February 22nd, 2015
02:47 PM ET

On GPS: A public dispute between U.S. & Israel

CNN’s FAREED ZAKARIA GPS features a political panel about ISIS and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East with Graeme Wood, the author of What ISIS Really Wants, Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy, and Peter Beinart, an associate professor of political science at the City University of New York and a CNN political commentator.

TEXT HIGHLIGHTS

Beinart on Obama’s approach to ISIS: “From the point of view of American foreign policy, we, as a nation, have done best when we have defined our enemies narrowly. We did not fight a war - a cold war - against communism, or when we, and when we tried - for most - for our most effective periods of the Cold War, we allied with Yugoslavia, a communist country, against the Soviets. We allied with China against the Soviets. We narrowed our enemies and therefore put more strength on our side. What’s important about what Obama is doing is he's trying to keep our enemies narrow. We are going to need to ally with people who we call - maybe call themselves Islamists in order to defeat ISIS, maybe even people who call themselves Salafi jihadists, whatever that means, just as we allied with communists against the Soviet Union. We didn't fight all fascists in World War II. We never declared war on Franco's Spain. So I think the ideological part, while it's important, shouldn't be what drives American foreign policy.”

Wood on Jerusalem’s reaction to ISIS propaganda: “Certainly ISIS is no fan of Israel. But Israel's main point for ISIS is certainly its propaganda value, but also its place in the apocalypse. ISIS believes that it’s foretold that the armies of Islam will eventually rally around Jerusalem after being defeated, actually. So they believe that they will, after conquering a large area of land, eventually be reduced to a core of 5,000 fighters around Jerusalem. That's one of the most common ways that Jerusalem is referred to in the propaganda of ISIS.”

Hamid on ISIS’s targets of anger: “Where al Qaeda was obsessed with the West, ISIS is focused on Iraq, Syria, the immediate surroundings. They hate Arab rulers more than they hate Israeli leaders. And that does, that should affect how we react to them and how we think about the threat that they face. So in that sense, they're less of a direct threat on the American homeland, but they are very much a threat to Middle East stability.”

Beinart on Obama-Netanyahu rift: “The reason this clash is so fierce is it goes to the heart of the legacies of both men. Benjamin Netanyahu sincerely believes that he is Winston Churchill in the 1930s - the only person wise enough and brave enough to sound the alarm about a potential - about a potential Nazi-like threat. Barack Obama sees himself as much more akin, I would say, to Richard Nixon in the 1970s, trying to make - look at the possibilities of making an opening to Iran, which would be like an opening to China, which would rejigger the entire power balance in the Middle East and allow America to solve problems they can't solve now and put itself in a much stronger position. It's not just that these guys don't like each other. It's not just that Obama is a Democrat and that Netanyahu plays footsie with the Republicans all the time. It really goes to the core of the way they see themselves historically.”

FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: The president has gone to great pains to avoid framing the challenge against the terror group as one against radical Islam. His critics have taken note, and the article I just mentioned has reignited this debate. In that article, The Atlantic's cover story, Graeme Wood writes that, "Yes, ISIS has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe, but the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam."

Wood, the author of "What ISIS Really Wants," joins me now from Yale University, where he is a lecturer in political science. Joining us from Istanbul is Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy. And here in New York is Peter Beinart, an associate professor of political science at the City University of New York and a CNN political commentator. Thank you all.

Graeme, I should start by giving you the floor. I just discoursed on your article. The question I had, really, even beyond what I mentioned was you insist that the Islamic State, or ISIS, is very Islamic. Fine. But what does that change in terms of the strategy one adopts? I notice at the end of the article, you end up endorsing pretty much Obama's approach to ISIS. Am I wrong?

GRAEME WOOD, AUTHOR, "WHAT ISIS REALLY WANTS": No, you're quite right. I think many aspects of Obama's approach are exactly what I would take. However, knowing the enemy, I think, is very important. If we understand how the organization of ISIS conceives itself, then we have some sense of what its plans are, how it motivates possible recruits and how it presents itself. And to deny that it has any Islamic character whatsoever, I think is really to suggest something that simply isn't true and leads us to misguided approaches.

