Between Iraq and a Hawk Base

1 September 2015
Robert Draper

That tension between steadfast principles and hard realities, both at home and abroad, was on display when some of America’s leading foreign-policy thinkers gathered for a retreat hosted by the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan education and policy organization, in August. The conference’s main event was an hour-long debate about ISIS. Each debate team featured two national security officials from the Bush and Obama administrations. One team, Philip Zelikow, a former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Michale Flournoy, Obama’s former defense undersecretary of defense for policy, argued that ISIS should be defeated, including through military means. The other team, Dov Zakheim, Bush’s former Defense Department comptroller and foreign ­policy adviser, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, Obama’s director of policy planning for the State Department, argued that it should be contained until it collapsed under the weight of its own failed ideology, as occurred with the Soviet Union. Among the 200 spectators were retired general David Petraeus, the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Jeb Bush’s outside adviser, Richard Fontaine.

The debate was spirited and replete with unintended ironies. There was Flournoy, the former Obama official, arguing the traditional neocon position that the only way to give the lie to ISIS’s ideology was to take territory away from ISIS And there was Zakheim, the former Bush official, sounding decidedly noninterventionist: The issue is, can you and are you willing to send in hundreds of thousands of troops? Do you think this country wants to do that? Do you think we even want to spend money to do that?

Zakheim’s realpolitik warning hit the audience like a bucket of cold water. Even the nation’s most intellectually rigorous foreign thinkers seemed struck by the challenge of convincing the American public that war against ISIS would not entail a horrific reprise of the Iraq war. Surveyed before the debate began, 52 percent of attendees believed that ISIS should be destroyed, with 27 percent saying it should be contained and another 21 percent being undecided. After the debate, the audience underwent a reversal: 59 percent were now convinced that the proper course of action was to contain ISIS rather than to pour blood and treasure into an attempt to destroy it.