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Interview with Philip Zelikow

Historians/History




Mr. Miller is an HNN intern.


Did you always want to work in government in a high profile position, or is this something that just came serendipitously? (Please feel free to elaborate. I am sure our readers would be interested in knowing how you came to assume this high position and whether this was a long-time goal.)

I have been interested in public policy for a long time, at least since high school. My first government position was nearly thirty years ago. Since then I have had the opportunity to work at the federal, state, and local level, mostly on international issues but also in some areas of domestic policy. My first stint at the State Department was as a career diplomat, appointed in the usual way. Back then I left a teaching job to join the Foreign Service. I later left State to go back to the world of research and teaching. Ever since, I’ve alternated between study and practice. It is interesting to see the world from both sides of the looking glass.

What are you major responsibilities as Counselor of the Department?

The Counselor of the Department has long been one of the principal officers at State. Despite the name, it should not be confused with the separate position of State Department Legal Advisor. In the Taft and Wilson administrations the Counselor was the deputy head of the department. The job then lapsed until it was revived in the second Roosevelt administration (1937) as a kind of informal deputy to the Secretary, without any set portfolio. It has been something like that ever since, shaped by the Secretary’s needs – or occasionally not even filled at all.

For Condi Rice and her deputy, Bob Zoellick, I help out on a variety of topics that may need a little extra help on a given day, and tend to spend a good deal of time helping out on recurrent areas of interest like Iraq; other Middle East topics; problems involving the Korean peninsula, China, and Japan; and the future of India and South Asia. The Secretary has also asked me to represent her at deputies’ meetings on intelligence matters and issues involving terrorism and homeland security.

How does working for the State Department differ from your previous professional experiences?

My current job is especially challenging because of the responsibilities and the breadth of interests. It differs from my work at the 9/11 Commission or the Carter-Ford federal election reform commission because this job is less about line management of an organization, or an investigation, and more focused just on policy advice. Unlike my last University job, I do not spend much time on fundraising! Yet neither is there as much opportunity for research and reflection.

Do you feel your experience as a historian affects the way you approach the issues you deal with in the State Department? If so, in what ways?

Training as a historian offers invaluable perspective. When turning a diagnostic eye on a policy or an institution, knowledge about the past rarely provides the answer. But it often suggests a question. And rigorous training in any intellectual discipline that encourages attention to detail and clarity of thought is bound to be a plus. Here I am also helped by years as a lawyer, handling trials and appeals, often on issues involving constitutional law and civil rights.

What do you personally see as the largest domestic and international issues facing the United States at this time?

Aside from the subjects familiar to anyone reading the newspaper, there is a fundamental challenge. The administration is working to find the right balance and effective means to advance an ambitious agenda of practical idealism, pressing for growing freedom and responsibility. There are obvious risks and significant limits on what our government – or others – can do. But our government was right to take up this challenge.

In your article, “Practical Idealism: Present Policy in Historical Perspective,” you condemn the term “American Empire” as an inaccurate metaphor, claiming it is misleading. Still, however, the term is widely used in both domestic and foreign critiques. In your evaluation, why is the term used so regularly, and what, if any, are the truths behind this metaphor?

As I said there, people are struggling to find some ready word that captures the new period we are in. Empire is a term rich with seductive analogies that, like all analogies, promise a shortcut to understanding the present circumstances. Imperial metaphors are attractive for some enthusiasts about American power. They have long been catnip for the critics.

But the metaphors can be very misleading. The word ‘empire’ has meaning. There is a substantial historical literature on this topic. “Empire” is not just a synonym for influence. Imperial power is sovereign power. Even in influence, America today does not have the sway over nearby Mexico that Britain had a hundred years ago in, say, Argentina. In today’s world, and for our republic, the challenge is to parlay varied and finite influence into effective action and partnerships. The ‘empire’ metaphors duck those complicated realities in favor of opening a musty old chest laden with handy rhetoric and favored analogues to the past.

You have been sharply criticized by some for your role in the 9/11 commission, and some have posited that the results of the final report are tainted due to your involvement. What is your response to these allegations?

Millions of people have read the report and they will form their own judgments about it. I was honored to lead a large, outstanding, and nonpartisan staff that contributed collegially to the collective work. We never thought our report would be the last word on such a significant event. We hoped to lay a good foundation for future research and interpretation. So far, I see no reason to revise any of our factual conclusions or policy judgments.

Incidentally, for those who are interested, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government recently published a case study examining how the Commission worked. Their study focused on process and politics. For those wishing to learn more about some of the substantive policy background in Afghanistan and Washington, I have often recommended the revised paperback edition of Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars as a thorough and conscientious account.


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