In a wide and varied career in journalism, David Ignatius has served as a reporter, editor, foreign correspondent, and columnist, covering the U.S. Congress, the Pentagon, the CIA, wars in Lebanon and Iraq, and international finance. He writes a twice-weekly column about international affairs for The Washington Post. In addition to his journalism, Ignatius is the author of seven novels of international espionage and intrigue, which have been translated into a dozen languages.
Below is an edited transcript of a public discussion Ignatius held with Nicholas Lemann, Henry R. Luce Professor and Dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, as part of the “Literature and Terror” series sponsored by the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life.
Nicholas Lemann: Welcome everybody. I should begin by saying — most of you in the room may know this but in case you don’t — I am in the humbling position of being the moderator of a discussion with somebody who, at least in January and maybe into February and still March, would qualify as the world’s most famous moderator of panel discussions. This is quite a distinction since it’s a role that people don’t usually pay attention to — sort of like editors.
David Ignatius: But not best loved, I would say.
Lemann: So if you don’t know, David set off a major international incident in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, when a question he asked the prime minister of Turkey so offended him that he stormed off the stage, went to the airport, flew home and was greeted by 15,000 people cheering for his courage in standing up to a representative of the U.S. like David. The last time I saw David was at a Columbia-sponsored event at Davos where he had spent the whole day doing Turkish media. I don’t know if things have calmed down or not, but I promise not to ask anything that would lead you to fly back to Washington and be greeted by a cheering throng.
Let’s just start with our title. President Obama has notably stopped using the terms “war on terror,” “global war on terror,” “global struggle against Islamic extremism,” all those phrases that rang in our ears starting September 20, 2001 when President Bush addressed a joint session of Congress. So, in the Obama era, what does terror mean? Is it a useful term?
Ignatius: Well, my honest answer is that I don’t think we’ll know unless or until the United States is hit with a terrorist attack during the Obama presidency. Then President Obama will have to decide not in the abstract but in a very testing moment how he will react. It’s easy to redefine a struggle when the struggle isn’t apparent to people, and Obama and his administration are obviously doing that. They’ve stopped using the phrase “war on terror,” although they say that’s not official. But I think the test of leadership that creates a different model for how we should respond to this problem can only come when you’re faced with it in a way that is terrorizing, that has people frightened. Then a leader says, “We’re going to think about this in a different way than the last administration did. We’re going to use different techniques to combat it, but we’re also going to speak about it in a different way.”
I think there is an effort to redefine the semantics. Our new Secretary of Homeland Security spoke, unfortunately, about how we’re not going to talk about terrorism. We’re going to talk about man-made disasters. You almost want to think that was a slip of the tongue, because it really is a kind of parody of what Republicans would say Democrats would say about terrorism. And I hope that’s not the definitive word.
I wrote last weekend about the Bush administration’s and the Obama administration’s policies on terrorism and the extent to which they really have changed in the fundamentals. I was responding to Cheney’s really outrageous comment that America was less safe now with Obama as president because of what he implied were radical changes in these policies. And it’s true that the President signed an executive order January 22 — it was really the first major thing that he did — saying that he would close Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility within a year, that he was ordering the CIA to close its secret detention facilities as expeditiously as possible, and that henceforth all government agencies, including the CIA, in interrogation would stick to the practices that are outlined in the Army Field Manual.
I think those are all positive steps. They certainly sent a signal to the American people and the world that he meant to do things differently. But if you look at the fine print, as it were, you can see that some policies from the Bush administration remain. For example, the practice known as extraordinary rendition, in which we assert an authority, a right, to seize people overseas who have committed crimes and either bring them back to the U.S. or take them to some third country for interrogation. That authority remains unchanged. It’s exactly what it was before. That wasn’t advertised. But if Cheney is implying that everything’s different and America’s unsafe, well, that’s something that isn’t different at all. The ability of the CIA to work with foreign intelligence services that are interrogating terrorist suspects remains exactly what it was before. So do the same requirements that the U.S. seeks to establish that appropriate human rights treatment is being given to these people.
The final thing I found, in talking to people who put this new policy together, was on the hardest part of this question, the nightmare that we all have in the back of our minds when we think about the question of interrogation: What if there really was somebody who knew about a nuclear device that was set to go off in Morningside Heights and would kill 500,000 New Yorkers and contaminate this part of the city forever? What would you do about that? Would you stick to the Army Field Manual?
There was a lot of discussion among Obama’s advisers about that question, and they decided that it’s wrong to base any legal standard on unusual cases, on the exceptions where you might need to alter the rule. Because you have people around the world who are doing interrogation in the Army, in the CIA, and other agencies, you need what lawyers call a bright-line standard for them to follow so that no one will be in any doubt about what the rules are. This is not a law passed by Congress; this is an executive order. So Obama’s advisers said you can’t imagine unusual situations in which the President, having written and issued an executive order, would decide to waive the executive order or substitute new language in an extreme situation. I think the point that they were trying to make was that they understand there are nightmare moments in the real world where you say the Army Field Manual isn’t the appropriate yardstick, but they didn’t want to engage that question in framing the policy.
So I ended up saying that I thought Cheney’s remark was unfortunate on lots of levels. What I’m struck by, Nick, is the way in which the continual discussion of terrorism since September 11th has weakened the country, weakened the fabric of the country. I think it weakened the morale of the country. The state of living in constant fear exacerbated by constant references to plots, threats, possibilities . . .
Lemann: Threatcon Charlie, Threatcon Delta.
Ignatius: Yeah, I mean always seeing “report suspicious activity” put us in a state of fear and anxiety. I think that was one of the worst consequences, what it did to the country’s emotional response.
Lemann: I have to tell you a little anecdote, and then I’ll return to business. In those days I was covering Washington. And in those days Vice President Chaney was more media-friendly, so he would have these parties for all the people covering the White House. We’d go to the Vice President’s mansion, and he had this big sign out in front on which he posted what the threat level was at the moment of the party. So we’d be properly emotionally armed for whatever mood to assume at the party. So he really believes all that stuff.
Let’s go back to just the definition. I want to sort of use the terms “terror” and “terrorism” to talk about the your dual career. Terror is the name of an emotion, we can all agree on that. But, you know, the first year I was dean here I had a student who was a close relative of someone who was portrayed in the Western media as one of the world’s leading terrorists, now deceased. And, in the class I taught, she and I used to discuss this quite a bit with the rest of the class. She took a position that I’m sure you’ve heard a lot, which is terror may be the name of an emotion, but, as a political or social scientific category, it is absolutely useless — in fact, worse than useless, misleading. Because, she would say, what you do is statecraft. What we do is terror. [You have] military policy, and what we do is terrorism.
So, just at the most basic level, define “terror” and “terrorism” as political categories. Are these definitions that have a universal meaning, or are they only in the eye of the beholder? Is it a category used by the powerful to anathematize the powerless?
Ignatius: Well, there’s certainly some of that. It’s often said one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. If you’re going to try to move beyond that kind of complete relativism and establish a definition that will work, I guess my definition would focus on the use of tactics that are intended to hit noncombatants, hit the civilian population, and thereby terrorize the civilian population, and use that terror as a weapon to induce a course change from the government. I mean a perfect example —
Ignatius: Well, the question with Hiroshima was, in part, about using of nuclear weapons to avoid the invasion of Japan, which would have been costly for us, costly for them. The use of what we then call “terror weapons” — and let’s not mince words, because that’s what nuclear weapons were popularly described as, and for good reason — resulted in deaths that were overwhelming in Hiroshima among the civilian population. They did have the effect of terrorizing the Japanese population, who had, until then, had been pretty resilient.
So I think that the focus on civilian deaths is central to this. Well, Hezbollah uses suicide-booming tactics, but it certainly claims — and has generally adhered to that claim — to attack Israeli military presence. When the Israeli military was in Lebanon, Hezbollah said, “We are being occupied by this outside force against our will as Lebanese. So we’re going to use these tactics, suicide bombings, against military targets.” And the argument was that’s legitimate because these are military targets.
I think that gets you into a complicated area. It’s hard to call attacks on military targets terrorism for me.
Lemann: And just to finish my story, after many discussions with my student she was able to persuade The New York Times to change its style book or usage to stop referring to the attack on the U.S.S. Cole as a terrorist attack since it was a military target.
Ignatius: I think that’s probably appropriate. If we want the word “terrorism” to have some specific meaning, then probably the attack on the Cole was an attack on a military target. And by our usual definitions, that’s not terrorism.
Lemann: Now let’s switch over to the literary side of the ledger. What does terror mean in a literary sense? It is the name of an emotion. Is the person who lives in a world characterized by the constant regular threat of what we in the West call terrorism, is that person’s emotional condition different from, let’s say, somebody living as a citizen in Britain during the Blitz? Somebody on the front line at Gallipoli who had to go past the breastworks? A soldier in a war? A parent with a child fighting? Are they all the same kind of terror or are they different kinds of terror?
Ignatius: Well, fear of soldiers under fire is real. Soldiers are frightened, and you could say that they’re terrorized. There are military weapons that seek to frighten. If you’ve ever been under a mortar bombardment, those are terrorizing weapons, and suicide bombs that terrorists use increasingly seek to duplicate the same effect. You pack a suicide vest with ball bearings, and it has a similar effect in terms of the spread of the destruction and the consequences for people in the area that mortar rounds have.
I’m trying to respond to what I think you’re getting at, Nick. One of the things that we’ve discovered again, and that others have discovered about us, is that terrorist tactics that seek to break the resolve of an adversary generally don’t work. And since we’re being specific about the meaning of terrorism, I would extend that to military tactics that seek the same effect; they also don’t seem to work very well. We should have known that by studying British behavior during the Blitz. The British, rather than cracking, adopted a stiff upper lip — you know, Churchill’s speeches and the gritty fire wardens. They got stronger, not weaker.
