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Middle East Scorecard

An Interview with Lee Smith

Lee Smith Spring 2010

On February 28, inFOCUS Editor Matthew RJ Brodsky interviewed Lee Smith, author of the new book, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations. Smith writes a weekly column called "Agents of Influence" for Tablet Magazine, and is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. He has worked at a number of journals, magazines, and publishers, including GQ Magazine, the Hudson Review, and Talk Magazine. He was also editor-in-chief of the Voice Literary Supplement, the Village Voice's national monthly literary magazine. Smith has been a frequent guest on radio and television, including Fox News and National Public Radio, and has contributed articles on Arab and Islamic affairs to, among other publications, the Weekly Standard, the New York Times, the New Republic, and the Boston Globe.

iF: What inspired the title of your new book, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations ?

LS: The title comes from Osama Bin Laden’s observation, “when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”smith_lee2

iF: What is your book’s central thesis and why did you decide to write it?

LS: I was raised in New York City and wanted to understand and explain why almost 3,000 of my neighbors were killed on 9/11. So I sought to explain the centrality of violence in Middle Eastern politics and society to an American audience that is freakishly lucky insofar as we are able, unlike the majority of human beings throughout history, to conduct our political lives free of bloodshed, repression and coercion. Because we have inherited this system we tend to assume that most of the world’s other political cultures are similar to ours. Some are but many more are not; the political culture of the Arabic-speaking Middle East is one that has no mechanism for sharing power, or transmitting political authority from one governing body to another except through inheritance, coup or conquest.

iF: A cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy has been engagement based on the idea of “resetting” our relations with certain countries. Does such a metaphorical reset button exist and how does it work in the Middle East?

LS: Such a button could only exist, even metaphorically, if American interests and policies were subject to change every time a new president came to office. Since they are not, all the “reset” button did was to inadvertently make explicit what everyone already knows about the United States: new administrations typically ignore the lessons of their predecessors and have to make their own mistakes before they are capable of dealing with the reality that is, rather than the reality they promised on the campaign trail.

Let’s hope the administration has learned from its errors over the past year. Among others, they should have discovered that: 1) despite the counsel of academic experts and media pundits, there is a point past which you cannot “strong-arm” an Israeli government; 2) the Saudis do not offer confidence-building gestures toward Jerusalem and it is unwise to push them on this in public; 3) the Iranians do not wish to have normal bilateral relations with Washington, a preference they have made clear to five different U.S. administrations over the last 30 years.

iF: How would you say the president’s strategy of engagement has worked so far?

LS: It’s been a disaster, but not because engagement is in itself a bad idea. First of all, let’s be precise: engagement is neither a strategy nor a policy; it is one aspect, and not the extent, of diplomacy; it is an instrument that all U.S. presidents have used, including Obama’s predecessor. The problem is not that Obama used to his advantage the mischaracterization of George W. Bush as a trigger-happy unilateralist cowboy who preferred bloodshed to diplomacy; after all, he was running for president and just about anything’s fair game. The problem is that Obama took this show on the road. When you visit foreign capitals and run down your domestic opponents, you invite foreigners to participate in your domestic affairs and side with you against the nearly half of the country that you represent but voted for your opponent. That makes it hard not only to govern the U.S., but also to compel foreigners to take your foreign policy seriously; they know you’re not really speaking to them. Obama seems to have realized what he was doing and adjusted his rhetoric when he presented a more robust defense of American foreign policy in his Nobel acceptance speech.

As for his other big speech in Cairo, that was a bad idea to begin with. The president wanted to speak to the Muslim world, but what is that? Assuming the Muslim world includes American Muslims, why go to Cairo deliver a speech? That the Egyptian capital is a traditional Sunni citadel was not lost on the Shia. Indeed, in the sectarian states of the Middle East, there are no Muslims, only Sunni and Shia. So what is the Muslim world? There is no caliphate, no unified order – instead, there are separate nation-states, with many of whom we have alliances and share strategic interests. This is how we interact politically, diplomatically and even militarily with the rest of the world, as a nation-state; and our president is the chief executive of a secular republic, not a religious leader who calls on different parts of the globe according to how they conceive of their religious identity. To address the Muslim world as such plays into the public diplomacy campaign of our adversaries: it is the Islamic Republic of Iran who promotes the idea of a single Muslim umma, unified in resistance against the United States and its Middle East allies, not just Israel but also the Sunni Arab states. Almost no one came out of that speech the better for it.

