Interview with Sam Brownback: "U.S. Foreign Problems Mostly Concern the Middle East"
by Daniel Pipes
Sam Brownback, the senior senator from Kansas, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Born in 1956, Mr. Brownback studied at Kansas State University and the University of Kansas. He practiced as an attorney, served as the secretary of agriculture in Kansas, spent a year as a White House Fellow (working in the office of the U.S. trade representative), and won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1994, where he served most of one term before moving on to fill Bob Dole's seat in November 1996. Daniel Pipes interviewed him in Philadelphia on November 10, 1997.
ARAB-ISRAELI PEACE PROCESS
Middle East Quarterly: As chairman of the Senate subcommittee dealing with the Middle East, what do you see as the most important issues facing the United States in this region?
Sam Brownback: The peace process, Iranian aggressiveness, and religious freedom. Let's start with the Arabs and Israel. I am terribly concerned that the process has stalled.
MEQ: Why has it?
Brownback: For a number of reasons, but Palestinian non-compliance with promises made has to be the premier one. The Palestinians have failed to provide security and have supported the radical elements, such as Hamas, that openly threaten Israel's security. It was a big step backward when Yasir Arafat engaged in discussions, and even kissed, the Hamas leader; with this, he signaled to his organization and to the external world that Hamas was okay with him. If Arafat does not guarantee security to Israel, and even takes provocative actions, this process cannot move forward.
MEQ: Why does Arafat take these steps?
Brownback: Who knows? Perhaps he feels threatened politically.
MEQ: What needs to be done to move the peace process forward?
Brownback: The security issue must be resolved, and these provocative actions cannot continue.
MEQ: What do you suggest to achieve this change?
Brownback: I've talked with all the parties involved and conclude that it is probably wisest to move now into final status talks. But I am not optimistic: the Palestinians' actions do not seem to support moving into final status, though they aren't actually saying, "We do not support that."
MEQ: What's the point of going into final status negotiations if the parties cannot yet agree on lesser issues?
Brownback: Well, Binyamin Netanyahu and Madeleine Albright advocate this route. They say that it's better to take on the big issues, for this may create a framework for the parties to resolve their differences more readily than dealing with them piecemeal.
MEQ: Do you agree with their view?
Brownback: It's possible that they are right, though I do not know how a breakthrough can be achieved right now.
MEQ: There's some talk about a new round of Arab-Israeli wars. Does this prospect worry you?
Brownback: Yes, it's always a potential, although I am confident that the Egyptians and Jordanians do not want another war.
MEQ: Do you favor continued U.S. aid to Israel at its current very high levels?
Brownback: I voted for continuing current aid levels. However, when Netanyahu was here in July 1996, he suggested coming up with a plan to decrease the amount over a four year period. It would be wise to do that because currently half of our foreign aid goes to Israel and Egypt. However, it must be done in a way that is not harmful or destabilizing for the region.
MEQ: What about the much smaller but politically volatile question of aid to the Palestinians?
Brownback: Aid should be contingent on the Palestinian Authority providing the security to Israel that it promised. We do not support terrorism; we are not going to coddle or allow or look past terrorism. If we do not stand by that principle, I'm not sure what we stand by. In some of the latest moves in the foreign operations bill we saw waivers on this
MEQ: You were quoted in June 1997 saying that "there isn't much we can do about the so-called peace process."1 Are you saying the U.S. government should pull out of the negotiations?
Brownback: No, you have to understand who "we" means here. The reporter asked "What's your focus going to be on the Near East subcommittee?" and I replied that my focus is containing Iran and promoting religious freedom. To which he asked, "What about focusing on the Middle East peace process?" I said that a lot of people and many administrations have devoted enormous effort to the peace process, and I do not know what the subcommittee can add by holding hearings on this subject.
MEQ: So "we" here meant the subcommittee, not the U.S. government?
