Interview with Arlen Specter: Invite Asad to the White House
by Daniel Pipes and Tonya Buzby
Arlen Specter has represented Pennsylvania in the Senate since 1980. A Republican, in 1995-96 he was chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; now he is chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Early in his career, he served as assistant counsel to the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of President Kennedy, then was district attorney of Philadelphia. In 1996, he ran for president of the United States. For many years, Senator Specter has had an active involvement with Middle Eastern issues. Daniel Pipes and Tonya Buzby interviewed him in his Philadelphia office on January 13, 1997.
Middle East Quarterly: In November 1996, after traveling to Jerusalem and Damascus, you stated that "President Clinton should invite both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Asad to the Oval Office to continue the peace process."1 What is the reasoning behind this idea?
Arlen Specter: Asad is not willing to deal with the Israelis directly: only with the United States as a participant, so the president will have to use his office to push this matter along. President Clinton has been significantly and personally involved in Syrian-Israeli discussions, and I've complimented him and the secretary of state on what they've done in the Middle East. (I've not been so complimentary to them about North Korea or China or Bosnia.) The president has been the middle man in the Syrian-Israeli negotiations. Prime Minister Rabin or Peres would indicate just how far they were willing to go in terms of surrendering the Golan, and the president was there to carry it out.
The same applies elsewhere. For example, in August 1995, Senator Hank Brown and I were in India and Pakistan. We talked to Prime Minister Rao, who told us his ambition to see the subcontinent nuclear-free. When we talked to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan the next day, Senator Brown and I told her what Prime Minister Rao had said. She asked, "Oh, did you get it in writing?" We said no, that's what he told us. "When did you talk to him last?" we asked her. And she said, "Oh, I've never talked to him." Brown and I subsequently wrote a letter to President Clinton, urging him to call them both to the Oval Office.
The presidency has great power, and the president can move the process along. By analogy, it's interesting to see that King Husayn can do similarly, as he just showed by helping [Binyamin] Netanyahu and Yasir Arafat to reach a compromise on Hebron.
Inviting Asad to the White House is subject to a very big if: what comes out of the investigation in Dhahran. I have talked to Asad about this but do not know where the inquiry is heading, or what involvement, if any, Syria had, nor what the Saudis have found. It may be that the terrorists responsible for the attack transited Syria, that a party died in a Syrian jail. If Syria is in any way implicated, even tangentially, in the Dhahran terrorist attack, then that's a major, major obstacle to having any business with Syria. It is then no longer realistic to involve Syria in the U.S.-assisted peace talks.
MEQ: Why not? The Syrians have been linked, tangentially at least, to many attacks on Americans, starting with the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983, then the Marine barracks, the hostage-taking in Lebanon, and Pan Am 103 in December 1988. Why should this incident be different?
Specter: How were they implicated in Pan Am 103?
MEQ: Ahmad Jibril's Damascus-based group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, planned out the first attack. When it failed, the Libyans took over and actually carried it out.
Specter: I raise the question because the State Department found Libya responsible for Pan Am 103. I know the stories about Jibril, but I do not believe that the evidence has been assembled to convict Syria of complicity in Pan Am 103.
MEQ: "Convict" implies a very high level of proof.
Specter: Well, you give me a level of proof that exists short of that. That's why I asked the question. I met with Asad in early January 1989, a few days after Pan Am 103 occurred. I don't mince any words when I talk to Asad and I challenged him on this issue. He said, "You bring me the proof, and I'll act." I went back and worked on it, put the Intelligence Committee staff on it, and to the best of my knowledge, the evidence was not forthcoming to convict or implicate Syria.
MEQ: In the current case with Dhahran, would you also need evidence to convict?
Specter: I don't know how much proof you'd need. The passage of time makes a big difference. In 1983, there was a hostile relationship with Syria. Time passes. It is regrettable, but Realpolitik has us doing business with a lot of undesirable people, like the Soviet leaders over the years, the Chinese, the North Koreans.
MEQ: You've been visiting Syria since 1984; do you notice changes?
Specter: I've been there often -- I don't know the exact count but it was three times in 1996. Damascus today is a much more prosperous town than I think it was in 1984.
