SPIEGEL: Mr. Haass, were the election results a message from the voters to President George W. Bush that it's time for US troops to be pulled out of Iraq?
Haass: The mid-term election is a signal of widespread popular dissatisfaction with the course of the Iraq war. But it should not be read as a signal of support for a particular alternative. Nor will it lead most Democrats in Congress to call for a quick and complete withdrawal of US forces. Instead, it will reinforce the likelihood that American policy will be adjusted. We can anticipate force reductions and redeployments and possibly a greater emphasis on diplomacy, both within Iraq and with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria.
SPIEGEL: Meaning that the Bush Era has come to an end?
Haass: There is something to what you say, in that Iraq was a war of choice that proved to be much more difficult and expensive than Americans bargained for. As a result, the public is pushing back. However, it is not just premature but wrong to say the Bush era is over. The president will be president for another 800 days. He will be able to take initiatives, especially in foreign policy given that our system favors executive leadership. He also may have a better chance to fashion a consensus on immigration reform. And unanticipated crises almost always provide a president with the opportunity to do dramatic things.
SPIEGEL: Can you remember a time when US foreign policy was confronted with so many challenges and difficulties?
Haass: The short answer is: No. During the Cold War, the United States faced a single challenge that was greater than any we face now. But I can't think of a time when the United States has faced so many difficult challenges at once. What makes it worse is we are facing them at a time when we are increasingly stretched militarily. We are divided politically. We are stretched also economically, and there is a good deal of anti-Americanism in the world. It's a very bad combination.
SPIEGEL: Almost five years ago Bush grouped Iraq, North Korea and Iran together in the now-notorious "Axis of Evil." Now the US is faced with considerable crises in all three countries. What to do?
Haass: We have allowed ourselves to get into three very difficult situations. As the United States has learned to its great cost in Iraq, military force is no panacea. Any option that would be heavily reliant on the Army is not a realistic option, because the only Army we have is busy right now.
SPIEGEL: But diplomacy is still an underused tool.
Haass: In the case of Iran and North Korea, I would be willing to have the United States engage in diplomacy directly with them, essentially offering them whatever mix of political and economic and security benefits in exchange for demanding a package of behavior changes. We need to get away from the idea that diplomatic interaction is a value judgment. History suggests that isolation reinforces hardliners.
SPIEGEL: But it seems as if the Bush administration is still debating whether regime change or diplomacy is the best way to deal with them.
Haass: For quite a few years, there was very little diplomacy, and the emphasis was on regime change which, in my view, was never going to happen. Now you are seeing a bit more diplomacy, but not as much as I would like there to be. I'm not sitting here confident that diplomacy will work, but I think it is worth trying, simply because the alternatives are not terribly attractive. Diplomacy may work; if not, we should demonstrate that we did everything possible to reach a fair and reasonable diplomatic outcome and we couldn't, not because of our policy, but because of theirs. The Bush administration will learn that that puts them in a better position to manage the domestic and international politics of escalation.
SPIEGEL: You just invited Iran's President Ahmadinejad for a discussion in New York. Did you get the impression that he is interested in any kind of deal?
Haass: There was very little, if anything, in that two-hour meeting that was reassuring about his interest in finding any common ground on reasonable terms with the United States. His tactic is to answer questions with questions. At one point, someone raised questions about Iran's internal situation, democracy and human rights, and within 30 seconds, he was talking about what he saw as the imperfections of American democracy. His argument was that Iran was more democratic because it had more candidates for president than the United States.
SPIEGEL: The Israeli ambassador criticized you heavily, saying this was worse then inviting Adolf Hitler for talks.
Haass: I disagree. Meeting with somebody like Mr. Ahmadinejad doesn't mean we approve or endorse him. It's nothing else than accepting that he is the President of Iran and in that position, he matters.
SPIEGEL: Bush's comments on North Korea's nuclear tests seem to indicate that it is no longer the possession of nuclear weapons, but the passing along of nuclear technology to terrorists or hostile states that America is opposed to. Is this a new nuclear doctrine?
Haass: Here, at least, the administration has moved from what you might call non-proliferation to managing proliferation. But I would hope that doesnt become the new status quo. Im not comfortable living in a world in which an aggressive, hostile, poor and potentially desperate North Korea is sitting on a mountain of nuclear material. That does not fill me with anything except extraordinary alarm.
SPIEGEL: And then there are Iraq and the Middle East. You just published an article in the journal Foreign Affairs in which you say that the situation is enough "to make one nostalgic for the old Middle East."