Brownback: That's right. I've several times considered holding hearings on the Middle East peace process, but then concluded that there are plenty of chefs in this particular kitchen. The president and secretary of state are engaged in delicate negotiations; hearings might provide a forum for people to make wild comments but not to move the ball forward.
MEQ: Please assess the Clinton ad-ministration's relations with Israel.
Brownback: They distress me for two main reasons. First, the administration sees Likud as the Republicans of Israel and does not like it as much as it does Labor. There's no place for that sort of partisanship in foreign policy. Second, I worry about the increasing tendency in the peace process negotiations to pressure Israel and let the Palestinians off the hook.
MEQ: What are you doing to induce the president to change these policies?
Brownback: I plead with American groups, especially Jewish ones, to push and pitch on behalf of Israel with people they know inside the administration, such as Martin Indyk. I call on them to stand up to the administration and declare the current approach wrong. I tell them they have to push, for Congress can only do so much. They must not lose faith in the vision, but must keep pushing.
MEQ: Does Israel have strategic importance for the United States?
Brownback: Absolutely. It's a long-time friend that will continue to be a friend in the region. We have a very strong past and very strong futures tied together. Our nations have been allies from the very start. I'm a strong supporter of the nation of Israel and will continue to be so. I do not see us and would absolutely oppose us walking away from that allegiance in a very difficult region of the world.
MEQ: Do we have other allies in the region?
Brownback: Yes, we have other allies. There are a number of countries with which we have substantial economic ties, particularly concerning oil from the region. In particular, we're working closely with the Egyptians on a number of issues.
MEQ: How about Turkey?
Brownback: Turkey's a key ally. We look to Turkey as an example of a Muslim country that is also a successful secular democracy, even as it has been struggling a great deal with the issue of guaranteeing human rights.
MEQ: What about your second item, Iranian aggressiveness?
Brownback: I'm deeply concerned about the expansion of Iranian influence in the region. The Iranians are exporting elements of their revolution in many different ways and forms. Their missile technology could be in place within eighteen months and when it is, it could threaten the entire region. They are attempting to develop a nuclear capacity that also would threaten the entire region. The Iranians have targeted the Arab-Israeli peace process by radicalizing the Arab element. They are trying to influence Central Asia and the south Caucasus, with their largely Muslim populations living in nascent nations that do not have much strength or stability. Finally, the Iranians threaten the free flow of the entire Persian Gulf oil supply.
As a result, the containment of Iran's anti-Western, terroristic militancy is a premier issue for Americans. Indeed, Iran today presents the most clear and present danger in the whole world. That's a very strong statement, but I believe it is true. That's why I've been so insistent to contain funds going into Iran and have so aggressively pursued an expanded U.S. policy in Central Asia and the south Caucasus.
MEQ: You mention Iranian efforts to block the free flow of oil and gas from the Persian Gulf; what might they do?
Brownback: Things are going all right at the present time, but that volatile region has always been subject to many different forces, many of which are hostile to the West and directly hostile to the United States. That's why we must contain the Iranians, who continue to try to radicalize the other countries of the region.
MEQ: Is the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act [ILSA] working? Is it getting other states to join in with us?
Brownback: Not as many as I'd like to see. The Clinton administration has not built up the international coalitions it requires to enforce sanctions on Iran and Libya. The administration says it abhors terrorism but it does not use the tool that Congress crafted to go straight after two regimes that support terrorism; no wonder it has difficulty recruiting international support for ILSA. It's foolish for the French and Germans not to support sanctions, the German courts have even proven Iranian support of terrorism, and Europe is likely to be a target sooner than the United States.
MEQ: How do you assess the administration's response to the Total/Gazprom/Malaysian deal to develop Iranian oil and gas?
Brownback: Henry Kissinger had a great article about this in The Washington Post about two weeks ago.2 The administration is struggling to respond to Total/Gazprom. Here's a Russian group with a 30 percent investment in the Total deal that has the effect of increasing money flows into Iran that will be used against our interests and will help to develop a regime that presents our most clear and present danger, that uses and supports state terrorism. It seems as if hard currency is controlling everybody's thinking so that we're not looking at what the Iranian regime has done.
MEQ: What should the administration do to block trade with Iran?
Brownback: It should do absolutely everything to support the new nations in Central Asia and the south Caucasus, an area that the Iranians and Russia both want to dominate.
CENTRAL ASIA AND THE CAUCASUS
MEQ: What do you mean by supporting the Central Asian and south Caucasus countries?
Brownback: Helping them to develop economically by transporting their oil and gas out of the region through pipelines that are not subject to Iranian or Russian-based dominance.
MEQ: Please explain your "Silk Road" initiative to tie Central Asia and the southern Caucasus to the West.
Brownback: Eight countries in these regions3 are yearning to be connected to the West, to the United States, and are willing to stand up to regional pressures to determine their own path. But they're in a tough neighborhood, and we have only a brief period before they're either forced into economic submission by Russia or infiltrated by the Iranian mentality; if either happens, they won't have a choice of their own to pursue.
MEQ: What can Americans do about this?
Brownback: Americans should expand trade and investment in the region, as should others, such as the Japanese and Europeans. Our window of opportunity is narrow; soon those former Soviet nations will get frustrated and say, "You know, you promised us all these things if we would open up and we'd be free. Our economy is not developing, and we're being harassed by fundamentalist forces; the Russians want us to just shut the oil and gas." Then they might well tilt either toward Iran or Russia. We should do absolutely everything possible to support these nations now.
MEQ: By "we," whom do you mean, the U.S. government or U.S. companies?
Brownback: U.S. companies first and foremost. I hope consortia will come into existence to help bring the oil and gas out, and that it will come out of Turkey, avoiding control by the Iranians or by the Russians. Some of the oil and gas will find its way out through Russia anyway, through already existing pipelines; that's fine, but Americans cannot find a better place in the world to invest their time and energy than in developing Central Asia and the south Caucasus. They would reap not just profits but the long-term benefits of democracy and freedom for the countries of those areas. It would also enhance our energy security to make sure that neither the Iranians or the Russians acquire economic hegemony in the region.
MEQ: What is the U.S. government's role in this?
Brownback: It has multiple roles to help free nations stand free and to help Central Asia and the south Caucasus get the oil and gas out without being completely controlled by Iran or Russia.
MEQ: The government does this by leading the corporations, by providing money, or through diplomacy?
Brownback: It can't lead the corporations. It can help with loans and other financial assistance; an oil and gas pipeline through Turkey will cost perhaps twice as much as one going through Russia or Iran. I'm not willing to say that the U.S. should plop the extra money down, because I think there are ways to get private funding there.
It may be diplomacy too, working with the Turkish government. The Turkish constitution, as I understand it, prohibits control by foreigners of a natural resource in the country, so the U.S. government will have to work with the authorities there just to enable American companies to transport the oil and gas.
MEQ: What do you hope this diplomacy will achieve?
Brownback: Our efforts should focus on settling some of the regional conflicts, especially the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between the Armenians and the Azeris. Until the region stabilizes, it will not be possible to develop the region economically.
MEQ: Anything else the U.S. government should do?
Brownback: We should help with democratic development, including the key issue of religious freedom. We need to help the new states develop the full attributes of sovereignty, such as border guards. Russian border guards still serve in Georgia, and Georgians complain about how this makes it more difficult for them to become a transit point for Central Asian goods. We should train military leaders from the region.
MEQ: You're not worried that the Central Asian and Caucasus states are already crippled? Almost every one starts out with dictators, hobbled by Soviet infrastructure, infused with Soviet ways. You sound awfully optimistic about them being pulled out of their trough.
Brownback: Yes, they certainly have a number of things going against them. Number one, a landlocked geography: it's awfully difficult for them to reach the world's markets. Two, the Soviets took a lot and didn't give them much in return.
MEQ: Though not their oil and gas, which they still have.
