October 16th, 2014
07:20 PM ET

Obama needs to dial back his Syria strategy

By Fareed Zakaria

A U.S. strategy of escalating airstrikes in Syria — even if coupled with ground forces — would wish that the weakest and most disorganized forces in the country somehow become the strongest, first defeating the Islamic State, then the Assad regime, all while fighting off Jabhat al-Nusra and Khorasan. The chance that all this will happen is remote. Far more likely, heavy bombings in Syria will produce chaos and instability on the ground, further destroying Syria and promoting the free-for-all in which jihadi groups thrive.

Critics are sure this policy would have been easy three years ago, when the opposition to Assad was more secular and democratic. This is a fantasy. It’s true that the demonstrations against the Assad regime in the initial months seemed to be carried out by more secular and liberal people. This was also true in Libya and Egypt. But over time, more organized, passionate and religious forces triumphed. This is a familiar pattern in revolutions — including the French, Russian and Iranian. They are begun by liberals and taken over by radicals.

Read the Washington Post column

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October 11th, 2014
10:46 PM ET

Let's be honest: Islam has a problem today

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

By Fareed Zakaria

When television host Bill Maher declares on his weekly show that "the Muslim world...has too much in common with ISIS," and the author, Sam Harris (a guest on his show) concurs, arguing that "Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas," I understand why people get upset. Maher and Harris made crude simplifications and exaggerations.

And yet, they were also talking about something real. I know all the arguments against speaking of Islam as violent and reactionary. It is a vast world of 1.6 billion people. Places such as Indonesia and India have hundreds of millions of Muslims who don't fit these caricatures. That's why Maher and Harris are guilty of simplification and exaggeration.

But let's be honest: Islam has a problem today...There is a cancer of extremism within Islam today. A small minority of Muslims celebrate violence and intolerance, and harbor deeply reactionary attitudes towards women and minorities. And while some moderates confront these extremists, not enough do so and the protests are not loud enough. How many mass rallies have been held against ISIS in the Arab world today?

But now the caveat, Islam today, is important.

Watch the video for the full Take or read the WaPo column.

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Topics: Fareed's Take • GPS Show
October 9th, 2014
09:45 PM ET

Let’s be honest, Islam has a problem right now

By Fareed Zakaria

There is a cancer of extremism within Islam today. A small minority of Muslims celebrates violence and intolerance and harbors deeply reactionary attitudes toward women and minorities. While some confront these extremists, not enough do so, and the protests are not loud enough. How many mass rallies have been held against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in the Arab world today?

The caveat, “Islam today,” is important. The central problem with Maher’s and Harris’s analyses are that they take a reality — extremism in Islam — and describe it in ways that suggest it is inherent in Islam. Bill Maher says Islam is “the only religion that acts like the Mafia, that will [expletive] kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” He’s right about the viciousness but wrong to link it to “Islam” — instead of “some Muslims.”

Read the Washington Post column

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October 3rd, 2014
12:05 AM ET

China’s trapped transition

By Fareed Zakaria

The historical case as to why China should be moving toward greater democracy is clear. Scholars have argued that there is a “zone of transition” for authoritarian countries when this happens — between $5,000 to $10,000 per capita GDP (in purchasing power terms). China is at the top of the range, around $10,000. Given China’s level of economic, social and educational development, it is highly unusual that China, among Asian nations, has seen almost no movement toward political reform.

Minxin Pei argues that perhaps what explains the Chinese anomaly is that the ruling elites have been united, confident and ferocious in their determination to maintain a one-party system. In Taiwan, after Chiang Ching-kuo’s death, the elites split, as they did in South Korea, Indonesia and, of course, the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. That split, between a reformist wing and a hard-line wing, has not happened in China.

Read the Washington Post column

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September 26th, 2014
12:06 AM ET

The fight against ISIS must include Iran

By Fareed Zakaria

The United States has some influence with the Iraqi government, but Iran has far more. The Shiite religious parties that today run the country have been funded by Iran for decades. Their leaders lived in Tehran and Damascus during their long exiles from Saddam Hussein’s regime. When Washington sought to remove the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, Iran provided the push that made it happen. If the goal is to get the Iraqi government to share more power with the Sunnis, Iran’s help would be invaluable, perhaps vital.

