June 3rd, 2011
08:18 AM ET

Zakaria: Obama "being too soft on Syria"

Here's a transcript of my conversation with Eliot Spitzer about what President Obama should do in Syria:

Eliot Spitzer: So let me start this way. A year ago the Middle East was captured and dominated by tyrants but it brought a predictability and a certainty and stability to the region. Now we've got three civil wars, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Massive uncertainty, chaos brewing. 

If you were secretary of state, how would you construct a foreign policy for the United States to deal with the Syrian crisis? 

Fareed Zakaria: Well, I think the Syria one is in a way the most difficult one because we have the least leverage over them. I think that the administration is being too soft on Syria. I think that we should be trying to devise a policy which says, "Look, we don't want complete chaos there but we want to try and ratchet up the pressure in as many ways as we can so we life as difficult for them."

A stable Syria with Assad in control has never been good for the United States. So let's remember a little bit of instability in Syria if it comes with freedom, with openness, with pressure on this regime, that's not so bad.

Let's come back for a moment to the leverage the United States does or does not have. Everybody accepts as a premise of Middle Eastern politics two things, I suppose.

One, the Middle East is the most dangerous region of the world and two, within the Middle East, Syria is at the center, it is the fulcrum, of international affairs. Explain why Syria is so important even when compared to Libya? 

Part of it is geography, part of it is history. The geography is that Syria is right next to Lebanon and has historically interfered and dominated Lebanese politics.

Syria is next to Israel. The Golan Heights remain an area of contestation, occupied by Israel during the '67 war. Syria is the client state of Iran's. Syria has historically had a rivalry of sorts with Egypt and Iraq. So it's sort of at the center, literally, of the Arab world.

The historical part is that Syria has always been a kind of bastion of repressive stability. It has been the place where Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, drew a line against Islamic fundamentalism in a town called Hama where he literally killed 20,000 people to ensure that the Islamic fundamentalist movement died down.

If all of that erupts, you can imagine instability in Lebanon, you can imagine instability even in Iraq. Relations with Iran get more complicated. So it certainly has broader ramifications.

So what happens if it erupts into pure chaos? What is the downside risk? What might Israel do? What might Saudi Arabia do? And what do we worry about if it continues to evolve in the direction it's moving right now? 

The danger is that you would have a war with Israel. You could have internal civil war in Lebanon because remember Hezbollah is in a sense a client armed - you know, with tens of thousands of rockets. It's located primarily in Lebanon and has often rained rockets down on Israel. So you could imagine that would be the most likely scenario. It's more difficult to see what would happen vis-a-vis Iran or Iraq.

But if those things happen, then you go from civil wars in the Middle East to a wider war now involving Israel. And that becomes a very, very difficult war because every Arab state would have to line itself up. And while its head may tell it that it actually is with Israel and needs stability, it's hard -

Emotionally would have to line up with Syria. 


Now you said before, a couple of moments ago, we don't have that many leverage against Syria, and at the same time, we don't have many leverage. We want to do what is right, which is to say to Assad, you are a brutal tyrant, perhaps and at par with Gadhafi so you should not be there. 

On the other hand, we're also looking at Saudi Arabia saying to us, look, the United States, what you brought on, you should have just tolerated a little bit of tyranny because stability at least there are consequences of having these tyrants in play. 

You know, that Saudi line is frankly absurd because it's not as though the United States actively encouraged these forces. In fact, I was in Egypt. And their principle complaint is that we supported stability.

We supported the Mubarak regime for 30 years. There were eight million people on the streets of Egypt by the end. It was not because of one phone call that Barack Obama made that Hosni Mubarak have to resign.

It was because of that. So similarly, in Syria, we are not really fomenting or organizing the dissent. What is amazing is the Syrian people, despite being killed by the hundreds, are doing it.

At a larger level, I guess you could conclude the second chapter of the Arab spring - what began as a spring is now a long, hot summer. It's ugly, it's messy, and it's uncertain at this point. 

This is really exactly what happened in 1848 in Europe. You have liberal revolutions, democratic revolutions against the old monarchies. Initially it seemed very hopeful. And then the armies came up. And in many cases the armies sided with the monarchy.

But the long story, the 20-year story is those ideas were infectious and they caught on, and I think here you might see something similar with Egypt being the most important case. If the revolution succeeds in Egypt, even if it fails everywhere else, it's not going anywhere.

One of the few specifics and much critiqued, perhaps unfairly critiqued speech that President Obama gave now a couple of weeks about the Middle East was his assertion - his very powerful claim, we need to help the Egyptian economy. Financial aid, exports from Egypt to the United States, whatever we can do.  Is their economy moving forward and what can we do to resuscitate it? 

Well, you're absolutely right. You're right, the president was right. That is the center piece. If Egypt is the centerpiece, the Egyptian economy is going to be the centerpiece.

It's right now growing at zero. There - it was growing at 5 to 7 percent for the last three or four years. There's no foreign investment. Tourism has collapsed. Even revenues from things like the Suez Canal are down. So they are in very bad shape. They need help.

And here's the biggest problem. Reform has been stigmatized, because in his last years after doing nothing for 27 years, in the last three years, Mubarak began to do some economic reform that was actually quite sensible.

But now it is tainted and no politician wants to go back to the Egyptian people and say, guess what, you know that stuff that Gamal Mubarak did that you hated, we're going to have to do more of that.

And so the politics - so this is always a fascinating problem, which is, how do you get the politics to meet the economics?

You just described Egypt but the words apply perfectly for the United States. And in fact to a special you have this Sunday night about the American dream, is it disappearing? And maybe the elixir, maybe the one answer is innovation. 

Nothing that's important here is popular in terms of the deficit, investment. What do you think can we do to begin to bring back our own economy? 

Well, I think there are two elements to that problem and we try and discuss both of them. One of them is just the employment problem. You just have to get people back to work.

The innovation is a crucial part of it because it's what we do well. It is how we move up the value chains. How we create new jobs. But what I was struck by, there's still a big debate, and back to politically unpopular things, about what the government should do.

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Topics: Middle East • Syria

soundoff (288 Responses)
  1. Wasabiwahabu

    The American taxpayer gets muslim violence and denial. The American taxpayer gets ilsamic "honor" killings and denial. The American taxpayer gets to read about the thousands of innocent Israeli civilians killed each year – and muslim denial.

    June 4, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  2. forest

    morons think that syrian people want the u.s to send in the marines ..they actualy want no help from the u.s because they don't want another iraq ..eventualy they will be free just like egypt ,tunisia and libya .arab democracy is in america best interest american values will be accepted because it's not shoved down their throats .america will win the hearts and minds of people with good diplomacy and not supporting dictators like bashar .remember we are not asked to fight their war so people get your facts straight .

    June 4, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  3. Barack Husien O.

    Journal Entry

    Today I was on a beach and it was a nice day. There was a little girl in the water and I noticed a shark. I wanted to scream shark but then thought to myself what if it swims away and no one sees it. I will be humiliated but the little girl already saw a concerned look on my face.

    And there was a life guard close by that had not noticed the shark so I stood between him and the beach as that magical girl just wondered what I was so puzzled about.

    I hope no one ever sees this cause I would not know what they would think.

    I thought about taking a scenic way home today, but then I told myself, why should I do anything outside of absolute normal that would indicate I had a lot on my mind.

    I am meeting a girl Michelle today and I will tell her I saved a little girl.

    Communication protected by executive privellage and my criminal defense team, no cause Muller, using full force of law to secure 15 levels of unacknowledged authority.

    June 4, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  4. Sandeep

    I request Fareed Zakaria and his great team to provide some coverage of the movement against corruption in India.

    It is very important that we get the message out from independent media such as CNN. Indian electronic media, especially the english media is not doing the job that it should for our democracy.

    Please please please, a corruption free India is in the interest of everyone, including USA.

    June 4, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
  5. blessedgeek

    אשא עיני אל ההרים מאין יבא עזרי
    I will lift up my eyes to the mountains from where my help will come.

    עזרי מעם יי עשה שמים וארץ
    My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

    אל יתן למוט רגלך אל ינום שמרך
    He will not let your foot/leg to be perturbed/harassed. He who looks after you will not slumber.

    הנה לֹא ינום ולֹא יישן שומר ישראל
    Hither, He who watches Israel neither slumber nor sleep.

    יי שמרך יי צלך על יד ימינך
    The LORD watch over you; the LORD is your shade upon your right hand.

    יומם השמש לֹא יככה וירח בלילה
    The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.

    יי ישמרך מכלרע ישמר את נפשך
    The LORD shall watch over you from all evil. He shall watch over your soul.

    יי ישמר צאתך ובואך מעתה ועד עולם.
    The LORD shall watch over your goings/exiting and comings/entrance now and forever.

    BTW, Gideon and his rag tag team looked up to the mountains and saw the host of the LORD. Hence, from where my help comes.

    June 4, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  6. Roman Gil

    What Economic Recovery? Let's Get Doped Into Foreign Affairs to Forget the Failing Economy.

    In May, the American economy added the insignificant number of 38,000 jobs. America is overpopulated with over 311 million people (nobody knows how many illegal aliens) and cannot support its own population, but millions of new illegal and legal immigrants arrive each year. There is no industrial plan to bring back the millions of jobs and industries that global corporations exported and continue to export.
    My blog has solutions.

    According to the US government's own statistics, 36% of men 16 to 64 years old are out of the work force. Most don't count because they are not looking for work. It takes money to look for work, after a while people vanish from the unemployment statistics.

    In my blog, I loaded George Washington's "Farewell Address" advising America. I highlighted the parts that we are violating. Communist China is following this advice and we are committing the folly of ignoring it. My blog contains solutions to our problems that the politicians have failed to implement.

    While we drop bombs in Muslim countries financed with debt money, the Communist Chinese announced that they are buying large amounts of European government debt and that they opened a direct railroad linking China with Antwerp, Belgium in Western Europe. Europe is now China’s largest market. Europe is now globalized like America with their global corporations exporting their industrial base to China. Last year China announced that they have a controlling interest in Iraqi oil and are receiving oil from their Iraqi oil fields. The Communists understand capitalism better than we do and that economic power controls governments.

    In the USA, only 9% of the economy is industrial. 76% of the jobs created during the "recovery" pay $9 or less per hour with little or no benefits. 47% of American households are too poor to pay income taxes. The Federal Government must beg and borrow $1.65 trillion dollars this year. Many States and local governments are bankrupt. Local Property taxes are crushing the middle class in many States invaded by illegal aliens. Their children consume Medicaid and school services. Bankrupt States like New York have dumped welfare Medicare costs on the counties.

    In Europe from Spain to Greece, people are protesting that they have no future because there are no jobs. Europe like America exported its industrial base to China and Third World cheap labor countries. European governments are as deep in debt as America and their economies are failing under globalization.

    Obama got us involved into a third Muslim war to get us deeper into the Israeli-Muslim conflict that caused us to inherit Israel's enemies. The "war of Terror" has cost us in ten years $5 trillion dollars and now a powerful special interest group of war contractors will keep a permanent debt financed war going until we are in debt slavery.

    Roman Gil

    June 4, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
  7. Graham

    Uh-oh. Another "Obama should..."
    Is it just me, or does saying X politician should do Y thing just a waste of time? When has this worked?

    June 5, 2011 at 2:38 am |
  8. lgwelsh1

    Let them figure it out, put away the checkbook and let things go where they may. We simply cannot afford to be the worlds policeman any longer. If these people in the middle east want change and a better life they will have to do it for themselves. We got our own set of problems that we need to deal with, fix our problems FIRST before anything else. I understand completely we need to maintain our status as the leader of the free world, however there comes a point where we simply cannot be handing out trillions of dollars when we need it here.

