Interview with Middle East expert Dr. Walid Phares
by David Bratslavsky
I was recently in Washington D.C. and had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Walid Phares. He is an American scholar born in Beirut and frequent commentator on global terrorism and developments in the Middle East. Dr. Phares has testified before committees of the US Departments of Justice, Defense, State, Homeland Security, as well as Congress, UN Security Council, and the European Parliament. He is a frequent contributor to publications on international affairs and author of eleven books, the latest of which is The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.
What follows is a summary of our interview.
Q: What is the impact of bin Laden’s death?
A: It’s going to be a “game changer” that transgresses geopolitics and political division.
Number one impact is the US relationship with Pakistan. For bin Laden to be in a conspicuously fortified compound near a Pakistani military academy so close to the capital indicates that there was a shielding of bin Laden on some level within the intelligence apparatus of Pakistan. I personally project (unless proven wrong) that the government was not shielding him, but “there are segments of the national security apparatus within Pakistan which allowed this to happen.”
Although, a new theory is now emerging that segments of Pakistan’s ISI was in fact containing bin Laden in a type of house arrest. But up till what level in the intelligence and defense establishment it was covered, that we’ll have to discover. For it would be illogical that the top leaders pf the People’s Party in the cabinet would have endorsed a shielding of Bin Laden, as his group, the Taliban and the Jihadists in general were waging a terror campaign against them. In any event, the Pakistanis must have known at least of his presence inside Pakistan while svery few people knew of his presence there.
Q: What happens next?
A: Congress and the Administration are going to initiate a review of the relationship with the Pakistanis.
In this review I am calling for two things:
The Pakistani government must reform its intelligence services. Government policy is already on the right track. However, the ISI has a historically sympathetic relationship with Islamists in general and al-Qaeda in particular, which remains in some capacity today. As part of the reform, more action on al-Qaeda and Taliban in Pakistani territories is required.
US foreign policy must better identify and deal with the long term strategic threat to the US and the region. This analysis should clarify for the US that “there are two species of jihadis.” On the one hand there are the Salafists, al-Qaeda being the most extreme, and on the other hand is Iranian Islamism. I call on the US government administration to “start developing a national security doctrine which will see the threat as it is and not as it wants it to be.”
Q: How is the media in the Middle East reporting bin Laden’s death?
A: There are several kinds of media. Pro-Jihadist and Salafist media on the web and certain shows on Al-Jazeera are clearly anti-American. They are calling this an attack against Islam. The spin on bin Laden’s death is that he “wanted to die as a martyr” and “this will not change the course of al-Qaeda.”
For the most part, Al-Jazeera, although influenced by a Muslim Brotherhood-type outlook, is not making an issue of bin Laden’s death. They are making an issue of Pakistani sovereignty. They’re also advancing the point that now that bin Laden is dead, there is no reason for the US to be deployed in the region.
Q: How popular is this mindset?
A: Even if this viewpoint is not the majority, it is often the most vocal. We see this phenomenon in general with respect to Islamic fundamentalism. While civil society is generally moderate, the extremists are the most organized and the best equipped. I made the case for this in my last book, The Coming Revolution, which was published before the revolutions, in which I said that eventually all these societies are going to stand up. But at the same time, because they are not organized, “those who will harvest the revolution are the Islamists.” We see that now everywhere, including in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Q: Do we have a clear understanding of these dynamics in the West?
A: Many in Washington and the West have a bifurcated outlook. Some focus almost exclusively on the Islamist element and others focus almost exclusively on moderate civil society. We need a better analysis. What we have seen are truly popular revolutions on the onset. The Islamists on their own would not have been able to get hundreds of thousands into the streets. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did not show up until the third or fourth day. At the same time, the tidal wave of popular outrage is then co-opted by more organized Islamist elements whose aim is to take over the leadership. The West and the United States in particular have to be smart in understanding these forces, in understanding who controls what.
We need to partner with the right people. Within Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Jordan, and even to some degree the Arabian peninsula, the US must determine what are the pro democracy and civil society elements in those societies.
Q: Why has the American establishment analysis been clouded in your opinion?
A: Over the past many years, the body of experts serving the US foreign policy establishment “have not given the administration, the president, and Congress the right expertise.” In my book, Future Jihad, I describe how our academic expertise and the national security analysis that is derived from it is compromised. Most of those who give academic advice come from the universities, whose Middle East departments are funded to a large degree by petrodollar regimes with strings attached. Thus, we have generations that have been raised in the classroom with the ideas of apology for jihadism. In sum, this explains why the President and Congress did not have from their experts the right information on either the threat or the democracy forces in the region.
The bigger change has to be done not in the Middle East but here in Washington.
Q: Should the US have gone into Libya?
A: With the exception of genocide, there is no single principle by which to decide whether to enter a conflict. The other exception is helping defend an ally if we’re bound to do so by treaty. There is a ground to help the Libyan civil society defend itself against brutal oppression but at the same time the forces seeking democracy have to be identified clearly
Q: Is the conflict in Libya a revolution or a tribal conflict?
The jury is still out on this. In the beginning these were popular demonstrations against Qadaffi inspired by Tunisia and Egypt. The response by the regime was so sharp and violent that it encouraged members of the armed forces to break away and join demonstrators from their tribe or home town who were harmed in Qadaffi’s response. When you have a split army fighting each other along tribal lines, it’s a civil war.
