The panel discussion "Moving Forward: Restoring American Credibility in the Region" took place at the 62nd Annual Conference in November, 2008.
Michael Ryan; Ibrahim Helal; Max Rodenbeck; Ron Suskind
Michael Ryan: Each individual [panelist] has been kind enough to come and talk about the future. They have all agreed that we are going to talk about the future, what we ought to be doing, and reflecting less on the past. We may all agree on the mistakes that we have made. We are going to do this in alphabetical order so I am going to ask the managing director of Al-Jazeera English, a long-time journalist, many different experiences with the BBC and Egyptian TV, Ibrahim Helal, to come and give his first speech.
Ibrahim Helal: Thank you very much. I am the deputy managing director. I don’t want to lose my job – I am not the managing director.
Why should we talk about restoring the credibility of America in the Middle East? I am trying to throw some questions and impressions coming from this very volatile, complex place, which is the Middle East. Twenty years ago, while I was a political science student at Cairo University, I used to go to the American Cultural Center in Garden City and walk through, photocopy some articles, borrow some books. It is a dream for me now to go there because it is very difficult to go through this very secure area. Once you drive your car around the American Embassy or the American Cultural Center, the image of America has been changed. This is a very simple example I would like to share with you. It is very intimate for me because it reminded me of these beautiful years when we were dreaming of the American values and American dreams. But now it is not there. Very simply, an obsession with security.
I have been in the media for twenty years. I have traveled a lot in the Middle East and outside the Middle East. But the most difficult visa I got on my Egyptian passport was the American visa. The most difficult experience in any airport was here. I had to go through registration and again registration although I had a journalist visa cleared from the American Embassy in Doha. I asked the officer why I should stay for one hour like a political asylum seeker. I am not, I have a clear visa on my passport. He said to me, simply because you are a Middle East male. That is the reception I got two days ago from America. And we are talking here about credibility.
Credibility means many things. The values, the exchange of ideas, the respect. Let us get back to the basics of political science. After the Versailles agreement, after the First World War, the problems of disrespect created a monster. Now after seven years of disrespect between America and the Middle East we are talking about how to put the monster back, or restore the image of America in the monster’s eyes.
I was talking to my colleagues and friends before coming here, sharing ideas with them, asking, what should I say about this credibility of America in the Middle East? One of my closest friends told me that we in the Middle East, we in the Arab world – let’s talk more about the Arabs, Arab mentality – we do not think America is right when they speak about freedom, liberal. We need our dignity and we should not be prisoners of freedom and lose our dignity. This conflict between freedom and dignity was there always during the last seven years in the Middle East. To look ahead instead of looking back, I think Middle East people should get back their dignity when it comes to their treatment with the United States. Whether it has to do with visiting or dealing in the Middle East or talking about their leaders, talking about their religious leaders – this is one idea I got from my friends, the comparison between dignity and freedom. Everyone I spoke with before I came here shared this idea, that we are not ready to get our freedom like Iraqis, at the price of their dignity.
Another idea I was asked to talk about here is dialogue. It was amazing to have this religious dialogue in New York a couple days ago, last week. I was told my friends and relatives that it is not the right way to do it because King Abdullah is not the one who ordered bombers to go bomb American places. Yes, he is a leader to be talked to, but he is not the one to start a dialogue with. You need to start dialogue with the real figures who actually you think they are the enemies. Dialogue and negotiations – we learned that in political science – negotiations are meant to be with enemies, not with friends.
Also I was told to tell you that you need to start dialogue with normal, average people, not only the leaders of the enemy. Normal people. I was amazed by the comment in the last session about Hamas in 1994. I think Hamas, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, with all respect or disrespect to their beliefs and political ambitions, they are now more practical than the United States itself. They are ready to be talked to. They made compromises more than the United States. I have been to Afghanistan and Iraq during the last six months and I witnessed myself that the leaders of fanaticism, the fanatic leaders, made a lot of concessions while the United States did not make these concessions.
