The Arab World after the Iraq War

The Arab World after the Iraq War

Jerry Green, Middle East specialist for RAND, takes up weapons of mass destruction in Syria, Ahmad Chalabi, nation-building in Afghanistan, and the effects on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

[Following is a slightly abridged text of Jerry Green's address to the April 16 session of the Honors Collegium 155 undergraduate seminar, held in Dodd Hall, UCLA. His title was "War with Iraq – Diversion, Necessity, or Mistake?" The unusual 10-part seminar, which is open to the general public as well as being a credit course for students, is sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. The series is hosted by Geoffrey Garrett, Vice Provost of the International Institute and Director of the Ronald W. Burkle Center, and Steven Spiegel, Associate Director of the Burkle Center. The series presents distinguished experts from throughout Southern California on the most pressing issues confronting America and the world today.

[Jerry Green is Director of International Programs and Development at the RAND Corporation and he is the head of RAND's Center for Middle East Policy. Has taught at the University of Michigan and the University of Arizona.]

* * *

I'm very pleased to be here and I particularly want to welcome Monroe High School [56 high school students attended the lecture as special guests].

Originally when Steve [Spiegel] and Geoff [Garrett] asked me to do this, the original title was "Iraq: Diversion, Necessity, or Mistake?" And actually what we can talk about now is "Iraq: History," because what we thought might have happened, that stage has already happened, it has ended. We are already into the next stage.

I teach a class in U.S. Middle East policy at USC and I said to my students, How often during one of your classes does a war get talked about, begin, and end all within one semester? It's sort of uniquely American, at least the speed.

We can talk about the implications regionally for the war, and this is where it gets disjointed. Rather than being elegant and stitching something together that fits very neatly, I thought I ought to talk about a number of the issues that are resulting from this, ending up with the war on terrorism, which was the reason for this course being designed in the first place.

I just came back from the Middle East. I was in Saudi Arabia last week for a week, and there were a number of benefits, one of which was I didn't have to rely on CNN. I was actually able to watch all sorts of other things, al-Jazeera, Egyptian TV, Syrian TV, and the BBC for that matter. So I actually came back and felt better informed because I didn't have to hear people that were embedded and could tell me about a sand dune, but had something a little more interesting and richer to say. I also spoke to a lot of Saudi officials and others, which was informative as well.

Who's Next?

Now, one prevailing concern throughout the region is the Who's Next? question. Before this was even brought to a halt, many actors in the Middle East were concerned that Iraq was only the first step in what is being called the democracy domino effect. There are those in Washington who would assert that with the successful institution of democracy in Iraq this will lead to the creation of a series of democracies across the Middle East. We can certainly accuse them of being, perhaps, ethnocentric. We could accuse them of being somewhat naive. But we can't accuse them of lacking in ambition. This is a remarkable -- and I don't mean remarkable in the good sense but remarkable in the big sense -- type of expectation.

But there are people who genuinely have this view and many of them are serving in government. And it is important for us to be attentive to that view and try to understand it. Whether or not we accept it is somewhat less meaningful, certainly to them at least, since they are in government and we are not.

Iran has been concerned, ever since being put on the axis of evil list alongside Iraq and North Korea. There is great sensitivity in Iran about U.S. regional involvement. And indeed if we were to talk to people in Tehran, what they might say is reason for concern is that the United States has great influence in Afghanistan, the United States has some influence in Pakistan, the United States is now going to have great influence in Iraq. And therefore we in the Islamic Republic are ringed by a number of countries, all of which are closely aligned with the United States. This, in addition to our being called the axis of evil, raises some reason for concern. And I think that obviously their concern is understandable. I would be surprised if Iran were next. But having said that, life is full of surprises, and from an Iranian perspective at least, I think vigilance and concern is warranted.

Did the Weapons of Mass Destruction Go to Syria?

There is a lot of talk about Syria. And about the weapons of mass destruction, which we have yet to locate, which we need to find in order to justify the war for which there was not a great deal of global sympathy. The coalition is looking, although when they talk about the coalition forces this is the Americans, the British, and a small number of Australians, while the term coalition suggests something larger, more reminiscent of the first Gulf War. But having said that, it is quite clear that we are assiduously hunting these weapons of mass destruction, and there are accusations that the weapons have been brought over the border to Syria.

