‘My friends all say i’m going to be Secretary of State,” fareed Zakaria muses from a banquette in the Grill Room at The Four Seasons. “But I don’t see how that would be much different from the job I have now.”
The 39-year-old Newsweek foreign-affairs columnist is about to expand on this thought. But then Donald Marron, the former CEO of PaineWebber, walks over with Ken Duberstein, the former Reagan lieutenant, in tow. Cordial and courtly, Zakaria charms the two elder lions before picking up the thread of conversation. He’s not boasting. He’s comparing the core requirements of his job as a columnist—boning up on policy positions, balancing competing points of view, then making a clear, stick-out-your-neck decision—to the job of running the State Department.
Would he want the job? Before he can answer, Mort Zuckerman, who’s been having lunch with Ed Kosner, the editor of Zuckerman’s Daily News, heaves into view. Zuckerman praises the young man genuinely, then moves on. But a few feet away, at the top of the restaurant’s stairs, the real-estate developer and media dabbler stops to examine a blowup of the cover of Cosmopolitan, directing guests to an advertiser’s lunch in the Pool Room next door. Zuckerman considers the voluptuous model who seems to be staring at Zakaria with a smoldering look, then delivers his punch line: “This guy’s so hot even the cover girl wants to meet him.”
Fareed Zakaria may not be a sex symbol yet—or on anyone’s shortlist for secretary of State either (at least not this decade). But since 9/11, when he wrote a defining piece on the meaning of the terror attacks, he’s become one of the more influential and original voices on American foreign policy and politics. He’s an Indian-born, Yale- and Harvard-educated Muslim who moves easily between Condoleezza Rice and Pervez Musharraf, Tony Blair and Prince Turki Al-Faisal. He’s a conservative who is willing to question one of the most cherished principles of the West—democracy—but also a naturalized citizen who believes in America’s world-historical mission. And this week, he publishes The Future of Freedom, a contrarian book that mixes history and political analysis to make a case that individual liberty, not democracy, is the prerequisite for a nation’s economic and political growth. This just as the country wraps up a war to bring democracy to Iraq.
Dimple-chinned, with expressive eyebrows and a thick head of black hair, Fareed Zakaria could easily be the Indian reincarnation of Cary Grant. Certainly his manner is just as silky and unflappable. “I grew up in this world where everything seemed possible,” Zakaria says of his childhood in Bombay. Zakaria’s father, a leading politician, and his mother, who edited the Sunday Times of India, “knew everybody,” Zakaria says. “We saw the best architects, government officials, and poets all the time. Nothing seemed out of your reach.”
We all know the solution is the Clinton solution. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel; there’s just no tunnel. Nothing’s going to happen until the U.S. presses the issue.
“There is no one in that family who is comfortable being ignored,” says Gideon Rose, a friend since college. That would include Fareed’s brother, Arshad, now the head of investment banking at Merrill Lynch.
Although they were practicing Muslims, the Zakarias shared the original Indian ideal of a secular modern republic—which tended to begin with a vigorous immersion in British culture. At the brothers’ school, each day started with Christian hymns. “I probably know the Book of Common Prayer,” he says, “better than most Anglicans.” Progressive India needed engineers, and the education system encouraged the most promising students to study math and the sciences. “The smart kids did science,” Zakaria says, “the rich kids did economics, and the girls did humanities.”
But when it came to college, Zakaria chose America, not Britain—“Culture follows power,” he says—and discovered that politics, not science, was his calling. At Yale, Zakaria joined the Political Union, “which was this bunch of nerdy politicos who’d stay up until four in the morning talking about whether or not Nixon should have imposed wage controls,” he says. Unable to let the subject pass, he adds: “The answer was, obviously not.”
The art historian John Berger coined the term vertical invader to describe the powerful force of Picasso’s talent on Parisian painting. Zakaria, too, was something of a vertical invader. “I would try to go head-to-head with anybody on whatever—Hegel, Kierkegaard, Metternich, Bismarck—whatever people wanted,” he recalls. “But I did have this whole other thing that I could also do: Nehru, Gandhi, and the Mogul Empire.”
Zakaria became a conservative, he says, from observing the Indian state. “People often say, ‘How could you, living in India, end up a Reaganite?’ Well, the answer is, live in India. There are two things that people don’t understand. One is the degree to which a highly regulated economy produces masses of corruption because it empowers bureaucrats. It just has to be seen to be believed.
“The second,” he continues, “is that you are very quickly inured to the charms of pre-industrial village life. Whenever someone says the word community, I want to reach for an oxygen mask.”
After Yale, Zakaria went on to Harvard for his Ph.D. in political science. “Watching him in the academy, he reminded me of Kissinger,” says Walter Isaacson, who met Zakaria hanging around Harvard Square while working on a biography of the controversial statesman. “Both have a great intellectual confidence, an ability to make brilliant conceptual connections, and a charm for attracting patrons. I mean that in a good way.”
Isaacson later recommended Zakaria for a job at Foreign Affairs, and not long after he was hired, Kissinger asked to meet the young man. “I discovered later that he bore a grudge because I had commented on some of Walter’s chapters,” Zakaria says. The meeting might have intimidated some, but “we had a scintillating time,” Zakaria says. “Kissinger was switched on for my benefit: dazzling erudition and all that.” The irony, he notes, is that “what I had told Walter is that I thought he was being too hard on Kissinger.”
The Foreign Affairs job brought Zakaria to New York, where he moved in with Arshad. “It was not at all a bachelor’s apartment,” says David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter and author of The Right Man. “It was furnished with Anglo-Indian artifacts his mother had picked out and sent to New York.”
The 28-year-old Zakaria was charged with bringing in younger voices to reinvigorate the magazine. But ironically, his biggest contribution to the publication’s revival was landing 70-year-old Samuel Huntington’s seminal essay “Clash of Civilizations?” (Huntington was Zakaria’s Harvard thesis adviser.) Zakaria and Foreign Affairs editor Jim Hoge became fixtures on The Charlie Rose Show, and Zakaria further built his reputation writing op-eds for the New York Times.
In 1999, Michael Elliott left the editorship of Newsweek International, and Zakaria, who had been writing regular columns for Newsweek, was offered the job. It was a great opportunity for the access alone. “It’s fun being able to get a meeting with anyone you’d like to talk to,” Elliott says. “When you go overseas, you’re a king.”
But being a king abroad wasn’t enough for Zakaria. “He’s extremely shrewd, and I don’t mean that in the negative sense,” says Paul Kennedy, who taught Zakaria history at Yale. Zakaria wanted a platform to craft his own public persona in America. Friends say he used the Newsweek International offer as leverage to get not only his bi-weekly foreign-affairs column in Newsweek (a major coup at a time when readers were more interested in pashminas than Pashtuns) but also syndication in the Washington Post.
“I urged him to move to Newsweek,” Kissinger says. “He has a first-class mind and likes to say things that run against conventional wisdom.”
It was the destruction of the World Trade Center that brought Zakaria into the national limelight. Marshaling both his intellectual and his personal experiences, Zakaria wrote a 7,000-word cover story called “Why They Hate Us” that punctured the knee-jerk explanations that simply blamed Islamic religious intolerance. It was the uneven path of globalization, especially in modernizing Arab aristocracies, Zakaria wrote, that stoked the homicidal rage. The Arabs had grasped the wrong end of the global stick, importing the vapidity of Western culture but raising walls against its ennobling influences—a formula for an explosion.
“They see the television shows, the fast foods, and the fizzy drinks,” Zakaria explained. “But they don’t see genuine liberalization in the society, with increased opportunities and greater openness. As a result, the people … can look at globalization but for the most part not touch it.”
“Widely read, widely photocopied, widely envied,” says New Yorker editorial director Henry Finder. The essay echoed across the country in unexpected places. Rear admirals at the Pentagon made it recommended reading for the troops. Ted Koppel engaged Zakaria in some high-minded chatter. The onetime academic even found himself conducting tutorials with Joy Behar on the set of The View (“I hope this all doesn’t end up in your next column,” she teased hopefully) and lobbing zingers at Jon Stewart on The Daily Show (he asked if Stewart’s suit was polyester).
“That was the moment,” recalls Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker, “Fareed became a rock star.”
During the summer of 2002, NBC and ABC fought to land Zakaria for a regular TV spot. “He’s wired and well-spoken,” says George Stephanopoulos, who scored Zakaria for This Week. “We courted him aggressively.” And the former politico hasn’t been disappointed. “He’s so well versed in politics, and he can’t be pigeonholed. I can’t be sure whenever I turn to him where he’s going to be coming from or what he’s going to say.”
The pressure on Iran is the pressure of modernity. They’re fed up with fundamentalism. We’re sanctioning them, but we should be overwhelming them with contact and capitalism.
ABC News wants Zakaria to do more, but he’s put them off. Zakaria and his wife, Paula Throckmorton, a Harvard M.B.A. who owns a jewelry-design business, have a baby girl and a 3-year-old son. The couple regularly have journalist friends, including Frum, the Times’ John Tierney, and The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, to their Upper West Side apartment to show off their talents with food and wine. “Fareed is one of those people who believe that specialization is for insects,” says Frum. “You need to be able to talk about what should be done in Baghdad while quoting Swinburne over duck that you’ve cooked yourself.”
On Iraq, Zakaria’s dual perspective between West and East—“I’d call it equipoise,” Henry Finder says—could have put him firmly in the antiwar camp. But he does not hesitate to back the president’s war aims. “The place is so dysfunctional,” he says of the Mideast, “any stirring of the pot is good. America’s involvement in the region is for the good. In that way, I’m an immigrant.”
That doesn’t mean he feels beholden to his friends and acquaintances now in power. The week the bombing started, Zakaria let loose a long and pointed Newsweek cover story called “Why America Scares the World.” The essay openly criticized the Bush administration for its failure to conduct diplomacy and attempt—or even pretend to attempt—to build an international consensus for our action in the Gulf. “The point is to scare our enemies,” he admonished in his essay, “not terrify the rest of the world.”
As much as the immigrant admires American values, he’s also taken aback by the provincialism that treats the State Department like an esteemed but underfunded university and allows the $400 billion–a–year Defense Department to formulate foreign policy.
To the feudal lords of the Gulf, Zakaria is like an errant member of the extended family. “You tear your hair out,” he says of a recent encounter with the Saudis at Davos. “They seem proud that I’m up there, but the government spokesmen find it frustrating. With Tom Friedman, they can say he’s just a Jew, which is despicable but effective.”
Not that Zakaria is eager to trade on his religion with Americans or Arabs. “By and large, there is a suspicion that I’m betraying my roots, whatever that means,” Zakaria says. “The only way I can respond is to say I’ve simply never been defined by religious identity, so I can’t be defined by that now just because it has come into the question.”
What he hopes does define him—the ideas expressed in The Future of Freedom—is likely to cause the noble Bedouins no end of aggravation. His book points to the Gulf regimes as the worst examples of rich, authoritarian states that are making no progress toward the kind of meaningful personal liberties that produce lasting economic growth and social stability.
Zakaria’s increased visibility has generated a steady stream of lucrative speaking gigs, the kind most journalists hanker for. But Zakaria seems drawn to the other invitations he gets: town meetings where he can play politics in an unencumbered West Wing–ish way. And he admits that he likes the taste of that.
“He has a wonderful way with a crowd,” says Gideon Rose, who has seen Fareed make stump speeches for the senior Zakaria. But Rose is skeptical of Zakaria’s fitness for contemporary politics: “He’s suited to a politics that can be an organic part of a larger life—not a profession that is dominated by fund-raising and poll taking.”
Could he run for office? One could easily see his column, television work, and whistle-stop speaking as a trial run for an election. And Zakaria has already proved himself capable of making risky career moves. “Precisely when he had his ticket punched in the academic world,” says Whitaker, “he gave that up to come to New York. Precisely when people started to talk about his going into government, he took a job at a mass magazine. Why? There’s a part of him that likes risk, that likes taking a chance.”
If he doesn’t go that route, perhaps he could be someone’s secretary of State, after all. “I would be amazed if he doesn’t wind up in government,” says Kissinger. “But I have found in my life that if you plan too precisely, it never works. He’s adopting the right course—writing thoughtful foreign-policy pieces. In time, he’ll be a candidate for any number of positions.”
In a sense, though, Zakaria is already holding the brass ring. Not long ago, after his first flush of fame, he found himself back in Delhi for Newsweek International, meeting all the important ministers. “A friend of my father’s took me aside,” Zakaria recalls, “and he said,‘I want you to know how proud we all are of you.’ That’s the great thing about India. Success in America isn’t considered selling out. They all think you’ve made it!”
SEE ALSO: Fareed Zakaria’s response to this article.
Clarification: In your profile of me, “Man of the World,” the opening quote is simply untrue. I did not claim that “my friends”tell me I should be in high government office. In fact, the writer posedthat to me as part of a question. And I do not compare my job at Newsweek torunning the State Department. I would have to be nuts to think that. Forsome reason, your fact-checker did not check this quote with me or else Iwould have set the record straight right away.
Fareed Zakaria, Manhattan (May 5, 2003)