With direct experience in more than 40 conflicts, Ambassador Rick Barton has worked with local people to bring innovative practices and pragmatic ideas to the world’s most violent places. A builder of organizations and a developer of talent, Barton co-founded two
pathbreaking US government efforts: USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives and the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. Barton served as Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees at the United Nations in Geneva, America’s representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations in New York, and Assistant Secretary of State in Washington. He teaches at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, where he is the co-director of the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative with his wife of 43 years, Kit Lunney.
Kayhan Life caught up with him for a conversation about his views on peacemaking and U.S. foreign policy.
Q:What is your message in the book? What are you trying to say to whom?
A:The main message is that we can do a much, much better job and play a vital role in expanding world peace and reducing violence: that in fact we have shown moments of brilliance. We need to extend and expand those and better organize ourselves so we can be much more coherent and effective than we have been through our modern history. The United States is in an advantageous position. People still look to us to make a difference, and we should make the most of that. I am hopeful, because I know if we do it by trusting the local people, really get to know places better and take some risk, we can make a difference.
The audience I am trying to reach are concerned American citizens, so we can fulfill our potential. But it won’t happen unless Americans are more familiar with these challenges — how they are venture-capital places that we should not take ownership of, but make strategic contributions to.
Q:You write a lot in the book about Syria, and obviously there have been a number of developments recently, including President Trump saying he wants to withdraw US troops from Syria. What would that mean for countries like Iran and Russia?
A:It is hard to know what President Trump is going to do. Not only is his administration chaotic, but he is highly unpredictable. His saying one thing does not tell us very much.
I do think that our approach has been militaristic in many of the wrong ways. The central issue that I found when I was working [on Syria-related issues] was the bombings. Unless you stop the bombing and do not contribute to more bombing — which is essentially what we have done — you are not giving the Syrian people what they most want.
I don’t think we have done a particularly good job of dealing with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad. My sense is that he is a highly rational human being, and when we have given him clear messages and stood behind them, he has moved in favorable ways. I think we could have done that much earlier.
Now, I think we are so far along that the inevitability of disaster is the real challenge. That is much, much tougher when you get to half a million people being killed and over 10 million [people] fleeing. It is a more difficult puzzle. But I still think the main energy in Syria is for change and not for status quo. People who were pushing for the status quo like the Russians and Assad, and people who were conceding that, are missing [the fact] that there is a historic flow against the leadership in Syria and we need to accept that and figure out what is central to reversing that flow. I don’t think the Russians are getting a great benefit out of this, other than [Russia] appearing to be a great world leader again.
Q:And the Iranians?
A: The Iranians, to me, are much trickier, because like many other countries, they have not done a particularly good job at home. Taking losses and spreading out all over the region strikes me as a false gain. Clearly in the short term it seems their influence is increasing, but there is a rot at the core there which will limit their expansionism.
Q:You write in the book that the U.S. record in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so many other places suggests that it doesn’t know how to help, and that has been true of both Republican and Democratic administrations. Setting aside Trump’s own way of doing things, why is he philosophically wrong in wanting to pull out of Syria?
A: I am not convinced that he is philosophically wrong. I think that he has been over-reliant on the militarized approach. My concern in almost every American intervention is that I don’t think we know the places very well, and we have not trusted the people. So if you start with ignorance and compound it with self-reliance, you are likely to further complicate places, rather than finding addressable challenges and making progress to build societal trust and some sense of hope and future.
So I am not sure President Trump really has perspective. He shows one of America’s greater weaknesses which is a kind of general ignorance about what we try to do in a place, although he may have a worse case of it than others.
Q:In another part of the book, you write: “Our record in the past 25 years in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria is a powerful argument for humility.” What would you say to those who might argue that it was precisely that effort in humility in places like Rwanda, Yemen, Syria and Libya – and thus inaction when action was needed – that put those places in the mess they are in?
