Charles Hill has extensive experience both in the political and academic worldsat Yale. A diplomat in residence, he serves as a humanities lecturer and Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy. As a career minister in the U.S. Foreign Service, he has advised Ronald Reagan and former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, focusing primarily on Middle East policy. His most recent book, “Trial of a Thousand Years: World Order and Islamism,” explores the innate incompatibility of political Islam and a state-based international system. WKND sat down with Hill to discuss U.S.-Middle Eastern relations, the ongoing conflict in Syria and the current system of education on international relations in the United States.
Q: Do you think the U.S. has been constructive in solving the Israel-Palestine conflict or have our own interests gotten in the way of effective negotiations?
A: The U.S. has been indispensable to the negotiations because the U.S. has been and remains the only third party that both the Israelis and the Palestinians are willing to work with. There has been a basic trust on both sides that the Americans were going to do it in a fair way and that we didn’t have any particular national interest that was driving us — that we really wanted to see a two-state solution. So that being the case, there was really no way to avoid it, the fact simply was that there was no other party that the two sides would trust.
Q. Are there things you think the U.S. did wrong after 9/11? How could Bush have responded better? Or do you believe the escalation to the subsequent wars and to today’s constant conflict was inevitable?
A: The Middle East has been under a kind of lid for decades and decades and there have been a multiplicity of factions and religious animosities and ethnic, linguistic and class differences that have all been held down by a combination of military regimes and the political use of Islam as a tool of oppressive regimes. When Saddam Hussein was overthrown, that lid was lifted and it suddenly began to be evident there was a seed of revolution in Lebanon. There was also the green movement in Iran. These two were crushed. Then came the 2011 Arab Spring, a huge movement of young people. Suddenly everything was in turmoil simply because there was an opening. It became clear that a dictator as odious as Saddam Hussein need not be the predestined outcome for all of the peoples of the Middle East, and they began to take action. Those actions have been against other Muslims, against the Middle East. This is where we are now. This is not something traceable to what the U.S. did after 9/11.
Q: But do you believe at all the the U.S. presence in the Middle East in the past several decades has lead to these oppressive regimes or to any other conflicts?
A: It is an American habit, or form of entertainment to blame everything on America. The easy way, for political purposes inside America, is to say that everything starts with America and what we have done wrong, but it isn’t so. The regimes that came to power in the Middle East are hereditary monarchies that seize power by military coups. In other cases, they put in place parliamentary systems that were really front organizations that weren’t serving the democratic needs of the people. Those regimes then used propaganda and subsidies to turn the ire of their people in another direction, mainly against Israel. They thought they could co-opt most radical Islamic groups by bringing some of them into their governments and paying some of them to go to other countries and commit acts of violence instead of acts against themselves. They were doing whatever they could to stay in power to survive, but what they were doing was slowly making it almost inevitable that the peoples of the Middle East would have enough of all of this. But that has been taken over by elements that are not acting in the interests of the people. Theyreare dictators such as Assad in Syria, radical Islamists as in the case of ISIS, Al Qaeda as a terrorist group, the murderous centuries-old Shia vs. Sunni war and an Islamist rule in Iran that is doing what it can to violate international law and manipulate diplomacy to get a nuclear weapon. These are the things that people do to themselves. They would like your question because it sounds like you are doing something that they would like to have people believe.
Q: With conflicts escalating in Syria and Iraq, and with a global wave of people traveling to join terrorist organizations, do you think Syria will take a similar direction to other Middle Eastern countries with prolonged fighting? Is there any way to swiftly quell this conflict?
A: Well, Syria is ungoverned, except around Damascus by the rump of the Assad regime. A huge part of it is under the control of ISIS, the most radial terrorist force that has appeared yet in the modern Middle East. However, there are freedom fighters in Syria who have sought to overthrow the Assad regime, but they haven’t been getting any support from the outside. There has been the idea of safe-zones inside Syria where people could go if they’ve been ravaged by the war, but that has not been carried out. Generally the outside world has let Syria devour itself on its own terms and timetable, and that’s a tragedy. That’s the way it is now. I don’t see any way to change it, other than an effort to turn back the primary threat that is ISIS, which now holds not only territory in Syria, but also huge territory in Iraq. This is a major strategic challenge, and the U.S. has taken some steps that have been in some sense effective, but we never seem to do enough of what is required to have any momentum toward success. So this problem just keeps on going. It’s been going on in Syria since 2011, and isn’t going to come to an end anytime soon.
Q. You mentioned in your book, “Trial of A Thousand Years,” and in your interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2012, your belief in the effectiveness of a state-based world order. Do you think Western statehood should be imposed everywhere?
A: That misses the point. The international state system is the system that has been adopted around the world in the past several centuries. It has been adopted voluntarily; it is no longer Western, it is international — it is an international world net that has member states from every continent. Its organization is the United Nations. This is not something we are trying to establish; it has been established for a long time. The problem is that it has been deteriorating out of neglect due to the teaching about it that has taken place in the last 30 or 40 years. Teaching about the way the world actually works was dropped in colleges. Education on international affairs turned to focus on issues, not on structures, not on history. A lot of ignorance.
This is very significant in intellectual history in the U.S., at least. The universities and college stopped teaching international affairs in a way that would convey its actual structure. In this way, things grew up particularly “Model UN,” which has taught one generation after another of American students to think incorrectly about the United Nations, which causes frustration among the students and puzzlement as to why what they have been taught doesn’t seem to have any actuality to it.
Q. Why do you believe statehood or, even further, democracy is the ideal form of governance?
A: Statehood is the [worldwide] form of government. That is what began in 1648, which is the origin of the international state system — that’s when the state became accepted, at least juridically, as the fundamental unit of world affairs, against the empire. I think it’s the best, although the state as a concept has had to make its way in the world again and again. So far, for 350 or so years, the state has produced successes through a lot of hideous violence and upheavals — many, many unfortunate things — but the state has delivered more to the people of the territory, whatever the government may be, than any other proposed system. That just is, although now that states are failing and losing control over their territory, it’s not impossible that the state system could deteriorate to the point that it could be unworkable in large areas of the globe. What will follow from that would be something very ugly and dangerous.
As for democracy, that’s a topic that comes back again and again. The key question is a very fundamental one, and that is for every individual person to answer. It is: Do you think people want to be free, or that people don’t care about being free? Twenty years ago people said people want to be free and now increasingly I hear that people don’t want to be free, or that they want to do anything they possibly can to avoid being free. They want to be in a state run by, for example, the Communist party of China, which every day puts out editorials and articles that say, “Whatever happens, we will never, ever become democratic because democracy is the worst of all forms of government.”
So it’s how you feel about that. My feeling is that people want to be free.
Q. But what about our involvement in Vietnam? It seemed like the people wanted a communist state and we still came in, fearing the domino effect, to try to quell communism and encourage democracy.
A: It seems in this interview your questions are conveying an educational indoctrination that you and your whole generation has, and it’s a dogma. So you ask me a question that’s a dogmatic question, a leading question. Each of the questions you’re asking me has three answers already stuck in it which you’re trying to get me to say yes to. You’re posing the precondition to the question, and the difficulty in dealing with a question like that is that it just isn’t true. I once thought the way you thought. When I was sent to Vietnam by the U.S. government, I resigned rather than go because I believed what you just said, that the people wanted a Communist government, and we were going to force them not to accept what they wanted, which was to be living in a Communist dictatorship. However, in a strange turnabout, my resignation wasn’t accepted and I was sent to Vietnam anyway. And when I got there I found, astonishingly, that the people didn’t want to be communist. In fact, they had come into the cities and the areas that were under the control of the South Vietnamese government because they were fleeing communism. It was an entirely different picture on the ground then what the media had been portraying.
So why was the media doing this? I think it was that, at that particular time, Vietnam was a political issue, an anti-war movement. There was the New Left, which was largely a student movement from Europe, that was gaining influence inside the U.S. American students were strongly Maoist. I was at Harvard for a year during the great student upheavals there. The students, sincerely — they were not traitorous — believed that Maoism was the wave of the future for the world. They had that kind of mentality, the idea that the world’s problems were created by America, that democracy is a weapon that we beat people with, that the troubles everywhere you looked were attributable to us, that the people there don’t want to be free, they want to be Communist. These things are now somehow in the curriculum of secondary schools in America. They churn out a kind of assumption, a range of layers of assumption, that I’m hearing from you in your questions.
Q. Any words of advice to Yale undergraduates?
A: Get a good education if you really set yourself to it and try to do it. But you have to do it yourself. Yale is a wonderful place for students to get so much attention and so much care, so many deans, so many people watching over you, so many people with good intentions, but really your education has to come from you. You have to decide what courses to take. My advice is, don’t take courses on the basis of what you think will get you a good job, take courses on what will give you a good education. A good test is if your family asks, What are you doing with that course? Why are you taking that? That’s a sign that you’re getting a good education.