Q&A With Bernard Lewis
Wall Street Journal - By Frederick Kempe
Dec 13, 2005
The Wall Street Journal's Thinking Global columnist Frederick Kempe talks with Bernard Lewis, a historian and intellectual force behind U.S. policy in the Middle East. They discuss the short American attention span, the effort to spread democracy, Iraq vs. Vietnam, "liberation" vs. "containment" policy, and the scope of the threat from Islamist radicals.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: As a historian, do you believe Americans appreciate the gravity of the moment in Iraq?
BERNARD LEWIS: Two things. One, in this country I think you will agree there is a general lack of interest in history, even a certain contempt for history. In American English if you say, "That's history," it means, "It's over and done with and of no current interest or relevance." Second, there is a tendency not to take much notice of other cultures and other civilizations. Yet there is in America a sort of basic instinct for what is good and right in a society, and that works surprisingly well.
Q: One U.S. general recently told me he worries that the American attention span is too short for an initiative that may take years to show success.
A: The American attention span is too short. I would agree with him on that. There have been several examples through the '90s. Two obvious ones are Lebanon and Mogadishu.
Q: The most compelling argument the Bush administration puts forward of why to stick it out in Iraq is an appeal to our sense of history and that we'll all be happier ten or twenty years from now.
A: The strongest argument is the astonishing success now of the democratic process in Iraq. This is a country that has been through decades of ruthless dictatorship. Yet within a comparatively short time, first they hold a genuine, free, honest, contested election in which millions of Iraqis consciously, knowingly risk their lives standing in lines to vote. That is a remarkable test. Following that, the results of the election were inconclusive. So the Iraqis advance to the second test of democracy, negotiation and compromise, which is probably more difficult than even holding the election. And they've been doing that. Then there was another election, a referendum on the constitution, and now this week they are going to vote on a national parliament. Despite internal difficulties and external sabotage, the process of democratization has succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations.
Q: Yet some worry that democracy can produce a worse outcome than what we now have. The success in Egyptian elections of the Muslim Brotherhood is a case in point.
A: The process of democracy is neither quick nor easy. There are dangers. Hitler came to power through a free and fair election. But the dangers are increased when we are seen as supporters of corrupt and repressive regimes indifferent to the freedom and well-being of their subjects.
In Iraq, I am not so worried. Democracy doesn't come all at once. It has to be developed in stages, and it seems to be doing very well. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt represents a real danger. Yet if they come into power they will have to cope with the monstrous problems Egypt faces. If, like the theocracy in Iran, they fail to deal with these problems, they will have to face the anger of their own people. The danger: they wouldn't leave office by the same way they came, through free elections.
Q: Some would argue that the strength of the Iraqi insurgency shows the outcome hasn't been a better system but either a worse situation or even anarchy.
A: Fear was expressed in Europe and in certain circles of the United States that democracy couldn't work in Iraq. There is a much more deadly fear in the Middle East that democracy in Iraq will work, and that fact that it is working relatively well is why that shabby collection of tyrants who rule most of the Middle East are dead scared. Also, when the terrorists attack a wedding party in Amman, these are desperate measures. They feel they're losing. And they are.
Q: If this victory is so clear, why aren't Americans feeling that way.
A: My specialization is the Middle East and not the Middle West.
Q: Tack a crack at it anyway; U.S. popular support will be important in shaping the outcome.
A: I have the impression that a considerable part of the American people don't really believe the rest of the world exists. There is a certain impatience. Things have to be done quickly or not at all. We saw that on various occasions in the past, and sometimes it's self-destructive. Our enemies love that. If you look at the writings and pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and his associates, they have learned the lessons of Vietnam and Mogadishu very well, much better than people here have learned them.
Q: Some say Iraq is a new Vietnam.
A: The comparison is often made with Vietnam. Now one may have differing views on Vietnam, but withdrawing was a disaster for the Vietnamese. A million or more of them became refugees, risking everything to get out of the hell in which we left them. But that was the end of it. The Viet Cong didn't follow us here, nor was there any danger they would. But this is different. They are here. We are dealing not with a local enemy but a global enemy. They have made this perfectly clear they see this as a war in three phases. The first phase is evicting the infidels from the lands of Islam, the second phase is recovering what they see as the lost lands of Islam -- which means Spain, Sicily, and the Balkans, and of course Palestine -- and the third one is taking the war into the enemy camp to achieve final global triumph.