If you read Osama Bin Laden’s writings on the way to September 11th, he was very specific about what he thought the consequences would be for America. In his Declaration of War, most specifically, which I think he wrote in either ’96 or ’98, he speaks about how Americans basically are cowardly. That when you hit them hard, as the Americans were hit in Beirut with the attack on the U.S. embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks, they run away. If you hit them hard, as we were hit in Somali in the famous Black Hawk Down incident, the Americans run away.
That was his picture of who we are. So the argument was if you hit them really hard in an attack like September 11th, meticulously planned to spread maximum fear, these Americans will run away. They’ll pull back. They’re basically fearful. That was the wrong judgment. That is not what happened. Bin Laden goes on to say in some of his more recent writings that drawing the Americans deeper into conflict is, in fact, a good thing. He revised a little bit his initial statements about what he thought would happen from the use of these tactics. But now, he says, if he can draw the Americans deeper onto this battlefield where they’re weak and we’re strong, it will have a good effect.
Terror frightens, but over the long run it doesn’t seem to terrorize; it seems to strengthen people’s resolve. Look at the people in Gaza. They get pounded. They get pounded in the December-January War. They’ve been pounded in different ways over many, many, many years. Has anybody here ever been to Gaza? You know, just about the worst place on earth that I’ve visited. It’s just a really tough, miserable place to live. The conditions are so horrible that you’d think people would finally crack and say, “Enough.” But they haven’t. The only thing these people seem to have is their dignity. So they cling to that, and they keep fighting in the name of it.
Lemann: One thing that struck me in Washington after September 11th, particularly in Washington — and I cannot prove this but it’s just my soft perception — was that the anthrax attacks were much more terrorizing, in terms of just penetrating people’s heads, than the 9/11 attacks themselves. And I couldn’t quite figure out why that was, but they just had an enormous psychological effect. We still don’t completely, totally, entirely know what that was all about, but it was part of the atmosphere when the decisions about going to war in Iraq were made. I think part of it was the idea that this could really happen to anybody at any time, just as you go about your ordinary life. So everything about your ordinary life is suddenly charged with fear. And the idea that it was invisible and pervasive, here you get into literary conceits that novelists have played with. I guess what I’m getting at is what terrorizes most and best?
Ignatius: Well, I’m going to quote from a column that I wrote six or eight weeks ago. Our intelligence agencies that study this problem in detail are concerned that one consequence of our success in going after Al Qaeda central (the main group of Al Qaeda on the run in the frontier areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has been reduced significantly from what it was at 9/11) is that you’ll fragment and disperse decision-making among terrorist groups that want to kill American civilians. And this would make precisely the kinds of attacks that you’re talking about, Nick, more likely. That, arguably, would be more terrorizing.
The intelligence agencies don’t mention the anthrax attacks so much, but they mention the Beltway sniper case, if you remember that. Two people, one of them a teenager, went around the Washington area shooting people, basically, at random. I wasn’t living in the country at that time, but, from what I read, it was terrorizing. There’s no reason that Al Qaeda sleeper operatives in America, if they exist, or people who are infiltrated here, or Lashkar-e-Taiba guerrillas — take your pick — couldn’t start using those tactics. And it’s very, very hard to deal with them. Our police force, on whom the responsibility would fall, would try, but their basic methodology isn’t well suited to moving shooters, as they’re known.
Look at what happened in Mumbai where you had moving shooters moving around the city. An extremely well planned attack. They knew right where they were going. They had GPS coordinators to get them where they were going. And they had ten people. Ten people terrorized a city, paralyzed a city for three days. It took the Indians three days. And that’s a small example of what you could have.
So that’s a fear, Nick, and not in the abstract. [It’s asking] what terrorist tactics could, paradoxically, result from us hitting the inkblot, scattering it so you have a lot of little actors operating individually.
Lemann: Let me switch gears somewhat to fiction, versus nonfiction. I want to start by asking a strangely specific and journalistic question. Now quite a few novelists have written about the CIA and this shadowy world of espionage. You know, many are former spies themselves. Some are reading up on it or interviewing people. But you’re somewhat unusual, at least, in being a reporter who has really good real-time access to the people who are doing this stuff as you’re writing fiction about this world. Is there a difference or a gap between what you can find out in your journalistic self and what you can say as a novelist about how this world works?
Ignatius: There certainly is a difference in what people will tell you if you say, this is for my fiction; this is not for the newspaper. And I do that sometimes. I think, in a deeper level, that the problem with a newspaper column is that it has to make a point. You have to say in the last graph, “And so we see that . . . ” And sometimes, in trying to make sense of all this, what you find is not necessarily things that lend themselves to making a point. You want to just be descriptive, and that’s what you can do in a novel.
I have a friend in the Arab world who says, “You know, David, the place you really tell the truth is in your fiction.” Because there’s enough room to develop characters, develop a sense of the place, of the issues, without having to make a point about them. And so you can let the ambiguities remain what they are. I think that’s a fair criticism of my work.