In Syria, Washington’s strategy is incoherent. It seeks to destroy the Islamic State there and attack Jabhat al-Nusra and the Khorasan group but somehow not strengthen these groups’ principal rival, the Bashar al-Assad regime. This is impossible. As these terrorist groups lose ground, the army that will most easily take advantage will be that of the Syrian regime, not the disorganized and weak Free Syrian Army. If there is some way to make this strategy less contradictory, it would be to work toward some power-sharing deal in Syria that includes elements of the Assad government — such as generals and intelligence heads. But Washington has no contact or credibility with anyone in the Assad regime. The government that does is in Tehran.

Read the Washington Post column

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September 19th, 2014
02:37 AM ET

India's bold new leader

By Fareed Zakaria

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also handled the international stage deftly. He wooed Japan and softly criticized China, then backed away and embraced Beijing — getting large investments from both countries. He is straightforwardly pro-American and seems to harbor little ill will toward Washington for having refused to give him a visa for almost a decade. And yet, he has not abandoned Russia, India’s ally, choosing to be silent on its actions in Ukraine.

Where Modi has underperformed, surprisingly, has been in his core competence — economics. He has been slow to announce major reforms. His first budget was disappointing, and many of his Cabinet appointments have been lackluster. Those expecting major changes in subsidies, trade policy or labor market restrictions have been disappointed.

Read the Washington Post column

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September 13th, 2014
07:01 PM ET

How to defeat ISIS

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

By Fareed Zakaria

President Obama's speech Wednesday night outlined a tough, measured strategy to confront ISIS. But let's make sure in the execution of this strategy that the U.S. learns something from the 13 years since September 11, 2001 and the war against al Qaeda.

Here are a few lessons to think about:

One – Don't always take the bait. The United States has to act against this terror group. But it should do so at a time and manner of its choosing rather than jumping when ISIS wants it to jump.

Lesson two: Don't overestimate the enemy. ISIS is a formidable foe, but the counterforces to it have only just begun...While ISIS is much more sophisticated than al Qaeda in its operations and technology, it has one major, inherent weakness. Al Qaeda was an organization that was pan-Islamic, trying to appeal to all Muslims. This group is a distinctly sectarian organization. ISIS is anti-Shiite as well as deeply hostile to Kurds, Christians and many other inhabitants in the Middle East. This means that it has large numbers of foes in the region who will fight against it, not because the United States wants them to but in their own interests.

Lesson number three: Remember politics. The Obama administration has mapped out a smart strategy in Iraq, pressing the Baghdad government to include more Sunnis. But that is yet to happen – the Shiite parties have dragged their feet over any major concessions to the Sunnis. This is a crucial issue because if the United States is seen as defending two non-Sunni regimes – Iraq and Syria – against a Sunni uprising, it will not win.

Watch the video for the full Take, or read the WaPo column

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September 11th, 2014
11:34 PM ET

Can we defeat the Islamic State?

By Fareed Zakaria

The Obama administration has mapped out a smart strategy in Iraq, pressing the Baghdad government to include more Sunnis. But that has yet to happen — the Shiite parties have dragged their feet over any major concessions to Sunnis. The Iraqi army has not been reconstituted to make it less partisan and sectarian and more inclusive and effective. This is a crucial issue because if the United States is seen as defending two non-Sunni regimes — Iraq and Syria — against a Sunni uprising, it will not win. And it will be hard to recruit local allies. While a minority in Iraq, Sunnis make up the vast majority of the Middle East’s Muslims.

The Syrian aspect of the president’s strategy is its weak link. It is impossible to battle the Islamic State and not, in effect, strengthen the Bashar al-Assad regime. We can say we don’t intend to do that, but it doesn’t change the reality on the ground. The Free Syrian Army remains weak and divided among many local militias.

Read the full Washington Post column

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September 8th, 2014
03:55 PM ET

Revisiting 'Why Do They Hate Us?'

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

By Fareed Zakaria

Watching the gruesome ISIS execution videos, I felt some of the same emotions I did after 9/11. Barbarism, after all, is designed to provoke anger and it succeeded. But in September 2001, it also made me ask a question: "Why Do They Hate Us?"