A: Timing is important, and clearly there were opportunities if our timing had been better. Compounding that challenge is that we are a democratic society, and we should be sensitive to the demands of people in the places [we enter], but also in our own country.
In the case of many of these countries, we had not made the argument to our own people that they [the interventions] mattered and that it would take investment of time and talent, that we had some idea of what we were getting into and what was going on in the place and how we might have a positive impact. Those are elements that can make the timing more difficult. But in whatever manner we get engaged, I think humility is a good quality. It keeps you from being arrogant, and assuming that you have a formula for someone else’s success. Almost any of us who asks for advice, even from loving family members, recognizes that it is only adhered to some of the time. We go to these foreign lands as if they are going to step aside and let us run their country. I think it is foolish, and leads to these quagmires that we continuously find ourselves in.
Q:You made a list of eight questions we should ask ourselves before we get involved in a conflict. Questions like: is it vital to our national security? What exactly is the plan? What is the exit strategy? In a country like the United States, do you think it is ever possible or feasible to reach consensus on these answers?
A: I do. The American people have at least a basic sense of curiosity. Most Americans recognize that [the need for intervention at times] is one of the great challenges of our time. They’d like to know that we think about these things in a constructive and possibly successful fashion. But if we keep delivering losses and complications and losses of life and taxpayer money and global standing, they are not ready to invest in it. So I think it is a necessary dialogue.
During President Obama’s red line moment [on Syria resorting to chemical attacks] — when he flipped the table and said this should be done [in reaction to the alleged Syrian chemical attacks], but I won’t [do it] unless the Congress supports me in it — suddenly 80 members of Congress flew back to Washington the next day for a full White House briefing. They had all prepared press releases condemning the president for not consulting with them, and suddenly they had to share the burden.
Fifteen percent of the American public claimed they were engaged with the war in Syria prior to that statement by the president. Within two weeks of that, 45 percent said they were following it. That is not that slow a development. It is possible, especially these days, when some unknown person becomes a global celebrity in 27 minutes or something [thanks to social media]. I don’t think many of our national security leaders and sophisticated people really believe in the wisdom of the crowd or some of the essential strengths of democracy.
Q:What is it is in the American system, in its bureaucracy, that more than 60 years after rescuing Germany, it still doesn’t know how to help other countries in the right manner? You have a quote in the book from [former US military commander in Afghanistan] General Stanley McCrystal saying that the day after 9/11, the first thing he would have done was “nothing for a year and instead send 10,000 young Americans—military, civilians, diplomats—to language school: Pashtu, Dari, Arabic. We should have started to build up the capacity we didn’t have.” What is it about the American system that leads America to shoot itself in the foot, so to speak?
A: We have an obesity of institutions in the United States right now. It is not just limited to some of our government institutions or the national security world. If you ask Americans, “How do you feel about your health insurance company, or mortgage company, or cable company?” you’d probably get the same sense of outrage, maybe even a greater one. So big, heavy institutions that have become too self-protective and are not team oriented are a problem.
The political leadership recognizes that, but in order to change it, you’d really have to “give blood,” be ready to work very, very hard at this. You have to be ready to move people around, change leadership, make sure the mission is clear. You have to work your butt off to make that happen. I don’t see too many people who are fascinated by the internal bureaucracies to make those changes and without that our institutions are going to behave the same way.
Q:You have a chapter titled “Is the World Going to Hell?”So is it?
A: I don’t believe it is. I believe the world is becoming more peaceful, but we have these daily reminders of hellish activities almost everywhere in the world, and it has created a sense of instability and anxiety which is deeply troubling for people.
But we have to keep it in perspective that 15 people killed in a terrorist attack in a rather safe place is not nearly as bad as 100 million people killed in wars in the 20th century. If we don’t pay attention to this violence, it won’t get better, so we have to be engaged, we have to be comfortable with risk and continue to invest in local people, because they are the only ones who will ultimately take ownership of these problems.