Brownback: True, but not for want of trying. In any case, the Soviets just took and didn't give; nor did they develop the people in the sense of training them so that they could move forward. So, yes, they are crippled. But they have $4 trillion worth of proven oil and gas deposits in the region and they do seek to be free.
You can look at this mix of factors and say that the likelihood of success is too low for us to invest. But I say that success is so critical for us that we should invest heavily in diplomacy and high-profile funding. Look what happens if we lose. Then the Iranians get a hold of countries with $4 trillion worth of oil and gas. You know what then takes place. Or let's say the Russians dominate the region, in which case it's back to economic subservience for its peoples. That is not so evil as Iranian dominance, but the alternatives to success are so dire that we really have to step up our efforts.
MEQ: What about your third item, religious freedom?
Brownback: I seek the establishment of religious freedom as a premier human right for everybody and for adherents of all faiths. Religious freedom should be a hallmark of every nation. The Middle East has seen more religious cleansing than religious freedom.
MEQ: In subcommittee hearings on religious persecution back in the spring, you indicated an intent to wage a battle for "all persecuted groups in the Middle East." How do you plan to achieve that?
Brownback: My overall strategy is to establish religious freedom as the premier human right. It's been neglected to date; we have emphasized freedom of speech, freedom to vote, freedom to travel, while de-emphasizing what you do with your soul.
MEQ: What do you mean?
Brownback: It's a person's premier human right to do with their soul what they wish, regardless of where they might be. The state should not establish what to do in this area. I have my own faith persuasion and want all others to be free to follow their own faith persuasion.
MEQ: Is the concept of freedom of religion compatible with Islam?
Brownback: It could be.
MEQ: By this you mean that a person may convert from one religion to another?
Brownback: Theoretically, yes, under the best model.
MEQ: Islam doesn't allow that.
Brownback: I make a distinction between the Qur'an, which clearly prohibits such conversion, and statecraft, a practical and political approach to religious governance that can accommodate conversion according to globalized human rights standards. Several Islamic nations do allow religious freedoms—Egypt is striving towards this and I hope working towards expanding religious liberty. Turkey is struggling with the implementation of a secular, rather than a theocratic, approach to religious practice.
MEQ: True, but Turkey is the only Muslim-majority state that has opted for secularism. Virtually every other Muslim-majority country looks to the Qur'an as a source of legislation and therefore prohibits Muslims from leaving Islam. When Muslim governments do permit freedom of religion, they mean that one can go from Sunni Islam to Shi'i Islam.4
Brownback: Two points in response. First, militant Islam does not represent the best of the Islamic tradition—for that you need to go back to examples like the Ottoman Empire, which invited Jews who were escaping religious persecution in Spain. Secondly, moderate Muslims are victimized by militant Islam in such countries as Iran, leading to a movement among moderate Muslims to espouse religious tolerance as a way to counter the effects of Islamic fundamentalism. In short, a battle is taking place over the form of Islamic practice that will prevail, tolerant or militant.
We can influence the outcome by supporting moderate Muslims who desire religious freedom according to international standards. This is, for example, the battle Husni Mubarak presently faces. In 1980, the Egyptian National Assembly proclaimed the Shari'a the governing law and since he came to office a year later, President Mubarak has been resisting the institutionalization of Shari'a, sometimes unsuccessfully, yet resisting nonetheless. This is what I mean by the tension between militant Islamization and globalization according to international human rights standards.
MEQ: For Muslims, leaving Islam is anathema, even criminal. Are you prepared to argue for your view against a very well established outlook in Muslim countries? Are you ready to go to the mat on this issue?
Brownback: I'd like to establish religious freedom globally as a premier, if not the premier, human right. We're having a fair amount of initial success in doing that. Going country by country, there will be some nations more open to it initially, and others that are not going to be open at all.
MEQ: Saudi Arabia is for many reasons—oil, location, security agreements—a very important state to us; it is also a state that severely prohibits religious freedom. What steps do you propose taking in this case?
Brownback: We should take progressive steps over a period of time. First, establish the concept of religious freedom as a universal human right, then deal with the Middle East, the most difficult region in the world. Once religious freedom is established as a premier human right, we can better address the basic problems in Iran and other parts of the Middle East. I know that's a tall order but it is time for the United States government to start standing up for religious freedom as a key human right, then start pushing it narrowly with individual countries.
MEQ: In testimony before your committee, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Steven J. Coffey, indicated that the Clinton administration agrees with your basic concerns: "The promotion of religious freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere is a growing priority in our foreign policy." It has also suggested it is already doing an adequate job.5 Do you agree that this is a "growing priority" for the administration?
Brownback: Yes, I think it's a growing priority. A. M. Rosenthal of The New York Times is probably the best writer in the country on this topic, calling religious freedom the "neglected human right," and I very much appreciate his work. Pressure from him and others (including Congressman Frank Wolf, Senator Joseph Liebermann, as well as Nina Shea of Freedom House) on the administration has grown to the point that it has now raised the issue more visibly. However, I am not sure that it has had success in this area. I hope that action will follow from the fine words, but so far I haven't seen it particularly press the issue.
MEQ: Is the Specter-Wolf bill the solution?
Brownback: I have great admiration for both of its authors and for the movement behind it but I—and a fair number of members of Congress—have two problems with the specific legislation. One, I'm not sure that the creation of an office of religious freedom and religious persecution in the White House is the way to go. Two, I'm not certain if leveling sanctions is quite the right way to go, for these might well never be used.
Ultimately, though, sanctions could be the base of a bill we pass—and we do need to pass some religious-freedom legislation. Trent [Lott] and the House leadership are committed to it. I hope such a bill would be a part of recognizing religious freedom as a premier human right. Then we have to determine what tools to use to establish this right. Just shedding light on a situation is one of the most important tools. We have established commissions and registries of people persecuted for their faith, whether Jews in the Soviet Union or in other cases. The American public is moved to action by seeing people's faces and learning how they're persecuted.
MEQ: There's a debate in policy circles today about fundamentalist Islam. Some analysts say it's a benign phenomenon; if we leave it alone, it will leave us alone. Others argue that Islamists necessarily target us and that, no matter what we do, we are in the scope of their fire. What's your view? Can we get along with the fundamentalists or is it an inevitable conflict for which we have to prepare?
Brownback: There are people arguing that in contrast to the past fifty years, which saw a conflict of political ideologies, basically communism versus democratic capitalism, the next conflict is more faith-based. I would not say the dye is definitely cast.
MEQ: So it's possible to look for tranquil relations with fundamentalist Muslims?
Brownback: Yes, it is possible for us to live in peace and harmony with them. It's going to take a lot of discussion and a lot of work, but it is possible. I have no problems at all with Muslims who are committed to their faith; only when it becomes radicalized is there cause for concern.
But there is a problem. Just as many twentieth-century governments built on a nationalistic fervor that ran deep in their people, then twisted it for their own means and ends, so individual leaders are now taking faith and twisting it for their own purposes. I do worry about leaders misusing that core of faith in people. I have real concern with some governments in the region that seek to abort the use of people's faith, and not for spiritual ends. They seek to use it for governmental and political ends. I believe most faiths seek peace and should not be used as a tool for building conflicts.
MEQ: You worry about the impact of religion on politics?
Brownback: I do. Much conflict can come out of the passion that builds when you have such a confluence of faiths all living within a few blocks of each other, for example in Jerusalem. When I was touring Jerusalem I thought, "How sad that faith, which is usually something that one looks to to prevent conflict and war, can be so used for warring and conflict."
MEQ: What about Algeria? You held hearings on this country recently.
Brownback: What a mess, a ghastly and anarchic state of affairs.
MEQ: Any thoughts on U.S. policy there?