Those who are labeled as terrorists or fanatics, if you look at it from a philosophical view, they moved ahead faster than the West. The West insisted for the last sixty years to deal with the Middle East with the traditional, conventional ways of legitimacy, international laws, dealing with governments. But these people – I do not agree with their violent ways but the violence itself is a non-traditional way of treatment to the problem. They started to think of their problems differently. When Yasir Arafat moved from political violence to negotiation, he was more advanced than Israel. When Israel accepted him as a leader to negotiate with, Israel was more advanced than Israel before that. These are the lessons we should look at now when we talk about the next phase.
Barack Obama is a golden opportunity for this country to talk with the Middle East. But it could be very risky just to depend on him because in the Middle Eastern eyes, he is Barack Obama. He is not the rest of America. You need to gain back the respect and love for the American dream. Thank you very much.
Michael Ryan: The next speaker, Max Rodenbeck, is The Economist’s chief Middle Eastern correspondent. He has had that job since 2000 so you have covered it for the entire Bush administration.
Max Rodenbeck: Thank you very much, it is a privilege to be here. I was asked to talk about American credibility and how to restore it. We all know that there has been a collapse in credibility, particularly in the Middle East, in regard to America’s relations with the Middle East. That is why we are here.
I do not want to go on about this and talk about the past too much but since I work for The Economist I have to bore you with just a little statistical fact. I was thinking, how do you measure credibility, in terms of diplomacy? We have all seen the opinion polls around the world, the global polls that show that liking for America has declined dramatically in many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East and Muslim countries. But there is a distinction between being liked and being credible. You can be disliked but still be credible. I was trying to think, what is another measure? I came across something which is not perfect but does give you a better indication. It shows how governments around the world have come not simply to mistrust the US but have shifted their own policy to become obstacles to American policy, which suggests there really is a credibility gap.
The State Department measures something at the United Nations: the votes in the plenary sessions of the General Assembly. It is called the coincidence ratio, the number of countries whose votes coincide with American voting in the General Assembly. The peak year of coincidence with American voting was 1994. That was when the US score was the very best. Almost half the voting in the General Assembly agreed with the United States, about 49 percent. This shows from 1989 up until 2001. You can see that peak. These are different groups of countries. America’s closest allies show the highest level and various other groups – the smallest level is actually Arab countries, followed by the Organization of Islamic Conference countries. Even Arab countries, you can see there was a relatively high level in the mid-1990s that has fallen off. The next slide actually shows a much steeper decline. The decline is so steep that they actually had to change the scale here. The first slide went up to 80 percent and now it starts at 50 percent. The decline is really very steep.
In 1994, the peak year for agreeing with the US, when American policy was most credible in the world, almost half the voting went with the US. Last year the number was 18 percent for the whole world, all countries. That means that almost four-fifths of the time people disagreed with America, which is really quite shocking. In 1994, Iran agreed with America more than the rest of the world does today. That really is a considerable fall. When you consider the Middle East as well, the decline is even more dramatic. If you take a country that is, of all the Arab countries in the region, probably the most likely to be a close ally to the United States, it is Kuwait. America rescued Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. In 1994 Kuwait’s voting was more or less parallel with the rest of the world, around half of the voting agreed with the US. Last year Kuwait agreed with America and the United Nations only 7 percent of the time. This was not unique to Kuwait. Broadly for all Arab countries, it was only 7.5 percent and for the Organization of Islamic Conference countries it was only 8.5 percent of the time.
I started with the year 1994 because that was the peak year for the world being in harmony with US policy. This raises the question, why? What was so special about 1994 or the mid-1990s? I am going to be very simple and kind of reductive when I talk about credibility and how to build credibility and what credibility is about, and try to think of it as you would a person trying to build their credibility. What builds someone’s credibility?
I would just point out three important things. One is to tell the truth and be shown that you are telling the truth; to be truthful. Another one is to show that you stick to your principles. A third one is to show good judgment so people respect your judgment.
