No Comment, Six Questions — May 28, 2009, 11:59 am

Six Questions for Rashid Khalidi, Author of Sowing Crisis

Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi has been a forceful critic of the Bush Administration’s heavy-handed conduct in the Middle East, often drawing on modern historical parallels to argue that the approaches taken are short-sighted. In his latest book, Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East, he recaps the Cold War era in Middle Eastern history, showing how the United States dominated the region throughout the period but was able to achieve remarkably little nonetheless. I put six questions to Prof. Khalidi about his new book.

1. Your book chronicles the rather amazing series of reversals that marked Soviet Middle East policy in the post-World War II era, starting with a pro-Israeli stance that faded through the fifties as an Arab strategy emerged. Can you trace the evolution and explain why it occurred?

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This evolution has many sources, among them a sense among the post-Stalin Soviet leadership of the opportunities available in the ex-colonial world of Asia and Africa. This was manifest around the time of the Bandung summit in 1955, and it began in the Arab world with overtures to Egypt and Syria. Before then, Soviet policy was driven by the blinkered outlook of Stalin, who I think was obsessed with Britain’s fading power in the Middle East. This helps to explain the Soviet Union’s pressure on Iran and Turkey immediately after the War, and its support for the creation of Israel. Thereafter, Egypt became the fulcrum of Soviet power in the region, although it was always a difficult ally, and Soviet leaders often had problems restraining their headstrong Egyptian “clients.” Indeed, the Egyptians probably got more than the Soviets from this relationship. This “Arab strategy” was also a function of an American Cold War alignment with non-Arab states all around the peripheries of the Arab world: Ethiopia, Turkey, Iran, and Israel. In the end, the Soviet Union found itself caught between its feuding Arab allies, most of which, notably Egypt and Iraq, ferociously repressed their domestic Communist parties, and also supporting the Arab armies in defeat after defeat against Israel. Thus, although for a while it looked like the USSR had reaped considerable strategic advantages in the region, ultimately the 35-year Soviet engagement in the Arab world was not very profitable for Moscow.

2. Since 1993, Russian involvement with the Arab-speaking Middle East has faded while Russian engagement with and influence in Israel has reached a high-water mark. But the connection is not driven so much by formal government policy as by the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Russians to Israel. Now political advertisements in Israel are frequently bilingual—in Hebrew and Russian—and Russian émigrés have been prominently represented in recent cabinets. Your book cuts off with the end of the Cold War, but you do not seem to anticipate this particular post-Cold War phenomenon. Is it fair to say that Israel is being “Russified” and that this legacy of the Cold War is shaping the future in a way that few predicted?

Israel may have been partially “Russified,” as is evidenced by the Foreign Ministry in the current Israeli cabinet being held by Avigdor Lieberman, a racist xenophobe, a chauvinist and a demagogue like some politicians who have come to prominence in post-Soviet Russia. But in spite of the important links between hundreds of thousands of new Israelis and their former homeland, there remain grave Israeli-Russian differences over Moscow’s ongoing relationships with Damascus and Teheran. I mention this in the book as an example of the many continuities between the Cold War and the current era. I argue that even if communism in Russia is dead, the ideological war is over, and everybody is a capitalist now, strategic and economic interests and conflicts remain prominent in relations between Russia and the United States. One has only to mention Iranian nuclear power plants and a possible nuclear weapons program, Middle Eastern egress for trans–Caspian energy, and the supply of anti-aircraft missiles to Iran and Syria to see that in some respects little has changed since the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

3. You chronicle the hard facts surrounding American claims to push democracy as an agenda in the Middle East, showing how America undermined democracy in Iran and failed to support democracy in Turkey at critical points in the past. You have a devastating assessment of the Bush Administration’s claims to have advanced democracy in Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine. What’s your prescription for the Obama Administration on this score?

Unlike the Bush team, they should practice what they preach, and preach what they practice. If they choose to support repressive autocracies in the Arab world, as the Bush administration and its predecessors generally did, they should say as much and stop pontificating about the United States as a beacon of democracy and human rights. In the Arab world it rarely has been such a beacon. I would not recommend this bit of supposed “realpolitik”: it does not advance its ostensible purpose of repressing terrorism (on the contrary, it probably fosters terrorism), and it is one of several causes for the unpopularity of the United States in this region. Where some form of democratic institutions exist, as in Turkey or Lebanon, the U.S. should support them unambiguously, whether the results suit some in Washington or not. Continued failure by the United States to respect the outcome of democratic elections, as happened in Palestine in 2006, would not in any way redound to our credit. I argue in this book that the Middle East is blighted by undemocratic regimes, partly for purely indigenous reasons, partly because of the lingering impact of the Cold War policies of both the Americans and the Soviets, and partly because of the unending wars in this region. War, as James Madison noted, is “the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.” Decades of wars and cold wars in the Middle East have produced some truly grotesque consequences, prolonging the existence of sclerotic and autocratic regimes, and concentrating untrammeled executive power in the hands of the military and the security forces, even in democratic states like Israel and Turkey. It is thus not enough to foster democracy; it is necessary as well to defuse regional conflicts, many of which the United States is an active party to, from the Arab-Israeli conflict, where its very large thumb has for decades been on the Israeli side of the scale, to the mini-cold war the U.S. has long been waging against Iran.

4. Is the war on terror over?

The new administration has ceased using that term, and the rhetoric has been dialed down, but I sense the beginnings of a slide backwards into some of the positions of the previous incumbents, especially as opportunistic Republican attacks on the President’s policies escalate. Treating terrorists as the criminals that they are, trying them in federal courts, and closing Guantanamo are only the first steps in this direction. It is necessary to confront, deflate, and discredit the incendiary language (“worst of the worst” “Islamofascists,” and so forth) that the fear-mongers of the Bush administration employed for eight years, and that Dick Cheney is still spewing. Moreover, the struggle against terrorists who would harm the American people must be placed into a new context: they are still out there, and it is urgently necessary to rethink the framework for the ongoing struggle with them, especially as there is still the possibility of some of them doing great harm. Finally, a distinction must be made between the international jihadists who are implacably opposed to the United States on ideological grounds irrespective of American policies, and others who are engaged in local struggles of a primarily nationalist nature, whatever Islamist coloring they may have. One of the great defeats for rationality of the Bush years was the conflation of the former with the latter, as the fundamental differences between Al Qaeda and groups like Hamas and Hizballah were mindlessly elided, and they were lumped into the same catch-all “terrorist” category. Until the American-Iranian cold war, about which I write in this new book, has been decisively ended, I do not see a real end to the war on terror, with all its egregious excesses in the worlds of language and policy alike.

5. The Clinton State Department has three special representatives dealing with the Middle East: George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, and Richard Holbrooke. Their mandate appears to overlap on one point, which stands in the middle of anticipated conflict in the region: Iran. Nominally Ross is the man responsible for Iran policy, but so far the initiative on Iran has been given White House-level importance and seems to flow directly from Clinton and Holbrooke. Is Dennis Ross the odd man out? Is this a good thing?

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Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett note in a perceptive New York Times op-ed (“Have We Already Lost Iran?”) on May 24 that the President’s stated goals on Iran are fundamentally at odds with the outlook of Ross and many others in Washington. Those who have no desire to negotiate seriously with Iran, do not want to end the American-Iranian cold war, and ultimately want to turn it into a hot war, are deeply embedded within the government bureaucracy, the Congress, the punditocracy, and the think-tanks. In the previous administration, the clear-sightedness and iron resolution of the uniformed military, the intelligence community, and others prevented the Bush administration from following this irrational course, which it was strongly inclined to do. A grand bargain with Iran, including acceptance of Iran’s development of strictly supervised nuclear power for civilian purposes, some kind of nuclear non-proliferation regime for the broader Middle East including Israel and perhaps Pakistan, and the integration of Iranian clients like Hizballah and Hamas into peaceful resolutions of the tangled conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean, will be an ambitious, daunting, and exceedingly difficult task. The alternative, however, would be far more difficult. The war with Iran that some are working so hard to incite is likely to be much worse – for all concerned, but in particular for the United States and its friends and allies – than those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Preventing such an outcome will require leadership from the President, but it also requires that sane, rational people not only resist the push to war but also come together around the daring and historic initiatives over Iran that will be necessary if the evil consequences of the ongoing cold war with Iran are to be avoided, and a hot war is to be averted.

6. What are the risks of Obama’s decision to give his major address to the Arab and Islamic worlds in Cairo and linking himself so closely to Mubarak? What should he say?

It will not be enough for the President to repeat the well-considered (and generally well received) generalities of his interview with al-‘Arabiyya and his speech in Istanbul. These were a good beginning, but what is required now is far more difficult: serious attention to differences people in the Arab and Muslim worlds have with long-standing American policies. This is at the core of the problem. It is not just a matter of mutual respect and an appropriate tone, important though these things are, especially because they were entirely absent from the approach of the Bush administration. People in this part of the world (indeed people in most parts of the world) have deep disagreements with U.S. policy on Palestine, on Iraq, and on Iran, not to speak of the matter of American support for repressive dictatorships. There has to be a real, convincing, and visible change in these policies before attitudes to the United States can be expected to improve: solid U.S. support for an end to Israeli occupation and the removal of settlements (not just halting their expansion); a complete end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq; and progress on winding down the American-Iranian cold war that has polarized the entire Middle East. These will be difficult changes. It will be even harder than this to wean American policy-makers from their addiction to dealing with pliable autocrats, military dictators, and absolute monarchs in the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world. This will be a particularly sensitive issue, since the Obama Administration has chosen to have the President give this speech in a country that has been ruled for 38 years by one man in a style increasingly reminiscent of nothing so much as the pharaohs. This is a much more important issue than some people realize. Although America’s economic model and its cultural and consumer commodities are just as attractive to people in the Islamic world as they are to others elsewhere, the idea that the United States supports the extension of democracy, individual freedoms, and human rights is its strongest asset as a world power. To the extent that the policy of our government betrays these ideals by supporting such regimes, it forfeits a great deal of goodwill, and it stokes resentments that can easily be exploited, especially on top of other hard differences over policy.

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