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CNN Host, Author of Post-American World
Zakaria is the host of CNN's “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” He is the author of best-sellers “From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America's World Role,” “The Future of Freedom,” “The Post-American World,” and “In Defense of a Liberal Education.”
This Q&A took place between 8/7/15 and 8/24/15. Unanswered questions have been hidden
7 questions
Who is a bigger threat to American interests: ISIS, SISI, Iran, or Saudi Arabia?
CNN Host, Author of Post-American World
Oh man, that's a tough one. Here's how I think about it. It's all about time frame.

In the short term, ISIS poses the greatest danger to America and its interests. It's trying to kill Americans, overthrow regimes friendly to the US, create chaos in areas that remain vital to American security (though less so today because of domestic oil and shale), and spread a pernicious ideology that is repugnant to Americans -- and most civilized people. All one can do is fight ISIS but fight it effectively -- which means with Arab partners and without doing what it wants, which is to draw America into another ground war or occupation in the Middle East.

Iran poses a challenge more than a threat. It is a sophisticated country that has defined its interests in ways that are opposed to America. It pursues these interests in a shrewd way, mostly aimed at survival and buttressing its regional security, but also at undermining US interests in the region. It will have to be countered with the same level of shrewdness and strategy that Iran employs. One key here is that as long as the Shia of the Middle East feel under siege, they will turn to Iran for protection -- in Lebanon, Iraq or Lebanon. The game changer would be to convince Iran that its interests actually overlap with those of America -- which is why we were allied with them for so long. The big question: will 5,000 years of Persian history outweigh 36 years of the Islamic Republic's ideology (hat tip Karim Sajdepour.)

SISI and Egypt are the long term challenges for American security and in many ways the more profound ones in the sense that it's easy to fight your foes. But what do you do when your friends are engaged in behavior that is bad for you and bad for them. Both governments have decided to keep political Islam at bay, SISI by killing and jailing all its adherents, no matter how non-violent, and the Saudis by jailing some and bribing others. This is a strategy that will, almost certainly, fail in the long run, producing resentment, violence, terror and chaos. And the US will be blamed for supporting these governments unconditionally.

George W Bush said that Islamic terrorism came out of this dynamic between repressive regimes and increasingly violent religious opposition and that the solution was greater pluralism and democracy. The fact that he said it -- and screwed it up in Iraq -- doesn't mean that it is not true.
In your opinion, how different will the Middle East look in 10-20 years?
CNN Host, Author of Post-American World
It will be more stable, but less rich and less important. Whether it will be more democratic is the complicated question.

In the next 5-10 years, the region will be even more unstable and messy. This is partly because the old imperial order is breaking down and new challenges to the existing regimes are rising -- from ISIS to the Muslim Brotherhood type groups but also ethnic groups like the Kurds. In addition, the Sunni-Shia conflict is now out in the open and will dominate the region for years. But these kinds of religious wars do tend to wear the populations down and eventually reduce to a simmer or even die down. Think of Lebanon. So I do believe that after a while, a new order will establish itself -- not necessarily a democratic order but a more stable one than we see in the large countries today.

Over the 10-20 year horizon, the larger trend is likely to be the transformation of energy. Oil prices are down and will likely stay down for a combination of reason -- new US supply, new worldwide sources from shale to tight oil to Iran; alternative energy is reaching critical mass; Chinese demand is slowing. In these circumstances, the regimes that have coasted on oil wealth will have to reform or repress. My guess is that we will see a mix of reform and repression. The only sure thing is that those countries that do open up economically and politically will do better in the long run. Saudi Arabia can run a medieval monarchy when oil is $100 a barrel. Can it do so at $40 a barrel? I don't know.
Stanford Prof, Author: The End of History & The Last Man
You recently said that opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran are part of a long tradition overestimating threats to global order. As an example, Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard has raised the Hitler-Munich analogy 61 times in recent years in reference to threats the US faces. What is the source of this kind of pessimism, and why do Americans have such trouble putting threats into a better perspective?
CNN Host, Author of Post-American World
Gosh, that's a terrific question. Why is it that the United States has had this tendency to exaggerate threats, from the Soviet Union -- which at its height was 13% of GDP to the US's 30% in the 1960s, Saddam Hussein, Japans economic machine, Islamic militants, and now Iran. So many people have spoken of Iran with reference to Germany in the 1930s. Recall that Germany was the second largest economy and largest military in the world in 1939. Iran is outspent militarily by 8 to 1 by the Gulf states and by 40-1 by the US.

So, why this threat inflation? I have two thoughts. The first is that the United States has always had the luxury of a level of security that is almost absolute. It was born on a vast continent, sheltered by two oceans, surrounded by much weaker neighbors. As a result, it has gotten used to a standard of security that few other countries have ever known.

The United States, as a consequence, has always sought to transcend international relations rather than engage in it. We wanted to "Americanize" the North American continent, driving out competing powers like France and Spain. We wanted to rid the western hemisphere of British influence entirely. Washington proclaimed the Monroe doctrine when it was still a relatively underdeveloped economic power. And yet, we are outraged when China seeks the same sphere of influence in the Pacific, at a point when it is the world's second largest economy.

