Interview with Nicholas Rasmussen

Words by BigLife Staff 


When you live in a mountain town, it can often feel as though you’re removed from international news, events, and discussions. Whether you receive news updates from your phone or spend hours reading various newspapers, as a global citizen, an opportunity to attend conferences that provide unbiased information on the changing realities of the world are no longer rare and these informal yet engaging forums are making headlines in our mountain communities. One of those is the Sun Valley Global Affairs, an organization that partnered with the Middle East Institute four years ago with an intention to bring insight and perspective to Washington policy in an effort to understand the complexities that challenge and impact the Middle East. Former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Nick Rasmussen is slated as this year’s keynote speaker. BigLife had an opportunity to speak with the leading foreign policy expert who served under both Democratic and Republican administrations during his 27-years in government.

What are your views on the more recent news of the Israel and Palestine conflict and the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem?

It’s hard to look at what’s going on there and not to work the word ‘tragic’ into it. I feel like this is a conflict that keeps circling back again and again to the same core issues, the same core problems with the same core outcomes. I worked on this set of issues in the 90’s and the same repetitive patterns of behavior on all sides seem to be there. It’s beyond frustrating and it’s heartbreaking. As I was watching TV this morning, you could have flashed back 20-25 years. The same photos would have applied and the footage would have looked familiar. The two protagonists, Israelis and Palestinians are caught in a terrible cycle of violence and response without any way to get out of that cycle. It’s easy to analytically apportion blame to both sides for particular transgressions but in the end they are caught in this deathly embrace with each other and there has to be a way to coexist. It seems like a constant sense of déjà vu when you’ve watched for as many years as I have. I can only imagine how much worse it would be to be living in that environment, again for both Israelis and Palestinians.

What are your thoughts on the U.S. and Iran Nuclear Deal? The remaining participants obviously want to be preserved, however do you see changes happening quickly?

This is an issue for me that we still don’t know yet how it’s likely to play out because in a sense we’ve shifted over our decision making into the hands of the Iranians in some regards. They now have choices to make. Will they continue to comply with the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) or will they try to maintain the sense of moral high ground by sticking with the deal even though the U.S. has pledged to walk away from the deal? And, what we don’t know about the Trump administration is exactly what kind of pressure campaign they will be able to mount to try to persuade the Iranians to reopen the negotiations and where will that pressure come from particularly if we, the US is isolated. One of the things we learned about diplomacy with Iran was that we stood a much better chance if we had unity among all of the major outside actors (Europe, China, and Russia) and if we were all onboard with the idea of sanctioning Iran, then that put pressure on them and they had to come to the table. Now the US is seemingly prepared to go it alone with pressure and I don’t know if that is going to produce the kind of outcome the president wants. We don’t know if the president’s emotional and visceral desire to get a better deal by pressuring the Iranians is a workable strategy or is it a feel good move that allows him to walk away from a deal he hated (and was public about). I can see why it felt good to do this, but it doesn’t give you the next step. There’s no road map from here that says now the Trump administration will unveil its plan and will end up in a better place with the Iran Nuclear program. They got to prove it to the rest of the world that they’ve got a strategy.

If Israel were to strike Iran, how should the U.S. respond?

I would hope if Israel decided to carry out military action against Iran inside Iranian territory that that would be done in a way that the U.S. would have advance notice or a chance to have a serious degree of consultation and discussion with the Israelis before those steps were taken. Obviously going after Iranian targets inside Syria, which is what happened recently, Israel has every right to defend itself against missile attack or other threats emanating from Syria that they tie to Iranian military capability on the ground in Syria. But if it was the kind of attack that was likely to produce escalation, like a response from the Iranians that would ratchet things up even higher, I would hope that those kind of steps by the Israelis would be the subject of discussion before that process started because the U.S. would be at risk if the Iranians somehow concluded that we were cooperating or colluding with the Israelis in those attacks so we would need to be prepared for an Iranian reaction ourselves.

You’ve expressed of the idea that humility should be key to our development of counterterrorism strategies around the world. Can you expand on that for our readers? 

When I think back to the period right after 9/11 when there was a lot of talk about how do we win the war on terror ;you saw both the Bush and Obama administrations publish strategies saying we are going to “win the war on terror” or somehow make ourselves safe from terrorism, and we will do that by creating a whole new set of outcomes in the some of the most difficult conflict zones around the world. Whether that’s Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia, or now today, Syria and Iraq, often those strategies contained objectives you would want to have such as, we want to defeat, destroy, or render terrorist organizations irrelevant, when instead I think we ought to think more in terms of managing a problem, that’s what I mean by humility. I don’t think we are going to dial up a solution to the conflict in Syria right now that will make the terrorism problem go away. We certainly haven’t been able to do that in Afghanistan over the last 18 years. And, yet what we are doing there is important and worthy and I would argue we need to continue to do it, but when I say humility, the humility speaks to having a greater self-awareness of whether we can change outcomes on the ground in conflict zones around the world. As powerful and influential as the US is we can’t dictate those outcomes whether it’s between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Afghan government and the Taliban, the Syrian regime and all of the different oppositional elements in Syria. Whatever blood, sweat, tears and treasure we devote to those conflicts, we are unlikely to be able to solve them in a way that eliminates terrorism as a problem. We aren’t going to win the war on terror simply because we declare it in a strategy.

For people who don’t work in your business but want to try to contribute to a safer and less volatile world here at home, what are your suggestions?

When I think about it, particularly through the lens of the terrorism issues that I know most about and have worked the longest on, I try to urge them to keep terrorism in perspective and not to necessarily let the threat of terrorism, which is real, impact the way they lead their daily lives. For me, it would be a tragedy if you made a decision this weekend for example about what to do with your family around the idea of “we can’t go to that public place because it might not be safe.” Or “let’s not visit NYC because it is always a terrorist target.” If you step back analytically, I don’t think the odds are you are going to have terrorism touch your daily life. I’m hopeful that as difficult as the terrorism set of issues is, it shouldn’t affect how Americans live their daily life. And that extends not only to daily life but also in terms of how you think about public policy. If you’re looking at the world through the lens of “the terrorists are going to get us,” then that obviously leads you to want to pursue certain foreign policies, or immigration policies that for me may not be justified by the terrorism threat. So I would urge people to try to be more analytical about it rather than emotional about it. And that’s easy to say, I get that, but harder to do.

With whom would you most like to sit at your next dinner (and that guest can be from inside or outside your work environment)?

Given where things are right now, I’d love to sit next to Jim Comey because I know him from having served with him inside government and yet I also know I haven’t talked to him in a year now and so much has happened. I think to myself, “Wow, what a conversation we could have!”

How do you spoil yourself?

I’ve been known to occasionally spring for a hot lather shave at a men’s barbershop, which is the equivalent of a spa day for a guy.

This July put Sun Valley on your radar. Sun Valley Global Affairs and The Middle East Institute’s “The New Balance of Power and The Way Forward” conference will be held at the Limelight Hotel in Ketchum on July 25-26. Details can be found here.