We know Qadaffi is a bad guy, but we must also understand who is there to replace him. In my analysis, the core of the revolution in Libya is made up of former diplomats, bureaucrats, military personnel, and intellectuals. However, a wide swath of rebels is made up of Islamist-inspired militias. The concern is that if this conglomeration of groups reach Tripoli, the Islamists “would overthrow the others and then declare a Taliban or Muslim Brotherhood inspired state.”
Q: Do you believe economic sanctions will dissuade Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?
A: “Sanctions are not a policy, they are tools of a policy.” To change the course of the Iranian regime, additional pressure must accompany sanctions. Sanctions worked against South Africa and may work against Syria along with other measures, given the nature and interests of those countries. Iran, on the other hand, is interested in becoming a regional empire and a few sanctions will not dissuade them.
I am not even sure that more pressure will alter Iran’s course. Ultimately, what may required is regime change.
Some hold that they are against regime change in Iran because such change is accomplished through military action. Since they are against military action, by extension they oppose regime change.
But when we say regime change, it does not necessarily entail military action. The military option is for instances when national security is concerned. The other option, which I propose in my book, is to support the popular movement against the regime.
Q: Do you believe that the current US Administration failed to do this so far?
A: “The Administration is not yet there.” They were given a great opportunity in June 2009 when 1.5 million people marked for reform in the streets of Iran. The beauty about it is that 60% of them were under the age of 20 and half of all demonstrators were females. This is unusual. When you have young protesters of both genders who are not proposing fundamentalism as a solution, you are in business with moderate civil society.
The Obama Administration did not go for it and I do not see in Washington a real change of direction yet. We’ll see a real change when the narrative, speeches, expertise, behavior, and funding priorities will change.
Q: Iranian public opinion surveys, to the degree that they are accurate, show a wide support for pursuing nuclear development. The issue is seen as a matter of national pride and defense across the political spectrum. Will a more moderate regime alter nuclear development given the popular base of support for it?
A: If Iran was Italy or Poland, one would worry less about it seeking a nuclear segment of the economy or even a nuclear deterrent because those countries are committed to democratic ideals and norms.
Iran is a regime which has a stated goal to destroy Israel. To this effect, they support Hamas and Hezbollah and threaten use of missiles and gas. A nuclear weapon in the hands of such a regime is extremely detrimental to regional stability and to the West. What we need to see in Iran is not just a change of regime but of the political direction of that regime.
Currently, nuclear development is one way of expressing their national pride. Were they a practicing democracy, the Iranian regime would be focused on what to do with oil revenues, labor unions, and other quotidian concerns about the welfare of their citizens. In such an environment, Iranian nuclear ambitions could then be negotiated and they will likely find more productive ways of expressing their national dignity.
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Ukraine provides a good example, since at one point it had nukes. It left the Soviet orbit and is developing as a democracy. The basis of their pride now revolves primarily around economic development.
The Iranian alternative, the Green movement, is another Iran. If this Iran takes over, I would be less inclined to see Iranian nuclear development as posing a problem. But if, say, another president replaces Ahmadinejad, this is not true reform. We need to see change at the level of Khamenei—not an Islamic republic, but just another democratic republic.
Q: Switching our focus for a moment, how will the recently announced Fatah-Hamas unity government affect prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace?
A: First issue is how will the alter the Palestinian scene itself. It is unfortunate that Mahmoud Abbas accepted the deal of unifying Fatah and Hamas without even asking Hamas to reform. They have killed hundreds if not thousands of Palestinians in Gaza. In my opinion, Mahmoud Abbas has done a poor evaluation of events after the Egyptian revolution. He figured the Palestinians are not getting much from the Israelis and the United States is busy with other matters. These are legitimate concerns. The reaction to this was to go to the opposite pole of their position and join with Hamas.
What factored into this decision? The Egyptian revolution has brought the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) to have a significant influence on the Egyptian military, which is now going to be more supportive of Hamas, and MB offshoot. Also, since Hamas is going to be supported by a Sunni regional power, they are expected to move away from Iran. The thinking was that if Fatah connects with Hamas, they will be at equal distance from the Egyptians. This is a big mistake because in Egypt there will be a struggle between MB on the one hand and the moderates on the other. The military will aim to survive and maintain the dollars coming from the US. Palestinian interests are not their primary concern.
My view is that the military is allowing this level of MB influence for peculiar reasons. The MB has a lot of embarrassing information on the military establishment about their financial involvement in the Egyptian economy. As a result, the military is trying to establish an understanding with the MB while keeping an equal distance from the United States. The military does not fear distancing from Israel because it does not receive any tangible support from them. With respect to maintaining peace, the US will anyone come and moderate between the US and Israel because it is important to them.
In short, Egypt will not be as important a partner as the United States for the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas should have instead built a direct relationship with the United States, and that would have been his guarantee to continue negotiations with the Israelis. As for the original question, my feeling is that Hamas will eat the PLO and not the other way around in this instance.
Q: Does that change European policy?
The Europeans are divided. We have the classical more “progressive” Europeans who will continue to be with Hamas, albeit in a very limited way. There are also Europeans who are concerned with the rise of Islamism worldwide. The politics in Europe are moving slightly right, while the political establishment remains tilted to the left. In other words, the majority of the elites in Europe are on the progressive/left while the majority of the public is going in another direction. At some point there will be a political clash within Europe. That is why official Europe considers Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood as acceptable partners, but the emerging Europe will be very different.
David Bratslavsky comments on US foreign policy and the Middle East. Follow StreetSmartPolitics on Facebook and Twitter.