I have a new novel coming out that is set in Iran and is about the Iranian nuclear program. You couldn’t have anything that’s more in the news than that. And I’m very curious how people will react to it. There are some things it weaves in and out of, areas where it’s going to drive the Iranians crazy, I think, or I hope, because they won’t know what’s true and what isn’t. They’ll have no idea what’s made up and completely fanciful and what might be happening. That’s the saving grace, I suppose, because some of these things are sensitive. You wouldn’t want to willy-nilly blow secrets. It’s interesting to imagine the person who will be tasked with figuring out what in this is true and what isn’t. Good luck.
Lemann: So just to press a little more on this: Some journalists who have turned to fiction — I think of Tom Wolfe — offer the explanation that there’s this stuff you want to be able to write about that you just can’t get. If you’re really lucky once in a blue moon, you can get what A said to B in a room, the dialogue, that kind of thing, as in, being a witness to things actually happening instead of people telling you about them in retrospect. So Wolfe’s position, for example, is that nonfiction may be notionally better, but there’s this material that is denied to you that just works so well on the page. To break through that barrier, you must turn to fiction, because fiction is access, in Washington terms. Is that fair?
Ignatius: Yes. Janet Malcolm, the literary critic, once said that there’s only one kind of book in which it can have happened exactly as it’s written on the page, and that’s a novel. In nonfiction there are as many different versions as there are people who heard the comments, interpreted them, etc. But in a novel it happened exactly that way. That’s exactly what they said, and then you can interpret it.
I guess I should just briefly say how I became a novelist, because it came directly out of my journalism. I went to Beirut as a correspondent in 1980 with one piece of information that someone had let slip in a conversation in Washington, which was that the previous year the Israelis had assassinated a person, whom this man called “our man in the PLO.” And I was astonished by this and quickly realized that he must be referring to the man who’d been killed in 1979, named Ali Hassan Salameh, alias Abu Hassam, who was Arafat’s chief of intelligence.
So I began to understand that Arafat’s chief of intelligence had been [the U.S’s] man. I worked on that story for more than two years in Beirut talking to anybody I thought might be able to shed light on this extraordinary thing I’d been told. And I finally had enough material to publish a story on the front page of The Wall Street Journal in February 1983. It opened with the scene in which President Carter is informed by his CIA chief, Stansfield Turner, about the assassination of this man. Then it quoted, on the record, a number of people talking about what he had done for the United States in terms of saving lives. This was Arafat’s chief of intelligence.
He was also one of the organizers of “Black September” and — to get a sense of the moral ambiguity in the real world — was blamed by the Israelis specifically for the Munich Massacre. So they had, from their perspective, every reason to have him on the hit list. Two months, three months after the story is published I’m at the American embassy in Beirut. I am interviewing a military attaché. I leave at 12:30. I go back to my hotel. Just after 1:00 pm a car bomb explodes at the American embassy and kills the CIA officer who had run this operation, who had recruited and run Arafat’s chief of intelligence. A remarkable man named Robert Ames, he was killed in this bombing in April 1983.
In addition, every member of the CIA stationed who was stationed in Beirut that day was also killed. In the aftermath of their deaths, the Arabs who had been working with them, who had deep bonds of attachment with them, needed to grieve. I was the only American left in town who really knew the story, because I’d been working on it for two years. They knew I knew it. And so they sought me out and began to tell me things that I really had no business knowing.
I began to soak up a kind of information about these operations that just took me into a different space and gave me an understanding about how the agency worked, about all of these issues. It was impossible to write it as nonfiction. It was too raw. It was genuinely dangerous. So I began working on a novel. I wrote many drafts.
Lemann: David, let me just stop you there for a minute. Too raw, as in too emotionally raw and difficult to handle? Or raw in the sense that it would get your sources killed?
Ignatius: I felt this was information that would really get people killed. No, not raw emotionally. I mean, I’d published the story. The facts, the bare facts, had been on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and had caused quite a ruckus. No, this was what Ben Bradley used to call the “wiring diagram details,” the stuff that, if you put out, could flat-out have quite disastrous consequences. And I was nervous when the book came out, basically having told a true story, but taking some efforts to disguise it. I still was worried about the consequences of publication.
Although that book was sold as a novel, it was treated by the CIA as real story. They knew it was a real story. On their website it says, “Though a novel, this is not fiction.” And they use the book at their training facility, at the farm. They give it out to young recruits. Many people have told me, “When I was in training they gave me your novel.” And they like it because it tells a true story. It’s sort of weird, but my life as a novelist comes directly and specifically out of my journalism.
This was a story, literally, that was too hard to tell as fact, so I had to re-imagine it. I began work on this novel with a picture of Robert Ames, the man I mentioned, this extraordinary case officer who died in the embassy. The book opens with that bombing and his death. When he died, there was an obituary in The Washington Post and they ran a photograph of him. I cut the photograph out, I put it in a frame, and I put it on my desk, because I wanted to be anchored in reality. I realized after a few weeks that what makes a novel seem real, paradoxically, is its departure from real life, from the man in the photograph. The fact that it’s re-imagined in the mind of the writer gives it a reality and power that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Otherwise, you’d just be reading a 120,000-word newspaper story. Who wants to read that? That doesn’t feel as real, even though it is real.
So I put the picture away and began re-imagining him. There are some details I made up completely, which people swear to me are true. I just have to laugh. Somebody was telling me the other day about this scene in the book: “I was there. I was in Kuwait at the time. I remember that.” And, you know, it was completely made up! So it just goes to show.
Lemann: We’re getting to the end of our back-and-forth and toward audience questions, but I want to do another total shift and ask you to talk a little bit about this region where you’ve worked so much as a reporter and done so much journalism and fiction. President Obama came to office with, I think it’s fair to say, the Middle East as his primary foreign-policy focus as it had been for President Bush as well, particularly if you define the Middle East as stretching all the way from Tel Aviv to Pakistan, which is maybe a bit of a stretch. He came into office with a promise to change American policy throughout this region, country after country, in a really dramatic way. It’s hard for me to think of a case where a new president has come to the office and said, “In what Americans now think of as the crucial region of the world for American foreign policy, everything is going to change utterly.” You can just go country by country and think about Israel, Palestine, to some extent Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan. How do you assess this effort so far?
Ignatius: Well, I think he’s making a good start. The difficult stuff is all ahead. I thought his formulation in his inauguration speech, that he wanted a dialogue based on mutual interest and mutual respect, was precisely the right way to state this. Respect is so important in this part of the world, and that’s what people feel has been lacking from the United States. People feel that their culture, their way of life, is under assault, and they don’t like it. They’re sick of us writing their history, or trying to. So mutual interest and mutual respect is the right start.
I thought the president was right on his first day in the Oval Office, to pick up the phone and call all the key parties in the Middle East who would be part of negotiations and say, “I’m serious. My predecessors, Clinton and Bush, waited until relatively late in their terms to do something about the Middle East. I’m starting today by calling you.” He sent Secretary of State Clinton out. He’s going to be in Turkey himself in a week. So I think he’s doing all the right things.
I had a very interesting conversation with somebody today about Obama’s message to Iran, the Nowruz video that he sent inviting the Iranian leadership to join in these conversations about mutual interest and mutual respect. And this person said, “You know, he would have been a lot smarter to have sent a letter. The video is so public it almost required the Iranians to react quickly, and if they’re going to react quickly and publicly they’ll react negatively. It would have been much smarter to do this discretely. Don’t back them into a corner; send it with a high-level emissary.” I thought that was a pretty good point. I liked the video. My first reaction was, “Wow, this is good.” But, you know, I think what this person said was probably right.
So I like the start that Obama’s making. I think that this is absolutely crucial for our national security. I don’t want to talk about peace; I want to talk about security because I think this is a really dangerous period for us. And I think he’s off to a good start. He’s going to have to be very tough-minded in pursuing it. If you want to know more about what I think, I’ve just written a 5,000 word essay on this which will appear in Foreign Policy, and you can rush to your newsstand and get Foreign Policy. [Laughter]
Lemann: Let me just run through a quick series of specifics: Is it really possible to get Iran to abandon its nuclear program — if it has a nuclear program — through diplomatic means?
Ignatius: I think the wisest course for our negotiators, at this point, having failed in our efforts to stop the Iranian program before they mastered the technology of fuel enrichment, would be to take them at their word and then hold them to that word. The Iranians say they do not seek to build a nuclear bomb, that all they want is what they’re entitled to under the Nonproliferation Treaty, which is to enrich uranium up to a level consistent with civilian use, usually thought to be five percent, maybe seven percent, and not go beyond that to the 70 percent plus, which is needed for bombs.
So if you said, “O.K., if that’s your position, we need a system in which we can verify that you’re complying with the NPT. That means the existing regime of IAEA inspections plus some new demand inspections, so we’ll really be confident that you’re doing what you’re doing.” That will give Iran the same breakout capability that’s usually ascribed to Japan. I often call this the Japan option, because the Japanese have mastered the technology of enrichment, and, within a fairly short time, could move from where they are to having a bomb. But there’d be some period of strategic warning where you’d see them breaking out, and then you could take action and response. That is where I think we should end up in terms of negotiating.
Lemann: Just a couple more, and then I’ll stop. A meaningful deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, is that possible this year or next? And what would it look like?
Ignatius: Well, the new Israeli prime minister has not indicated yet that he’s prepared to support a Palestinian state. And as long as that’s his position, you’d have to say a deal is not possible. If you’re not willing to support negotiations whose outcome would be a two state solution, a Palestinian state, it seems like a nonstarter to me.
Lemann: So then what do you do if you’re the Obama administration?
Ignatius: Well, I think this is a time when we have to be really clear about our own interests and views. We believe it’s in Israel’s security interest that there be a two state solution — our presidents have said that repeatedly — but we also believe that it’s in our interest. That’s what we think ought to be done, and I think we have to make that completely clear.
Take our policy on settlements. Presidents for at least 20 years, but I think more than that, have said that it’s a matter of U.S. policy to regard Israeli settlements as an obstacle to peace. It’s been a consistent U.S. view.
