Harvard University Professor Stanley Hoffmann spoke to a room that was so overcrowded last night that audience members flooded into an adjacent hallway to watch from a monitor.
But while some saw Hoffmann’s lecture about Middle Eastern affairs on a screen and others watched it in the flesh, all were fixated on what the cofounder of Harvard’s Center for European Studies had to say.
In a speech titled “Reflections on the Middle East in World Affairs,” Hoffmann provided his views on a variety of topics including Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the war on terror. He spoke in Cabot 702 as part of the Fares Lecture Series.
Hoffmann started the talk by addressing President George W. Bush’s war on terror. He dismissed the commander in chief’s view that the central front of that campaign lies in Iraq, instead insisting that it is in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“The idea that Iraq is at the center of the war against terrorism is a mistake,” Hoffmann said. “While it’s not at the center, we’ve made it seem that way by invading it.”
He added that the war on terror is a foreign policy mistake in its own right. “It’s a war that no one can win, so it will go on forever,” Hoffmann said. “Our notion of the war against terrorism feeds into our anti-Muslim feelings and produces a kind of hysteria. We have to reject these.”
Hoffmann said numbers show that Muslims make up a very small percentage of the global terrorist population. He also pointed out that only 20 percent of Muslims live in the Arab world, a much smaller portion than he said most Americans realize.
He then turned to the topic of how to deal with the prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons. He said that the United States has three options when it comes to addressing Iran’s nuclear technologies, two of which he called “dubious.” Hoffmann warned against the two misbegotten options, in which the United States or Israel would take military action against Iran.
“It’s been remarkable how many Israeli politicians have gone around the world warning people of a nuclear Iran,” Hoffmann said. “Even so, it would be a catastrophe if Israel walked into Iran.”
Instead of military action, Hoffmann said that he would prefer negotiations between the United States and Iran. “While [negotiations] haven’t happened yet, it’s something that the Iranians keep saying they will entertain,” he said.
Hoffmann also discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying the United States should open a broader dialogue with the incendiary Palestinian political party Hamas.
“In order to reach our goals with Hamas, one has to give something in exchange,” Hoffmann said. “However, the style of U.S. dialogue in the past few years has been, ‘We will talk to you, but only if you give us what we want first.'”
Holding legitimate talks with Hamas, Hoffmann said, would show the Muslim world that the United States is not simply a servant of Israel. He suggested that Israel be more open with Hamas, too.
“Israelis need to recognize that they are dealing with people who want to be a nation,” he said, adding that they cannot “impede” the Palestinians’ movement.
In the final parts of his speech, Hoffmann expressed concern about the United States’ recent international relations decisions, noting that he is a “bit worried on the foreign policy front.”
He added, “I’m afraid that we still live in a universe in which the United States is still the city on the hill, that we still believe we are indispensable,” he said. “We continue to push for democracy, … something that I don’t think many countries have the political infrastructure for.” A question-and-answer session followed Hoffmann’s speech. When asked what strategy the United States should employ in Afghanistan, Hoffmann suggested disengagement.
“I just don’t quite see what the United States can accomplish,” he said. “We don’t have too much influence [on Pakistan] for the time being, so if they conclude that it is in their interest to go after al-Qaeda, let them do it, but not because of us.”
Hoffmann added that he could not see a military solution to the growing question of Afghani-Palestinian relations, either.
“The idea of sending more troops to that area makes no sense to me because it would just excite more war and more terrorism,” he said, discussing the trend of terrorist cells training fighters in Pakistan who travel to Afghanistan for attacks. “Pakistanis do not want a strong Afghanistan and are going to keep on trying to divert terrorism to Afghanistan,” he added.
As for a solution, Hoffmann suggested setting up talks that involve Israel. “Such negotiations should be supported by a new policy towards Israel,” Hoffmann said, referring to the possibility that the United States could become more supportive of Palestine. “Israel is a bone of contention for both of these countries and for all of these connected policies.”
In another question, Hoffmann was asked whether he thought Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) past comments favoring a relatively pro-Palestinian approach would translate into policy if the presidential candidate is elected.
“This isn’t going to sound good, but the Democratic foreign policy establishment will too easily take hold of Barack Obama,” Hoffmann said. “While he is not an expert on foreign policy, he’s done a remarkable job of surrounding himself with experts.”
This point surprised senior Petr Bouchal. “Although the structure of the evening’s talk made sense, I didn’t expect that he would be so critical about the Democratic agenda,” Bouchal said.
The Fares Lecture Series is sponsored by the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies.