On Topic: A conversation with George Mitchell

June 24, 2013
Religion and Politics and Baseball

On April 16, 2013, President Ken Starr welcomed former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell to the Waco Hall stage for On Topic, the president's series of compelling conversations on contemporary issues. Sen. Mitchell shared with President Starr his perspectives on the Middle East, issues of religious freedom, the peace process in Ireland, making politics work across party lines, and performance-enhancing drugs in sports.

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The Middle East

Starr: Let's first focus on foreign policy. You were asked twice to serve on a very special assignment relating to the Middle East. Most recently, President Obama asked you to serve for two years as special envoy to the Middle East, and then a decade before, your work, the Mitchell Report on the Middle East, was well received. So, if you would, talk about that part of the world and especially the prospects for peace as you see them, and especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mitchell: I believe there's no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended, including the Middle East. While it is not possible to be immediately optimistic in the short term... It's a very complex situation, very difficult, made more complex by a series of intersecting conflicts that occur in the region, and all of which impact one another.

You have the ongoing tremendous struggle within Islam between Sunni and Shia that is erupting now in Syria, in Iraq, in Pakistan, and other parts of the region. You have the ancient hostility between Persians, Iran, and the Arab countries, in particular the Gulf Arab countries, which is now at a high pitch.

You have the rise in Islamic fundamentalism. Throughout the 1,400 years of Islam's history, there have been periodic tendencies towards fundamentalism and then contractions and then expansions, back and forth over time.

You have the tremendous impact of the economics of oil, in our own society and around the world, and the confluence of interest that we have in the Western hemisphere with Asia, in terms of access to oil from that part of the world. So a number of intersecting conflicts.

Although it's difficult now to foresee the circumstances under which Israelis and Palestinians will reach an accord to live side-by-side in peace, two states for two people, I think it will happen in the medium term for a variety of reasons, most important of which is that I believe it to be very much in the self-interest of the two societies.

I think ultimately, societies, like individuals, act largely out of self-interest. And while it poses a risk to both to enter into an agreement -- an enormous risk for Israel -- the risk is, in fact, much greater than if they don't enter into an agreement. As with many issues of international policy, you don't get a choice often between a really good alternative and a really bad alternative. The choice is often between two not very good alternatives, and you have to choose which one is best.

I think that for Israel, the absence of an agreement with the Palestinians creates a much greater risk than if they entered into an agreement -- not just with respect to themselves and the Palestinians, but also in enabling Israel to establish more normal relations with all of the other countries in the region. ...

Now, what are those risks? There are many for Israel. Demography: There are at this moment about 5.75 million Jews living in the area, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. There are, in that same area, just over 5.25 million Arabs.

The birthrates are such that it will happen very soon, possibly as early as 2015 or 2016, and certainly not later than 2020, that the majority will be Arab. And if that occurs, and a two-state solution has not been obtained, then Israel faces the awful choice, which they should not have to make, of being either a Jewish state or a democratic state. They cannot be both. This is widely discussed there, not much here. Ehud Barak, the former prime minister and defense minister, has spoken of it often there. That's a very difficult choice, and they really ought to be pressing to get an agreement now.

The second threat is rockets. The history of man is a history of warfare, and it is also a history of most societies, and particularly militaries, fighting the last war, preparing for the last war, only to be surprised by the next one. Israel now has total military dominance in the region, in large part due to its own energy and also due to the tremendous amount of assistance that we provide in financial and military aide and in our security guarantee to them.

But the threat in the 21st Century is not going to be of Arab armies crossing the borders with tanks and large numbers of men, or suicide bombers. The threat is from rockets. Hamas has 8,000 on the southern border -- crude, ineffective, but still they create fear and anxiety. Hezbollah has 30,000 to 50,000 on the northern border, somewhat better than Hamas', but still not fully threatening.

Most threatening of all is Iran, which has made the technological leap from liquid fuel rockets to solid fuel rockets and now possesses an arsenal of rockets -- I'm not talking about nuclear weapons now, but conventional weapons -- that can reach anywhere in Israel, launched from Iran.

There's never been an event in human history where several thousand rockets have been launched from different sites at once, particularly against a very small area like Israel, and you have to go there to see how small it is to appreciate the threat to Israel's security. So we don't know what would happen, but what we must do, of course, is to embark on a strategy that prevents that from ever occurring, as that's a real danger.

And the third danger is isolation. Israel's support in the United States is very strong, particularly in the House of Representatives, but is declining everywhere else in the world. When I was the President's envoy in the region for about two and a half years, I spent a substantial portion of my time in Europe and Asia trying to sure up our allies and achieve a united front. That's the threat to Israel.

Palestinians face an even greater threat, and that is 60 more years of living in an occupation in which people are not free to move about, commerce is difficult to engage in because of the many restrictions on travel and so forth and the costs imposed in that respect, and most importantly, they're denied the dignity and self-respect that comes from self-governance, a principle in which we strongly believe and which is really set forth in the most eloquent terms in our Declaration of Independence.

But they have a problem. In 1947, the United Nations proposed a partition. Israel accepted it. The Arabs rejected it. They thought they could easily win the war. They were wrong; Israel won that war, and every one that has occurred since then. There is not a sensible Arab leader today who would not gladly accept the 1947 offering were it still available, but it is not, and it never again will be because the facts on the ground have changed so dramatically.

The Palestinians have rejected other offers made in between. I said to Arafat many times when I met with him, and repeated to the current president, Abbas, when I met with him during my most recent assignment, there is not a shred of evidence, none, to suggest that the offers are going to get any better in the future. So although you might not like it, you've got to sit down and negotiate and stay in negotiations and get a state. It won't be 100 percent of what you want. You will regard it as not fair. But it's better than 60 more years of occupation. And once you get a state, you can build on it. And they've demonstrated the capability to do that. They're an able and energetic people, but they have to realize that the longer this goes on, the more difficult it becomes for them. So at some point, you have to say sit down, negotiate, get it done.

I think there will be leadership on both sides that will eventually overcome the difficulties of divided societies, and they're both divided. There are many Palestinians who are adamantly opposed to Israel's existence. There are many Israelis, including several in the current government, who are adamantly opposed to the existence of a Palestinian state ever. But the majority in both societies sees the advantage of a two-state solution, and I think the time is coming when they will do it.

President George W. Bush, about 10 days before he left office, went to Jerusalem and made a very powerful speech in which he discussed what I've just been discussing and said that the key is for each side to recognize that it is invested in the other's success, because the only way that Israel can get security in the long term is by the creation of a Palestinian state, and the only way the Palestinians are ever going to get a state is if Israel has reasonable and sustainable security.

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Religious conflict

Starr: In Pakistan, a Christian Pakistani in a heavily Muslim country was recently released from prison. He was in prison for eight years. The charge, the crime, was blasphemy, and had his appeal been unsuccessful, he would have faced, under Pakistani law, the death penalty. We're thankful that at least the ultimate sanction was not imposed, but he languished in prison for eight years. What, Senator, in your judgment, can America do and what should it do with respect to promoting basic human rights, including religious liberty, which as you can imagine, is very close to the heart of what Baylor is all about?

Mitchell: A very difficult task, but, we are Christians. Islam is 1,400 years old. Where was Christianity when it was 1,400 years old? I'll ask some students here to go back and check their history. Not that there is any direct equivalence because, of course, the time frames are different, a lot is different, but one of the most powerful messages of the gospel of Jesus is humility in judging others.

And so, I think we should begin with humility on our own pass. I just spent five years in Northern Ireland where Christians were killing each other for 25 years and engaging in the most brutal and horrific offenses against other Christians. This is going to be one of the great challenges for the United States and for our leaders in the next half century. ...

Right now, one out of five persons on Earth is Muslim, about 1.2 billion. By the year 2050, it will be one out of three. There will be 3.5 billion Muslims on this Earth; that's the equivalent of the total population of the whole world as recently as 1965. How that conflict plays out within Islam and its relations with the West will dominate American policy, by definition, over the next half century.

And we are going to be asked over, and over, and over again to intervene. ... The greatest challenge we will face abroad is for presidents to have the wisdom and the judgment to make the right decision on when is it appropriate and in our national interest to respond to requests for intervention, and when is it not. ...

One thing I urge every American audience is never to forget that, while we are the dominant military and economic power in the world, this was a great nation long before it was a military or economic power. This was a great nation from the moment of creation because of the principles set forth in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and that is what appeals to people around the world.

I used to joke when I traveled in the Palestinian territories. I'd say to a Palestinian audience, "Americans turn on the television and they see a bunch of guys burning the flag with gasoline cans and burning rubber tires." I said, "But I always say that if a guy from the American Embassy walked up to the edge of a crowd and said, 'Hey guys. I've got some visas. Anybody interested?', then they'd all drop the cans and they'd all grab the visas and come here."

That's true. There remains around the world a residual admiration for American ideals, American justice, and most of all, for the principle, as you said in the introduction, that in America, everybody has a chance. And so I think we have to build on that, and we can build on that. You can't respond to every guy who makes a negative statement and build it up as though it's representative of a whole society. That's a political tactic that everybody uses; some oddball somewhere makes a statement, and you take it and say, "Well, that represents all of them." That isn't any more true over there than it is here. There's a titanic struggle going on, and it's going to have an effect on us. We can't completely control it, but we should influence it in the right direction to the extent that we can.

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Northern Ireland

Starr: Because of what you did in Northern Ireland, the President of the United States, President Clinton, presented you with the Medal of Freedom. It is the highest civilian honor that can be bestowed in the United States. We're in the presence of someone who is a miracle worker. So would you tell us about the miracle of Northern Ireland? People thought it could not happen, but it did, and you were justly acclaimed for bringing that peace about, the Good Friday Agreement or the Belfast Agreement. Tell us how that happened.

Mitchell: The credit really goes to the people of Northern Ireland and to their political leaders. When you're in the middle of the eye of a hurricane, you're sometimes not the best judge of cause and effect, and so I'm not sure that I have the definitive answers. I think that will await the judgment of history.

But in my view, the public were exhausted with conflict. It was horrific. It was random. It isn't just the numbers killed, which are relatively small in comparison to other conflicts; it's the numbers maimed. There were tremendous amounts of ferocious beatings and maimings that left people permanently and awfully crippled for life.

And I think that ordinary men and women, particularly women, who became more active in the political process, wanted nothing more than a normal, ordinary life of the type that we take for granted, instead of this fear-dominated society, in which a person could be killed at random just because they happened to be a Catholic or a Protestant.

And then the political leaders, ordinary men and women just like the people sitting in this room. The equivalent of our state legislators had been in conflict all of their lives. Many of them had been themselves shot, wounded. Two of the delegates of the peace talks were assassinated during the talks. Many of them had been convicted of terrible crimes in what they thought were acts of patriotism, what we would regard as acts of brutality and murder or attempted murder.

But they rose to the occasion in a very difficult time and entered into the agreement even though some of them knew that they were ending their careers by doing so, and even though they all knew that they were putting their lives at risk and the safety of their families. It was an inspiration to me, having spent five years with these men and women, to see them do that.

I think it is they who deserve the credit, especially those who suffered adverse consequences as a result. Sometimes life takes twists and turns and produces unfair results, and the two parties on each side who were principally responsible for negotiating the agreement were defeated at the next election. Those who were less in support or in opposition to the agreement took power.

But they did the right thing at the right time for their country. And I think that, in every society, every society, there are leaders like that, who will come along and at the right time do the right thing. And I still have hope in the Middle East and elsewhere.

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Working across party lines

Starr: Let's come stateside. Cream rises to the top, and you became Senate Majority Leader in fairly short order, rose to the Senate leadership, and during your time, a lot of important work got done: The Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, enormously important. Americans with Disabilities Act, a huge landmark civil rights law. Both were passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Indeed, the ADA was passed almost unanimously by the Senate. NAFTA, important to this audience, important to this part of the country, as well as our neighbor to the north, but important to the United States. America's entry into the World Trade Organization. All this during your leadership of the world's greatest deliberative body.

When you became Senate Majority Leader, on your first day, you met with now Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. And you told him this, "I will never surprise you. I will always tell you in advance what I'm going to do. I'll never try to embarrass you. I'll try very hard not to make it personal in any way. I will expect the same treatment in return, and I will also never try to say or do anything that's insulting or demeaning in any way to you." Would you all like to see a restoration of that kind of atmosphere in Washington, D.C.? [Applause] I think there's just such a hunger for it in the country. How can we restore that, Senator?

Mitchell: I thought it was tough back then; it's really hard now. Bob Dole was the first person I called after I was elected Senate Majority Leader. And when I went to see him, the preface to what you said was -- I said, "Look, you've been here 25 years. I've only been here a couple of years. You know a lot more than I do about it, but my perception is, these jobs are extremely difficult, and I think they'll be impossible if we don't have some level of trust between us."

He was delighted. And after I set out those basics, we shook hands, and I can say with some pride that not once ever, in those six years or since, has a harsh word ever passed between Bob Dole and I, in public or in private. We were and we are good friends. We disagreed almost every day. We negotiated. We did the best we could representing our beliefs and those who we represented. But we understood that we had a higher loyalty, and the higher loyalty was what's best for the country. [Applause]

Now, people of goodwill can disagree on what's best for the country. This is a very large, diverse country, with tremendous differences in economic interest, regional interest, a whole variety of others. And you have to have the ability at least to listen to the other side, to give some credibility...

I spoke recently, at the invitation of the State Department, to a group of American ambassadors. A guy said to me in a question and answer, he said, "When you were over in the Middle East, you had the toughest job in the world." I said, "No, no, no. I had the toughest job in the world when I was Senate Majority Leader. The Middle East was nothing compared to the Senate." And it is very hard. But I do think it's important to establish personal relationships, primarily for the purpose of fostering some degree of respect and trust for the other person, and then for the other person's point of view. It makes it easier to engage in the kind of meaningful discussion and negotiation you have to do, and to get better answers for the country.

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Major league baseball

Starr: It seems to be appropriate to quote from Drayton McLane Jr., who owned the Astros at the time of the Mitchell Report. So a brief comment about baseball. In the words of Drayton McLane, "Now that the Mitchell Report has been released, the Houston Astros are currently reviewing its contents. The Astros support the process that has taken place to compile this report, as well as the recommendations offered by Senator George Mitchell. As we move forward, we will continue strongly to support the testing program agreed upon by the Commissioner's office and the Player's Association. We feel that this program is an effective step in eradicating the use of performance-enhancing substances, and we continue to support this endeavor 100 percent. We also wish to thank Senator Mitchell for his efforts."

Mitchell: If I could say this about baseball and performance-enhancing drugs and sports generally... You have to put it in a context. Every society has laws that prohibit murder and robbery. No one expects that because of the existence of those laws that all murders and robberies will cease. We recognize the fallibility of humans and the weakness of humans, and the propensity of many humans to engage in wrongdoing. But we pass these laws and we enforce them both to provide specific punishment to those who break the norms of society by violating law, and also to serve as a deterrent for others.

So it is with performance-enhancing substances in sports. At this very moment, here in the United States, in China, in Eastern Europe, and possibly other areas, there are persons engaged in illegal activity, attempting to devise new chemical compounds that will enhance athletic performance without being detectible by current systems of testing.

Each side is trying to gain the advantage over the other. As each new substance is tried, used and discovered, then a parallel, in-sequence-behind effort is made to discover a test that will determine, either through urine testing or through blood testing. And so, it's a constant battle. The incentives are so enormous to cheat that you have to assume -- and it is, I think, a very, very safe assumption -- that there are always going to be people who do it.

When you think about it, take professional baseball, a young boy from an impoverished background with a limited education sees two choices in life. One, the average major league baseball player makes several million dollars a year. The other, a life of possible unemployment or even if you're employed, it's poor wages and no recognition.

For them, it's tough to balance the scales in the right way with what they would regard as abstract appeals to justice and fair play and so forth. So, what we have to do as a society is continue to make clear our very strong disapproval and condemnation of the use of illegal substances, whether for enhancing sports performance or otherwise. And we also have to engage vigorously in the scientific effort to discover tests to determine these, and we have to establish rigorous regimes of testing, so that those who do engage in such activity can be detected and appropriately punished.

The biggest victims of all, the group that suffers the most direct injury, are those players who are forced to make a decision. Do I cheat and by so doing break the rules and break the law, or do I not cheat and in so doing place myself at a competitive disadvantage and place my livelihood for my family and my career at risk?

They're the biggest victims. They're the ones who should be out front saying, "Let's clean this thing up." That unfortunately hasn't been the case, but I think a growing number of them are coming to recognize that they shouldn't be put in the position of making that choice, and that means vigorous enforcement.

I do want to say that Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, in my judgment, has not received the credit he deserves. He is the only commissioner of a professional sport in the United States who commissioned a completely independent investigation and inquiry.

When he asked me to do this, I said, "Bud, I have one condition, and that is I must have total independence. I'm going to report what I find, I'm going to tell it as I see it, and if you can't accept that, then go get someone else." He said, "I not only accept it, I endorse it. I support it." And he did. No other sport has done that, and I think that while he's gotten a lot of flak for it, he deserves praise for it, because whatever happened before, he did this, he stood by his promise, and within 24 hours after I made my recommendation, he unilaterally implemented all of the recommendations which he had the authority to implement.

Audience members were invited to submit written questions, which were moderated by Baylor's Executive Vice President and Provost, Dr. Elizabeth Davis.

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Athletic integrity

Davis: As the Athletics Integrity Monitor at Penn State, I wonder if you might comment on the state of college athletics?

Mitchell: Well, I'll make my answer independent of that. I think we all have to keep reminding ourselves that as much as we love sports, the objective of institutions of education is education. And that has to, should, and must come first. I say that as one who played sports in college. I have three older brothers who are very famous athletes, and I understand the importance of sports.

I told Ken earlier, I have a 15-year-old son who is a big Redskins fan, and when I tell him I sat in the same room that Robert Griffin III sat in, he's going to be thrilled to hear that. And of course all sports fans know about Brittney Griner and the Lady Bears.

But the reality is that the primary role of colleges and universities is education. And I think that, in some cases in our society, that has been the subject of lip service and not actual implementation. Sports are great; I think they teach important lessons in life, and I encourage my children to participate actively in all sports. But they have to be second. The objective is to educate our young men and women.

My mother couldn't read or write. Never went to school. My father left school after the third grade. They lived in poverty, and they died in poverty, but by their standards, they had a very successful life, because their goal in life was to see that their children had the education they never had. And all five of us graduated from college, several of us with graduate degrees.

It is that desire to see that our children have opportunity, have a good start in life, that I think ought to be motivating all of us and all of us who are involved in education. So to me, the lesson is, let's keep our priorities straight. We all know what our priorities ought to be.

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Public service

Davis: There are a lot of students in the audience. We had a question, "What advice do you have for a young person considering a career in public service?"

Mitchell: I can think of no better way to make a contribution to your society, and to have a sense of fulfillment in your own life, than that of service to others. It doesn't have to be politics as we think about, in elected office; there are many ways in which one can do so. The fact is that, because we are so fortunate to be Americans, to be citizens of what is, despite our many imperfections, the most open, the most just, the most free society in all of human history, we are very fortunate, and our children especially are particularly fortunate now, in the 21st century, to be able to get an education, to go on, to succeed. And many of the students here will want and achieve status, wealth, fame, success. What you will find is that the more of that you achieve, the more you will come to realize that there are other things in life.

I don't think there is anything greater than being part of a large cause, larger than one's self-interest, which contributes to the well-being of others. Public service is one way to do it. There are a lot of disadvantages, a lot of slings and arrows that go with running for public office and serving in public office. Every one of us fears failure, and there is no more public failure than seeking a public office and not gaining it. But for those of you who do, I strongly encourage it, and I think if you are very lucky, for the students here, if you are very lucky, you will find such a cause in your lifetime.