This would not be without precedent. During the first Gulf War, Iraq shipped a number of its planes to Iran and asked the Iranians to hold them for him. So it is not unprecedented that Iraq would export materials that are of some concern. The Iranians would not return the planes to Iraq, which I thought showed a sense of humor at least. It certainly is conceivable that these WMDs have crossed the border to Syria. But having said that, the evidence is certainly not available.

It is also asserted -- again, there is no evidence as yet -- that a number of the top fifty people on our list, the people that we would like to apprehend in Iraq, have made their way across the border to Syria and that President Dr. Asad is allowing them to stay there. Again it's not unreasonable. There is no evidence, but it is a reasonable hypothesis at least.

Finally, we may be just saber rattling with Syria. We certainly are sending very menacing, threatening signals to Syria. There is one precedent here, which I am not supporting, I am just contextualizing: Abdullah Ocalan, who is the head of the Kurdish group that was of greatest concern to Turkey, took refuge in Damascus. The Turkish army then mobilized on the Syrian border, and threatened to invade. And lo and behold, the Syrians coughed up Ocalan, who is now in prison somewhere in Turkey. Sso that the Syrians are not impervious to military threats. Dr. Asad is a new, relatively untested young leader. Perhaps the people in Washington feel that, as was the case with Turkey, some pressure with Syria will lead to the outcome that we hope. Perhaps this is not what they are thinking. I am just trying to understand their behavior. But certainly there is a great deal of concern in Syria, and throughout the region and elsewhere, that Syria may be next on the list.

A Great Deal of Uncertainty in the Arab World

When I was in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis asked me would they be next? And here I think they were talking less about a military action against Saudi Arabia than about pressure by the United States on Saudi Arabia to collaborate more closely in the war on terrorism. U.S.-Saudi relations have been less than ideal of late, so the Saudis were concerned about the possibility that the Bush administration might attempt to use its military success in Iraq in order to leverage something from the Saudis.

The point I am making is that there is a great deal of uncertainty throughout the region. There is a lot of concern throughout the region. People and governments are concerned that perhaps as a result of the success in Iraq the United States may try to use this against them. So this is one consequence of the war.

Second, what are the implications of the war for the Arab world? It was rather unfortunate having to watch the deliberations of the Arab League and poor Amr Musa, who is the head of the Arab League. They really found it difficult to even look serious. Certainly the fact that they could not reach consensus is part of the charm of the Arab League, but it was unfortunate that on this issue the Arab governments and the Arab leaders were unable to agree on much of anything. And as a consequence there are questions, which I think are not all that valid, about the future of the Arab League.

There clearly is a tension in many Arab countries between their governments and their populations, and within their governments. There is across-the-board dissatisfaction, with the exception of Kuwait, with the war on Iraq. But the Arab governments were not not able to dissuade the United States and the UK from going this course. In fact, Syria, it is now forgotten, actually supported one of the earlier UN resolutions that was put forward by the United States having to do with weapons inspections. So there was a moment of compliance. But the Arab world is still reeling from the Iraq experience and is deeply, deeply concerned about the future of the region.

I guess this is where I part company with a lot of my colleagues. I'm frankly not as deeply concerned by this as I am supposed to be, as a Middle East scholar. The unhappiness of the Arab world is supposed to deeply trouble me. I should predict to you all sorts of horrible things that are going happen because the Arab world is unhappy with the United States. I find that a little bit difficult to do. U.S. policy has been so out of sync with the concerns and interests in the Arab world for so long that I am not persuaded that yet another example of this occurring is likely to change things in a way that is likely to be terribly significant.

Bush's Pledge to Support a Palestinian State

This leads to my next point, and this is one where we really need to be more attentive. The United States government is formally on record as being committed to the creation of a democratic Palestinian state. This is a President Bush initiative rather than a President Clinton initiative, which is interesting for a variety of reasons, in part because Clinton invested so much in dealing with the Palestine issue. President Bush came to office bound and determined to ignore the Middle East at all costs. Then 9/11 came along and suddenly he found himself in the thick of precisely the part of the world he had intended to ignore, and intended to ignore with some prudence.

U.S. presidents who involve themselves deeply in the Middle East do so at their own peril. You, the American electorate, tend not to elect or unelect our presidents based on their performance in the Middle East. We tend to do so based on economic considerations and a variety of other things. So when presidents involve themselves in the Middle East, successfully or unsuccessfully, they are not generally the beneficiaries of a great deal in terms of domestic political capital. President Carter certainly got very little for his Arab-Israeli peace-making efforts. And President Bush senior, who parlayed the Gulf War into Madrid, which led to Oslo, which at the time was thought quite hopeful, was also not particularly richly rewarded by the voters.