I have tried to find a rapport with Asad as part of activating him in the peace process. He was very negative about the peace process when I first raised the subject with him in 1988. I had a long meeting with him then, lasting more than four and a half hours. Since then, his attitude has changed tremendously, in terms of his willingness to hold discussions with the Israelis.
MEQ: Some Americans who have had dealings with Asad say he's amusing. Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian calls him "a most engaging interlocutor" and remembers his "light banter and jokes."2 In early 1995, a stunned observer noted that in the course of a four-hour meeting with Asad, the normally staid Warren Christopher "laughed so hard that he had to tilt his head backward."3 Did you also find Asad to be an amusing person?
Specter: No, the business with Asad is very, very serious. But when you talk to somebody for four-and-a-half hours, there is room for some banter. He does make casual humorous asides when the conversation gets tough, and there's an effort at diversion. Back in 1984, I pressed Asad on letting unmarried Jewish women out of Syria and he made me a deal: Anybody who comes to Syria for a bride, I'll let him take a bride and off they go. I went back a few years later and he said, "Here you came and made demands for the release of the Syrian women and you couldn't produce one groom!"
A few years ago, I kidded him that when he and I sit together on those two famous chairs, our pictures will be the next morning on the front page of the Damascus newspaper, but if he sat with the Israel prime minister, it would be on the front page of The New York Times. Last August I told him that if he would arrange peace he would get the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. He said, "Yes, but if I got that, I wouldn't be able to come back to Damascus."
I've gotten to know Asad to some extent. I wouldn't say that I know him well -- he's not a man that you get to know well -- but I do know him. On the last two visits, he scheduled specific times, which is very unusual for Asad. He doesn't do that, for example the famous visit where he kept the secretary of state waiting. He even sent his car for me on the last two visits.
MEQ: Why do you think President Asad turned down the Rabin-Peres offer to return him the Golan Heights?
Specter: I don't know that anybody can say for sure that it's ever been tendered formally; nor do we know all the many conditions subsequent -- security arrangements, perhaps U.S. or U.N. participation -- nor all the other factors, many of which were not resolved.
MEQ: What do see as the outlines of a Syrian-Israeli peace accord?
Specter: I don't know. Asad says he's not going to go back to the bargaining table until they pick up where they left off in the last round, which seems to be returning the Golan with complex security arrangements. I do not know all of the details, although I have asked the State Department and Asad for more information. While both seem to welcome my participation, there are limits to what a senator can do. I am careful to talk to State Department officials on every occasion, and have Ambassador Martin Indyk with me on every occasion when I talk to Netanyahu, and Christopher Ross when I am with Asad.
MEQ: You've said you hope Asad will have a chance to see American prosperity -- and even to visit the Court and Plaza at King of Prussia, one of the largest malls in the country.4 What's behind your thinking?
Specter: The King of Prussia mall would show Asad the marvels of capitalism, and what a high standard of living really means. I would like him to see the United States. If someone like Asad sees the United States, he learns what democracy means, gets some feel for our freedom. He would be overwhelmed.
MEQ: You devoted quite a bit of time to Iraq in the time leading up to the invasion of Kuwait; any thoughts about U.S. policy then?
Specter: We handled Saddam Husayn very badly.
MEQ: How so?
Specter: Ambassador April Glaspie was not the right negotiator there. I like her (and saw her on my trip to Israel in August, when I urged her to stay in the game, run for ambassador again, and told her I would help her get confirmed), but you need tough people to deal with Saddam Husayn.
I went to Baghdad twice, in 1989 and 1990. Senator [Richard] Shelby and I met with Saddam Husayn and had a very productive meeting, I thought. I say that because there was no transcript released of our discussion. When I got back to Washington, I urged Bob Dole to go to Iraq; he happened to be going to the Mideast in April 1990, so he arranged an ad hoc meeting in Baghdad. The Iraqis broadcast the transcript of that meeting.5 They got Howard Metzenbaum calling Saddam Husayn a man of peace,6 Alan Simpson saying he understood Saddam Husayn's problems with the press because he had similar problems.7 April Glaspie says that the tape of her talk with Saddam Husayn just before the invasion was doctored, and that is probably true. But you have to be prepared for doctored tapes. Not with you, of course, but . . . (laughter)
MEQ: Of course not. Did President Bush do the right thing in ending the war with Saddam Husayn when he did?
Specter: No, he should have gone to Baghdad and gotten rid of Saddam Husayn.
