Interview with James A. Baker III: Looking Back on the Middle East
by Daniel Pipes
Islam and the West
We're very quick to talk about Islamic fundamentalism and I think that is the wrong way to speak of it. Saudi Arabia is an Islamic fundamentalist state, but it is a friend of the United States and very important to the United States. And the national interests that we have in the Gulf I think we've demonstrated in -- in the aftermath of Kuwait. So, I always say, and I'm very careful to say whenever I speak of it, radical Islamic fundamentalism, because that really is what we're talking about. And it truly is antithetical to the West--to democratic values, free market principles, and to the principles and values we believe in. So, we should oppose it to the extent that our national interests require.
I fear the current wave of radical Islamism is going to be a continuing problem as long as poverty and discontent exist in that part of the world. We must find a way to get beyond that and to achieve some economic development. I once made a proposal for a Middle East development bank. It was not picked up on but it's still needed, for the Middle East is the only part of the world without a development bank.
When I was at the Department [of State], we pursued a policy of excluding the radical fundamentalists in Algeria, even as we recognized that this was somewhat at odds with our support of democracy. Generally speaking, when you support democracy, you take what democracy gives you. If it gives you an Aristide, you live with it. If it gives you a radical Islamic fundamentalist, you're supposed to live with it. We didn't live with it in Algeria because we felt that the radical fundamentalists' views were so adverse to what we believe in and what we support, and to what we understood the national interests of the United States to be. And so, you can't put down a hard and fast rule to apply in each and every case.
Generally speaking, when you support democracy, you take what democracy gives you. We didn't live with it in Algeria because we felt that the radical fundamentalists' views were so adverse to what we believe in and what we support, and to what we understood the national interests of the United States to be.
Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia
Obviously, the idea of reaching out to moderates in Iran was a nonstarter. On the other hand, for the full four years that I was there [at the Department of State], we were quite prepared to sit down at an official level with the government of Iran--there's no surprise about that--provided they understood the first topic on the agenda would be their support for state-sponsored terrorism. We were unwilling during our four years to have any of this back-channeling stuff. So, those are two different situations.
Today you've got Islamic fundamentalists in Yemen. I went to Sanaa to try and get them to support the [anti-Iraq] coalition. I got turned down pretty summarily (and the Saudis had told me we were going to get turned down). But that doesn't mean you don't go there and try and bring them aboard.
Saudi Arabia is the most -- I mean, custodian to the holy mosque, all of that, but clearly we've got -- So, those are my views.
Saudi Arabia is the most Muslim of states--I mean, it's custodian of the Holy Mosque, and so forth--but clearly even it has problems with the radical fundamentalists.
An Independent Palestinian State?
You find clear differences of position and view on the question of an independent Palestinian state. When this was the joint position of the Arab states in negotiations, they all were for it. But as unity disappeared in their pursuit of the peace process, you'll find each country looks at a Palestinian state from the standpoint of its own particular circumstances. Jordan looks at it differently, for instance, than Syria. Syria now looks at it quite differently in the aftermath of "Gaza-Jericho First," because that frees Syria to cut a deal without regard to what it might mean vis-...-vis the Palestinians. Indeed, all the Arab states, Jordan and the others, are now free as a consequence of Gaza-Jericho First. Attitudes and positions are in flux right now.
The Arab States and Israel
The Arabs no longer present as much of a unified front as they used to, for three reasons: the collapse of communism and the end of the East-West conflict; the defeat of Arab rejectionism and radical Palestinian elements in the Gulf War; andÿthe fact that Israel has now reached an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization. And you've got Gaza-Jericho first there and -- and that deal was made without consultation with -- with some of the Arab states. So, the states have less of a reason to condition their positions on whatever will result in the permanent status talks. As a result, they're less committed to the idea of a Palestinian state. I suppose they will still give lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, but the Syrians particularly feel free to reach an agreement with Israel on peace without regard to what happens on the Palestinian track.
At least with respect to the countries around Israel, you're not going to get real economic development until there's peace. And when you do get peace, boy, there's going to be tremendous development and economic activity in so many different ways in those countries--in Israel herself and in the countries bordering Israel. And I'm optimistic that you can get peace.
Syria supports terrorism, permits drug trafficking, and much more that we don't like, but there are other very significant differences between it and rogue states like Iran, Iraq, and Libya. Syria is important because there won't be peace between Arabs and Israel until Israel and Syria make peace. There are certain similarities with the rogue states, but in terms of rejecting an Arab-Israeli settlement, Iran is at one extreme, followed by Iraq and then Syria. Real differences exist there. Syria was a member of the coalition that defeated Iraq, an even more rejectionist state.