When we talk about back in the mid-1990s, what had America done to fulfill these kind of conditions for building its credibility? I think in terms of telling the truth or at least showing that what you say is true, something that America had done that was very important was the Soviet Union had collapsed – it was the end of the Cold War. We had proved that we were right about the Soviet Union. They were wrong; the whole world knew it. When you contrast that to now, the United States is suffering in its credibility right now. The Iraq debacle, when it was proved that the United States was wrong about Iraq or even, as many people believe, lying about Iraq, not being truthful. Even worse than that was getting caught in the act of lying or not being truthful.
We move to the second criteria and sticking to your principles. Back in 1994, after the first Gulf War, the defeat of Iraq, the United States very quickly moved on to making an all-out effort to pursue Arab-Israeli peace. It showed the United States was sticking with its principles of even-handedness, of trying to create a more peaceful world. I think it is important that at that time both the Bush administration and the early Clinton administration showed that they were willing to put pressure on both sides to achieve the objective of reaching some kind of Arab-Israeli peace. It did not work but in the past eight years we have seen something much different, a very one-sided approach to the Middle East that has been disastrous for people who live there, the Palestinians, the Lebanese during the 2006 war, and for American prestige and probably for the Israelis as well, who were backed by the United States. Since it became clear that this was actually exacerbating America’s problems there has been a return to trying to promote peace in a more even-handed way but no real resources have been put into this. So it has not really helped.
In terms of sticking to your principles, also there was much to be said about the democracy agenda under the Bush administration, which was an attempt to pursue principles. But I think it got too confused and in the end ended up with renewed charges of hypocrisy as the United States, for example, promoted elections in Palestine and then proceeded to ignore the results of the election.
The third criteria I spoke of is showing good judgment or at least measuring yourself next to others in a reasonable way. In the mid-1990s the United States had shown – I’ll take one example of really good judgment. At the end of the Cold War the United States did not act in a triumphalist fashion, as if it were the great victor. I think it was very important to take a measured approach, refrain from that. Also the United States engaged the rest of the world with cooperation, it showed patience with the rest of the world, with the extraordinary transitions that took place in Eastern Europe, for example. The United States also showed good judgment during the first Gulf War with Iraq. It waited until it had an enormous buildup not only of physical strength but also diplomatic strength in order to push through a very crushing victory that was extremely convincing and did a great deal to build American credibility.
I talked about truth-telling as well as sticking to your principles. It might be said that the more recent invasion of Iraq, in some ways America was right that Saddam was a very bad guy and America stuck to its principles – one might argue this – in overthrowing him. But I think in terms of judgment, I don’t think history will ever say that it was a wise thing to do. It was a mistake in judgment, that is very clear.
That is enough about the past; let’s try to look forward. I want to use again these three principles of truth-telling and sticking to your principles, showing good judgment. What can America do? What should it do? I think actually it has done one very important thing in terms of telling the truth or at least showing the world that what you say about yourself is true. I think the election of the first African-American president has been a very great exercise in truth-telling of that kind. It has given the lie to the many people who said America could never change, this kind of thing could never happen. I travel a great deal across the Middle East and from Morocco to Iran there is great enthusiasm for Barack Obama but very small belief that he could ever be elected. Even the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was quoted as saying “they will never allow Barack Obama to be elected.” To strip away that sort of cynicism is a very important step forward, showing that what you say is true.
In terms of sticking to principles, what can America do? I think as everyone knows, the poison at the heart of the Middle East is the Arab-Israeli problem. In moving forward America has to show to the world that it will stick to its principles in terms of being a fair arbiter of peace. It is very important that America not fall into the trap which happened last time, falling into “peace processing” mode, where everyone gives up because of the obstacles that build up along the way and you say “we can’t want peace more than they do,” the actual principals do. I think in terms of having your own principles, there is nothing wrong with wanting peace more than they do. It is worth using American power to push for that.
I think in terms of sticking to your principles also, the democracy agenda is important to America. It would probably be a mistake to drop that dramatically from the US foreign policy agenda. But in previous discussions some of the same things have been said: you have to respect the results of democracy and you also have to let people go at their own pace. You have to allow everyone to live their own history. People do not actually like to receive advice unless they ask for it. I am talking now in terms of behaving as people do between each other. So I don’t think the United States needs to abandon the agenda of democracy and human rights, it just needs to be more nuanced about the approach to these things and respect differences.