MEQ: Ten thousand soldiers were needed to get rid of Manuel Noriega, a piker compared to Saddam.
Specter: It was probably worth it to get rid of Noriega. How many people would it be worth to get rid of Saddam Husayn? I cannot say.
Remember that the things I'm telling you are impressions and judgments in the context of an awful lot of other stuff we have to do in the Senate. I've spent a fair amount of time in the Mideast since I made my first trip there a long time ago, but I'm far from being an expert in the field.
MEQ: Fair enough. But having gotten rid of Saddam, wouldn't the United States be left responsible for running the country?
Specter: No, we wouldn't be in charge. Precisely what would have happened, I don't know, nor does anyone because we didn't get rid of him. Saddam deserved to be defeated personally, and he continues to be a thorn in the side of the world. Beyond that, it's a horrible symbol that someone who lost the war won the peace. Or was it that he lost the war but won the war? The whole result is a sort of mockery: George Bush has an office-in-exile in Houston while Saddam Husayn rules in Baghdad.
MEQ: Do you see a serious alternative to Saddam, in Iraq or abroad?
Specter: I do not know. But the odds are that any alternative would be better.
MEQ: "I could barely keep my lunch down"8 is the way you've described your reaction sitting on the White House lawn and watching President Clinton embrace Yasir Arafat . . .
MEQ: True, it was a morning event, but the Jewish Exponent quotes you saying lunch.
Specter: I can't help it if you have inaccurate sources (laughter).
MEQ: Anyway, do you still feel that way? Or has your view of Arafat changed?
Specter: It's a tough thing for me to deal with. I did not boycott the event but went to the White House. The Israelis had been the principal victims of PLO terrorism, so it was enough for me that Peres and Rabin shook Arafat's hand. Realpolitik is sometimes a little too real for me.
Arafat's there, and he has to be dealt with; it's pretty hard to disagree with who Palestinians choose as their leader. Hanan Ashrawi was in Washington last week, so I spent an hour with her to get an update and a feel for what is going on. I asked her if she's still satisfied with Arafat. She said, "He's our leader." And I said, "How about you?" She said she had no aspirations to follow him and I said, "Well, sometimes politicians have aspirations they don't know about." She's very strong and effective; I think she may very well follow Arafat as the leader of the Palestinians.
MEQ: The Middle East Peace Facilitation Act of 1994, also known as the Specter-Shelby Amendment, requires that the Palestine Liberation Organization change its covenant "to eliminate all references . . . calling for the destruction of Israel," or else U.S. government funding will be cut off. As sponsor of the amendment, are you satisfied that the PLO has fulfilled its obligation to change the covenant?
Specter: They haven't changed it. They published a document that says everything inconsistent with the Oslo accords is hereby null and void. That's not enough, as I told Arafat last August. I told Hanan Ashrawi the same and she says, "I find it demeaning that you even ask us about this." I said, "Well I'm sorry you find it demeaning but it's important. You have a document that calls for the destruction of Israel, with a lot of tough language, and it ought to be specifically renounced, not in general terms, not just in English but in Arabic as well." To which she replied, "What we've done satisfies the Israelis."
I was also criticized by Israelis on this score. When I last saw Prime Minister Rabin and complained that Arafat was not doing enough to comply with the Specter-Shelby amendment, he replied that. Then in mid-December 1995, right after Rabin was assassinated, there was a big event in New York City; I was criticized there for being more Catholic than the pope, asking more of the Palestinians than the Israelis did. To which I said, "This is U.S. money. We have to set the terms for our taxpayers' money."
MEQ: What next?
Specter: I'm prepared to continue to work on the matter. The PLO convened the Palestinian National Council, but the result is insufficient.
MEQ: You're saying that American money should go to the PLO but the PLO should be made aware that what it's done is not enough?
Specter: Correct. For now, I consider this the best approach.
Terrorism in Saudi Arabia
MEQ: You've been to Dhahran to inspect the June 25, 1996, explosion at Khobar Towers. How do you assess blame for the security breach?
Specter: The terrorist attack in Dhahran is absolutely horrible, an event of the first magnitude. It raises a lot of questions about what the United States is doing in Saudi Arabia.