Q: Do you feel the Bush administration is wavering in its commitment to Mideast democratization?
A: It's difficult to read. Sometimes it looks one way and sometimes it looks another way.
There is a school of thought which would run something like this, not just for the Middle East but for Central America and all sorts of other places of the world as well. It goes, "These people are incapable of decent democratic or civilized government. Whatever we do they will be ruled by sons of bitches, and the aim of diplomacy should be to ensure that they are our sons of bitches and not otherwise. That is a well-known philosophy, still shared by certain [U.S.] policy-makers for the Middle East. I think it is a dangerous fallacy. Yet it's strongly held and still being advanced.
Q: It's been said that you are the closest thing we have today to George Kennan in setting out the doctrine for this administration in the Mideast in the way he did for the Cold War with "containment."
A: Mutatis mutandis. Make the necessary adjustments. What I am afraid of is that what we may be doing is creating in the Middle East the same situation we had in Central America, where they have a choice between Castro and Noriega, dictators hostile or submissive.
Q: Some say we should introduce a new form of containment now instead of putting our own soldiers' in harms way in the region.
A: Containment won't work now. With the Soviets we were dealing with a government in power and mutual deterrence could work. Before very long the so-called Islamists will have nuclear weapons and if they are used it will not be by governments but by terrorists, they will be used by terrorists, and they won't have any return address on them.
Q: If you look at the Bush administration now, it doesn't seem to have any stomach for regime change in Syria, where most of the terrorists cross to Iraq.
A: Syria's government is obviously faltering. The government is under attack at home. It has already withdrawn from Lebanon. A democratic process is reviving in Lebanon. And there are even glimmerings in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In the Palestinian territories, you see an awakening of democracy. In recent months I've been able to have conversations with people in Arab countries of a kind that would previously been impossible.
Q: For example?
A: People are more ready to express disgust with their own leadership, there's a growing desire for more open and free society. One hears things that would have been shocking previously, such as: "Israel is not the first priority. There are other things we have to deal with first." There are even people who speak with respect of Israel … I've been with people in Arab countries who watch on Israeli television an Arab member of parliament standing up in the house and denouncing the policies and direction of the Israeli government -- on Israeli television, For them it is a mind-boggling experience. It doesn't make them love Israel any more, but it does give them some appreciation of the democratic process. It seems that one can do better as second-class citizens in a democracy than as a first-class citizen in a dictatorship.
Q: So why do you think it was the Iraq war that has helped set off changes elsewhere?
A: It simply is not true that Saddam Hussein's form of government is normal in this part of the world. This kind of arbitrary dictatorship has no roots, either in the Arab or the Islamic past. The traditional form of government isn't democratic, it is authoritarian, but it is not despotic, it is not arbitrary and it is not above the law. They have a very strong political tradition of government according to law and political limits. (See "Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East" by Bernard Lewis in Foreign Affairs.)
What was important for the Middle East in Iraq was the fact that a tyrannical regime was removed, that the people are free to express themselves, that the United States did not try to install a tame tyrant but really tried to open the way for the people of Iraq to choose their own government, and this is something new and wonderful.
A successful democracy in Iraq, for example, would be very dangerous for the present rulers of Iran. A largely Shia country practicing democracy would be very worrisome across the border.
Q: Do you believe military means can bring about further changes in the region. Syria? Iran?
A: If you mean U.S. military means, I am against it. I think that there is great opposition in both Syria and Iran to their governments. Iranians and Syrians with a little help from outside can do the job themselves.
Q: What is your general view of the situation, in Iraq and the Mideast? Are you growing more or less confident of positive change?
A: I would describe my position as one of cautious optimism. My optimism derives from events in the Mideast and my caution derives from observing the United States. The situation in Iraq is vastly better than what you would know from reading the media, which really do often present a misleading picture of what's happening. In many, many ways Iraqi life has improved enormously, in terms of freedom of press, economic and social improvements, the educational system is reviving. The terrorism is only limited to a certain area, but the terrorists and their sponsors are becoming more and more desperate because they see they are losing.
Q: The daily reports of killings can lead one to believe otherwise.
A: What's astonishing when they blow up half the people standing in line at a recruitment center, kill them, is that the next day the other half are back there waiting to enroll. That's remarkable. It's happened time and time again.
