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.