Tom Pickering is a living legend of American diplomacy. He served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations during the Persian Gulf War. He has also served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Israel, India, Jordan, Nigeria and El Salvador. Pickering’s last State Department post was as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs during President Clinton’s second term.
Now 82-years-old and active as ever in U.S. foreign policy discourse, Pickering brings to bear his decades of experience to answer some questions about the seemingly endless array of Mideast policy challenges facing the United States, including the effort to secure a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear standoff.
Ambassador Pickering, thank you for granting this interview.
Before getting to the specific questions about some of the major challenges facing the United States, I found something very intriguing in your bio that I’d like to ask you about. Your bio states that when you first started out in college at Bowdoin, you wanted to pursue a career in ministry.
Can you share with Tikkun Daily readers a bit more about your early interest in ministry? What did you have in mind back then as a young man? Relatedly, would you characterize your ultimate decision to pursue a career in American diplomacy as a kind of alternate manifestation of your interest in ministry, perhaps by endeavoring to make the world a safer place for all God’s children?
My interests then did not seem to be a real “calling” and so I shifted my goals and aspirations. It is certainly true that neither profession makes much money and I was not interested in that kind of return.
Perhaps my early interest in church things somehow conditioned me to think in terms of rewards through public service. I believe that public service can be very rewarding in the cause of improved safety and security for the public and in the search for peaceful solutions.
According to your bio, you turned 82-years-old last week. Are you more or less worried about the outbreak of a nuclear war somewhere in the world today than you were when you began your career in the diplomatic corps back in the 1960s?
I am less worried now about the outbreak of nuclear war than I was in the late 1950s when I was a naval officer and then a young, junior diplomat working on arms control and disarmament subjects. The Cuban crisis was perhaps the height of those concerns.
Now we should be concerned by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the sense that the more holders of nuclear weapons the larger the chances are for their use through accident, miscalculation or misunderstanding.
In a 2012 New York Times op-ed co-written with Ambassador William Luers, you referenced the 1953 CIA-backed overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and the subsequent installation of the Shah, as the bedrock source of mistrust between the U.S. and Iran. About that history and its implications for the Iranian nuclear standoff, you and Ambassador Luers wrote, “Reducing the malign influence of this legacy on the thinking of Ayatollah Khamenei will be essential to achieving any deal.”
From your vantage point, has the ability of the executive branch of the U.S. government to shape world events – including, but not limited to, the toppling of foreign leaders – without the consent of the American people increased or decreased since 1953, and the time in the 1960’s when you began your career in the diplomatic corps?
I think the interest in and capacity to overthrow or change radically foreign governments has declined since the 1960s for two reasons. We and others did not do it very well. It requires two imperatives – being able to remove one government, but even more importantly to find a new one which is likely to be more satisfactory to the people it serves than its removed predecessor.
And secondly, the American public and the world in general has increasingly rejected that kind of behavior and we live with a decent respect for the opinion of mankind even if it sometimes takes a while for us to get there.
You have argued for a peace accord to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff. The proposal you and your colleagues have put forward would lift the economic sanctions on Iran and permit the country to pursue a civilian nuclear program, at a 5 percent uranium enrichment cut-off level, if I’m not mistaken. Also contained in the accord proposal you put forward would be a promise by the U.S. to support efforts to achieve a Mideast nuclear free-zone, presumably meaning free of nuclear weapons, not nuclear energy. Based upon information already in the public domain, as well as any inside information you may have, can you share with Tikkun Daily readers your confidence level that the negotiations underway between the P5- plus-1 and Iran will bear the fruit of a verifiable non-militarized Iranian nuclear energy program, which is acceptable not only to President Obama, but also acceptable to the duly-elected leader of Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu.
You ask a great deal in this question. I am optimistic about a first stage agreement with Iran which will both begin to fence in its nuclear activities, particularly those that contribute to a rapid breakout, and increase the amount of international monitoring and inspection as well. It will require sanctions relief, especially if it is a far reaching arrangement.