But we don’t really do anything to back it up. The settlements keep being built or enlarged, and there are no consequences. So people have come to think, certainly in the Arab world, that we don’t really mean it. Because we say it, but we don’t do anything about it. I think if Obama wants to be taken seriously on these policies in general, he needs to address that gap. So if we’re going to have a policy that we think settlements are an obstacle to peace, we need to know that we mean it. I think that would be wise.
Lemann: Afghanistan. I’ll just ask you a couple more that I can’t resist and then I’ll stop. The president made a big announcement about Afghanistan that, because there’s so much else going on in the world, didn’t get all that much attention, strangely. But to the extent it has, you see a familiar split developing out there in the opinion sphere between people who say it’s a quagmire and people who say this is an absolutely necessary move. So what’s your take on that?
Ignatius: I’m in what is my usual position in the opinion sphere, which is sort of straddling the two views. I also think that’s where Obama has ended up. I think that if you look at his Afghanistan policy, there was a sharp debate between two factions. One is led by Vice President Biden, who said we really have to worry about a Vietnam situation. We need to sharply restrict our definition of our mission. We need to really focus on Al Qaeda. We need to give up all this nation-building stuff. We shouldn’t send any more troops.
And then there’s another group organized, I think, around Holbrooke and General Petraeus saying, “No, the commanders are right; we need one more combat brigade. You know this is a fight we can win, a winnable war. Just as we prevailed in Iraq by being tough, so we can prevail in Afghanistan.” And the president, I think, leaned both ways at once. The rhetoric in his speech was all about the threat posed by Al Qaeda. And yes, he did refuse to send the additional combat brigade and the additional 4,000 troops to train Afghan soldiers to do the fighting, but we’re still in the nation-building business as near as I can tell. I think those programs will all go forward, at least until the Afghan presidential election in August.
So I think, basically, Obama has tried to have it both ways. I actually think that’s the right thing to do right now. Because I think this is not a time. Until we know the outcome of the Afghan election, until the situation in Pakistan clarifies a little bit, it’s not the time for a major increase in troops by any means. And it’s also not the time to pull the plug and bail out. So I think he got it right.
But I would note that this is an ambiguous policy. It is very much like the process of escalation in Vietnam. Where you said, “Well, generals you can’t have 200,000 troops, but you can have 100,000.” And it’s sort of a trickle, trickle, trickle. That process continuing.
Lemann: This will be my last question.
Ignatius: I like these questions. These are good questions.
Lemann: You cover a lot of ground. The newspaper that you’ve been associated with for many years, since you left The Wall Street Journal, is The Washington Post. What’s it going to look like ten years from now?
Ignatius: That depends on all of you and your willingness to buy multiple copies. I think there’ll still be a newspaper in print, on paper. But that won’t be the primary means of distribution. Our problem, in a nutshell, is that the advertising that supports our journalism is nowhere near as lucrative online as it traditionally was on paper. And the reason is that online advertising isn’t as good at selling things. It’s unfortunate, but I think we all know this. Seeing those little banner ads, we just have learned to ignore them. And then they make themselves more intrusive, and suddenly there’s this thing that comes down and blocks the screen. Then we get angry and just click that away, and then it sort of dances around the screen. These are all efforts to get our attention. When you’re leafing through a newspaper or a magazine, the advertising is an integral part of the experience. I think we just all accept that. People have paid for it because it works; they haven’t done it as a charity to us. We can show what happens if you haven an ad in The Washington Post, what happens to your sales. It drives sales.
So somehow, whatever means of distributing our product evolves, whatever it looks like, whatever kind of screen you access it with, it has to be better at selling things. And I think that’s going to happen. I think that advertisers will tell us when we have reached the right distribution platform for our product. They’ll say, “This works, and we’re prepared to pay you more because it works for us.” But we won’t do it out of charity, we’ll jack up our rates. And then we’ll be O.K.
But the key, Nick, is that we have to hang together, keep our confidence, suffer losses. I hope not as severe as the ones we’re suffering now. Just keep our integrity as a news organization to get through this period until we find a platform that works for advertisers. The promised land. And so, in the interim, we’ll look like a really thin newspaper. I’m really glad we’re owned by the Graham family, who, in addition to loving journalism, are really good business people and have some fabulous businesses that I hope will reduce their need to get rid of extraneous Op-Ed columnists.
Lemann: O.K. Question time.
Audience Member 1: You were talking about Obama’s administration’s foreign policy and engagement in the Middle East being one of its top priorities. What are your thoughts about engaging with Syria? Do you think it’s going to lead somewhere? Do you think it’s going to help with the peace process? What is Syria willing to give in return for normalizing relation to the U.S.?
Ignatius: I was in Damascus most recently in December and talked at some length with President Assad, and he certainly sounded serious about engaging with the U.S.. This was just before the Gaza War broke out, but even that, I think, has not changed his basic desire to engage with the U.S. and to resume direct negotiations with Israel that would lead to return of the Golan Heights and other aspects of a peace treaty. I think he wants it. In truth, I think he needs it.