Maybe the one minor upside to the Cairo speech is that polls show how in certain parts of the Middle East, people look more favorably on the U.S. than they did during the Bush years. Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate into real policy gains. The Egyptian president, for instance, is more likely to cooperate with Washington on precisely which issues because the Egyptian masses like Obama a little more than they liked Bush? The recently thwarted terror attacks in NY and Detroit show that, logically enough, the president’s approval ratings have no bearing on reducing levels of anti-American terror.

Finally, the actual process of engagement has not proven successful. The Iranians just don’t want to talk, a prospect that the administration never seems to have entertained, for while the president said on the campaign trail that an Iranian nuclear program is unacceptable, the administration has all but announced that it is now acceptable since it believes Tehran can be contained and deterred. The fact however is that our security architecture in the Persian Gulf has been designed for over 65 years to prevent just the sort of breakout that an Iranian nuclear program represents. If the Iranians get the bomb, we will not be entering an era of containment but leaving it.

iF: How do you see the clash of Arab civilizations and strong horse politics playing out in the Middle East today, and who are the main actors vying for supremacy?

LS: There are many different clashes today throughout the region, including, among others: Fatah versus Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria against the government of Lebanon, Yemen and Saudi Arabia taking on the Houthi rebellion, etc. But the most significant conflict in the Arabic-speaking Middle East features two non-Arab powers, Iran and the United States. Tehran and its allies, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah, are making a run at the U.S.-backed regional order, which includes Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other oil-producing Gulf Arab states. The stakes are very high; it’s possible we may forfeit the hegemony that we’ve exercised in the Persian Gulf for more than 65 years. We may lose and some, allies and adversaries alike, think we are losing.

iF: What would happen in the region if Iran were able to produce a nuclear weapon?

LS: The immediate concern is the nuclear arms race it would touch off. I think it’s likely that these Middle Eastern regimes would be able to deter each other in the same way that they deter each other by backing various Islamist organizations. For instance, Jordan and Syria support each other’s chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, as if to say, if you try to bring down my regime with the MB, I’ll do the same to you.

The problem then is that these regimes use terrorist organizations, and the prospect of nuclear weapons falling into their hands is awful to contemplate. Washington has already signaled that there are no return addresses for attacks by terrorists, even, presumably WMD attacks. This is what the Saddam and Al Qaeda argument was all about. The Bush administration never said Saddam was responsible for 9/11; it investigated the possibility of connections between the two, connections that we now know did exist. But the Washington policy establishment fought back against Bush and the “necons.” Sure, officially we acknowledge there are state sponsors of terror, but practically speaking we ignore that states are responsible for the majority of so-called stateless terror around the world. There are a few reasons why, not least of which is the peace process. How do you justify to the American people the time, money and prestige expended on a peace process with a state like Syria that is up to its waist in the blood of Americans and our allies?

The other issue with an Iranian nuclear bomb is that it would supply concrete evidence that the culture and ideology of resistance works, whereas compromise and agreement leads only to humiliation. It will re-shape the political culture of the entire region and some of our allies are scared they will be swept away by it, just as Sadat was murdered in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

iF: Some realists argue that American support for Israel is a central reason why the U.S. is not liked in the Middle East. Does America’s relationship with Israel come at the expense of better relations with Arab states?

LS: Washington has relations with virtually every member of the Arab League. The amount of money that U.S. taxpayers have spent protecting our oil-producing Arab friends in the Persian Gulf dwarfs the amount of aid we’ve given Israel. So, no, our relationship with Jerusalem does not come at the expense of our many Arab allies.