ZAKARIA: Shadi Hamid, lot of Islamic scholars and clerics have reacted to that article and versions of that argument saying, look, why do they get to define what's authentically Islamic? We say it's not Islamic, or at the very least, there's a debate. Where do you come out?

SHADI HAMID, FELLOW, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: When it gets to the theological issue, we shouldn't - we shouldn’t pretend that ISIS's approach to Islam is somehow equally legitimate as other interpretations. In fact, it is a distortion. And they ignore centuries of Medieval Islamic tradition. There is a tradition of legal pluralism, of intellectual pluralism, from the early days of the Prophet.

And if we look at the so-called prophetic model, which ISIS claims to respect, from day one, when verses came down, there was questions of what was God's intent and what was the context in which that verse was revealed? ISIS has no interest in either intent or context. So in that sense, they are violating fundamental principles of interpretation. And that's why I don't think we can say that ISIS is a medieval kind of organization. In fact, they're distinctly modern. They're reacting against things they don't like in the world.

ZAKARIA: Peter Beinart, when you look at the kind of religious rhetoric they use, do you sometimes think that this is just a cover for, you know, a power grab? These are local thugs on the ground who have kind of come up with a very elaborate ideology that maybe speaks to some people but that some of them may believe in it and some of them really just want power?

PETER BEINART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I don't doubt Graeme's very, very good piece, which suggests that they believe this very, very sincerely. But I think from the point of view of American foreign policy, we, as a nation, have done best when we have defined our enemies narrowly. We did not fight a war - a cold war - against communism, or when we, and when we tried - for most - for our most effective periods of the Cold War, we allied with Yugoslavia, a communist country, against the Soviets. We allied with China against the Soviets. We narrowed our enemies and therefore put more strength on our side.

To the - I think what's important about what Obama is doing is he's trying to keep our enemies narrow. We are going to need to ally with people who we call - maybe call themselves Islamists in order to defeat ISIS, maybe even people who call themselves Salafi jihadists, whatever that means, just as we allied with communists against the Soviet Union. We didn't fight all fascists in World War II. We never declared war on Franco's Spain.

So I think the ideological part, while it's important, shouldn't be what drives American foreign policy.

WOOD: The point that I'm making is that to deny that they are from this enormously diverse and contradictory tradition of Islam, and that’s where they find their legitimacy, that's the discourse that they use and the rhetoric that they use, would be false.

Now, to take Peter's point, we certainly did not fight communism per se or fascism per se. I think the point that I'm making, though, is that not knowing what communism is, not knowing what Nazism is, that's more like the position that we’re in right now. And knowing the ideology allows us to separate and address things one by one.

ZAKARIA: Peter, if they, if ISIS, is such a threat to so many other Muslims and Middle Easterners, why not let them take on the struggle?

BEINART: Well, I think that there's another very different debate, which is how much of a threat this is. And I think that's another issue on which you've seen Obama take a different position than many of his Republican critics. I don't think Obama - Obama thinks that ISIS is a potential real threat, but I don't think he believes that it is as great a threat as al Qaeda was the day before September 11th, for instance. And that's why I think Obama's calculation about the amount of power that he's willing to expand in fighting it is different.

If you really believed that ISIS was as great of a threat as many Republican presidential hopefuls are saying, we should be sending ground troops. I don't think the evidence is, at this point, that they are. And that's why I think the U.S. should be doing what it's doing. Maybe it could be doing it more effectively. We are providing air power and we're trying, in a very difficult set of circumstances, to build up stronger allies on the ground. Unfortunately, we don't have great allies on the ground.

ZAKARIA: When we come back, we're going to have more of this with Graeme Wood, Shadi Hamid and Peter Beinart. We'll talk about some of the other controversies about America and the Middle East, including the increasingly public dispute between Israel and the Obama administration.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

ZAKARIA: And we are back with Graeme Wood, Shadi Hamid and Peter Beinart. Thanks again for joining me. Graeme, in your - in your very interesting article in The Atlantic, one of the parts of it that I really like was where you distinguish between al Qaeda and ISIS and its goals. And you point out that while al Qaeda had fairly traditional kind of Islamist goals, or, really, I would call them almost modern Arab concerns, for example, the issue of Israel, ISIS does not seem to have those. ISIS’s goals are more theological, and they want to create a caliphate. They want to create the, you know, the true interpretation of Sharia. Does Israel fit in at all in that? How does ISIS think about it?

