Interview with Bruce O. Riedel
Bruce O. Riedel is special assistant to the president and senior director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. Educated at Brown University and Harvard, he joined the Central Intelligence Agency a year after finishing his studies. Rising to the position of national intelligence officer for the Middle East and South Asia, he then spent 1995-97 in the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East and South Asia. Mr. Riedel has won two medals for meritorious service and has traveled widely with the president and vice president. Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson interviewed him in his office on September 13, 1999.
Middle East Quarterly: Writing in 1996 in this journal, you stated that "our ability to defend U.S. allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)1 is better today than ever before."2 Three years later, do you still believe that to be the case?
Bruce O. Riedel: It is even better today than three years ago. Since 1996, we have successfully demonstrated an ability to contain the threats posed both by Iraq and Iran. That requires constant vigilance, however, and a constant effort to build strong alliances to continue to contain them while pushing the two states to change their unacceptable behavior. Ultimately this requires the backing of a robust U.S. force presence in the region. Look at Iraq, which has been the most high visible challenge in the last three years: we demonstrated in Desert Fox and in the enforcement of the no-fly zones since January 1999 a willingness to use force when necessary to keep Iraq contained.
MEQ: What about the bombing of Iraqi installations since January 1999: is this merely in reaction to Iraqi provocations or is there strategic thinking behind it?
Riedel: If Iraq ceases to challenge our enforcement of the no-fly zones, our responses will cease. Iraq began in January to lock on to our aircraft and take other steps that threaten our aircraft and our pilots. If it ceases to do so, we will continue to enforce the no-fly zones (thereby controlling 60 percent of Iraq's air space). Obviously, it is to our strategic advantage to be able to continue to weaken and diminish Iraqi air defenses as long as they present an opportunity for us to do so.
MEQ: You're sure that this is not an Iraqi trap? Are the Iraqis completely foolhardy in this or might there be some logic to their actions?
Riedel: No, there is a different explanation. The Saddam regime was very much put off balance by the American use of force in December 1998. Its proclaimed goal was to end sanctions in 1998. Saddam and his cronies thought they were on a path to doing so. They were surprised at our willingness, along with the British, to employ force last December. They now find themselves in a corner in which the only way to achieve the goal of removing sanctions has to be to bring UNSCOM [United Nations Special Commission] weapons inspectors back in, and they have said that will not happen. They're trying to find another way to get out of the sanctions box. They have flailed around since then. Challenging the no-fly zone is one effort by them to show they are still in
MEQ: How have the Iraqis fared militarily?
Riedel: Their efforts to date have been inept. They could always get lucky some day and bring down a plane but, in the end, I'm reasonably confident that in a technological battle between the United States and British air forces and the Iraqi air defense, we will have the upper hand.
MEQ: What about the political dimension of the ongoing skirmishes? Doesn't it wear down the outside world, these bombings going on and on? Aren't the Iraqis right to believe the U.S.-British effort has to come to an end?
Riedel: I'm sure that is their hope. But the evidence of 1999 indicates that they've not succeeded in fomenting a political backlash—in part because we are very careful to avoid civilian casualties. Also, Saddam Husayn's claim to be the leader of a new Arab movement finds very little resonance—less and less, in fact, as time goes on.
MEQ: Is another factor the sheer routine nature of these attacks, making them not newsworthy to the world's press?
Riedel: It's always a mystery to me exactly what the world's news media finds newsworthy. Yes, there is some degree of Iraq fatigue, but this scarcely matters unless it affects public support, which it so far has not. In the Middle East, we place great emphasis on the support of regional friends, for these operations require the cooperation of key states.
MEQ: Has there been backlash against U.S. policy?
Riedel: Thus far, we have seen nothing along these lines, either in the Middle Eastern press or among public opinion. They understand that the U.S.-British operations are important to keep a very dangerous regime contained and to reduce its ability to threaten its neighbors. Remember, controlling 60 percent of Iraq's air space greatly enhances our ability to detect Iraqi moves either north or south. In 1994 when Iraq threatened Kuwait by moving Republican Guard units to the border, the U.N. Security Council endorsed the notion (in Resolution 949) that Iraqi forces needed to be deployed farther away from the border.
