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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

An Obama Ambassador Is the New Chief of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

As Obama prepares to address the nation tonight, Ivo Daalder weighs on the mess in Syria, Chicago’s potential role as a hub of foreign policy, and more.

Ivo Daadler

Photo: Courtesy of Chicago Council on Global Affairs

I sat down at the South Michigan Avenue offices of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs late Friday with Ivo Daalder, 53, who moved here from Brussels—he was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to earlier this year—with his wife and two high-school-aged sons just nine weeks ago. He takes over as president from Marshall Bouton.

Born in The Hague, Netherlands (his father was a professor of political science at Leiden University), Daalder arrived in the U.S. at age 24 in 1984 to attend MIT, from which he earned a Ph.D. in political science. After a stint in London at a think tank and a professorship at the University of Maryland, he landed in the Clinton White House as director for European Affairs on the National Security Council.

Although his credentials as a national security expert are first-rate—he told me that he eventually would spend “25 years at five different think tanks”—Daalder readily admits that he owed his NATO ambassadorship to his support of Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries and general election. (He served Senator Obama and later candidate Obama as an advisor; he’s careful to specify that he did not raise money for him.)

Chicago is a lot of things, but a center of foreign policymaking it’s not. I started our conversation by asking Daalder—who oddly has no discernable accent; “I just lost it along the way,” he told me—how he was persuaded to settle here.

Here is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

How did the Council persaude you to come to Chicago?
I didn’t have to be persuaded, although I wouldn’t have come to Chicago three years ago. Why would a foreign policy person want to go to the Midwest? I hadn’t been here, visited once or twice, but not really been here. The NATO summit [in Chicago in May 2012] really was a big deal. I traveled here when the decision was made to do the summit in Chicago. I interacted with lots of people from the city, . . . the mayor’s office, the tourism folks and the folks who were putting together the host committee. They in fact came out to Brussels twice.

Did Rahm Emanuel come?
No, we got better; we got Amy Rule, his wife. She led a delegation to Brussels. [Later in this interview Daalder says, “The idea was for the mayor to come and he couldn’t.” He adds that Rule did “a fantastic job.”]….. We had Lou Malnati’s pizza and Vienna hot dogs and root beer floats and the whole thing. We did an evening at my residence [Truman House, the NATO ambassador’s official residence, a Flemish country estate set on 27 acres] where they brought Stephanie Izard from Girl & the Goat; she cooked for 135 . . . I came here a number of times in the run-up to the summit. And my wife [Elisa Harris from Pennsylvania] who really hadn’t been here either, she came and we just fell in love with the city. When we left here, as the plane was taking off, I said to her, “I could live here.” She said, “Yeah me too.”

How did the 2012 NATO summit happen to come to Chicago?
Just before the Lisbon Summit which was in November of 2010, I made the case that the next summit should be held in the U.S. And key folks on the NSC agreed. . . . Didn’t say where. From an organizational standpoint it takes NATO about a year to do the logistics of it. No one was making any decision on where it’s going to be. Was it going to be in Washington, Detroit, in Honolulu? I said to [then National Security Adviser] Tom Donilon who’s a friend, “Tom, we need a decision.” He said, “We’re thinking about Detroit or Chicago.” I said, “Why don’t you call Rahm and tell Rahm we need Chicago to host it.”

So Chicago was your idea?
No, Chicago was always the idea from the folks in the White House. We needed a decision. So I said, “Call Rahm, he’ll get a decision made.”

And Rahm very much wanted it?
I assume so. Let’s put it this way; a week later it was Chicago. I assume that Donilon and Rahm had a conversation.

Before we move on to foreign policy, a few personal questions. Where are you living? Where do you sons go to school? Which baseball team do you follow?
We live in Roscoe Village. I follow the Cubs. Only when they play the Nationals do I have a conflict . Our sons go to Francis Parker.

Why are so many Americans who are communicating with their congressmen and senators so opposed to the president’s plan for a limited strike in Syria?
I think people are war weary. They have experienced their leaders telling them things which turn out not to be the case—whether it was WMD in Iraq or “mission accomplished” or this is the easy one in Afghanista. Turned out it was very costly psychologically and in human life, economically. So they’re not ready to do another one. I think the president’s challenge is to overcome not the war weariness but this argument that I hear out there that [it is] a limited military engagement designed to send a message, that the use of chemical weapons is completely unacceptable, [and] that it won’t become a long-term military engagement in the region. 

Are you a supporter of the president’s plan in Syria?
I do not think it makes any sense for the U.S. to be militarily involved with Syria. This is a civil war in which the sides are complicated; in which our military involvement will only make it more likely that we become responsible for something that we shouldn’t be responsible for. But I also believe that there are things that compel you to act and one of those has been when people start using chemical weapons. I think the president is saying, When you do this, you jump across a boundary of behavior that you’re not allowed to, and . . . you need to be slapped down, and I think the argument he makes . . . is correct.

If you were a member of Congress you would vote yes?
I would vote yes.

If Congress votes no, should the president act on his own?
I’ll leave that up to the president to decide. . . . My hope is that at the end of the day enough people will say, “I’m going to give the president the benefit of the doubt.” The heart of the debate is if you don’t do anything, what does that mean? So we don’t get involved in a slippery slope in Syria, but what message are we sending?

Are you worried about what Iran might do?
I’m worried about what [President Bashar al-] Assad might do with chemical weapons. I’m worried about what Iran might do. I’m worried about other people saying, “Listen, the U.S. is no longer willing and able to use military force.” Becoming like, you know, the Europeans. We’re a unique country, with unique responsibilities. It’s unfortunate that we’re the ones who have the responsibility, but we are the most powerful country in the world, the one that cares about global and international order and we understand that upholding international order is important.

Why did President Obama articulate what he was going to do and then come back and say, but wait I’m going to ask for congressional approval?
Because he was losing international support in part because of the British vote and a lot of people were starting to second-guess him. So he said, “Okay, you don’t think this is a good idea? Why don’t we have a debate about it?” I think that’s a pretty standup, adult kind of way of governing.

Is it important to have the UN on board with the decision to strike Syria?
The problem is the question, Who is the UN? I think it’s important for the UN inspectors who went in there, did the sampling, that we find out exactly what they found. But the UN turns out to be the UN Security Council which turns out to be the five permanent members, one of which turns out to be Russia. . . . We can’t make Moscow the determiner of what’s legal or legitimate. So when people say we need to get the UN Security Council’s blessing, they’re saying we need to get Vladimir Putin’s. And who ever appointed Putin as the arbiter of whether something is just or unjust. Russia sells arms to Assad, even today, and to argue that therefore the legality and the legitimacy of military intervention depends on that guy’s vote and if he says yes, all the sudden it’s legal and if he says no all the sudden it’s illegal, I think is politically unsustainable and raises real questions about how we are organizing ourselves in the legal system.

The relationship between Obama and Putin is almost comical.
They don’t like each other. That’s pretty clear.

Would things be different if Putin’s predecessor, Dmitri Medvedev, were still president?
The personal chemistry between the two of them was much better. Medvedev was a lawyer; he was also trying to get away from the old guard. But even at that time we knew that the real power was with Putin.

Was what happened in Egypt a coup?
Oh, I believe it was coup. I have no problem in saying that that was a coup. I think when the military ousts a sitting president, even if the sitting president is deeply unpopular, that’s the definition of a coup.

Should we still be giving them foreign aid?
No, I think it would okay to try to use the leverage we have . . . to try to steer the new leadership in the right direction. I don’t see any evidence that the new leadership [the military] is moving in the right direction. I only see evidence it’s moving in the wrong direction. So I think at some point the time has come to say, “Listen, this is unacceptable.”

Do you find it odd that [Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed] Morsi was whisked away and has not been publicly seen since.
That happens in coups. He’ll probably be in prison for the rest of his life. I’m sure there will be trials. Not every trial is equal.

Why is Germany hanging back so much on Syria?
They have an election in 16 days. That’s one good reason. They tend to be hesitant on the use of force given their history. [Angela] Merkel has an election and at the moment that’s more important.

