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James Clad

War, peace and everything in between

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There's only way to conclude a conversation with James Clad--hoping that you'll pick up where you left off next time. His private passions are surpassed only by his public service, and that's impressive: foreign correspondent; barrister in Canada, New Zealand and the United States; professor; published author; and U.S. assistant secretary of defense. He's lived in every corner of the world and, despite his own progressive politics, was asked to help out the George W. Bush White House after the 9/11 attacks.

Prior to his Thursday, March 27, appearance before the Boise Committee on Foreign Relations, Boise Weekly spoke to Clad about geopolitical instability in the 21st century, why saber-rattling is a fool's game and his fascinating life.

Tell me about your parents.

My mother was a descendant of Sir Edward Elgar [early 20th century composer of "Pomp and Circumstance"] and my father was a judge in Los Angeles. But late in life, he became an attorney to the stars. I must say it was really something when Marlon Brando would call the house. But my father died in a light plane crash over the San Jacinto Mountains. He was only 42.

Losing a father when you were a young man must have had a profound impact.

I think that when you're 15, and you lose your father, the light goes out in your life. I welcomed the chance to do something significantly different. That's when my mother took all of us kids and moved to New Zealand. That's where I was schooled in a classic British-style education--uniforms and cricket bats.

And your time in the Peace Corps?

I was in Ethiopia, just prior to the revolution. I had always been interested in getting into the wider world and getting a sense beyond the comfortable and predictable. When I left, my girlfriend and I traveled across Africa. It was still pretty crazy in the 1970s, going down the Congo River. I was barely 22.

Did you choose the law as a profession because of your father?

I wanted to work against injustice. I began as a barrister in Toronto, Canada, and continued in New Zealand. I saw a picture of myself the other day, sporting a Poncho Villa-style moustache and wearing my barrister gown and wig.

May I ask what your politics were at the time?

Very left of center--almost Social Democratic, in the British Labour tradition. I guess some of that remains to me.

Did you hold dual citizenships?

I did. I think, to this day, I'm one of only two senior American officials that also served as a diplomat for another country.

I know that you served the New Zealand foreign ministry, were a foreign correspondent for The Economist, were a fellow at Harvard and Oxford and part of the Carnegie Endowment's think tank, but I must ask you about going to work for the Bush White House.

The events in New York [9/11] happened, and I was invited to come in by the administration. Eventually, the White House asked if I would go to the Middle East.

That was just prior to our invasion.

I was marginally in favor of the invasion, but certainly not the prolonged occupation. I thought it was conceit. From 2007-2009, I was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs. My entire life has been spent in some pretty tough places. I think we deal with the world as it is, not what we want it to be. My colleagues at DOD would say that I was one of the few who saw war close-up. A lot of people in Washington begin there and end there. They go to school, get a Ph.D., work for an NGO and come into government as a partisan favor.

How would you deconstruct the crisis in Syria?

I'm sort of pleased that, no matter how fumbled the outcome may be, at least we're not bombing another country. I'm enormously tired of comments from Sen. [John] McCain, who thinks that the answer to bad things happening in other places is to inflict more bad things on those people. I consider that appalling.

Should we get involved the way some American politicians think we ought to--by busting in and bombing people? Is this vital to American security? I honestly think the answer, so far, is no.

And how do you see our escalating tension with Russia? Do you consider it nonsense or are we approaching a dangerous stand-off?

Who in the EU or NATO is going to stand up and die for the Republic of Georgia or Ukraine? The true answer is: no one. To act as if the Russians didn't have particular interest in this was very naïve and arrogant on our part. That's not to say we acquiesce to every lunatic or imperial idea, but you have a continuing arrangement when you speak and people believe you.

Putin is creating a lot of difficulty, but since the end of the Cold War, a lot of stuff has been pushed up Russia's nose by both Republican and Democratic administrations.

But play this out; do you expect bloodshed in Crimea?

I don't think there's any appetite for that. The idea of reversing Russia's incorporation of Crimea is foolish. The idea of a so-called "rollback" is nothing but a slogan from the Cold War. I think the same thing applies here.

And what might we do about future relations with Ukraine?

Come up with a set of new ideas and recognize that we've taken Russia for granted far too often. We may not like them, and don't remember their history too fondly, but they possess a tradition and a sense of entitlement that you can't ignore.