I tried to answer it in an almost 7,000-word essay for Newsweek that struck a chord with readers. I reread the essay this past week, to see how it might need updating in the 13 years since I wrote it.

I began the piece by noting that Islamic terror is not the isolated behavior of a handful of nihilists. There is a broader culture that has been complicit in it, or at least unwilling to combat it. Now, things have changed on his front but not nearly enough…

…By 2001, when I was writing, almost every part of the world had seen significant political progress - Eastern Europe was free, Asia, Latin America, and even Africa had held many free and fair elections. FULL POST

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September 5th, 2014
12:21 AM ET

Why they still hate us, 13 years later

By Fareed Zakaria

Watching the gruesome execution videos, I felt some of the same emotions I did after 9/11. Barbarism is designed to provoke anger, and it succeeded. But in September 2001, it also made me ask, “Why do they hate us?” I tried to answer that question in an essay for Newsweek that struck a chord with readers. I reread it to see what I got right and wrong and what I’ve learned in the past 13 years.

It’s not just al-Qaeda. I began by noting that Islamic terrorism is not the isolated behavior of a handful of nihilists. There is a broader culture that has been complicit or at least unwilling to combat it. Things have changed on this front but not nearly enough.

It’s not an Islam problem but an Arab problem. In the early 2000s, Indonesia was our biggest concern because of a series of terrorist attacks there after 9/11. But over the past decade, jihad and even Islamic fundamentalism have not done well in Indonesia — the largest Muslim country in the world, larger in that sense than Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and the Gulf states put together. Or look at India, which is right next door to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s headquarters in Pakistan, but very few of its 165 million Muslims are members of al-Qaeda. Zawahiri has announced a bold effort to recruit Indian Muslims, but I suspect it will fail.

Read the Washington Post column

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August 31st, 2014
03:31 PM ET

Does Iraq need a second Sunni Awakening?

By Fareed Zakaria

What are the strengths of the Islamic State? I posed this question to two deeply knowledgeable observers – a European diplomat and a former U.S. official – and the picture they painted is worrying, although not hopeless…

…The Islamic State’s military strategy is brutal but also smart. The group’s annual reports – yes, it has issued annual reports since 2012 – detail its military methods and successes to try to impress its backers and funders. The videos posted online of executions are barbaric but strategic. They are designed to sow terror in the minds of opponents, who when facing Islamic State fighters on the battlefield, now reportedly flee rather than fight.

But the most dangerous aspect of the Islamic State, this diplomat believes, is its ideological appeal. It has recruited marginalized, disaffected Sunni youths in Syria and Iraq who believe they are being ruled by apostate regimes. How to handle this challenge?

The American, a former senior administration figure, counsels against pessimism. The Islamic State could be defeated, he said, but it would take a comprehensive and sustained strategy, much like the one that undergirded the surge in Iraq…

…The two observers agreed on one central danger. The temptation to gain immediate military victories over the Islamic State could mean that the United States would end up tacitly partnering Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. This would produce a short-term military gain against the Islamic State but it would be a long-term political disaster. “It would feed the idea that the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria are embattled, that a Crusader Christian-Shiite alliance is persecuting them and that all Sunnis must resist this alien invasion,” the European diplomat said. “The key is that Sunnis must be in the lead against IS. They must be in front of the battlefield.”

Watch the video for the full take or read the WaPo column

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August 29th, 2014
12:43 AM ET

A second Sunni Awakening?

By Fareed Zakaria

What are the strengths of the Islamic State? I posed this question to two deeply knowledgeable observers – a European diplomat and an American former official – and the picture they painted is worrying, although not hopeless. Defeating the group would require a large and sustained strategic effort from the Obama administration, but it could be done without significant numbers of U.S. ground troops.

The European diplomat, stationed in the Middle East, travels in and out of Syria and has access to regime and opposition forces. (Both sources agreed to speak only if their identities were not revealed.) He agrees with the consensus that the Islamic State has gained considerable economic and military strength in recent months. He estimates that it is making $1 million a day each in Syria and Iraq by selling oil and gas, although U.S. experts believe this number is too high in Iraq.

The Islamic State’s military strategy is brutal but also smart.

Read the Washington Post column

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