There are lots of reasons we’re not liked in the Middle East, and yes, backing Israel is one of them. This hardly means, as some counsel, that we should check our support for the Jewish state. This is not a realist argument, but a preposterous one. Imagine the consequences: it would set a precedent for anyone who doesn’t like U.S. policies that the easiest way to get what you want is kill American citizens and threaten to kill more unless Washington changes its policies.

Martin Kramer is someone who makes a genuinely realist argument: it is because the Arabs know that our reliable Israeli ally is strongly backed by Washington that has kept the peace in the Eastern Mediterranean and prevented the outbreak of state-on-state wars since 1973. Kramer argues that our problems in the Persian Gulf – Saddam, al-Qaeda, Iran – are because we have no ally there like Israel.

iF: In your book, you write that some Arab states have started to see Israel as a strong horse to counterbalance Iran. Can you elaborate?

LS: In the last four years, Israel has made war on two Iranian assets, Hezbollah and Hamas. The latter confrontation was more successful than the first, which is why states like Egypt were more vocal in their support of Israel. Nonetheless, Washington’s Arab allies also wanted Israel to hurt Hezbollah but were forced to put a lid on it once the Olmert government showed its incompetence. Now the issue is not just Iranian allies, but Tehran itself. As it appears that Washington will not stop the program, the task is presumably left to Jerusalem. I have heard from informed sources that Gulf Arab officials support an Israeli attack, provided it succeeds. Assuming Israel does succeed, its prestige in the region will be enhanced, while America’s will suffer since it tasked out the heavy lifting to its junior partner rather than do the work itself.

iF: Given that Saudi Arabia and Israel share the same concerns about Iran, what are the prospects of that relationship growing?

LS: Maybe they’ll have open relations someday in the future, but remember that the Middle East works on a different timeline. Reportedly there are meetings between officials from both sides on the Iran issue and this is enough for now. Moreover, it is a solid foundation for expanding the relationship since this is how bilateral relations are typically built between Middle Eastern states, though security arrangements brokered by intelligence agencies. A shared mutual interest in security is the basis of the Israeli-Jordan accord, without which the treaty would just be a sheaf of papers.

iF: What do you make of the administration’s decision to return an ambassador to Syria and what should we be looking to accomplish with Syria?

Even Bush administration officials admit that merely isolating Damascus did not bring about the desired change in Syrian behavior. But why doing an about-face is a much better idea is not immediately obvious. Do we really need an ambassador in Damascus to explain to the Syrian regime that we still want what we have wanted over the last half-decade? I doubt it, but what’s the harm? A U.S. envoy is not going to tip the scales, for the better or the worse. Certainly we would like it if Syria would help to stabilize Iraq, but after destabilizing the country for the last seven years, it should be clear Damascus has no interest in a stable Iraq. We would like Syria to make peace with Israel, but that requires Bashar al-Asad to cut off support for Hezbollah and Hamas and it is futile to imagine that he will throw away the cards that allow him to project power and make Washington take him seriously. We also want Asad to distance himself from the Iranians, and it is testimony to the incoherence of the administration’s Iran policy that we are taking Syria out of isolation in order to isolate Iran. Damascus has paid no price for the clandestine nuclear facility destroyed in 2007 and now they are back to working on joint nuclear efforts with North Korea. And it seems that the Special Tribunal on Lebanon, which was presumably going to hold Syrian officials responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, has stalled.

In short, we have forfeited the very little bit of leverage we had on Damascus. However, it can get even worse. The Bush administration leveled sanctions against the Syrian regime as a punitive measure, to show them that they can’t have both terrorism and money. If we ease sanctions on the regime, as some around Washington are now advising, we will effectively be rewarding Damascus for not killing as many U.S. soldiers in Iraq and allies in Lebanon and Israel as they have in the past. That is, we will be inciting terrorism against us and our allies.

iF: The Palestinian-Israeli peace process has not made much progress in the last year. What can be done to advance the prospects for peace among Israelis and Palestinians?