The paradox of Syria is that it is a secular regime. The Ba’ath party exists to create a political sphere in which people’s religious identity, sectarian identity, doesn’t matter politically. Assad himself is from a minority, an eccentric minority Muslim sect, but, as a Ba’athist, it doesn’t matter. Syrians are very frightened about sectarian politics. The average Syrian looks at what’s happening in Iraq and says, “Whoo, we don’t want that here!” There may be a lot of problems with this Ba’athist regime that we have — there’s a lot of dissatisfaction in Syria with the economy and other problems — but people don’t want to blow up the way Iraq has or the way Lebanon has.
The idea that, over the long run, Syria will remain in alliance with a theocratic Muslim regime in Iran as opposed to becoming increasingly a Mediterranean country, looking west, with ties to the U.S., with a peace treaty with Israel, with trade in the Mediterranean region, I can’t imagine it. This is so driven by self-interest that I can’t imagine that it won’t move forward. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for the United States and for Israel. I think that’s probably the issue on the front burner for them.
Audience Member 2: After the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, contrary to popular expectation, India showed a lot of restraint and did not actively pursue the terrorist group behind it. My question concerns that, and it’s twofold. Do you think the U.S. played an active of role in enforcing this restraint? And, going forward, do you think India’s role in the war in Afghanistan, the war on terror, will have the effect of restraining any action against Pakistan, or do you see a more militant India and Pakistan?
Ignatius: The first answer, I think you’re right in characterizing the Indian response as restrained and, in that sense, commendable. And you’re also right that the U.S. and Britain worked actively with India to encourage that restraint and to encourage liaison with the Pakistani intelligence and security services to exchange information. I wrote not long ago about a dossier that the Indian security service compiled about the Mumbai attackers and their links to Pakistan, and it couldn’t be clearer. The Pakistanis initially denied such links, but they couldn’t be clearer. They have communications intercepts, all of the different categories of intelligence that you need.
I think Indian government officials believe, in addition to the fact that the attackers originated in Pakistan, that elements of the Pakistani intelligence service were aware of the attacks. Lashkar-e-Taiba, as I’m sure you know, was originally created, in part, by the Pakistani intelligence service as a way of gaining leverage in the Kashmir dispute. As with their liaison relationship with the Taliban and with the Islamic fighters in Afghanistan, this sort of grew beyond their ability to manage and now ends up biting them.
I think India has to be very careful. What motivates Pakistan’s secret links with the Taliban, and with other elements that fundamentally threaten the Pakistani state, is Pakistan’s fear that without these contacts with Pashtun warlords Afghanistan will become an Indian-driven country and Pakistan’s security will be threatened from the west. India will have a base of operations against Pakistan. India has to reassure Pakistan that it doesn’t have those intentions. It’s not real. I think, at times, it has been real. I think India has sought influence in Kabul in a way that the Pakistanis would reasonably worry about.
Audience Member 3: What is your forecast of the possibility that the mullahs of Iran would unite with the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan as the Americans increase the presence in Afghanistan?
Ignatius: Well, that’s a good question. It’s a tough one. The Iranians don’t want to see the U.S. succeed in either Iraq or Afghanistan. They see us as the main enemy, and they’d like to see us fail. And so the intelligence is pretty clear that they have been supplying weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even though that’s a group that they despise in many ways. You just have to think about the activities of Al Qaeda in Iraq targeting Shia pilgrims, Shia mosques. Their strategy was to trigger massive bloodshed between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq in order to subvert the project there.
I think the Iranians are playing a dangerous game. If you look at Iraq, what’s interesting in the last six months to a year is that Iraqi nationalism is reasserting itself, modestly. It is beginning to overcome some of the sectarian tensions. There is an Iraqi identity. I think we got so despondent about Iraq that we began to say, “Ah, there’s no real country. There’s just, you know, religious identities.” But that’s not true. Iraqis do have a sense of nationhood. And they’re beginning to make alliances across the Sunni-Shia divide, across the Kurdish-Arab divide. And they don’t want to be dominated by Persian Iran.
I think something similar is likely to happen in Afghanistan. One of the problems in Afghanistan is that half of Afghanistan essentially speaks Farsi. The Dari language is a Persian language. And the other half, roughly half, speaks Pashto. And so there’s always that tension.
Talking about the new administration and what it’s done, I think the smartest thing that they’ve done is drawing Iran into regional discussions about stabilizing Afghanistan, recognizing that Iran has a legitimate interest as a neighbor in the security and stability of Afghanistan, that Iran reasonably would feel threatened by a great big U.S. army on its border imposing security. So we’re bringing them into talks: “It’s your problem too.” There’s a lot of talk about re-supplying some of the European forces through a port in Iran and then trans-shipping it from the west into Kabul. I think that’s a really good idea, because it binds Iran to this mission more.
So I’d have to say that, over the long run, the idea of an alliance between a Sunni, Taliban-leaning Pakistani state and a Shia theocracy in Iran is pretty limited. I just don’t see it.
Audience Member 3: Let me follow up. Do you think the Iranians have or will now try to to exploit Pakistani black market nuclear weapons, especially since A.Q. Khan has been released?