With all respect to Prime Minister Netanyahu, he has apparently come out against an agreement well before it has been reached. He seems convinced that there will be only one agreement, to him insufficient, and for which full sanctions relief will be required and paid by the western negotiators. I believe he has overreached on the nature of the agreement and the possibilities for a further, full agreement down the road. And that this will be ensured and expedited by keeping in place the essential framework of sanctions, a limited reduction of those, and a limited time period for the first phase, as well as the possibility that if the first or follow on agreements are not being kept on the Iranian side, a snap back possibility will be in place under which the sanctions can be re-imposed and particularly by the United States whose influence and the scope of its sanctions is quite decisive in the mix.
Finally, Prime Minister Netanyahu knows he shares an abhorrence of Iranian nuclear weapons with President Obama who has promised, if necessary, to take military action against such a development.
In an interview with NPR last year, former Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross made some candid remarks about the possibility of a nuclear war between Iran and Israel that have stayed with me. Mr. Ross stated:
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had all sorts of channels of communication. Iran and Israel do not have channels of communication. Given the vulnerability that the Israelis are likely to feel, and I would say the vulnerability potentials that the Iranians would feel as well, each country would be on a hair-trigger. They could not – they would each feel they couldn’t afford to strike second. The problem with being on a hair-trigger in an area where there’s lots of local triggers for a conflict is that you can quickly set in motion a train of events that may not be so easy to control.
Do you agree with Mr. Ross’s implication that the absence of communication channels between Iran and Israel could portend a far more rapid downward spiral toward a nuclear exchange than existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union? If so, what do you think would be the likely cost, if any, of the U.S. essentially demanding that Israel and Iran establish a “hot-line” or some kind of equivalent emergency communication channel, a hot-line that would remain in place irrespective of the outcomes of the broader nuclear negotiation framework?
Mr. Ross is essentially correct that the absence of direct contact has fed suspicion and mistrust and misunderstanding. The same is true for the United States. Therefore the present negotiating process can begin to build that kind of contact.
Former Prime Minister Rabin used to say to me frequently in the late 1980s that the US needs to have contact with Iran for its own and the region’s sake, not the least because of Israel’s needs and interests. I agreed with him although it seemed far reaching and far-fetched then to believe it would come about soon because of the long separation that had existed.
Perhaps the present process can help lead to the kind of arrangement which will begin to open doors between Iran and Israel;. It is too early to see, but not too early to hope. In the meantime, there are also others with relations with both parties than can help in an emergency or crisis to pass messages and ideas.
As a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, you are surely aware of the damage done to the reputation of the United States by the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But I wonder if you might think there is an imbalance of emphasis, both moral and strategic, within the U.S. foreign policy establishment over Israel’s capacity to tarnish the U.S. global reputation versus the U.S. military’s own capacity to tarnish the U.S. global reputation, precisely as the institution attracts some of the most desperate citizens, including not so few sexual predators, to represent our nation’s values abroad?
Put another way, as concerns the U.S. global reputation, are you more concerned about an ultra-orthodox Jewish family moving into an additional apartment in an already-existing West Bank settlement, particularly if those existing settlements are offset with future land swaps for the Palestinians, or twenty-something U.S. soldiers raping women and humiliating men – the urination of U.S. marines on the bodies of dead Afghans comes to mind – in various parts of the globe, from the Mideast to Japan and elsewhere, and indeed here at home?
In May of 1987, I gave a speech on behalf of and cleared by my government at Hebrew University which warned that continuing Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians would lead to a potentially violent reaction. I was, lamentably in my view, all too correct and the first intifadha occurred.
This is a sensitive question. Comparisons are always odious. Of course misbehavior by one’s own military is a tragedy. I joined a small group of experts recently in looking at the sorrowful US record of detainee treatment after 9/11. The US used torture and did many other things. (The report can be download from the site of The Constitution Project in Washington)
I also agree that settlements are an obstacle to peace and contrary to international law. I do not object to trading land with the Palestinians as long as the trade is equal and respectful of land quality differences. I do not believe settlement expansion now against some future promise of a land trade not yet supported by the Israeli government is a useful or helpful step in reaching agreement on a two-state solution.
As your question might seem to imply, there is in my mind absolutely no connection between Israeli settlement activity and the misbehavior of American servicemen. Both are in my view highly negative on their own terms and in their own impact.