So President Bush's reluctance to deal with the Middle East from a pure narrow political standpoint, with political as a synonym for being electable, certainly was understandable. But in the heat of 9/11 and with the desire to create an international coalition against terrorism as a means to generate support from the Europeans as well as the Arab world, President Bush publicly committed himself to the creation of a democratic Palestinian state. This effort is going to be conducted in concert with a group called the Quad, which is the United States, the European Union, the United Nations General Secretary, and Russia. And we, along with the Quad, are on record as being committed to creating a Palestinian state.

Now why do I mention this? (A), because it is interesting. It certainly is a break with precedent. And (B), it is a significant fault line within the coalition. Tony Blair is much more committed to pursuing this Palestine course than is the U.S. government to date. Blair and Bush, when they met in Northern Ireland, this was one of the issues they discussed. Blair hoped to convene a meeting in London of Palestinians and others in order to vivify his commitment to this process. And the U.S. undercut the meeting and it didn't happen.

Certainly within the Arab world if the United States were to make some progress on this issue it would help to restore U.S. credibility. But I would hasten to add, in a very very moderate sum. Those who argue that the sole issue that matters to the Arab world is the Palestine question trivialize Arab politics, which are much more complex and much deeper and much more multifaceted than any single issue. Amelioration of the Palestine problem would be enormously helpful. It would not bring to a conclusion Middle East politics as we know it. There are many other issues. But this one would certainly help and it would be very useful.

Interestingly Colin Powell gave a talk to AIPAC two weeks ago, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It was interesting because in the Arab world there was little attention to what he said, and significant attention to his venue, which made the speech unpopular. Aha, the American Secretary of State is pandering to AIPAC. But what was interesting about the speech was that Powell said the United States will not deviate from the Road Map. He was actually booed by some of AIPAC's less enlightened members, who took exception to this. And in a sense Powell alienated everybody, because nobody really bothered to read the speech. From my perspective his statement that we will not deviate from the Road Map is reaffirmation of the commitment of the United States to create a democratic Palestinian state.

Having said that, I would urge you to be profoundly skeptical and cynical. When you get a Ph.D. and become a Middle East specialist they issue you cynicism tools which somehow never manage to get worn out and stand you in good stead. But having said that, there is a historical record here and there are other partners.

Palestine is important. This is why it would useful if Bush would listen to his father and take a page out of his playbook, because indeed if he would parlay what happened in Iraq into a means to efficaciously, genuinely, and speedily deal with the Palestine issue this would be all to the good. This is not to exhort you to exaltation, but it is something to think about.

The Problematic Promised Democratic State in Iraq

The second point which is interesting, and please take it with the cynicism it deserves, is that the United States is on the record as being committed to creating a democratic Iraqi state. And again a deeply flawed, problematic type of commitment. So I don't want to try to persuade you that this is a done deal. But what is interesting is that the United States for the first time is on the record as being committed to the creation of two democratic polities. If indeed these occur they will certainly be in marked distinction from the rest of the Arab world.

There are my colleagues in the Middle East who feel enormously excited about a woman running for the city council in Amman and being elected, or losing but not losing badly. There is this whole civil society sort of literature in my community which is yet to disappear but one hopes it will. Largely because I think we need to be focused on much bigger issues than that. One could say, yes, Rome wasn't built in a day, and in Rabat city politics we will find the future of the Middle East. But I'm getting old and I can't wait that long. So I would like something a little bit more dramatic.

The notion of a discussion about democracy in Palestine and Iraq is not bad. Having said that, the means of promoting democracy in Iraq is completely antithetical to the views of the very people in Middle East who are arguing on behalf of democracy. So it's an interesting conundrum and the choices are bad. We certainly can oppose the U.S. war in Iraq, which is not an unreasonable position to take, but one should probably argue that one should also oppose the rule of Saddam Hussein, which set a new low in a region known for lots of lows and very few highs.

With the Kurds against Turkey? Or with Turkey against the Kurds?

Next point is the Kurds. U.S.-Turkish relations are deeply flawed as a result of the unwillingness of Turkey to allow overflight rights and the basing of U.S. troops in Turkey. The Turkish government simply blames parliament: Well, that's democracy. That has not placated Washington.