Ignatius: That’s a tough one. The A.Q. Khan network was instrumental in supplying the early centrifuges that the Iranians use. So that pipeline, in terms of technology transfer, exists. There are people who think that it’s not the uranium that’s enriched at Natanz, which is ever going to be used in an Iranian nuclear device, but it will be some other source. Pakistan would be one obvious possibility.
I think the tensions between the Shia and the Sunni in the Middle East are acute. And they have increased because of aggressive Iranian efforts to project power in the ways that the Sunni states have regarded as threatening. The Saudis really are upset about this. Saudis have very close relations with Pakistan and with the Pakistani military. I think the Sunni Arab world, as a whole, would lean very hard on Pakistan to avoid doing things with an Iran that the Sunni Arabs regard as a threat.
Audience Member 4: I’m just curious on a functional basis how your fiction and your nonfiction relate. It could be as much as two separate folders in your computer. That’s how it works for me. Do you have two computers, and one computer is for fiction? Is writing something that you schedule for yourself like a job? Or it fits in around your nonfiction?
Ignatius: Well, the characters are drawn from reporting. When I write about the chief of the Jordanian intelligence service, you can be reasonably confident that I’ve talked to a number of chiefs at the service and that, if I’m describing a Jordanian style of operations, that’s based on real reporting. I’m inventing things, but there’s a ground of the real world.
In terms of how I actually do the writing, I’ve found that this is a two stage process. You have to think carefully about the plot and the story that you want to tell if you’re going to write a thriller. I mean, I’m a hack novelist. I’m writing thrillers, and people read thrillers with an expectation of certain satisfactions. They want a lot of twists and turns, and they want to be faked out, and they want this and they want that. So you need to think about that pretty carefully.
But the actual process of composition is pre-conscious — I don’t really know of any other way to say that. You know, your dreams tell stories that have a structure, a richness that you’re not in any sense consciously deciding. And writing fiction is that way too. I have an office that I write in that’s in the law firm of a friend of mine. It’s a spare office. It has no phone, no Internet connection. No one can reach me. I just I go there, and when I go there I’m gone. You cannot find me. I close the door, and then I just get lost. And if it’s going well, I just space out and kind of lose track of time. It’s like anything that you love. Anybody who does anything creative, I’m sure would say pretty much the same thing I’m saying. You’re following the tracks that you’ve laid down in setting the plot, but then this weird process is taking over where the book is writing you. You’re not writing the book. It sounds weird, but, again, anybody who’s done it I think would say pretty much the same thing.
Lemann: And Mark, you get the next to last word, and then David gets the last word.
Mark Taylor: Well, first of all, I’d like to express appreciation. It’s rare to have someone with your breadth and depth of experience and who speaks about these things so thoughtfully. You’ve talked about so many interesting and important things. I’d like to ask you to think about them from a somewhat different angle. We’ve come all too readily to understand oil, in terms of strategic and military issues. I’ve long thought the issue of the 21st century is going to be less oil than water. In the parts of the world that you travel in and write about, it seems to me that we can look at military strategic issues from the perspective of the issues of water availability and quality. Indeed, some of the areas you’ve already mentioned, the West Bank and the settlements, have a lot to do with water. I’ve not seen anyone think about the whole issue of Kashmir in terms of water but one could — and, of course, Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan, also. Of course, this is related to climate change, too. Do you see the politics of water as being crucial in the near term?
Ignatius: That’s a good question, Mark. I think one way to answer it is to be very specific in talking about the Syria and Israeli negotiations that have been taking place indirectly through Turkish intermediation. A principle issue that has been under discussion is Lake Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee, which is on the disputed border, and where should the border be demarcated, and what are the consequences for Israeli water rights, Syrian water rights. They’ve worked this through over many months and, I think, are close to an answer that both sides would be comfortable with.
The same issue really is at the center of the dispute about Shebaa Farms, which is this little chunk of land on the Lebanese, Syrian and Israeli border. Who does it belong to? Israelis still hold it. That is Hezbollah’s nominal rationale for continuing as an armed resistance movement. It is: “Well, the Israelis are still occupying this little piece of land.” That piece of land would seem trivial — it’s so small — but it’s not trivial in terms of water. And I think that’s one reason that these Israelis have said, “We’re going to have to defer resolution of this until we have a broader settlement.” It’s a strategic piece of land.
I worry about water in Africa. It’s a place I don’t go to much, but I’m sure those of you who have been to Africa have seen the haunting scene. The experience of driving along the road in Africa is to see people walking by the road with jugs of water on their heads, carrying drinkable water from a source often quite distant from where they live, home for themselves and their children. And you look at that and you think, “My god, the amount of these people’s lives that is consumed by getting this water and carrying it home. Holy smokes!” It’s just so simple, so primitive. And I think of, you know, how I would love to see an America that wasn’t fighting wars. I mean, applying our skills, money, energy to solving those problems. Think about the difference it would make for an African village if it didn’t spend — I’m going to guess — 20 percent of a family’s time lugging that damn water. It’s certainly true in Rwanda, where I was last year.
Lemann: Let’s stop here. I want to thank David very much for making this time available to us. Thank you.