Ever since Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, of Harvard and the University of Chicago respectively, came out with their book “The Israel Lobby” several years ago, I have seen and heard an increasing willingness among many people, even idealistic people, to pin the blame for America’s post-9/11 wars on the organized American Jewish community’s advocacy for a strong U.S. – Israel relationship. And yet, the United States is a country filled with literally millions of people who make a living off of war, off of the surveillance state industry, and various related tax-payer funded industries that have really turned our democracy in a dark, backward direction. Even though I’m not Jewish, I find it rather galling that public angst over this state of affairs, particularly in academia, is increasingly directed at the effective exercise of First Amendment rights by Jewish communal organizations, as opposed to the structural flaws in our system that enable millions upon millions of Americans to literally make a living off of perpetual war and spying on their fellow citizens.
Indeed, using the term the Israel “lobby” in a pejorative sense is now commonplace in much of mainstream political discourse.
You are 82-years-old, what words of wisdom would you give to young Americans, including idealistic college students studying politics and world affairs, to help keep their eyes on the actual balls of social, political and indeed structural dysfunction in this country, and stop falling for the lie, sometimes bluntly delivered and sometimes more subtle, that the organized American Jewish community is largely responsible for America’s post-9/11 foreign policy failures?
I agree no one group is responsible for US foreign policy. It is the President’s prerogative to make decisions and he must seek and gain support from the Congress. Many groups, including some representing different ideas in the American Jewish community seek to influence those decisions. It is their right in the United States to do so. So do those who make financial contributions to American political campaigns. If I had my choice, I would seek to diminish the influence of funding in election campaigns and as a result the influence of large donors.
I would hope and expect that the philosophical underpinnings of the First Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing free speech would also be respected and that those with differing views would have an impact on the public and decision-makers in all realms of government activity including foreign policy.
US-Israeli relations have been a very important part of US foreign policy and I believe the bases and underpinnings are more important than the activity of one or a number of lobbying groups. I believe the substance of the ties goes deeper and is more important. However, both US leaders and Israeli leaders are free to make up their mind on how to deal with each other and it is no secret that from time to time there are differences as is reflected now in the approach to Iran. Over the years, those differences have been respected in reaching conclusions on foreign policy as I believe they will be in the present case. President Obama sees an opportunity for using diplomacy to reduce and limit the potential threat from an Iranian bomb. Prime Minister Netanyahu disagrees and hopes that pure sanctions pressure and or the threat or use of military force may be required. Given that there is still time for diplomacy to work and the seeming progress which has been made I would strongly favor President Obama’s current efforts.
I don’t think any one group in the US was responsible for the decisions to go to war. The President has to bear that burden as his own.
You were U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded a sovereign country, Kuwait, in violation of the United Nations Charter. Three years prior, Saddam Hussein committed crimes against humanity by using chemical weapons on the Iraqi Kurdish civilians of Halabja, killing between 3,200 and 5,000 people. Yet the post-war sanctions on Saddam Hussein were condemned in many corners of the globe as causing more Iraqi civilian suffering than affording regional security.
If you had to pinpoint a key moment in the history of U.S. policy toward Saddam Hussein, a moment when an alternative U.S. foreign policy stroke could have prevented his ability to trigger so much war and suffering, along with what many believe were brutal and unjustified counter-measures by the United States, when would that moment have been?
Your question on changing Saddam in the lead of Iraq or the course of his rule is a challenging one. I know of no point at which that might have been possible.
It is true that US support for him and his country against Iran during the war of the 1980s may have encouraged him to believe he could get more help from the US in the future. But I do not believe the opposite was true. He was a hard-nosed enemy in the 1990s and seem to take advice from no one. In many ways, dealing with him in 1990 in the UN Security Council was made easy because he was the perfect enemy and never failed to act in ways which made it possible to gather world opinion against him.
It is true he exploited his own role in the distribution of food and medicine to his own people, or in his failure until the late 1990s to agree to any such help as a way of seeking to garner world support for his regime through world sympathy for the plight of his people.
The world easily forgot that he was responsible for much of that suffering and chose to blame the UN sanctions.
It was also true that he exploited the greed and connivance of some around the world in rewarding them with the right to sell Iraqi oil at large personal profit to gather funds to pay for the food and medicine which he then made sure went mainly to his own supporters inside Iraq.
For the first time since Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in 1988, the U.S., France and essentially the U.N. investigators in Syria, believe that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is responsible for launching the sarin gas attacks of last August in the Damascus suburbs, which slaughtered over 1,400 people, including over 400 children. All of them died a horrific death – deaths that were later displayed on YouTube for all the world to see. To see, and then forget, it seems.
In the wake of those sarin gas attacks, Americans from across the political spectrum made their voices heard to their members of Congress when President Obama announced his decision to seek congressional authorization to launch cruise missile strikes against the Assad regime.
This is something of deliberately loaded question: On a scale of 1 (worrisome) to 10 (chilling) how would you rate the core political reality that the American people, in effect, trust a gas-murdering tyrant like Bashar al-Assad to stop committing chemical weapons atrocities more than they trust the United States government to carry out an effective, morally-focused military effort to curb the former’s capability to commit further atrocities?
If you take issue with my framing of the domestic political reality, post-sarin gas attacks, do you see any dangers at all to Bashar al-Assad being treated as a legitimate interlocutor on the world stage, a spot that will allow him to negotiate treaties, ingratiate himself with international peace activists, etc., much like Saddam Hussein did after his 1988 chemical weapons atrocities?
I believe this long question contains a lot of complex assumptions. Because Assad has agreed under apparently Russian pressure to destroy his stocks of chemical weapons under international supervision, I cannot accept the view that this has somehow now made him of angelic proportions.
Ridding the world of this weapon is a step forward and most of the world is now doing so. Israel has been relieved of having in Syria’s hands its only potentially useful deterrent weapon.
The next step will be to see whether a political settlement removing Assad can be worked out. At this juncture there seems to be no military victory in sight. Recent wars have not very readily solved the problems they were entered into to resolve.
The American public have grown tired of war and military strikes. The fact that the chemical weapons issue could be dealt with diplomatically is not the tragedy your question seems to want to portray it as, but rather a step forward in an admittedly very tough and hard issue.
Rabbi Michael Lerner and the Network of Spiritual Progressives support an international aid plan called the Global Marshal Plan. The plan would “dedicate 1-2% of the U.S. annual GDP each year for the next twenty years to eliminate domestic and global poverty, homelessness, hunger, and inadequate education” in addition to repairing environmental damage around the world. U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) has introduced legislation in Congress to enact the Global Marshall Plan.
Do you support the GMP as an effective tool to combat global economic inequality? More broadly, given your experience around the globe, can you give us a sense of the short and long-term consequences facing the United States as a result of not addressing – or inadequately addressing – extreme global inequality?
In other words, where should the GMP and/or other efforts to legislatively stem global economic inequality fit on the U.S. foreign policy priority list?
Increases in US foreign assistance will be needed but very hard to obtain as the country seeks to pay its debts and trim its budget to do so. Mere faith in a figure for foreign assistance is a mistake. It is how and for what it is spent that is important. Cooperation from recipient countries is essential and the US cannot do it all alone.
Currently, we spend about 1% of our budget on foreign aid. The public regularly responds to polls that they think we spend 25%. They argue that 10% would be right. Two percent looks like a feasible target if it is possible to convince the American public of the current realities.
The last question I have has to do with the feeling of shame, in this case not personal but national. Ambassador, have you ever felt simply ashamed of the United States in real-time, and under what circumstances?
What are your thoughts about the human capacity, apparently existing in all cultures, to find mental sanctuary – a near-total freedom from moral doubt – when standing in front of one’s national flag, hearing a national anthem, etc.?
Relatedly, now at 82-years-old and having witnessed so much human behavior on the world stage, what would you teach your younger self about that aforementioned human capacity, specifically as it relates to the deeper human quest to live a holy life?
Shame is a hard issue to discuss. I would rather say that I have been concerned by American mistakes, some unintentional and some intentional.
I have had in my own mind the need to balance those against the many times we have come to help friends, allies and even enemies in distress in a sense of generous humanity.
No one is perfect and no state should claim perfection. The mistake is in not correcting errors and thus avoiding them the next time around. We are condemned to live in an imperfect world and at the same time with a sense of service and humanity can help right some of those errors.
On balance, despite our errors, I am proud to be an American and for what we stand and for those generous and helpful things we have tried to do and of our efforts to correct our mistakes when we have made them.
Ambassador Pickering, thank you for your decades of public service, for your continued engagement on the issues facing the nation and the world, and for sharing your insights with Tikkun Daily readers.