Charles Hill is diplomat in residence and lecturer in International Studies at Yale, and a Hoover Institution research fellow. Hill served as executive aide to former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Schultz (1985–1989) and was a special consultant on policy to the secretary-general of the United Nations from 1992 to 1996. He spoke to Yale Daily News Contributing Reporter C. Wallace DeWitt about the challenges facing the U.S. government and the present generation of Yale students.
The News: Do you personally feel safe in today’s America?
CH: I feel safe, utterly safe. America is the safest country. There are always dangers, and they come in different forms. You can’t eliminate the dangers. I don’t feel any less safe now than I did a year ago.
The News: Given the difficulties involved in waging chemical or biological warfare, what are your thoughts on the present anthrax scare?
CH: I think the probabilities of a large-scale CBW attack are very low. These things are hard to handle, they can do damage to you if you’re the terrorist, and if you’re trying to put materials in a water supply it takes enormous amounts to overcome the dilution effect. But if they do get through, the outcomes are horrendous. So low probability, horrendous consequences if they succeed. I think it’s pretty remote.
The News: How have the various presidents and administrations fared in dealing with terrorism over the past 30 years or so?
CH: Well, we never handled it correctly under any administration. When [terrorism] first arose it was politically driven, not religiously driven. The only way that we made any progress against it was by being alert.
Finally, when the terrorist attacks got to be so frequent and every embassy had to assume that it was going to be the object of a terrorist attack, when planes were being hijacked it seemed like every month, only then did America wake up.
By being alert, by taking measures much like what we’re seeing today, by being willing to hit back as was the case when the United States bombed Libya in 1986, we did suppress terrorism. We didn’t win that war, but we suppressed terrorism. In the past several years, we have been treating it like a piecemeal problem and responding point by point and getting through the news cycle with it and then putting it behind us.
The News: How serious is the warning that the FBI released last week regarding the possibility of attack over the next several days?
CH: These general warnings have come about just because you will see a rise in the level of indicators of preparations. And when that gets to have a certain critical mass then you need to put something out. In fact, something of this nature was put out the week before September 11, but nobody really paid any attention to it. Same situation, the level of news in the intelligence world was rising, but nothing that you could put together that would enable you to say specifically what was going to happen. I think you will probably have a series of these warnings.
The News: Turning to the current situation, many have noted a change in President Bush’s behavior in the last month, the New York Times going so far as to say that he has achieved a certain degree of “gravitas.” Do you agree?
CH: I think that people with basically sound leadership instincts and inclinations and abilities really will find them growing stronger over time. So it seems to me that what we have seen in the president’s behavior is a string of more and more able performances, more and more firm and definitive performances. And this is what you want to see. It’s a growing process, and I don’t see any limitation to this growth. It seems to me that he’s able to take on what comes at him.
The News: There has been a lot of discussion of the importance of the current war, but how does the situation facing President Bush stack up against the crises which faced Lincoln or Roosevelt when they held the highest office in the land?
CH: I think that this is a war of the greatest magnitude in terms of foreign wars. I do not think anything compares to our Civil War. I think the public does not perceive it to be so great at the present time, however. You have many alarms and strong statements about its significance but I think that the American people do not really feel that because it has not had much impact on their ordinary lives. There’s no draft. You don’t feel as if your economic situation is really affected by it.
So I think one of the problems the president is facing is keeping the country informed and aware of how serious this is. It’s serious because it goes beyond Afghanistan. There’s a kind of vacuum of international attention in the last decade, and terrorism adores a vacuum. This has gone so far that it’s really a global infestation.
It’s going to take a long time and a lot of low-level work to root out these different cells. Also, it’s going to take incessant diplomacy to keep our friends and partners alert and on board with this. It’s going to take remarkable ingenuity to get countries that have been paying the terrorists extortion money for protection to realize that they’ve got to turn away from such policies.
The News: Many people on campus raise the question, “Why do the terrorists hate us so much?” Why do they hate us, and should the answer to that question matter to us in formulating our foreign policy?