There is an interesting and deeply troubling challenge here. If the United States allows the Kurds in Iraq to do what needs to be done in order to cobble together a unified country, they are likely to alienate our Turkish allies. They are fellow NATO members, and aspirants to the European Union. Massachusetts will get into the EU before Turkey does. But Turkey still has this expectation that they are going to be admitted. I always tell my Turkish friends, look, if you are going to pander to somebody, why not pick somebody other than the Europeans, who clearly don't want you?

There is a really serious problem here, that if we do what really needs to be done in Iraq it may adversely affect our already troubled relations with Turkey. If we don't do what needs to be done in Iraq, (A), we will have turned our back on the type of democracy which we have talked about and (B) we are ignoring a particularly important element of the puzzle which needs to be attended to, which is that we need to be sensitive to each of the Sunni, the Shiia, and the Kurds.

The Difficulties of Building Nations for Other People

Now what this does is raise a whole other set of questions about the entire nation-building enterprise. The United States invaded Afghanistan with a coalition. We put the Taliban out of business, although Mullah Omar and some of his top people could be anywhere. Al Qaeda was certainly not eliminated. It was simply forced to shift its bases of operations. Al Qaeda was perhaps headquartered in Afghanistan, but it is truly a global organization. It is not known whether Mr. bin Laden is alive or not. I tend to assume that he is. I think he was smart enough to make provision for life after Afghanistan. He certainly did other things with great foresight. But obviously we don't know. So we are engaged in a nation-building process in Afghanistan.

We -- I say "we" in reference to the U.S. government -- convened a meeting of the Loya-Jurga, which is this very diverse body of Afghan notables, and they had a reasonably congenial meeting. Karzai was put in charge. He is the president. He is very very close to the U.S. It was interesting that when the president of Iran visited Afghanistan and met with Karzai, he was under the protection of U.S. Army Special Forces, who are Karzai's bodyguard, an interesting irony. This force has been now privatized, so I guess it is now former U.S. Special Forces are guarding Karzai. And apparently Kabul has been pacified. Much of the country, however, has not been pacified, and there was a war going on here not just against Al Qaeda but more importantly to reconstitute Afghanistan. So our nation-building experiment in Afghanistan was one that was and remains very difficult, very frustrating, and certainly inconclusive. This is something that is done with the greatest of difficulty. It is difficult to build nations for other people. They need to build these nations themselves. And there is a whole history of why Afghanistan is as problematic as it is.

A Steep Hill Ahead in Iraq

We are now confronting a similar set of problems in Iraq, with some differences. A Loya-Jurga style meeting was just convened. It was inconclusive. There are those in the U.S. government, primarily attached to the Department of Defense, who believe that Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, should be basically put in charge of Iraq. There are those in the U.S. Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency who deeply disagree with the Department of Defense. This is in the newspapers every day, so this is not a great secret, but there was a great deal of disagreement among U.S. policymakers, not only on the role of Chalabi but also on the appropriate leadership formula for Iraq. And they clearly were influenced to some degree by the events in Afghanistan, although the is no Northern Alliance, there is no Karzai, there is no Loya-Jurga, and even if there was, Afghanistan is not where we want it to be.

The task they have set for themselves is a steep, steep hill and they may not get nearly the traction that they would like. We have assumed from day one that the United States would win the war. None of us anticipated it would be so quick. What those of us who study these things have been deeply concerned about from day one is winning the peace. In other words, once Saddam Hussein is history how does one reconstitute Iraq into a sort of functioning democratic polity?

Saddam Hussein, thuggish person that was, applied certain skills in order to maintain Iraqi unity. The question is, will the United States and its partners be able to promote Iraqi unity without taking tools from Saddam Hussein's toolkit? Can achieve some of the things that he was able to achieve in national unity without emulating Saddam Hussein? Talk to any emigre group and they will say, Absolutely! We can do it! Give us the go ahead! But none of us are hugely persuaded that any of them can do it, and the gap between those who stayed behind in Iraq and those who have been emigres is very very deep. This is something that the Iraqis are going to have to resolve for themselves. But the United States is deeply involved in all of this.

Rebuilding Our Alliances

 My penultimate point is reconstituting U.S. relations with its allies, which are, if not DOA -- dead on arrival -- significantly affected by our activities in Iraq. There are people in this country who think ill of France. That is why we now have liberty toast and freedom fries. I'm somewhat bemused by that and I am not even a big wine drinker. If I were France, I could understand that American patriots might not like their policy, but if there is someone in a minority position here it is us, not France.