Washington sees even small decreases in its security, small advances by adversaries, as deeply dangerous and threatening. During the Cold War, if a hostile government were to come to power in Vietnam, Iran, or Nicaragua, this was dangerous enough to work mightily to fight it. Today, the US has active military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, parts of Africa, all to fight small bands of militants that are almost entirely focused on local issues. Other countries might see these negative trends are worrisome, even dangerous but part of the warp and woof of international life. Americans see them as unacceptable challenges to American security. We cannot contain ISIS and its ilk, we must defeat them or they will come and kill us all.

I'm exaggerating, of course, but this kind of overreaction is part of being the global imperial power; Britain reacted somewhat similarly when it had that role in the early 20th Century. It viewed every shift in the balance of power, in Asia, Africa, India, as threatening to its security and one that had to be repulsed militarily. think of the Boer War.

The second reason is that America is a country based on an idea, and its success as a country is seen as the affirmation of that idea. This means, when we face competition -- ideological, military, political -- we worry about the country's raison d'etre. If the Soviet Union could advance economically faster than the United States, if it could get into space faster or explode a bigger bomb, that might be a sign that the United States was not the providential nation after all. France can be bested by Germany without it calling into question France's national DNA. But if America is bested by, say China, what does it say about America, it's sense of itself, its model, it's meaning?
Jobs and workplace reporter at The Cincinnati Enquirer, J.D.
I have read that a “moderate, mainstream” version of Islam is necessary to defeat terrorism and its ensuing Islamophobia in the Western world. What would be the most radical potential changes you see to Islam today, where would it be implemented and who would be the best persons to usher in that change?
CNN Host, Author of Post-American World
The empowerment of women. That single shift would require a more modern interpretation of the Quran and Hadith, but also the disavowal of many local customs that have little to do with Islam (like female castration in Africa). Women could be the mechanism that modernizes the wold of Islam. I had hoped that someone like Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, could have played that role. remember, she was elected tens of millions of Muslims and spoke for them, unlike the puritanical preachers who claim to speak for Muslims but whose only support comes from small groups of jihadis or tyrants who buy the mullahs off to bolster their rule. Alas, if her first reign as prime minister, she was too reluctant to confront he forces of extremism. And then, they killed her.
What is the biggest misconception people have about Iran? About ISIS?
CNN Host, Author of Post-American World
The biggest misconception about ISIS is that it is all about ideology. That's what so many people -- even experts -- say about radical Islam. Understand the ideology and you will understand the movement. But this ideology has been around for hundreds of years. Why is it attracting adherents today?

In Syria and Iraq there is a simple answer. The Sunnis of those two countries have risen in revolt against what they regard as apostate regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. Those regimes have in fact persecuted the Sunnis. This Sunni rage and revolt is at the heart of the Islamic State. That's why ISIS is run militarily by Saddam's former generals, who were not regarded as religious at all.

The broader phenomenon of radical Islam -- and its appeal -- is a complicated topic. I believe that the reason it is flourishing now is that the Middle East has gone through decades of failure and much of that failure is associated with the West. Remember Pan-Arabism, nationalism, socialism, , , secularism -- all the ideas that people like Nasser embraced -- turned out to be failures. The Western powers dominated the Arab world for their own ends. Thus people searched for an alternative ideology, a more authentic and home grown one. Islamic fundamentalism became the answer.
On thwarting Muslim terrorism: what should come first for Muslim intellectuals: finding a political solution to Islamic extremism, or creating a new philosophical/theological framework to trickle down into a new culture? I would favor the later given my own training, but I see the practical merits of the former as well. Thank you.
CNN Host, Author of Post-American World
Both views are legitimate. My own is that political and economic reform of these societies will then produce theological reform. The Christian world did not become secular because a few intellectuals said, "Let's ignore the violent and nasty bits in the Bible and focus n the love and brotherhood parts." It was because European societies modernized and as they did so, the Church did not want to be left behind. remember, it was only during Vatican II in the 1960s that the Catholic Church renounced as official Church doctrine the notion that the Jews killed Christ and should be held responsible for it. Why? because at that point, society had evolved to a point where the Church was aware that holding such views meant it was totally out of step with society. If Muslim societies modernize -- genuinely, economically and politically modernize (which means more than buying Iphones), the mullahs will come running along.
Are there any political issues that you've changed your mind about recently? As someone whose opinions are broadcasted to so many people, do you find it difficult to admit to being "wrong" about something?
CNN Host, Author of Post-American World
This is a very good question. Yes, I have changed my mind on many issues. John Maynard Keynes once said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?" I try to look at data -- what is actually going on around the world -- and when the data seems to tell me I'm wrong, I try to listen. Scientists will tell you that is the only way that knowledge can progress. You set of a hypothesis, look at evidence, and draw conclusions.
In the real world, it is hard to admit that you were wrong or that you have found that what worked in the 1980s doesn't work today. The incentives are to pick your side and always and forever stick with it on every issue. But that's inimitable to serious thought. Better to call them as you see them.
I won't pretend I've always done this, but I try my best.
CNN Host, Author of Post-American World
Thanks to all of you for great questions. What a civilized place Parlio is! We need more of this on the internet.