LS: First of all, let’s put this in context, both historical and regional. In my reading, the Jews are one of many Middle Eastern minorities, including Shia, Christians, Kurds, Druze, Alawi etc. None of them, in a history going back over 1,400 years, has ever had a peace accord with the Middle East’s Sunni majority. Israel, as the realization of one regional minority’s dream of self-determination, has treaties with two Sunni states, Egypt and Jordan. From that point of view, Israel is doing very well.

But as for an Israel-Palestinian peace, for a moment I’ll go along with the conventional wisdom that says let’s be patient and keep building up the PA security forces and the West Bank economy, and these will be the pillars of a genuine peace agreement sometime in the not too-distant future. But we all know this could go south at any moment; what happens if Salam Fayyad is ousted, peacefully or otherwise? What happens if the PA security forces turn their American weapons and American training on the IDF, as has happened before?

So what I really mean to say is this: maybe Palestinians and Israelis will never have peace the way, say, Europe today understands the concept. But for most of history, peace was not a free-floating condition guaranteed by a distant superpower; rather, it was the carefully managed and maintained state of affairs that can only be earned through war. People fight because they have competing versions of peace; your peace is not only different from mine, but it may also prevent me from enjoying my version. The U.S. Fifth fleet patrols the Persian Gulf to ensure the free flow of affordable oil because the stability of global markets is a prerequisite of the peace America earned by winning World War II. The Germans were on the front lines of the Cold War because they lost World War II and we won it; it was our peace and we imposed our conditions on them whether they liked it or not. The only reason people who are not clinically insane make war is to shape the conditions of their peace and not have someone else’s version of it imposed upon them. The Palestinians understand this, and most Israelis seem to get it as well. The Israelis have a state and the Palestinians have a choice. That is to say, from this perspective, the Israelis already have their peace, even as they must defend it with war. The Palestinians, on the other hand, can either keep fighting in order to win their version of peace or they can lay down their arms, effectively accepting Israel’s peace. Hence it seems quite possible the Palestinians will never put down their arms. If you want the sort of ahistorical peace that the Europeans talk about, you will not find it anytime soon anywhere in the Middle East.

iF: If you had the ear of President Obama, what advice would give him today regarding the Middle East?

LS: First, I would tell him the same thing all of our regional allies, from Jerusalem to Riyadh, have told him – stop the Iranian nuclear program by any means necessary and do it now. Polls show that the majority of Americans also feel this way, so I’m not telling him anything he hasn’t already heard.

Second, Afghanistan is a waste of resources, time and prestige. The U.S. has no vital interest in Afghanistan. We are there for two bad reasons. The first is to defeat an outfit backed by dangerous elements of our Pakistani ally’s security services so that the government in Islamabad’s nuclear weapons don’t fall stay into the hands of those same bad elements of the ISI. This is not strategy; it’s a bank shot. Don’t ask the Russians for help on Afghanistan; play balance of power with them, China and India, three regional nuclear powers that have reason to be concerned about the stability of Pakistan, and force them all to deal with it. It should make us very worried that the administration believes it can contain the Iranian nuclear program, but hasn’t figured out how to deter Pakistan without U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The other reason we’re in Afghanistan is even worse. If we leave, some say, we’ll be showing our adversaries that, in the words of Bin Laden, we’re a paper tiger. If it seems that the strong horse principle dictates that we have to stay and fight the Taliban, there is nothing strong horse about letting someone else shape your strategy and tie you down with petty affairs. If Sheikh Osama thinks we’re a paper tiger, that’s his problem. We shouldn’t be shedding American blood to teach terrorists how to do the math.

Third, Iraq is much more important than this administration seems to think. Besides oil and a port, Iraq matters because it represents a forward position bordering two adversaries, Iran and Syria, and a very problematic and often dangerous ally in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, our investment in Iraq has produced a U.S.-trained and U.S.-allied Arab military, and more importantly has put an Arab security service at our disposal. It would be careless to throw these away.

And finally, at the risk of redundancy, there’s Iran.

iF: Thank you for your time.