I fault the Saudis but I also fault the Department of Defense for not being tough as hell on moving the fence back from the living quarters. The top officials at the Pentagon are responsible for what happened in Dhahran; we need to expect more of our Pentagon officials. Including the secretary, they all had access to a report on June 17 that said a pattern was developing that warranted improved security efforts. Secretary [William] Perry gave me four standards for his own responsibility, and made clear he had not lived up to two of them. [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John] Shalikashvili was there in the spring of 1996 and was within sight of Khobar Towers. I also expect a lot more from General [Binford] Peay of CENTCOM, and a lot more from the Saudis.
MEQ: What about the fact that the FBI controls the Khobar investigation, excluding the CIA?
Specter: I don't think the CIA has been excluded. The Saudis don't trust the CIA; they distrust the FBI even less. There have been a lot of leaks, but the FBI's better to deal with. The CIA has been privy to what has happened there; [FBI Director] Louis Freeh has brought [Director of Central Intelligence] John Deutch in on the whole picture.
MEQ: How are working relations with the Saudis?
Specter: The Saudis are too tough to deal with and I don't like dealing with them for a lot of reasons. It was unconscionable that they did not let us question the four men who they say confessed to the Riyadh terrorist attack in November 1994, and whom they then put to death. Was there a connection between the May 31st executions of those four and the June 25th Dhahran terrorist attack? I don't know. I don't like what they're doing in Saudi Arabia.
MEQ: What about American troops there; should they stay?
Specter: We cannot disengage, but we have to get more from them by way of troop protection and by way of cooperation. The trouble is, we are so dependent on Saudi oil. We need to reduce this dependence on Saudi Arabia by spending more money for mass transit in America, more development of coal and alternative sources of energy.
MEQ: You've just left the chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Are you content with our human intelligence capabilities overall?
Specter: No, we're vastly deficient. It's hard to develop, but we need to spend a lot more time developing it.
MEQ: How about in the Middle East?
Specter: The same applies specifically to the Middle East.
MEQ: Do you find that the apparatus that was established for the Soviet Union is now being effectively used for current threats the United States faces?
Specter: We're trying to make the transition, but it's very hard. John Deutch did a good job but there's a mind-set in the CIA that I find very difficult to deal with. A ranking CIA official told the Intelligence Committee that he passed tainted material on to the president of the United States, knowing full well it was tainted from the Soviets, without warning the president that it was tainted. He did so on the grounds that he knew it was correct, and anyway they weren't relying on that information alone. Just absurd statements, really incredible.
You get more information from The New York Times and The Washington Post than from most intelligence sources. At most classified briefings on Capitol Hill, half the stuff is familiar from that morning's paper; the other half we read in the next morning's paper.
MEQ: Admiral William Studeman, deputy director of the CIA, recently estimated that analysts who monitored the collapse of the Soviet Union got at least 80 percent of their information from open sources.9
Along these lines, news reports10 indicate that the CIA plans to save up to $20 million a year by cutting back on the Foreign Broadcast Information Service . . .
Specter: $20 million in cuts? It can't be that much. I can't tell you the right figure for two reasons: I don't know; and if I did know, I couldn't tell you (laughter). But $20 million is way too much.
Radical Islam in the United States
MEQ: During your chairmanship, so far as we know, the committee did not hold hearings on the threat of radical Islamic groups operating in this country. Does this mean it's something that does not worry you?
Specter: Some of our hearings touched on this when we worked on the anti-terrorism bill.
MEQ: Is this an issue that worries you?
Specter: Sure. Very much so. Our anti-terrorism bill looks in that direction, though constitutional rights make it hard to deal with this matter effectively or comprehensively.
I have some real qualms about the way we worked out deportation proceedings, for example, but we did it. We permit a closed hearing on evidence that allows something less than the traditional confrontation of the deportee by the accuser when disclosure would pose a risk to national security. We made this change on the grounds it was highly sensitive and couldn't be disclosed.
MEQ: John O'Neil, the FBI's head of counterterrorism, has said that "The greatest threat coming to us domestically in the United States . . . is from Islamic radicals."11 Do you agree?
Specter: I wouldn't quarrel with his characterization, but there are so many threats that it's hard to quantify one as the greatest. If I had to quantify the greatest threat, however, I'd say it is the rampant distrust of the American people toward government. People just don't trust the government no matter what it says. I'm thinking of the militias, Ruby Ridge, Waco, the stories about CIA drug-trafficking in the San Jose Mercury News, the Atlanta pipebombing, the Gulf War medical syndrome. I'm absolutely infuriated by what the Federal government does at so many levels. The government is its own worst enemy, the way it does not level with the American people.