CH: In a way their hatred is not specifically toward us. It’s toward the way the world has gone and is going. They in their countries have been failures at dealing with [the changing world]. Their governments and regimes have been failures in offering anything to their people of any hope. They are societies that have been repressive, have given women no rights or very few rights; they have only been able to keep afloat on oil.
Without oil, the Middle East would be lower than Africa on a development scale. So their hatred is something that they’ve been unable to cope with. It is a rage, and there’s nothing to be done about that rage, because the world is what it is. There’s no satisfactory solution to it other than making it clear that terrorism cannot stand. It has to be stopped.
The News: Many point to America’s traditionally close ties to Israel as adversely affecting our security interests. Do you envision a divergence of America’s path from that of Israel?
CH: Our relationship with Israel is permanent and solid and unchanging under any administration in its foundations. At the same time, Israel is on the front lines, and we are not, and we have different interests and objectives. So we have lots of squabbles, but the key thing to know about Israel is that it really has under the current circumstances nothing to do with what we’re facing.
President Clinton 14 months ago was a millimeter away from bringing about a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. If he had achieved that, it would not have made any difference in what is happening to us, not any difference whatsoever. We have been the only country to conduct a serious diplomacy in the Middle East. No one is even a hundred miles close to what we have done. What we have to do now is get that logic to the peace process back together again.
The News: What lessons can we learn from our experience in the Cold War? Is the knowledge we amassed in that conflict no longer of use to us?
CH: The Cold War experience is important in a psychological sense and in a sense of an example of how much will power had to do with our eventual success there. And that’s the kind of thing we’ll need in the war against terrorism. We’re going to hear again and again and again from within our own population “Now you’ve done enough, don’t do any more,” and we can’t stop. We just have to listen to them but keep going. Because if we don’t keep going, this affliction will really destroy civilization.
The News: During the tercentennial celebrations, we heard a lot from prominent Yalies about the goal of Yale’s charter, that is, to turn out public servants. How can we best fulfill that goal in such times as these?
CH: I think that service can be performed anywhere, that you can serve your country, or humanity, or whatever cause you think is greatest wherever you are if you’re doing your job right. What I think Yale seniors should think of doing is broadening out the range of what they think are their options and considering a wider range, because it isn’t really the case that there are only four or five things that you could do. Such as going to law school, a consulting firm, a financial house, going to the Peace Corps. There are other things to do.
The News: What’s to be expected for a senior who decides to work for the State Department? What are they doing at this moment?
CH: Well, the State Department is a blighted and wounded institution, mainly self-inflicted wounds. The careers there are much more distorted than they were when I went in. The career track is shorter, it’s been administratively mishandled.
So going into the State Department is a dicey business now for anybody who is in the Foreign Service, but it nonetheless could be a wonderful career job. You have to be willing to scramble, willing to do things that are out of the ordinary, because you will be very likely put into an ordinary, nothing job.
And then you can begin to get into really serious work and also begin to distinguish yourself. I think Yale students are the kind of hard-driving people that would be able to do that very well.
The News: What is the situation in the Central Intelligence Agency and the branches of the military?
CH: There are theoretically more problems with [the CIA] as an institution, but as a personnel system it’s by no means in as bad a shape as the State Department. I would recommend it as a good career. There’s a lot of good work there, and there are big tasks to get underway at the CIA right now. The military is a fine career and not enough go into it or consider it. Going to Officer’s Candidate School after Yale, being a commissioned officer in a fairly short time, and trying that out is certainly going to make more out of you, man or woman, than going to law school.
The News: Have you got any advice for the generation of Yalies that will be graduating into the world of terrorism over the next few years?
CH: Some generations get a war. Not every generation, maybe every third or fourth generation gets a war. But when you get one, it will define you. It will be what you are ever after remembered for. I just came from the Lawn Club, the reunion of the Class of ’37, and their war was the Second World War. And they were heroic. So what has changed is not your security but what you may decide to do with your life.