James Fallows Interview (2005): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Bush Administration: Conversation with James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly, March 28, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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One could say in looking at the work you've done over your career, and doubly so in this recent period where you focused on foreign policy again, that you are a student of public education and you are participating in that process. You've been in Washington a long time, you've been a speech writer, you've been a writer, you've been an editor of a magazine, and so on. What lessons have you learned about how we inform the public to bring a light to the policy debate? Are we back where we were forty years ago in terms of the failure of enlightened ideas about the policy to be known to the public?

That is a hard question, requiring actual thought on my part, and I guess I will actually wax serious for a moment.

I feel more alarmed about this public education issue than I have any time before in my working life. Two things that illustrate it to me. One was a phenomenon during the 2004 presidential election, when according to opinion polls it's not so much that voters disagreed in their opinions, they disagreed on their facts. There're a certain number of people, largely the president's supporters, who thought that we had found WMD in Iraq and who believed that Saddam Hussein had been involved in the attacks on 9/11, things that just are not true, just objectively aren't true, but they believed them very strongly. To have these separate-fact universes is a real challenge.

Similarly, it's my impression that the current administration does not really respond to factual criticisms of its policies, it just ignores them, whether it's about the deficit or about WMD, or whatever. So I have less confidence in the play of ideas than I've had before in my working lifetime.

The U.S. has been through a lot, will get through this, but on the point you raised, I have a somewhat fatalistic feeling at this moment.

The final question I want to ask you is, how will all this sort itself out? For this interview I went back and read your pieces, and the power, the drive, and the insight are there. But now we're in a phase where the public sensibility seems to be that "freedom is on the march," that it was all for the right cause and the right way of doing it.

Starting on January 30th of 2005, when more Iraqis voted in their elections than many people expected, there was a period of about two or three months of better news than there had been for the previous couple of years out of the Middle East, from Egypt, from Saudi Arabia, from Lebanon, from elsewhere. And it's conceivable -- it's conceivable -- that this the beginning of a domino effect of just betterment throughout the Middle East. It seems to me not likely, certainly not likely in the easy, "triumphalist" many people would say, [way]. But the press immediately afterwards, in its flip-flop mentality, said, "Bush was right, everything's great." I hope that is true. I don't expect it to be true.

The American public, for some reason, have become relatively numb to casualties in Iraq because there's not a draft. There's a small proportion of the public that's in the military and they are suffering, but the public at large is not. They're not suffering financially because it's been borrowed money rather than taxed money, and [they have] been distracted by other things. Nonetheless, in the late spring of 2005, most Americans say, by opinion polls, they think the war in Iraq was a mistake. Most of them now say that, so if something occurs to make it more acute -- greater financial costs, greater human costs, greater terrorism cost -- there might be more backlash. I think the triumphalism is mainly confined to the press in the short term.

Will the system then pick up the pieces and we'll move forward?

The U.S. does have a lot of resilient and absorptive capacity, and eventually we'll manage something in Iraq that can look like a success, and so we can leave. It might take a couple of years, it might take longer than that, but we'll be able to cobble together something that looks acceptable and then we can go. The question is what ripples we will have set [in motion] by then. They might be positive ripples in terms of more democratizing, they might be more negative ripples in terms of training new terrorists, and we just won't know until we see.

Jim, on that note, thank you very much for taking the time to come to Berkeley, be on the show. We love having you, and we hope to have you again.

My pleasure. Thank you, Harry.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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