Haass: The old Middle East - an era which I believe has only recently ended - was one in which the United States enjoyed tremendous dominance and freedom of maneuver. Oil was available at fairly low prices, the region was largely at peace. I believe largely because of the American decision to go to war in Iraq and how it has been carried out, as well as the emphasis on promoting democracy and a lack of any serious energy policy, the Middle East has considerably grown worse. It's one of historys ironies that the first war in Iraq, a war of necessity, marked the beginning of the American era in the Middle East and the second Iraq war, a war of choice, has precipitated its end.
SPIEGEL: So what will become of the region?
Haass: Visions of a new Middle East that is peaceful, prosperous and democratic will not be realized. Much more likely is the emergence of a new Middle East that will cause great harm to itself and the world. Iran will be a powerful state in the region, a classical imperial power. No viable peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is likely for the foreseeable future. Militias will emerge throughout the region, terrorism will grow in sophistication, tensions between Sunni and Shia will increase, causing problems in countries with divided societies, such as Bahrain, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Islam will fill the political and intellectual vacuum. Iraq at best will remain messy for years to come, with a weak central government, a divided society and sectarian violence. At worst, it will become a failed state racked by all-out civil war that will draw in its neighbors.
SPIEGEL: How long will this dangerous period last?
Haass: I don't know if this will last for five or 50 years, but it's going to be an incredibly difficult era. Together with managing a dynamic Asia it will be the primary challenge for US foreign policy.
SPIEGEL: But the Bush administration still seems hopeful, seeing in all this violence only the "birth pangs" of this wonderful New Middle East.
Haass: I hope that they are right. I would love to see them right and me wrong. But Im afraid they are not.
SPIEGEL: Is Iraq still winnable for the United States?
Haass: We've reached a point in Iraq where we've got to get real. And this is not going to be a near-term success for American foreign policy. The Iraq situation is not winnable in any meaningful sense of the word "winnable." So what we need to do now is look for a way to limit the losses and costs, try to advance on other fronts in the region and try to limit the fallout of Iraq. That's what you have to do sometimes when you're a global power.
SPIEGEL: A special commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker will soon present a study on how to go forward in Iraq. Will this be the excuse for Bush to withdraw the troops?
Haass: The commission gives him something of an opportunity to change course. Historically, commissions have often played an important role when the traditional body politic was unable or unwilling to come up with politically controversial but necessary proposals. We see a tipping point not only on the ground in Iraq but also in the political debate in the United States. I believe more and more people in and around the administration are coming to the conclusion that six or nine more months of the same will not bring us anywhere.
SPIEGEL: The disaster of the last years leads many Americans to doubt the military strength and moral superiority of the nation. Is this country on the verge of a new isolationist phase?
Haass: The danger is an Iraq syndrome. The war is one the American people weren't quite prepared for: They had not been told it was going to be that difficult and expensive. After the military battlefield phase, they thought it was going to be easy. So this has proven shocking. Nearly 3,000 Americans have lost their lives. Maybe 15,000 20,000 Americans have been wounded. Hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent. It has been disruptive on many levels. The danger is that the United States now will be weary of intervening elsewhere, like the cat that once sat on a hot stove and will never sit on any stove again.
SPIEGEL: How long could such a period last?
Haass: It is quite possible that this generation of Americans will be as affected by Iraq as the previous generation was by Vietnam.
SPIEGEL: The world doesnt need the "little sheriff," but it needs a strong America.
Haass: Exactly right. There is no doubt that the world needs the United States. We need to stay active in the world, not as a favor to others, but as a favor to ourselves. We cannot turn inward in an age of globalization. Bad things will happen in the world if we are not trying to manage them. The balance of power in Asia, human issues like Darfur, global climate change - these are problems that are not going to get solved if the United States doesnt participate actively.
SPIEGEL: Isolationism would be quite a legacy for someone like Bush.
Haass: It would be somewhere between ironic and tragic because this administration has in some ways, like Iraq, been extraordinarily interventionist.
SPIEGEL: What could Europe do?
Haass: The one-word answer is: More. One wants Europe to have more capacity, so it could do more in Afghanistan, or maybe in places like Darfur. One wants Europe to be more internationally oriented. If you could make a criticism that the United States has under-used the diplomatic tool, Europeans often under-use other tools. In many cases, even if anti-Americanism were to fade, there is still a certain lack of preparedness and capability to act. What Europeans have control over is not American foreign policy. What they have control over is their own capacity and willingness to act -- and that is what they ought to focus on.
SPIEGEL: Will Bush leave the world with more problems than he found when he came into office?
Haass: Most likely. That said, the administration still has two years to go, so it is too early to judge. All you can say is that its sobering where we are. As of now, you would have to say the world is not a safer place.
Interview conducted by Georg Mascolo