MEQ: Does the Clinton administration have the will to continue the enforcement over its final eighteen months?
MEQ: But it is not prepared to do more than effect a policy of containment?
Riedel: Well, what was our policy toward the Soviet Union for nearly five decades but containment? Our Iraq policy has three foundations. First is containment, which is achieved through a variety of mechanisms: sanctions, sanctions enforcement, maintaining Saddam's international isolation, the no-fly zones, our force presence. We've been very successful in all of those areas.
Second is relief for the Iraqi people—finding ways to make Saddam's dictatorship less painful, at least in material terms. Here, thanks to our leadership of the Oil-for-Food program, and higher oil prices, we are doing better all the time. This points to our having no quarrel with the Iraqi people, who are the regime's first victims. A desperate and starving people does not overthrow a tyrannical regime.
Third, we are working toward regime change. Almost necessarily, regime change in a country like Iraq is a climactic event. There's likely to be very little advance warning. In retrospect, people will say, "We saw the indications coming." It's very hard to grade yourself on how close you are to your goal—I doubt anyone in the Reagan and Bush administrations realized how close they were to a change of regimes in Russia in the late 1980s. What matters is that our determination to pursue this policy is quite strong.
There are no alternatives to a policy that has these three elements in it. We've had some success over the last nine months in helping to revitalize the Iraqi opposition and put more focus on the need for regime change.
MEQ: Along those lines, you recently stated that the U.S. government "can help Iraqi opponents of Saddam organize themselves and give them aid, but we cannot put them in power."3 Are we in fact providing real organizational or weapons aid?
Riedel: The administration has a policy of drawing down non-lethal equipment for the Iraqi opposition. We'll also help them with public diplomacy, with training programs that could help them with their organization. If the circumstances warrant, we don't rule out giving them additional kinds of assistance, including arms.
MEQ: Some observers fear that Saddam's regime is just months away from nuclear weaponry. Does this keep you awake at nights?
Riedel: If some things didn't keep me awake at night I wouldn't be doing my job! Of course, we remain concerned that Iraq, that this dangerous regime, seeks to acquire weapons of mass destruction. That has been at the core of our concerns about Iraq since 1991. In government, as outside it, you never know what you don't know; that said, I am quite sure we can enjoy a degree of serenity in this area; we have no indication that they are just months away from a successful nuclear weapons program. Indeed we do not have evidence their program is being reconstituted.
MEQ: And if you find otherwise?
Riedel: The president made it clear late last year that if we acquire such evidence, we would be prepared to use force to resolve the situation as expeditiously as
MEQ: We take out the weapons? Or we wait to see if they acquire delivery systems?
Riedel: The policy is to not let the Iraqi regime have weapons of mass destruction.
MEQ: Richard Butler writes that the whole of the Husayn Kamil defection to Jordan and his return was not real but the acting out of a scenario written by Iraqi intelligence.4 Do you have an opinion on that?
Riedel: Richard Butler is a stand-out hero of our time for, under enormous pressure, he upheld the integrity of real arms control and real disarmament. But I don't know why he reached that conclusion about Husayn Kamil; our own view is that it appears to have been a genuine defection, and that it was not orchestrated.
MEQ: Has the election of President Khatami led to any significant changes?
Riedel: For the most part, the Iranians don't call us "the Great Satan" and the source of all the world's evil as they did before. We have made some changes in tone of our own. We have seen, and we welcome, the effort to develop a dialogue between our peoples.
MEQ: So, there has been a change of tone. Is that all?
Riedel: I wouldn't play that down, even if it still is very far from what we want. The issue is not whether or not they like us or trust us, but establishing a basis for contacts that have to involve some degree of trust, so it's important as a means toward our goal, which is that this important country not pose a threat to us and the region.
However, on those issues of highest concern to us—Iran's efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, with long-range missiles to deliver them on, its efforts to continue to support terrorist groups, and on its violent opposition to the Middle East peace process—we have certainly not seen the kind of significant change that we feel is necessary.
MEQ: How would you characterize the U.S. approach to the Khatami government?
Riedel: In general, we have been very successful at lowering the decibel level in U.S.-Iranian relations even as we continue to make clear exactly what it is that's a problem for us. The Iranians, in their reactions to the Wye River agreement, and most recently the Sharm al-Sheikh agreement, have demonstrated why we continue to have serious concerns about their policies.
MEQ: Last fall, a few days after the Iranian foreign minister announced that his government would no longer try to kill Salman Rushdie, you welcomed his statement and added a hope that it "will be implemented scrupulously."5 Would you say that has in fact been the case?
Riedel: Not as completely as they initially indicated. The bounty for Rushdie's murder remains in place and, in fact, has increased. Beyond Rushdie, we have concerns about an entire nexus of human rights issues in Iran, including the treatment of anyone who takes what the authorities regard as a deviationist path from true Islamic Republic precepts and the treatment of minorities (such as the situation of the thirteen Jews from Shiraz who have been imprisoned on trumped up charges of
MEQ: Is the U.S. government doing anything to engage the Iranians?
Riedel: Quite a bit. The president made it clear that we have the greatest respect for Iran's history, culture, and its contributions to world civilization. We tried to encourage more American academics to go there. We've even funded a few, which for us is always hard to do since we have no money for such activities. We've also signaled a readiness to exchange athletes, symbolized by President Clinton's having met with American wrestlers when they returned from Iran. Such contacts are useful and we are looking for ways to increase them—without ignoring the instances of risk to Americans (and other foreigners) traveling in Iran. We have a responsibility to make sure people are aware of these incidents.
MEQ: What do these exchanges achieve?
Riedel: They are useful and positive but at the end of the day the differences that divide us and the Tehran government do require discussion between governments.
MEQ: You have also said that the U.S. government seeks "a direct dialogue with the Iranian government."6
Riedel: We welcome that but the Government of Iran remains unwilling to accept our offer. The offer remains out there, waiting for a reply.
MEQ: Is the Islamic Republic the only government in the world that does not want direct dealings with Washington?
Riedel: Yes, that's true, and it results from the nature of Iranian internal politics. Without falling into simplistic notions of moderates and radicals, there's no question there are different views within the Iranian government today. So far, the holders of the most hard-line views seem to be able to block any attempt at a dialogue. In February 2000, Iran will have very important elections, and we will see if they lead to a government being formed that feels both more confident and more interested in a direct dialogue with the United States.
MEQ: Are economic sanctions against U.S. firms doing business in Iran having an effect?
Riedel: Yes, the sanctions regime has contributed to the sense in Iran that the government's policies of the past twenty years took it in the wrong direction. Iran's may be the only government in the world that doesn't want a dialogue with the American government; but it does want access to the American economy. Our denial of their access to the American economy puts a great deal of pressure on them.
MEQ: Precisely six years ago today, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders shook hands a few feet from here, on the White House lawn. Do you sense since then a change of heart among Palestinians? Specifically, do you see them willing to live in harmony with a sovereign Jewish state?
Riedel: I sense a change in the entire Arab world about Israel. Arabs do not love Israel, and no one thought that they would, but the recognition that Israel is here to stay is more prevalent than ever in the Arab world. You find that Israelis—not just government officials but businessmen—are now quite frequent visitors to Arab capitals. You'll even find businessmen in places where government officials don't get to travel. This acceptance of Israel as a permanent fact is gaining in strength all the time. And full implementation of the Wye River agreement helps further increase the sense that we are on a path that leads to an ultimate comprehensive settlement.
MEQ: What about the contrary argument that, yes, government-to-government agreements have proliferated but whether you look at Palestinian workers, Jordanian doctors, Saudi businessmen, or Egyptian intellectuals, you find a resistance to contact with Israel and a determination to keep alive a sense of hostility?
Riedel: There certainly is an element of that. But as I said, on the other side are the Israeli businessmen, Israeli products, increasingly showing up all over the Arab world, all over the Muslim world. The resistance that you cite is strongest in those groups where the intellectual and ideological resistance, is still the strongest. That will take time, perhaps even generations, to abate.
MEQ: You don't see it signaling something stronger than dislike? What do you say to those analysts who argue this suggests no change of heart?
Riedel: I would say that both we and those in the Arab world and Israel who want to see peace move forward have a lot of work ahead. The psychological and intellectual barriers that you allude to remain very, very strong and still need a great deal of work to bring them down. They will follow the political process because the political process can move faster than changes in those attitudes.
MEQ: You don't worry that those attitudes may reverse the process?
Riedel: I don't believe that the peace process is inherently irreversible; it is reversible. I agree with Prime Minister Barak when he says that a moment of opportunity exists, and we all need to rise to the occasion and seize it— precisely because there is nothing inevitable or irreversible about this process. There are still very strong enemies of peace out there.
MEQ: Does Hafiz al-Asad want to end hostilities with Israel?
Riedel: He says he does, and we want to test him to find out whether in fact he is prepared to make the compromises that will make that possible. I'm hoping that by the end of 1999 we will have a pretty good idea of this.
MEQ: Asad entered into the peace process in July 1991, over eight years ago. Essentially nothing has happened in the interim other than theoretical positions passed back and forth. Does that give you any reason to doubt his intentions?
Riedel: I wouldn't call it eight years for nothing; the base has been set. We have had since 1991 some pretty intensive discussions with the Syrians and Israelis and they with each other. These have established the parameters of an agreement. I also wouldn't go as far as some who say that 90 percent of the work is done; the fact is that the hard compromises are the ones that remain.
MEQ: What specifically has been achieved?
Riedel: We have a pretty good idea of what the hard decisions are that need to be taken on both sides. I also think that some recent activity on the Syrian side shows a change in Syrian attitudes, at least towards the public diplomacy part of this process. For example, note the public praise that President Asad gave to Prime Minister Barak on his election, as reflected in Al-Hayat's interview with Patrick Seale a few months ago.7
MEQ: In 1994, you stated that "an Arab-Israeli peace process, as important as it is, will not by itself bring a wider regional regime of peace and stability."8 Does this not go against the prevailing assumptions of the Clinton administration, which sees solving the Arab-Israeli conflict as the key to improvements in the Middle East?
Riedel: It is a key; it is not the only key. When the Clinton administration came into office, we enunciated two fundamental principles of policy: advance the peace process and contain the enemies of peace. I continue to believe we have to do both of those things and that they are mutually reinforcing. The more we contain the enemies of peace, the easier it is to advance the process—and vice versa. But we have no illusions. Even if you get peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, Syria, and Lebanon, the problems of this region are not all going to go away. There will still be enemies of peace, border disputes, ideological differences. But those agreements will help to create an atmosphere that would be more positive towards our interests in general in the region.
MEQ: "There is nothing inevitable or unstoppable about extremist Islam," you wrote in this journal three years ago.9 Is it in fact being stopped, in your view?
Riedel: If you're talking in terms of extremist Islamist groups taking over Muslim governments around the world, I won't say it's been stopped, but certainly events have demonstrated that there's no inevitability to its victory. Even in places where a few years ago Islamist forces were thought by some as being on the verge of victory—Algeria would be the most striking case—they have not taken over. Extremist Islam has acquired a reputation within the Islamic world that works against its chances of victory. For example, you don't see many in the rank and file of the Arabian peninsula who wish to imitate the Islamic Republic of Iran on their side of the Gulf. And that's true in many other places as well.
MEQ: Do you see Islamism as a force in decline?
Riedel: It's a little premature to say. Islamism has not proven to be the unstoppable force that some predicted back in 1979-80. It's just too early to say in historical terms whether its heyday is behind us.
MEQ: Does the U.S. government have a policy towards Islamism and fundamentalism as such, or does it look at each case separately?
Riedel: A little bit of both, actually. We have a policy of seeking to engage the Islamic world. The president has spearheaded that in a number of his speeches, most notably in his 1998 address to the U.N. General Assembly. We also do it by engaging Islamic governments, many of which are very friendly to the United States, and in trying to strengthen people-to-people relations between ourselves and, not just the Iranian people, but Islamic peoples from Morocco to Indonesia. Secondly, we also judge what I would call "intense" Islamist movements on a case-by-case basis. Those like Hizbullah, which are clearly dedicated to using terrorism and violence to achieve their purposes, we put in a certain camp, especially if they target the United States. We're more open to having dialogues with others that may frequently speak in similar terms but that eschew
MEQ: Would you say that Islamism is an "-ism," an ideological movement in the sense of communism or fascism?
Riedel: Most Muslims reject that notion. Certainly many of the leaders of Islamic states that we deal with, whether it be President Mubarak or King Faid and others, reject the notion of Islamism as a political ideology, although they recognize that in Islam the lines between politics and society are more permeable than they are in the West.
MEQ: They tend to see Islamists as criminals?
Riedel: One Islamic leader, speaking to the president recently, referred to those who use terror as "punks."
MEQ: The leaders take them somewhat less seriously intellectually than we in the West do?
Riedel: That's probably correct.
MEQ: Do you distinguish between moderate and radical Islamists? Is that a working distinction? Or do they all adhere to the same basic ideology?
Riedel: There is a full range of behaviors in the Islamic world. I prefer to think in terms of those who practice their religion without using violence and those who use their religion as a cover and justification for the violence we clearly oppose, such as that of Usama bin Ladin.
MEQ: You see bin Ladin's use of Islam as instrumental; that he is not a devout Muslim?
Riedel: Those from his own country, Saudi Arabia, and certainly in the Saudi government, do not see him as a correct believer. Not being a Muslim myself, I'm not in a position to decide whether he is a Muslim or not. I can say his behavior is criminal and his use of violence in order to achieve political purposes is abhorrent. He falls directly under the category of a terrorist.
MEQ: In an unusual venture in mid-1998, you accompanied Bill Richardson, then U.S. representative to the United Nations, on the only high-level trip by American officials to the Taliban leadership in Kabul. Please tell us about this. Were there any results?
Riedel: Well, I certainly learned a lot about Afghanistan in one day! Seriously though, we had two important achievements on that trip. First, we made clear that we were prepared to engage the Taliban leadership and talk to them, however profound our differences with them. It's impossible to overstate the degree of distrust these people have of the West, and of the U.S. in particular.
MEQ: And second?
Riedel: We made it very clear that Usama bin Ladin is a great concern of ours; and that we intend to see him brought to justice. In all, our trip put the ball in the Taliban's court in both arenas—the general relationship and bin Ladin.
MEQ: Was anything else accomplished?
Riedel: It showed that the United States wants to see a resolution of the civil war in Afghanistan. We are especially concerned about this because of our own involvement in Afghanistan through the 1980s, when we aided Afghan forces in their war of resistance against the Soviets. We also care that the society that emerges from all the present turmoil not be one that destabilizes the region.
MEQ: Is that on track?
Riedel: Unfortunately not. On the fundamental issues of terrorism and finding the end to the war, we were not able to find some way to move things forward. The Taliban have not yet shown a willingness to engage with the other forces in Afghanistan in a serious negotiating process that would allow a cease fire and the creation of a multi-ethnic government. Nor is there evidence that the restrictions of human rights, notably those of women, have evolved in a positive way.
MEQ: Tell us something about the atmospherics of your Kabul meetings.
Riedel: They were unusual, to say the least. We flew in a United Nations aircraft from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Arriving in Kabul, we went to the Presidential Palace to meet with the Taliban leadership. It had previously been occupied by the communist leadership. At one point, I noticed some book shelves in the corner of the room. Brushing the dust off, I found the collected works of George Washington—presumably a gift from the U.S. government. You will not be surprised to learn they have been little read of late.
Ambassador Richardson's party included some female members and all of us, including them, had lunch with the Taliban leadership. I suspect this was the Taliban's first official function in which females took part.
MEQ: Has there been any communication with the Taliban leadership since your trip?
Riedel: We remain in contact with the Taliban primarily through our embassy in Islamabad and also through their unofficial ambassador in New York (at the United Nations). We continue to press them, particularly on the Usama bin Ladin issue, but also about drug cultivation, the status of women, and the need for humanitarian workers to be able to operate freely in Afghanistan.
MEQ: Is there anything to show for these efforts?
Riedel: Progress is very, very limited at best. We have demonstrated in recent months our determination to increase the Taliban's isolation unless it abides by internationally accepted standards.
MEQ: You're not expecting a return trip to Kabul?
Riedel: Not any time soon. I had an accident on that trip, one that perhaps carries some symbolism. I slipped as we were walking through the streets of Srinigar and required seven stitches, which I got in Islamabad on the way back. This has definitely mitigated my desire to return to Afghanistan.
MEQ: Al-Nashra, an Arab-American publication, has an article in its August-September 1999 issue, "Clinton Names Jews to All Important Posts." With regard to Middle East policy, it mentions Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller, Martin Indyk, Ken Pollack, and yourself, saying all of you are Jews and that there are no Arab Americans dealing with the Middle East. What do you make of this sort of analysis?
Riedel: First, I'm not Jewish. Second, I would like to see as wide a spectrum of Americans dealing with this problem as there are American citizens. Third, it's a mischaracterization of the individuals you named to suggest somehow that their commitment is not first and foremost to the interests of the United States and policies of the U.S. government. I know that the team that I work with—Sandy, Dennis, Madeleine, and others—seeks to advance America's national interests. We regard advancing the peace process as part of that—and not out of identification with our own personal circumstances or ethnicity.
MEQ: Looking ahead, will the major American problems in the Middle East be the same ones as today or different ones? Are some being resolved and others coming down the pike?
Riedel: We still have a long way to go on Arab-Israeli issues. Despite tremendous progress in the twenty years since Camp David, the tough issues are about to be faced for the first time. Existential issues are now really on the table.
We continue to have vital interests in the energy resources of the Gulf region, the Caspian region, and North Africa. Access to those at fair prices will remain critical to our economy and the world's economy and is a major responsibility for Western leaders.
The question of how the Islamic world evolves in the twenty-first century is important to us. The Islamic world has not had a positive experience yet of representative government, for the most part, and its peoples are increasingly going to want this. That transition, I am convinced, will be a very, very difficult one. We are now seeing a generational phase in much of the Arab world, but that is only a harbinger of more fundamental questions about the role of representative government which will be a major issue in the years ahead.
MEQ: And a difficult one for the U.S. government since in many cases we have better relations with autocratic governments than with democratic ones?
Riedel: There aren't that many democratic governments to test case against. That said, people-to-people dialogue between ourselves and Muslim peoples will be a major challenge. They have their challenges and we have ours.
MEQ: What are ours?
Riedel: To do a better job of building an awareness and understanding of Islamic values, Islamic traditions, and how Islam is advancing in the twenty-first century.
1 Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
2 Bruce O. Riedel, "The Pentagon Looks at Islam," MEQ, Sept. 1996, p. 87.
3 Bruce O. Riedel, "U.S. Policy toward Iraq, Libya, and Iran," Middle East Forum briefing (New York), Apr. 23, 1999
4 Richard Butler, "Why Saddam is Winning the War," Talk, Sept. 1999, p.198.
5 USIA Worldnet "Global Exchange" program, Oct. 1, 1998.
6 Riedel, "U.S. Policy toward Iraq, Libya, and Iran."
7 For the text of that article, see MEQ, Sept. 1999, pp. 93-94.
8 "The Middle East: What Is Our Long-Term Vision?" Middle East Policy, 3 (1994):1.
9 Riedel, "The Pentagon Looks at Islam," p. 88.
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