What solemnity must have forced the choice of Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria as Class Day speaker. Picking an intellectual like Zakaria is a change in tone from the unbearable lightness of last year’s ceremonies, when Anderson Cooper managed to joke about the Rwandan genocide and his time hosting the reality TV show “The Mole” in the same sentence.
Because Zakaria has no chance of outdoing Cooper’s Taliban jokes, one might expect a member of the ultra-serious Council on Foreign Relations to lecture the class of 2007 about current events or political philosophy. But Zakaria is not so easily pigeonholed. What can we expect from this suave Indian academic whom the Village Voice called “the pundit world’s answer to the Backstreet Boys”? What does his appointment say about the ideals and image that the University projects outward?
Admirably, Zakaria is someone who genuinely wants Americans to pay attention to “foreign affairs — you know, the other 95 percent of humanity,” as he told the Voice. His erudition and seriousness of purpose makes his worldly profile more convincing than Cooper’s hokey pop-journalism.
Zakaria’s all-consuming interest in global politics is positive, but what precise picture of the world will our speaker give us? Like many Yale students, Zakaria thinks of himself as an arch-centrist, an independent thinker uninterested in partisanship. An examination of his record shows his politics to be a more intellectually interesting version of the neoconservatism that has the United States mired in Iraq. Zakaria was a member of the Party of the Right at Yale, and is a self-professed Reaganite conservative who goes sailing with William F. Buckley. An early supporter of the initial invasion of Iraq who is now having misgivings, Zakaria’s unwillingness to challenge the conventional wisdom on the Middle East and foreign policy places him in conflict with the tradition of critical thought that Yale, at its best, should represent.
Zakaria disagreed with the Bush administration from the beginning about certain aspects of the war plan. For example, Zakaria favored the deployment of 400,000 combat troops, while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the other neoconservatives in the administration were determined to occupy Iraq with a mere 120,000 to 140,000. This did not stop Zakaria from publicly supporting Bush and Rumseld’s policy without condition. Writing in the New Republic in June 2004, Zakaria defended himself on the grounds that “you have to decide whether to support the policy the president is pursuing — not the variation of it you wish he were pursuing.”
Looking at it one way, calling for an impossible number of troops and demanding other technocratic changes in the Iraq war is a way for Zakaria to hedge his bets. We can’t put him in the same category as Vice President Dick Cheney and other true believers in the president’s policies. We can’t exactly applaud him either.
The problem with this war is not whether we have deployed too many or too few troops. It is that we never should have been in Iraq in the first place. The Middle Eastern catastrophe is not a result of small miscalculations but of a number of primitive, black-and-white assumptions about the world that Zakaria and the Bush administration share: that political terrorism is the result not of historical processes but of some unconscious “cultural dysfunction,” and that military intervention is necessary to force a cultural reformation.
Nor is the closeness between Bush and Zakaria merely intellectual. Bob Woodward, in his book “State of Denial,” reported that Zakaria participated in a secret meeting in November 2001 with policy-makers and other experts at the request of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. The meeting would result in a report that urged the president to invade Iraq. This was, of course, more than two years before the administration claimed to have made up its mind to use military force. Zakaria’s name does not appear on the report and he claims not to have known that the meeting would produce such a document, but Robert Kaplan, another journalist present at the meeting, told The New York Times that it would have been “impossible” not to realize this.
“Journalists do not typically attend secret meetings or help compile government reports,” The Times wrote in its report on the meeting. Such naivite. Dr. Zakaria, members of the press and members of the class of 2007, welcome to the Era of Bush.
Jared Malsin is a senior in Berkeley College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.