issues Americans supposedly have no interest in. The CNN show, for example, will be about the other 95 percent of humanity. Think about the last time you saw something on India or Brazil or South Africa. But since 9/11 Americans have cared. They understand that what happens in other places in the world affects us. If Pakistan is failing and careering out of control, we no longer have to explain why Americans should be interested. Not long ago most Americans couldn't have found Afghanistan on a map. But you could start at the top. Remember when Bush was campaigning for office? He was given a quiz on the radio. He couldn't answer "Who is the president of Pakistan?" and "What is the Taliban?" Two years later he knew a hell of a lot about both of those.

PLAYBOY: You once described yourself as a Reagan conservative. What changed?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I came to America in the early 1980s from a socialistic country. I knew central planning didn't work. Reagan's spirited defense of the free world and spirited anti-Communism attracted me. But then Clinton was exactly the kind of responsible pro-market politician who appealed to me because he was also compassionate, wanting to make sure issues of distribution and access for poor people were not neglected. He was pro trade, but he was also for a safety net. It was a combination I liked. Meanwhile, the Republicans went mad during the Clinton years. Their attacks on him were insane. I always thought part of their rage was that he stole their best issues from them and left them with all the ugly stuff. It was around that point that I no longer considered myself a conservative. In many ways the positions I held were and are pretty much the same, but the political spectrum has shifted. The Republicans moved right; on the crucial issues of economics the Democratic Party moved to the center.
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