Steven Erlanger

The World Outside

VTR Date: January 22, 2004

New York Times Cultural Editor Steven Erlanger discusses U.S.-U.N. relations.


GUEST: Steven Erlanger
VTR: 1/22/04

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is the Cultural Editor of the New York Times. Well, as I noted when Steven Erlanger was here before, however, what scans infinitely better for me is the fact that he is so very much more at least Hollywood’s notion of the classic foreign correspondent, having been at various stages of his career the New York Times Berlin correspondent; its Bureau Chief for Central Europe and the Balkans. It’s Moscow Bureau Chief. It’s Bangkok Bureau Chief. And Southeast Asia correspondent, as earlier he had run more or less the same gamut for the Boston Globe.

No wonder than that my guest’s previous visit to The Open Mind had been occasioned by an enormously feeling Times piece he had recently written about the death by terrorism in the UN’s Baghdad headquarters of two long-time friends of his, both career employees of that United Nations bureaucracy so cheerfully despised by so many Americans.

Well, I asked Steven Erlanger to elaborate on that American hostility toward the UN so long an object of opportunist derision by self-serving American commentators and politicians and I want to come back to that hostility now, so difficult is it for me to comprehend.

As my guest had written, his friends and the two dozen other United Nations workers and international aid specialists who died last summer in Baghdad, crushed under the rubble of their makeshift headquarters, were there in the service of a war the United Nations had actually refused to sanction. Trying to organize, as best they could, the post war mess and help the Americans and the British create a new democratic life for Iraqis.

Well now the Bush Administration seeks UN help once again and since my guest has undoubtedly kept an eye on recent developments, I wonder if he believes there has been any recent shift in American attitudes toward the UN. Indeed, toward the world outside in general.

After all, the Bush Administration, once so indifferent to others’ points of view seems very much now to be looking abroad for others help in Iraq. Do you sense this means a change in public attitudes and the Bush Administration certainly keeps its finger on those attitudes.

ERLANGER: Yes, I think it does. I also think it’s, it’s a direct reflection of the increasing mess post-war Iraq represents, even after the capture of the “Evil One” Saddam Hussein. The fact is the Bush Administration failed to prepare for the occupation of Iraq. Or, if it did prepare, prepared badly, it made the wrong assumptions. It didn’t prepare, as we remember for the occupation of Kosovo, either … the Clinton Administration. We’re not very good at preparing for the after-affects of our grand military victories.

There was no question we were going to beat Iraq, we could have done it ourselves. But why did we want allies? We wanted allies to give the impression, particularly to the Middle East that we were doing something for larger benefit than our own; that our own interests were only a part of the larger interests for which the United States likes to fight.

Americans like their governments to fight for noble purposes. We imagine ourselves a noble people and part of what’s happened in my view is the hubris of the Bush Administration has suffered a grand blow. But it’s also a part of the American hubris which is … we can remake the world, the world wants to live in our own image; the world is grateful for our intervention and, and somehow is, is very happy to follow our model.

Well, it’s not such a simple world. And I think some of the ideologues in the Administration and outside it, by the way, are discovering that. So we go back to the UN for the same reasons we did in the beginning. I think partly cynical reasons, which is to find the world imprimatur to get us out of this mess, to help us share the burden and to help us share the casualties, frankly of, of our intervention in Iraq. Here I’m not saying that we shouldn’t stay and, and finish what we started. I think once we begin a project like this it would be tremendous abdication of moral and political responsibility to walk away. But, here the Bush Administration, I think, does understand that to get the job done, and to get it done in a way that palatable for the Iraqi people, let alone for the American people in an election year, it needs the help and support of more countries.

HEFFNER: You know, I’ve had the feeling that one might look at this in a … in something of a positive way, from a positive point of view and that is …doesn’t this seem to be here an indication that we are not very good at imperium. We’re not very good at building an empire.

ERLANGER: Well, I think that’s true. It’s not in our souls. I mean, I’ve always regarded the United States, since the Second World War, when we took on an imperial role, which we did, and which we’d always rejected before. After all, after the First World War we went home from Europe and didn’t want to have anything to do with it. We were dragged back into it; even FDR had to resort to a form of subterfuge to get us into World War II.