If you go through and read the [very short] list of coalition partners there are clearly problems with our allies. At the end of the day, NATO still exists, the Atlantic Alliance is still important. I believe that the United States and Germany and the United States and the France will be able to patch this up. I have believed from day one, and this is where my heart truly is, other than at RAND, that U.S.-European collaboration in some sort of grand bargain could help to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute, improve policies toward Iran, and could have allowed us alternatives in dealing with Iraq other than the war.

We need to rehabilitate ties with the Europeans. We need to rehabilitate ties with the Arab world. We need to rehabilitate ties with Turkey. The only name that doesn't appear on this list is Israel, although what I would say here is that by ignoring the Palestine question we are doing a disservice not only to the Palestinians but ultimately to the Israeli people. I think Israel needs peace just as desperately as do the Palestinians, and therefore the onus is on us to resolve the Palestine question, not simply to help the Palestinians but to help Israel. And there is a real contradiction with those who love to support Israel by risking Israeli lives. This seems to be in part an American preoccupation but it is one that is very damaging to all parties concerned. We really need to rehabilitate our relations with our allies, and we need to get back to deal with the Palestine issue not simply to help the Palestinians but I would argue to help the people of Israel.

The War on Terror Was Not Helped by Dubious Accusations against Saddam Hussein

My final point is the war on terror. This class was originally constructed in the ashes of 9/11. There was a significant effort by the U.S. government to demonstrate that there was a linkage between the events of 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. This is one of the most significant fault lines as far as I can tell in the U.S. government. There are those at the Defense Department who argue that the linkages are unambiguous and clear, and then there are others in the State Department and the CIA and elsewhere who say that they are not persuaded by the evidence.

I was at a meeting with a group of Russian Middle East specialists, and one of them was asked, "Do we need to produce a smoking gun in order to get Russian support?" And one of the Russians said, "We've given up on smoking. Just produce a gun and it will be enough." Indeed, it is not as if there is so much charity in the world's collective heart for Saddam Hussein to argue that he is incapable of terrorism. But there is not terribly compelling evidence about a linkage between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. I for one argue that if you can't prove it, don't make the argument. It trivializes the malevolence of Saddam Hussein. It's as if, without 9/11, Saddam Hussein isn't such a bad guy. And he's actually a pretty awful guy without 9/11. By bringing 9/11 in, what was done was that it created an expectation of evidence that might not actually be produced and might not actually exist.

In terms of the war on terror I am not persuaded that going after Iraq contributed much. In Baghdad they nailed the guy that did the Achille Lauro. Baghdad and Damascus are full of old time terrorists. But there is no evidence that these people are particularly linked to 9/11. Al Qaeda is a very tight, different type of organization, and the notion that all terrorists look alike is simply incorrect. There is significant variance among these groups. I am sure we will pick up other people like that. It is very good news that we did, certainly, for the family of Mr. Klinghoffer [who was murdered on the Achille Lauro] and others. This is good news; I don't want to argue anything else. But what I would also assert is that the war on terror, which is continued in parallel, will certainly continue.

We Should Have Invited Al Qaeda to Come Help Saddam

There is the argument that going to war against Iraq will generate thousands of new recruits for Al Qaeda. Well, I guess that may be true. But I am not hugely convinced, inasmuch as Al Qaeda had lots of recruits before the invasion of Iraq. In retrospect what we should have done is welcome anybody who wanted to go to Saddam Hussein to help him. Largely this is because we would have filtered out people who we need to be attentive to, but also because many of them, when they got to Iraq would have learned that the Iraqis were not wildly in love with Saddam Hussein and they probably should not have gone in the first place. So there was a certain educational quality to this that might have been useful.

But I think the war on terror is a serious issue. Al Qaeda is still in business, it is still operating globally. What we should always be concerned about are the groups whose names we don't know, the activities we know absolutely nothing about, and I am convinced that losing focus can be extremely dangerous and we need to be attentive to this issue.

People who study these things often wonder, why has there not been a terrorist event in Los Angeles? Is Los Angeles not next? As I got my Dodger tickets I thought for a moment of not going, then, don't be a baby, you are certainly going to go to a Dodger game. But public places, suicide bombers, all of the things we are talking about are possible here. And it is not simply Los Angeles, it is the United States.

I guess when I take my shoes off going through the machines at LAX I should be comforted, but there is a lot more that needs to be done. That's a separate lecture. Jack Riley, one of my colleagues from RAND, is going to be speaking at this class next week on homeland security. He's very expert at looking at all of these issues. And I think what Jack will tell you is that this is very much a live issue.


Published: Thursday, April 17, 2003