Q: What have we done wrong in Iraq?
A: The sooner we get out the better, but we cannot just cut and run. The people I talk to in Iraq say we could do a lot better in handing over, in giving Iraqis a bigger share in, for example, the recruitment and training of security personnel.
There were several stages when we could have avoided all these problems with very little trouble. When we had Saddam Hussein on the run [in 1991], we could have finished the job in a matter of hours. The argument at the time was that would have meant going on to Baghdad and setting up an imperial administration, which was nonsense. The Iraqis would have been capable of doing it themselves, but we stopped and let Saddam reconstitute his government. We backed down at a crucial moment.
There was then a free zone in the [Kurdish] north. There were interesting possibilities. It was one-fifth of the territory and one-fifth the population of Iraq. They were beyond Saddam's reach. There were lots of things we could have done from there at the time, but we didn't. That was another missed opportunity.
Q: And mistakes regarding the war?
A: What was really striking was the ease with which the conquest was completed. There was virtually no resistance. Saddam's army just faded away. The country was peaceful for a while. That was an opportunity that was lost. One could have installed something more genuinely Iraqi. It would have been perfectly possible at the time. Setting up a kind of viceroy arrangement in the style of the 19th century British Empire was not a good idea. Looking back now, the actual defeat of Saddam Hussein and occupation of Iraq was remarkably peaceful and easy. People speak with derision about Iraqis not welcoming us. They did. They would have welcomed us much more readily if we hadn't let them down ten years earlier.
Q: What's the lesson?
A: Our job is not to create democracy. Our job is to remove obstacles and let them create their own. That is what we did in Germany, Italy and Japan, and it is what we should do in Iraq. And now we seem to have moved in that direction.
Q: If George Kennan's doctrine was "containment" how would you characterize your own for the Mideast?
Q: Would you expand?
A: I think that's clear enough. Enable them to achieve or recover their freedom, to which they are entitled no less than anyone else in the world.
Q: So more activist than was our Soviet policy of containment. Why?
A: Well, we were dealing with the Soviet Union, a mighty imperial power, and we're not dealing with anything like that in the Middle East. But comparatively small terrorist movements now are potentially more dangerous than the entire Soviet Union because mutual deterrence won't work. In any case, the Soviet Union did not use suicide bombers. Suicide was not part of Communist ideology.
Q: It's said your influence has been decisive on the Bush administration.
A: I may have had some influence but I think this is greatly exaggerated. I have never at any time been a formal consultant..
Q: Do you believe the Bush administration is wavering on this liberation policy?
A: "It's difficult to read. Sometimes it looks one way and sometimes it looks another way."
Q: How do you best take on the insurgency in Iraq?
A: This is a military question for which I am not competent.
Q: It's a central question. Any general thoughts?
A: We should look more closely into the places from where the insurgents come, Syria and Saudi Arabia and look there.
Q: So what is the historical context you think Americans and Europeans are missing?
A: The threat we face now is more like that of the Third Reich than that of the Soviet Union. It is more militant, more violent, and commands a good deal of support. We are much more threatened than we ever were by the Soviet Union. I would compare where we are to Britain in 1940 add the threat of Hitler and the Nazis. I began the year as a very junior teacher in the University of London and ended the year as a very junior member of his majesties forces. At that time, we were alone, the Soviet Union was supporting Hitler, the united states was at that time resolutely neutral, nevertheless I and my contemporaries had no doubt we would win. I wish I were as confident now as I was then of our final victory.
Q: Why are you less confident now?
A: By 1940, we had no doubts or hesitations. We knew we faced a ruthless and dangerous enemy and we knew we had to stand together. I think now when I look back that if Churchill and his team had had to face the same sort of opposition as does President Bush, Hitler might well have won the war. They are more dangerous than Hitler because we are not as firm as we were with Hitler. And also times have changed. We didn't confront the possibility of nuclear terrorists with suicidal ambitions.
Q: But a difference with Hitler is we also have no territorial target.
A: It makes it more difficult.
Q: It also means they can't occupy us.
A: The danger is not to occupy but to devastate. They have all the modern possibilities. And in Europe, in some respects they are taking over already. You see that in many ways. Already the Muslim religion enjoys an immunity from criticism that Christianity has lost and Judaism never had. In this Christian West it is much safer to criticize Christian values than Muslim values.
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