U.S. Aid to Israel
MEQ: What is your view on U.S. aid to Israel? Should this go on indefinitely?
Specter: Prime Minister Netanyahu told a joint session of Congress in July that he would like to see it end. That hasn't made my job on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee to keep the aid any easier. In fact, Netanyahu says a little too much on a variety of subjects. In a friendly way I've suggested that to him, for I've known him for a long time.
My sister Hilda who lives in Jerusalem thinks U.S. aid ought to end.
MEQ: How about you?
Specter: I listen to the Israelis. I'm not going to make a judgment on it. I'm going to listen to what they have to say. Our national self-interest is well served by the $5.1 billion we spend each year on aid to Israel and to Egypt.
MEQ: But earlier you told us that money from the PLO has to be decided on by us, not Israel, because it's our money. Why do you now say that money for Israel is up to the Israelis to decide?
Specter: No, I didn't say that it's up to the Israelis to decide. Our aid to Israel and the Palestinians and all other foreign aid is American money and must be spent in the fashion that we decide will best further American interests. I believe that it is in the best interest of the United States to support Israel and to bolster the Israeli economy--a developing economy weighed down by large military obligations. If it turns out, however, that the Israelis no longer need the economic aid--well, that changes the calculus of how American dollars can best be spent. In making the decision of how much aid Israel needs, I am prepared to listen to the Israelis in addition to our other sources. The Israelis are our allies, and their assessment of their own needs should be taken seriously.
MEQ: How does the money to Israel serve U.S. interests?
Specter: It helps build a strong ally, provides stability in the Middle East. It forwards our many interests in the region -- oil, economic interests, promoting our values.
We also spend a lot on Husni Mubarak but I don't think we get full value for the dollar from Egypt. Mubarak should have done a lot more to warm up the peace.
MEQ: Any anecdotes from your experiences in the Middle East?
Specter: Oh, I've got lots. First though, one of my favorite Middle East stories" Golda Meir and [the late New York Senator] Jacob Javitz were once arguing. Javitz insisted he was a Jewish American and Golda Meir insisted he was an American Jew. Back and forth they argued until Golda Meir finally gave up and said, "Okay, Jacob. But remember that in Israel we read from right to left."
Of my own experiences, here are two. When William Eagleton was our ambassador in Damascus, back in 1988, he said to me, "Senator, I'd very much appreciate if you would ask Asad about cleaning out terrorists from the Bekaa Valley; the situation there is terrible." Eagleton needed me to ask this because Asad won't see him on his own. So I did as asked: "Mr. President, how about all the Syrian support for terrorists in the Bekaa Valley, why don't you do something about that?" Instead of replying, Asad turns on Eagleton and says, "I told you . . ," berating him, knowing full well this was a Charlie McCarthy/Edgar Bergen routine.
Then there's my endlessly delayed game of squash with Mubarak. I first met Mubarak in early 1982, soon after he became president, when he made a terrific speech to the Senate. I remember him saying, "Ask me any question, any question." And we asked him a lot of questions, and he was on top of all of them; he's a terrific guy. I was sitting next to his aide de camp and I said, "I read in the papers that Mubarak plays squash, is that true?" His aide couldn't be bothered, so he says, "Go ask him." I went up and asked him. He replies, "Oh yes, I play squash. And if I beat you, do I get an extra $100 million?" I made a special trip to Egypt in 1983 and as I was checking in at the Marriott Hotel (brand new then, now a flea-bed) David Hume Kennerly, the famous photographer for Time, sees me and says "Oh, how are you senator? I'm photographing you tomorrow morning playing squash with Mubarak." I said, "Oh, are you, that's great because it hadn't been confirmed with me." That night we were over at the embassy having dinner when a call came from the president's office: "No squash, come for breakfast instead." Joan and I showed up and the president was a little embarrassed to see my wife, so he brought Mrs. Mubarak down. You don't get to see her too often. We still talk about playing a game, but not very seriously anymore.
1 Reuters, Nov. 21, 1996.
Comment on this item
You can help support Daniel Pipes' work by making a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes