What Henry told Harvard

The big event at Harvard yesterday was "A Conversation with Henry Kissinger" at Sanders Theater. The event featured the 89-year old statesman reflecting on his time at Harvard, his career in government, and the future relationship between the United States and China, along with several other topics. He was joined in the discussion by my colleagues Graham Allison (who moderated) and Joseph Nye, and by Jessica Blankshain, a graduate student from the Department of Government.

I won't try to summarize the whole conversation, but instead merely highlight a couple of moments that I found especially interesting. First, at one point Kissinger said he thought the best academic preparation for government service was training in philosophy, political theory, and history. In particular, he argued that training in political theory taught you how to think in a disciplined and rigorous manner, and knowledge of history was essential for grasping the broader political context in which decisions must be made. It was clear that he also sees a grounding in history as essential for understanding how different people see the world, and also for knowing something about the limits of the possible.

I found this observation intriguing because these subjects are not what schools of public policy typically emphasize, even though they are supposedly in the business of preparing students for careers in public service. The canonical curriculum in public policy emphasizes economics and statistics (i.e., regression analysis), sometimes combined with generic training in "public policy analysis" and political institutions. The Kennedy School (where I teach) does require MPP students to take one core course in ethics (which is grounded in political philosophy), but there's no required course in history and each year I feel my students know less and less about that important subject. Instead, they flock to courses on "leadership," as if this quality was something you can learn in a classroom in a semester or two. I would love to have asked Kissinger to elaborate on how aspiring public servants are being trained these days.

After Joe Nye asked him if there were any decisions he made that he wished he could do over (a question that Kissinger mostly evaded), he went on to reflect on how his thinking has changed over time. He noted that he has had lots of time to read and reflect since leaving government service, and he said there were many things about the world that he understood better now than when he was serving in government. He also said he was not as "self-confident" in some of his judgments as he had been when he was younger. But then he said he wasn't sure this greater wisdom would make him a better policymaker. The reason, he said, is that being a policymaker requires a powerful sense of self-confidence, precisely because so many decisions are not clear-cut -- they are 51/49 judgment calls. As he put it, "You don't get rewarded for your doubts." And in those circumstances, a little bit of bravado goes a long way; it might even be a job requirement.

It was entirely predictable, of course, that the event was briefly disrupted by a vocal protester who was quickly escorted from the room. One of the questions asked during the Q and A took a similar approach, reciting a list of Kissinger's alleged crimes and ending with the question "How do you sleep at night?" I understand where such questions come from, but I've also thought this tactic is a remarkably ineffective way to try to make a political point. Disrupting public gatherings is a form of free speech and I wouldn't try to ban it, but my experience is that it is almost always counterproductive. The reason is simple: When someone gets up and starts shouting accusations, it violates our innate sense of courtesy and almost always turns the crowd against the protester and toward the person they are attacking. I like spirited discourse as much as the next person, but I've found that a respectful, well-aimed, and devastating question usually opens more minds and does more damage than passionate denunciations do.


Stephen M. Walt

What to do about Syria?

What should we do about Syria? By "we," I don't mean just the United States. Rather, I mean that wonderfully ambivalent phrase the "international community," and especially those states with a clear stake in the outcome (i.e., Syria's immediate neighbors, its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian allies, and its various adversaries, including the United States).

Reading two pieces that appeared today helps clarify the basic dilemma. The first piece, by economist Paul Collier of Oxford, argues that the Assad regime is living on borrowed time, having "crossed a red line" of international acceptance. He advocates ramping up the pressure by arming the opposition forces, in order to encourage Syrian army leaders and other Baath officials to defect. (The piece is in the Financial Times, and is firewalled on their site).

A second piece by Asli Bali of UCLA and Aziz Rana of Cornell, warns of the perils of this approach. While highly critical of Assad, they emphasize the danger of prolonged civil war and point out that a significant number of Syrians still worry as much about internal instability and sectarian violence as they do about Assad's brutalities. Accordingly, Bani and Rana favor an inclusive diplomatic process that avoids isolating Assad completely, in order to head off a destructive civil war.

One could make a crude realist case for Collier's approach, if you believed that the strategic benefits of ousting Assad were worth the human costs to Syrian civilians. One might argue that toppling Assad would eliminate a key Iranian ally and deal a crippling blow to Hezbollah, thereby advancing broader U.S. interests in the region. In this optimistic scenario, grateful Syrians would seek friendly relations with their Western benefactors, including Washington. Notice that this view assumes that the transition is swift, that few civilians die in the fighting, and that forming a new government is fairly easy.

But a sophisticated realist would be skeptical of a grand scheme like this. Realists understand that force is a crude instrument that usually generates lots of unintended consequences, and trying to exploit the Syrian crisis to shape the regional balance of power could backfire in all sorts of unpredictable ways. If one gives Assad & co. no choice but to fight to the end, we're likely to get a protracted civil conflict. Some officers may defect, but plenty of others won't and will do whatever it takes to try to hold on. In these circumstances, groups and individuals who are adept at using violence tend to come to the fore, and politics inside Syria will tend toward the extreme.

Nor should we assume that a post-Assad Syria will be a compliant client state governed by pro-Western elites who are grateful for our help. The Syrian opposition may despise Assad -- and with good reason -- but it is hardly unified. Moreover, a post-Assad government will still have security concerns and interests to pursue (such as the return of the Golan Heights). Our experiences with Iraq and Libya also belie Collier's blithe assumption that reconstituting a new Syrian government will be easy. The composition of a post-Assad state in Syria is anyone's guess, but there are plenty of contenders for power who are wary of the West in general and the U.S. in particular. A post-Assad Syria would still be buffeted by its neighbors and other interested parties, especially if outsider powers are supporting different factions. And the greater the level of force needed to topple him, the harder it will be to put Syria back together afterward.

And as Bali and Rana emphasize, even well-intentioned humanitarian intervention can have the unintended consequence of putting more Syrian lives at risk. Thus, for both strategic and moral reasons, the international community should concentrate on stopping what is now a slowly escalating civil war, instead of trying to escalate it. This may not be a morally heroic stance, but it is realistic.

Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images