And we, we take on this role very diffidently. It was anti-Communism that made us do; it was some larger game of good versus evil that justified to ourselves the burden of empire. But that’s exactly what we did. But we are, I think, in the world’s history, at least … have been so far, a benign empire. An empire that actually doesn’t want to hang around.

We have had also the face before, the challenges of a world that didn’t match our expectations … in Southeast Asia. And that was great trauma that perhaps made us pull out of the world more than we should have done. We’re still trying to find the right balance between involvement with the rest of the world and our general feeling that the rest of the world is actually not very clean, not very nice and not very friendly to us.

HEFFNER: But, but you know, we, we may be talking about different kinds of imperium because I think I’m talking about ownership and you’re talking about operation. We believe we know best, the way the world should function and that certainly was true after the Second World War. But we don’t seem to be very much given to possession.

I know after the Spanish American War and I’m sure our Mexican friends will disagree with, with what I’ve said, looking back to the middle of the 19th century; but we’re not very good at being imperialists, are we?

ERLANGER: No, I don’t think we are. You know it’s the Philippines, Hawaii, fine … but since then “no”.

HEFFNER: You don’t mean “fine”?

ERLANGER: Yeah, well I just mean that, you know, we stopped grabbing things. We believed … our notion of manifest destiny had a different definition after the Second World War. But I do believe we are a country that believes it has global interests and we do. That believes it has global responsibilities and we do. There’s no other country that thinks it needs to patrol the Taiwan Straits to keep the Taiwanese and the Chinese from each other’s, you know, fraternal throats. There’s no other country that think it’s, it’s responsibilities range from Europe to Asia to Mexico to Korea, that feels it’s obligation more than anyone else to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to certain countries.

I mean these are the responsibilities, self-conscious ones, of, of a global power. And it is the only global power. There are other powers that have great interests. The French, for instance, are equally as unilateral as the Americans about their interests … in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East, in Iraq. But their interests are not quite as wide spread, nor do the French have the same myths about their own altruism as we do.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

ERLANGER: Well, we think we’re there for everyone’s benefit and not for our own. In fact, that’s obviously not true. We, we don’t go anywhere except for our own benefit. We have our own reasons to go where we go. We don’t go because we’re God’s instrument. But we like to think that’s what we’re doing. That, you know, our reasons for intervention are pure reasons and they’re altruistic reasons; they’re almost charity for the rest of the world, rather than self-interest of a big dominant power.

HEFFNER: Well you say the French. What about the other peoples of the world, and I want to go back now to the role of the United Nations and the degree to which other peoples find the, the whole business of joint action acceptable, indeed, necessary. You’ve been in so many different parts of the world. Are we unique in terms of our disdain for the UN?

ERLANGER: No, I don’t think so. I think we, we are a country that’s still has, for all reasons that we understand, a very old fashioned sense of sovereignty, at least as the Europeans would see it. We believe very strongly in the nation state; we believe very strongly in a strong military. You know we defend American interests.

In Europe you have a great experiment in shared sovereignty going on. The European Union is, you know, an answer to Europe’s own bloody history. But, you know, we don’t know where it’s going to come out, but it does mean a re-definition of the nation state. It is moving toward a larger whole, will it be a Europe that actually has a citizenship? We don’t know. Will it be a Europe that has a real army? We don’t know. Will it be a Europe that creates a patriotism for which people are willing to die? We don’t know that yet. But it’s different.

And it is the same kind of multilateral model that the UN was, that joint action, collective action is more powerful than single action. And that somehow with the world’s agreement, you have more legitimacy in international law. That’s really what we’re talking about. The problem with the Kosovo intervention, as it was with the Iraq intervention in many eyes, particularly eyes in the Middle East, is that it did not have the sanction of international legitimacy, as the UN would give it. It had no UN Security Council authorization specifically backing this war. And that’s been part of the problem and that’s been part of the awkwardness of bringing the UN back into Iraq in the post-war settlement.