    June 5, 2011 at 2:57 am |
  9. Wasabiwahabu

    How much for Zakaria to stuff a sock in it?

    June 5, 2011 at 5:28 am |
  10. MAHA


    June 5, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  11. Muhammad Ali Farooq

    Mr. How hard you suggest?? Nuke them? or what.???
    it is their problem why usa take headache???
    I dont understand your big nose in all around... do rest have the same right???

    June 5, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • Wasabiwahabi

      You're making no sense in ? I do not speak Moron, so you'll have to translate.

      June 5, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  12. Muhammad Ali Farooq

    I take you as cheap attention seeker. Do you know Zia-ul-haq??? or Saddam hussain or mubarak???
    you are crazy like them. you like a balloon they are filling air in you... you think you become big. dont forget in another hand they do have a v.v.v.v tiny needle.

    June 5, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • Wasabiwahabi

      Great another equivocating muslim, Al farooqi cooky, have beer and relax, if they won't stone you for having a beer where you are.

      June 5, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
      • Muhammad Ali Farooq

        Zia-ul-haq, saddam hussain, mubarak and rest of the arab world, WHO IS ON THE BEER HERE?? WAKE UP

        June 5, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
  13. Wasabiwahabi

    Lighten up, Farooky al-Poopy. Maybe you got that there rag around your head tied too tightly. You sound like the raving lunatics so common in the trade of the uptight, wish-we-had-running-water, take-away-our-anger-and-we-have-nothing, myopic muslim world.

    June 5, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  14. Howard

    Whore-mongering ex-governor interviews this flake and 279 people respond??? How utterly pathetic. Leave
    Syria alone. You don't understand them and you never will. Mind your own god-damn business, America ...

    June 6, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  15. Wasabiwahabi

    Lighten up. America is too soft on uptight, ungrateful, chuckle-heads like you, Howard-the Coward. Syria is a pimple on the buttocks of the middle east. Time someone popped it.

    June 6, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • joe

      Hahaha... hey wahabi ur head is like a pimple on my buttocks I will now pop it! HAHAHAHA.... idiot!
      Grow your self a brain! and cut off the wasabi... it just makes your brain shrink!

      June 7, 2011 at 12:02 am |
  16. Wasabiwahabi

    Hey, Joe, you sound like one of those puerile (use a dictionary, and English dictionary) muslim sand trolls that uses a Western-sounding pseudonym (English dictionary, again, please) to defend monstrous islam at all costs, and wipes himself with the loran.

    June 7, 2011 at 8:21 am |
    • joe

      Tiss tiss... for your information wacaca... you seriously need grammar lessons... is that what you learned in kindergarten Kibbutz? Don't worry dude as long as you feel good and the beer didn't infiltrate your brain yet you shouldn't care... don't worry about your grammar be happy with who you are. Zona bin Zona!

      June 7, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
  17. concerned american

    Most arabs I know, including myself, are strong supporters of the syrian government because syria is a modern and secular country where all religions and all people are treated equally and with respect. Clearly, if the Assad government is overthrown, that will be beneficial to aparthied israel, so that is why most arabs support assad. US media is controlled by the pro-israel zionists, so that is why americans are continuously fed the idea that syria and iran are the bad guys. Aparthied israel is a sinking ship and their occupation of Palestinian land will eventually end.

    June 7, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  18. Wasabiwahabi

    Yeah, right, and Assad is Santa Clause and bin laden was the Easter Bunny? C'mon. No Jews allowed on Syrian soil. Plenty of churches, mosques, in Israel. Another muslim, cant deal with our our problems, rag head. Have a beer, if you don't get stoned to death for it.

    June 7, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  19. Wasabiwahabi

    Syrian is a bid , stnky poo. Time to flush.

    June 7, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
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