Also there is a substantial difference in the extent of Syria's rejectionism. Yes, the Syrians engage in rejectionist radical-type behavior such as building up their arsenal, hostile policies toward their neighbors, terrorism, drug trafficking, and so forth, but the scope and nature of it has really not been anything like what we've seen from Iran and Iraq.
What Hafiz al-Asad did in Lebanon did not differ that much from what Saddam did in Kuwait, but he didn't do it in the same way. He did not send the military in there and brutalize the population; and there were Lebanese who wanted Syrian protection and stability. That did not exist in Kuwait. Nor did Asad engage in the abhorrent humanitarian excesses that Saddam did in Kuwait.
By the way, the notion that the U.S. government made a deal with Asad, allowing him to take over Lebanon in October 1990 in return for his joining the coalition against Iraq, is wrong. There were no hints sent to him that he could move in. Rather, a vacuum existed in Lebanon and Asad took advantage of it. We were not going to send forces in there; after all, we'd put forces in Lebanon in whatever year it was  and lost 250 Marines [in 1983]. We were not going to peacekeep in Lebanon.
Perceptions of the United States
The Middle East has a great number of conspiracy theories, some genuine, others manufactured for external purposes. Some Middle Easterners may genuinely believe in them, but I think in many other respects they're manufactured. A sense exists in the Middle East that our intelligence agencies are omniscient. Some also think that because of our status as a superpower, we possess capabilities that we really don't possess.
A sense exists in the Middle East that our intelligence agencies are omniscient.
Some Middle Easterners understand the American system of government, in particular the division between the executive and legislative branches, others do not. It depends on the country. As time goes by, more and more of them understand the way the separation of powers works. I mean, I really don't want to -- prefer not to name countries in an on the record interview. I'd be glad to talk to you on background. (Laughter.)
The American and Middle Eastern sides are sometimes mutually incomprehending, with their suspicions about us and interpretations of what we're doing not always touching on our real activities. It's more true the more rejectionist and radical the regime is. The more radical a state, the more it tends to view us in a conspiratorial way. Also, the more rejectionist the state, the more likely it uses Israel as a justification for policies and for maintaining itself in power.
Great Powers in the Middle East
Middle Easterners do not right now expect that Russia will return to the area. Everybody in the world wants to get close to the United States in the aftermath of the collapse of communism and of the Gulf War. All this talk about our staying with Gorbachev too long--or the Clinton administration's staying with Yeltsin too long--that's baloney. Everybody wants to get close to the United States, you know, and you don't lose anything. When there's a change, the new guy wants to come in. That's the way it is in the Middle East; people see us as the only remaining superpower and they see Russia as a basket case, really, economically.
Everybody in the world wants to get close to the United States in the aftermath of the collapse of communism and of the Gulf War.
Now, we broke the mold of long-established U.S. policy by getting the Russians to cosponsor the Madrid peace talks. That was a worthwhile effort, and it was one way we were able to get Syria to say, yes, she'd come to the table. You're not going to have peace until people talk to each other.
There will always be an abiding American interest with respect to the security of Israel--never any doubt or question about that; it'll be there. We'll also have a continuing interest, a big national interest, in stability in the Gulf. Peace will give us an interest in those areas surrounding Israel that that have not developed and have not enjoyed free-market economic activity because there's a lot of population there. When peace comes, there's going to be a tremendous amount of economic growth and economic activity.
Clash of Civilizations
We sometimes overdraw the notion of a clash of civilizations. I read Samuel Huntington's piece1 about the clash of civilizations and the Confucian-Islamic axis. I don't know whether or not that's going to happen; it's an interesting theory, but it should be looked at in the context of the Confucian-radical Islamic axis.
The search for a new paradigm in the aftermath of containment is not going to result in a conclusion soon. It will take some time. We Americans have to is recognize a number of things. First, the problems are not as complex as people suggest when they say, "We've lost the surety of containment and now, in the aftermath of the cold war, we have all these very difficult and more complex problems to deal with." Every administration, going back to Eisenhower, has had extraordinarily difficult and complex foreign policy problems to deal with, and today's aren't any worse than any others. I don't think we're going to find a guiding principle just like that to substitute for containment.
Second, we have to look at America's national interests, principles, and values, and we've got to make a determination in each and every case of how far we will be engaged. I called this selective engagement. We have to weigh the national interest, our principles and values in each and every case involving radical fundamentalist states.
1 Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993.
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