I think most Americans, you know, feel a little more comfortable if they have their friends and allies around them. Americans have not been very good at understanding and we, I think, we as journalists have not been very good at explaining why it is the rest of the world; or so much of the rest of the world is angry with the United States and its interventions.

HEFFNER: I’m interested that you say that as journalists you have not been that good at explaining. How do you explain that?

ERLANGER: Well, to some degree it’s … complicated stories. These are not stories that lend themselves very easily to television. They don’t even lend themselves very easily to thousand word stories or twelve hundred word analyses. There is a growing feeling; in a way it’s parallel to some of the changing views of Israel, too, in the rest of the world that somehow the United States is betraying its own heritage. That it is not living up to its own admirable principles; that it is letting itself somehow, almost unthinkingly become a country other than the country it began to be … thinks itself as being. And that somehow it is betraying this best hope of mankind that the nation represents.

I find that a much too harsh a judgment. But it is a growing judgment. If you go to Europe, across the ideological divides in Europe, which are much stronger than here, there is a distaste for the current American Administration which is very, very, very deep and it has a lot to do with the contempt with which this Administration has regarded the views of others. But it also has to do with a feeling, rightly or wrongly, that the United States is dragging its European friends and allies into increasingly dangerous places without properly listening to them.

In other words, the American President is their President, too, but they can’t vote and he doesn’t listen.

HEFFNER: You say “rightly or wrongly”. In your own terms which is it?

ERLANGER: Well, I think you know, I go up and down. I mean I think Iraq was not a war that needed to be fought. I’m glad Saddam Hussein is gone. The cost of that war will be paid for a generation and I wish there had been more thought about that. I wish there had been less of an assumption that the Iraqis would embrace their liberators with open arms …

HEFFNER: Did you know better? Did you know better and your fellow journalists know better?

ERLANGER: Well, I think a lot of people felt that; a lot of people warned that Iraq, like many multi-national states was held together by repression. And that democracy was going to be a very difficult thing to implant into Iraq. Democracy is not something you spread on like butter. I mean it has to grow out of the roots of society.

Look at what’s going on in the Balkans. I mean it’s been years now, and you know, there is a form of democratic action taking place. But it’s a very, very long road. And these are people generally, in the Balkans, who are Europeans, who have the same intellectual and religious background as the rest of the West.

In, in the Middle East we’re talking about a place where democracy has never, never lived. I mean there isn’t a functioning Middle Eastern Arab democracy. This is something Arabs themselves worry about; talk about; ask about. So on one level, is it a good thing to try to bring democracy, even as we understand it, or in some modified way to the Middle East? Sure. Is it a good thing to try to build Iraq up as a model for other divided countries in the Middle East? Absolutely. But can it be done over night? No. Does the United States have the staying power to do it? We’ll see.

HEFFNER: We’ll see. Let me ask you further about that in terms of your own opinion. But going back to the notion of whether we are capable of empire. Can we stay? Do you think we can stay?

ERLANGER: Well, I think we certainly will stay for a time because we have to stay. Because the place would fall apart and would actually create a bigger problem than it was before if it fell into chaos. So, I think, you know, and as far as I can tell the Bush Administration has no intention of leaving. It has made a commitment to stay.

The question is what’s the best way of staying? How many people can we get us to help us stay? Can we turn over the transformation of Iraq to the United Nations in some fashion so we’re less responsible for the consequences? Or perhaps so that we can lead it from behind.

That’s what we did in Kosovo. I mean I, I think, you know, Kosovo hasn’t gone very well, but it is the next most clear example of our most recent efforts at national building. You know we threw out the Serbs from Kosovo. We had a settlement to a war that was not sanctioned by the UN, but the settlement took place through the UN Security Council. The UN was given responsibility for Kosovo and has managed it reasonably well. And the Americans have a big influence on the UN; American troops are still in Kosovo, along with Germans and Italians and a few British and others. And it’s basically a peaceful place where the beginnings of democratic life are, are actually taking place under a UN auspices. And that would seem to me a pretty good model for Iraq. The question is, you know, having gone this far whether we’re going to get there.

HEFFNER: And the question is also about the unhappy or happy coincidence that this is an election year. So when your seeming certainty that the Administration won’t pull out or do the equivalent of pulling out; is … seems to me to be quite optimistic.