WOOD: Certainly ISIS is no fan of Israel. But Israel's main point for ISIS is certainly its propaganda value, but also its place in the apocalypse. ISIS believes that it’s foretold that the armies of Islam will eventually rally around Jerusalem after being defeated, actually. So they believe that they will, after conquering a large area of land, eventually be reduced to a core of 5,000 fighters around Jerusalem. That's one of the most common ways that Jerusalem is referred to in the propaganda of ISIS.

ZAKARIA: Shadi, when I listen to what ISIS is propagating, the increasingly sectarian nature of the warfare, you know, there's the Sunnis don't like the Shias, don’t like the Alawites, the, you know, the Kurds, the Druze.

It does feel like the great - the great charge against Israel and the great cause of the Palestinians has essentially receded and it does suggest that a lot of people who said this was always a kind of rhetorical ploy and never had that much deep currency in the Arab world were correct.

HAMID: If we look at many, if not most, Islamist groups, I would say that they do care about Israel to one degree or another. But it's striking how little that seems to figure into what ISIS says and does. In this sense, ISIS is much more focused on Muslims. There is no one it hates more than apostates. And to be an apostate, you're a Muslim and then for - because you don't uphold the religion, you cease to be Muslim in their eyes.

And then there are, of course, the Shias, which are a target of their anger and hatred throughout the Middle East. So in that sense, where al Qaeda was obsessed with the West, ISIS is very focused on Iraq, Syria, the immediate surroundings. They hate Arab rulers more than they hate Israeli leaders. And that does, that should affect how we react to them and how we think about the threat that they face.

So in that sense, they're less of a direct threat on the American homeland, but they are very much a threat to Middle East stability. And, you know, we're talking about an extremist, expansionist state in the heart of the Middle East.

ZAKARIA: Peter, what I want to turn your attention to is the increasingly public dispute between the United States and Israel about Iran. You've read these reports. The State Department spokesman has now publicly, in a sense, confirmed that the Obama administration believes that Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu personally, apparently, has been leaking incorrect information about the Iran nuclear deal. In addition, it feels that he is making an end run around them and going and speaking before Congress. What to make about all this?

BEINART: The reason this clash is so fierce is it goes to the heart of the legacies of both men. Benjamin Netanyahu sincerely believes that he is Winston Churchill in the 1930s - the only person wise enough and brave enough to sound the alarm about a potential - about a potential Nazi-like threat. Barack Obama sees himself as much more akin, I would say, to Richard Nixon in the 1970s, trying to make - look at the possibilities of making an opening to Iran, which would be like an opening to China, which would rejigger the entire power balance in the Middle East and allow America to solve problems they can't solve now and put itself in a much stronger position.

It's not just that these guys don't like each other. It's not just that Obama is a Democrat and that Netanyahu plays footsie with the Republicans all the time. It really goes to the core of the way they see themselves historically.

ZAKARIA: Is Israel, is Netanyahu, going to throw a monkey wrench in the Iran deal?

BEINART: I think that the view - the lesson of conflict between the United States and Israel is this: When it comes to the Palestinians, Israel wins. The United States just does not care enough to pay the political price.

But when it comes to an issue that is considered core to American national security, like, will we go to war with Iran - since let's make no mistake, if this deal fails and we have new sanctions, we will be on a path to war - that is not an issue that Barack Obama or any other American president is going to allow an Israeli leader to have veto power over. And I think Obama has made that very clear to people in the Democratic Party. And I think by and large, they're going to stick with him.

ZAKARIA: Peter Beinart, Shadi Hamid, Graeme Wood, pleasure to have you on.

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Topics: Fareed Zakaria GPS • Iran • Iraq • ISIS • Israel
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