Brownback: Experts at the hearings did not agree why the gruesome murders of women and children, why the cutting throats and awful massacres are taking place. Some say these activities are carried out by the Islamic Salvation Front; others say it's gang-like activity not associated with the front, or only some of it is. It is very confusing. Other analysts suggest focusing on the economy to create more opportunities for young people. But if somebody's willing to slit the throats of women and children, I hardly think getting them a job is the solution. Unfortunately, I really do not have solutions for Algeria, other than to hope that the government would do more to protect its people.
MEQ: Should we side with the government?
Brownback: I don't see it is a question of supporting the government or not, but how to support or maintain a society committed to the peaceful transfer of power through elections. After all, the test of democracy is not the first democratic election but the second.
MEQ: Are you worried about Islamist groups in the United States, that they might engage in more World Trade Center-type bombings?
Brownback: Any policy person who isn't worried about this prospect is looking through rose-colored glasses. Threats to the United States from external sources include a range of terroristic actions, whether bombing buildings like the World Trade Center, the power grid, or water supplies. The Defense Department and our intelligence agencies are focused on and very concerned about these threats, but with the porous and open borders we have, I don't know how we can prevent future incidents.
MEQ: What about radical Muslims living in this country? Do they worry you?
Brownback: Yes, they do. As an open country, we have so many open attack points. Consider Oklahoma City, just south of my state. It was a domestic attack, but it shows the vulnerability of attack points in the United States. The only strategy may be to infiltrate groups that have a propensity towards terroristic actions; I'm not advocating that their civil rights be violated, but keeping an eye on those who are making plans to engage in illegal acts.
MEQ: Would you like to see more attention by law enforcement to this?
Brownback: We're going to have to see more. We have too many vulnerabilities and too much media attention—terrorists know that if they do something like bomb the World Trade Center, they've won international media for themselves for a year. Where else can they get that? That drives these actions.
MEQ: What about Iraq? Do you approve of U.S. policy towards Iraq or would you like to see fundamental changes in it?
Brownback: I support the U.S. government taking whatever means are necessary, including the use of military force, to enforce the United Nations sanctions.
MEQ: Looking beyond specific problems, should we, for example, state formally that getting rid of Saddam Husayn is our goal?
Brownback: I'm not prepared to say. You sure have to question why we did not finish with the problem of Saddam Husayn when we had a major military force available in 1991. But President Bush did clearly state his objective and he accomplished that objective. I do question whether he had the ultimate objective right, though the American people agreed with his limited goals. I too agreed with them at the time. I'm not willing to say more on that.
THE SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE
MEQ: What's your goal as subcommittee chairman? What do you hope to achieve?
Brownback: To contain the expansion of Iran's terroristic philosophy and to expand religious freedoms.
We're trying to contain missile technologies going into Iran. I may ask this year for a limit on U.S. and other investments like Gazprom in Iran to lessen the flow of dollars into the country. Next year we want to push for expanding our ties to Central Asia and the south Caucasus.
Then, on religious freedoms, we want to raise the visibility of the issue globally and in this region.
MEQ: Is this a position you took out of a sense of duty or fascination, or is there some political advantage for you?
Brownback: I don't know that there's a lot of political advantage in Kansas in my being chairman of this subcommittee! But I find international issues fascinating and I'd guess that 60 to 70 percent of our foreign problems concern the Middle East, so I'm pleased to be involved with the region and am challenged and stimulated by the topics it raises.
MEQ: Overall, do you see the Middle East as a place of opportunity or danger for Americans?
Brownback: You cannot really separate those two. It clearly is a dangerous region of the world. Iran, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, and Central Asia all present very big dangers.
But the region also represents a great opportunity. To take advantage of this, we need a lot stronger American leadership, one that sets forth a forceful set of principles by which to lead. We need to establish principles and then stick with them, keep pushing them.
Because so much of the region's issues are linked to faith, I hope that we can hold an international prayer breakfast in Jerusalem in 1998 with as many faiths as possible to pray together for peace and reconciliation. That could be one of the best things we could possibly do.
1 The Washington Post, June 10, 1997.
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