Emile Nakhleh headed the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program until leaving the agency in 2006. During his tenure, he briefed top officials on issues related to Iraq and Afghanistan, and interviewed numerous detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. Nakhleh’s new book, A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World, has just been published by Princeton University Press.
Nakhleh recently talked with Harper’s about his book as well as his thoughts on developments in the Middle East. (My editorial assistant, Sam Fellman, helped with research and conducted the interview.) We’ll publish the second part of the interview tomorrow.
How were President Obama’s interview with Al Arabiya and his directive to close Guantanamo received in the Middle East?
In the media and in editorials from the Muslim world, the response has been positive. Reaching out to the Muslim world is a matter of national interest and national security. There are more than a billion Muslims worldwide and it serves our interests to engage them and to reassure them we are not going to rely primarily on the use of force, which has been, unfortunately, the case over the last eight years. Guantanamo became a recruiting symbol for jihadism, radicalism, and terrorism. It gave the impression that the U.S. no longer supported the rule of law. It serves our interests tremendously if we close it.
How complicated is it to close Guantanamo?
EN: There have been all kinds of reactions from the neo-cons highlighting the difficulties of closing it. I think it’s much easier than people realize. There are only 240 to 250 detainees now. It is possible to establish a commission of experts to look at these people and then group them into categories and then say, ‘This group should be sent to trial, this group should be released.’ The fact is, of these detainees, a third to one half of them were caught in the dragnet and had nothing to do with committing terrorism against the US. Some detainees might have fought in Afghanistan against the Northern Alliance but not against the US and therefore should not be considered terrorists. It’s time to let them go. We’ve already lost a generation. They have been held in Guantanamo for six or seven years, and are now perhaps more radicalized. We should turn the page. A commission of experts to study these files—a process likely to take three weeks to a month—should be begun. It would separate them into categories, and then move the process forward.
Preliminary results from the Iraqi Provincial elections indicate that the party of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and secular parties did well. What does the election mean for stability and democracy in Iraq?
It’s too early to view the election results as a measure of stability in Iraq. Many of the votes were cast on a familial and tribal basis, rather than an ideological basis. One view is that Iraq has fared well. The opposite view is that the two religious parties and religious party coalitions continue to dominate in the south. The fact the Ayad Allawi has done well reflects, in my view, two points: there is growing disenchantment with the Maliki government and that there is a rising disenchantment with the divisions within the religious parties. So, in a sense, part of the “secular vote” is a negative vote against what is happening, rather than a pro-secular trend. If there has been disenchantment with the Maliki government, because of a perception of growing authoritarianism on Maliki’s part, then there may be tension between the central government and the local government. So it could be a sign of tension rather than potential stability.
Are the parties strengthening and repositioning in advance of the U.S. withdrawal?
That’s for sure. Across the political spectrum in Iraq, it’s a given that the U.S. withdrawal will happen. Even now they see fewer U.S. troops on the street. They are also seeing the redeployment of Iraqi troops into military camps. They are realigning themselves not only for U.S. withdrawal but for a diffusion and realignment of power within the country. This realignment will be along religious lines, along ideological lines, and especially in rural Iraq, it will be along clan and tribal lines.
What are the repercussions of Iraq for the image of the U.S. abroad?
Many Muslim nations are now looking to the U.S. to go beyond Iraq, to embark on new policies towards the Muslim World, and Iraq was a negative point along this path. Many Muslim and Arab countries are trying to turn a new page and are anxious to see what policies the new Obama administration will pursue in the post-Iraq period.
What steps can the Obama administration take to unfreeze relations with Iran?
One basic point needs to be emphasized. We have seen a real shift in the last few years from the Levant to the Persian Gulf. The Persian Gulf is emerging as a power center. In the Persian Gulf, Iran is a major player. Iran has for years been a major, regional power. We, as a country, realized this in the 1960s and 1970s under the Shah, we viewed Iran as the fulcrum in the Gulf. The subsequent change of regime in Iran does not necessarily dilute Iran’s stature as a regional power. We need to start from that assumption. Geographically, Iran connects the Levant and the Middle East and South Asia—it straddles important regions. Therefore, it can play a positive role in the Middle East, as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And Iran has played such a positive role in Afghanistan after 9/11 and in Iraq generally, as a stabilizing force. If we want to encourage that role, we need to find a new policy of engaging Iran. And it needs to be based on recognition that there are areas of agreement and disagreement with Iran. We could emphasize the common interests and then later on deal with the areas where we disagree, such as nuclear weapons or Iran’s support of dissident and violent groups. But there is common ground between us and Iran on dealing with Afghanistan, on dealing with the Persian Gulf situation, on dealing with Hamas and Hezbollah.
Is stability in Iraq is a shared interest, as well?
I think so. Iranian behavior in recent years has suggested that they are interested in stability on their borders. Iran has stated it would not be interested in a dismembered Iraq. And so a unified Iraq would serve Iran’s interests—political, economic, religious, and of course, security.