So you were a political supporter of the president’s?
That’s the only reason I got the job [as U.S. Ambassador to NATO]. . . . You’ve got to be careful with it, but the notion that somehow that the only people who can be good ambassadors are the ones who have been in the foreign service, . . . nothing wrong with being in the foreign service 35 years and a lot of them are great ambassadors. But people from the outside bring strength and qualities that people on the inside don’t have . . . I brought strengths to that job that other people didn’t have. The fact that I lived in Europe for 25 years, had a good understanding of Europe and, importantly, I had real good contacts in the White House. I was connected. . . . It’s those connections that turn out to be critical when you want to move policy forward.

How well do you know President Obama?
Soon after Obama got elected to the U.S. Senate, [former National Security Adviser] Tony Lake had been helping [Obama] when he was running for the Senate on foreign policy stuff. As soon as he got to the Senate and joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tony Lake threw a series a dinners on topics of [foreign policy]. I went to those dinners. Got to know Obama that way. Signed up to his campaign very early. . . . I helped him with his nonproliferation of nuclear weapons policy stuff, helped on the transition. I had just finished a book on the National Security Council, so I worked on setting up the national security advisory team. We’re not close friends or anything like that. I saw him in May . . . and told him his first foreign policy speech outside of Washington had to be in Chicago.

As you look back as a scholar and expert on foreign policy, in your lifetime, who’s the greatest foreign policy American president?
There isn’t a single unflawed individual. But there are people I admire who did great things. I think George H.W. Bush, who I had lots of disagreements with, remarkably managed the end of the Cold War in a way that history will look back at and say, “Wow.” I think that team, Brent Scowcroft, Jim Baker, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, a different Dick Cheney, was a remarkably effective team . . . I think George H.W. Bush was confronted with some huge challenges—the invasion of Kuwait, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Soviet Union, that he managed with great aplomb. And he was lucky, end of Gorbachev era. You have to have some luck. Barack Obama has been terribly unlucky. Syria, . . . it’s just very hard to make the case for military force when you’re confronted with the leftover of a decade of mistakes. If Iraq had not happened, we would not be where we are.

In 2008 you supported Obama over Hillary Clinton. How do you rate her subsequent performance as Secretary of State?
I worked closely with Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. I think she was an extraordinary secretary of state. I had nothing but the highest admiration for her, really outstanding. . . . I’m a great admirer of her tenacity.

How’s John Kerry doing?
He too is a hard working secretary of state; he has a drive and energy that’s important, effective advocate for positions of the president, tenacious, as we’re seeing on Israel/Palestine issue. I think he’ll be a very successful secretary of state.

How long do you see yourself staying in this job?
I am here for a long time. My predecessor was here for 12 years. I have no ambitions to be anywhere else.

You don’t have another job you see on the horizon?
No, I’m retiring after this.

Are you working on another book? [Daadler has written or co-written 12 so far, his most recent, with I. M. Destier, In the Shadow of the Oval Office: Profiles of the National Security Advisers and the Presidents They Served.]
Yes; How Presidents Go to War. . . . I’ve done a lot on the use of force, very interested in the decision making of the presidency. No coauthor. I’m going to do this one by myself.

As a reader, do you like fiction or nonfiction?
Both. I like junky novels like John Grisham, used to read Robert Ludlum . . . courtroom drama, Scott Turow, now that we’re here have to read more of [him]. . . . Nonfiction reading is books on foreign policy, presidential politics, biographies.

What do you hope to achieve at the Council?
Marshall brought the council to the current level; but it needed someone to say, “Let’s take it to the next level.”

What’s the next level?
To make Chicago the go-to place when you want to know about foreign policy; . . . to enhance the visibility [of the Council] in Chicago, the country, and, more important, the world. Today with the Internet it doesn’t matter where you live; our events can be on the Internet, our studies are on the Internet. We’ve done survey work for 30 years, surveying the American public on foreign policy. . . . If you want to know what Americans think about foreign policy, come to the Chicago Council. We’re going to expand that work. On the global economy . . . Chicago is on the crossroad between east and west, very important relationship with Canada, . . . the lakes, Canadian water and American water, energy, agricultural issues. I want the Council to play a bigger and bigger role as a convening organization, to bring different parts of the city together to talk about how the city can engage globally. We’re putting together a big conference later this year with the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern on the role of research universities and the urban challenges.

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