ERLANGER: Well, possibly. I think, you know, for Bush to pull out before the election would be an incredible signal of defeat. So even if he would want to, I would think, you know, he has to argue that Iraq was a success; was necessary, is a success and will continue to be a success.

HEFFNER: Which Senator from New England was it who declared about … said about Vietnam: “We should declare victory and get out?”

ERLANGER: I think that was George Aiken from Vermont.

HEFFNER: Was it? You think the Administration with its capacity to handle news events is not capable of doing that …declaring victory and, indeed, isn’t this why the UN and others are being asked to come in?

ERLANGER: Well, to some degree, of course. But, I mean, we can’t declare victory actually and get out because the place would fall apart. I mean the big argument is “didn’t the Bush Administration go into Iraq with too few troops actually to patrol it?” The argument, you know, is did we overstretch the American armed forces? The argument is, “have we made the people in the Reserves less likely to sign up because they’ve got a lot more than they bargained for?”

The argument is less, “Can Iraq be a success if we pull most of those troops out? I think everybody knows that it won’t be. That it will quickly fall apart. So I don’t think you can declare a success for more than a week, if you pull out. So the question is, to me, you know … we’ll see what, what happens, of course. But I think at this level of casualties, the Bush people can sustain their policy in Iraq certainly through the election. I think it will look better, it will feel better, it will be better presented to the American people in November, if the UN has a larger role. But there’s a great debate in Washington about how large a role to give it. And, and again that debate is something that’s a rich vein for journalists to look into.

HEFFNER: You and your … as a former foreign correspondent … and your colleagues … have you felt comfortable in your ability to explain why we were so uninformed, as we were, in thinking about what happens after military victory?

ERLANGER: I think we have done a pretty good job actually and I think The Washington Post is doing a good job and the Los Angeles Times, but, you know, newspaper is about the facts we find out. I mean it is about the analysis you make of the facts. But it isn’t really our job as journalists to, you know, spread our opinions all over the pages of the newspaper. That’s the OpEd pages jobs.

You know, basically, I think we did explore the question of whether General Shinseki was right when he said, there should have been more troops. And the Bush Administration told him he was wrong. I think, as a whole, journalists have done a good job in looking for weapons of mass destruction and trying to explore what we knew and didn’t know before the war. People have been looking into whether Mr. Bush himself might have been misled about the urgency of the threat.

Certainly in Britain there is an enormous investigation going on about what the BBC knew and what it didn’t know and what Tony Blair knew and what he didn’t know. And whether the intelligence services were pushed by the Blair political people to “sex up” as the phrase goes, what they knew about weapons of mass destruction.

To be fair, you know, Iraq had used weapons of mass destruction in the past. We knew they had programs to try to develop a nuclear weapon, chemical and biological weapons. What we didn’t know, and it’s clear how little we knew, was what had happened to those programs since the last Gulf War ended, I think, in 1991.

And now it seems some of those programs never were started again. They were kept in embryo. And what the Administration is still trying to find out … I heard Dick Cheney interviewed the other day, who still insists these little trailers they found were biological weapons trailers when most people think they were actually designed to create helium for weather balloons.

HEFFNER: You know, we have just a minute or so left … I want to ask you about the statement you made, that this wasn’t the province of journalists, reporters, but the province of the OpEd pages. What about the “Ed” pages … do you think the American press … you refer to the Washington Post, the LA Times and you’re thinking of the New York Times, has done the right thing in its editorial pages?

ERLANGER: Hard for me to say. I mean partly as a journalist and certainly now as an Editor, I don’t really read our Editorials very carefully. I think it’s, it’s probably better for me not to. Because I do want to edit without really worrying about what the paper, as an institution thinks. I am struck that the Washington Post came out in support of the Iraq War.


ERLANGER: But it is also true that the Post has done some of the best work after the War and also during the War, but certainly after the War in investigating whether there was a serious threat of weapons of mass destruction.

HEFFNER: You’re going to have to come back here, Steven Erlanger, our time is up. And talk about that not reading the editorials. That’s a fascinating notion. Thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

ERLANGER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.