Finally, regarding showing good judgment, I think it’s very important that the United States learn perhaps to measure its own situation relative to other countries better. The lessons of the mistakes that have been made have caused the US to go through a big process of reassessment. This is a very important part of improving your judgment. There has already been a considerable change. It is very important for the US to adjust to its actual reduced position in the world. This is not necessarily a bad thing. There is moaning and groaning, people talk about the end of the American century or the end of America’s role in the world. I do not think that is necessarily true. It is not a calamity. It is actually a return to a much more normal situation. The period of relative American dominance was actually created as much by other people’s mistakes and by other people’s weakness as by great American progress, policy and so on. So it is a return to a more normal situation.
Simply, America needs to show more modesty, more effort in consensus-building, leading by example rather than trying to push other people around. Not approaching every problem with the carrot and stick framework. Another thing, it is very important for the United States to try to frame its goals in terms of the rest of the world in a positive way rather than a negative. If you take the question of Iran, for example, which is a burning question right now – perhaps the most important foreign policy question – nobody except perhaps some people in Iran wants Iran to get nuclear weapons. We all know that. The trouble is that the question has been framed solely as how to stop Iran doing this, how to block Iran, how to deter Iran from doing this. This is the wrong approach. I think it would show better judgment to frame the whole question as an effort to convince Iran to become a respected and productive part of a very integrated world. It is not a matter of carrot or stick. Iran has an open invitation to the world. It does not have to be seen as coercion.
In many ways, a lot of what I have been talking about has already been recognized, is already in process. During the last two years of the Bush administration, especially since the disastrous year of 2006, which saw civil war erupt in Iraq, a dreadful war in Lebanon, Hamas winning elections – the entire American agenda virtually collapsed in that year – there has been really serious reassessment. I do not think you need to have radical changes in the approach that is being adopted by the United States but I think it is important to apply full resources to very obvious goals, the very obvious goals being the Arab-Israeli peace, bringing Iran out of its isolation, and perhaps most importantly is trying to promote a positive vision for the world, particularly for the Middle East. A vision of a peaceful and prosperous future, a vision that contrasts with the extremists’ dark, xenophobic alternatives that other people are proposing, that are being proposed not just by people who are enemies of the United States but people who are enemies of all of us, everywhere. Thank you.
Michael Ryan: Our next speaker, Ron Suskind, is known to all of us here in Washington, DC, as a prolific writer. I will just mention his last book and let him talk his way through it: “The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism.”
Ron Suskind: Thank you for having me. I am the last person to step up to the podium here, we’ll do Q&A after this and I hope it is vigorous, to close out the conference. My friends from The Economist and Al-Jazeera, as other speakers, have framed the dilemmas du jour with some real alacrity. I am going to tell you a few stories. That is part of what I do, I go around the world to try to find stories that resonate, that cause pores to open and for people to think thoughts that are sometimes against their will. People get dug in in their areas of interest. Sometimes they are paid for that. It is important to dislodge them.
I will just look back for one instant. I have written three books in the last six years, mostly on the Bush administration. I don’t know what I’m going to do without that guy now. Good God, how did this happen?
But I want to go back to one very early story, actually the first story I came across, chronologically speaking, of our now soon-to-be ex-president. But it is quite telling, surprisingly so, more so as the days pass. It is the first National Security Council meeting of this presidency, January 2001. I wrote about this in the first of these three books of this period, “The Price of Loyalty.” The protagonist of that book, some of you may recall, was the former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who of course is a principal of the National Security Council and in some ways, in terms of disclosures, the very worst nightmare of Dick Cheney. And he proved to be, thank goodness. In that meeting, the very first one of this presidency, George Bush was setting some ground rules and Condi was there across the table. Everyone was there, all the characters you know. Bush started and said, Condi is going to run these things, but how many people here have met Sharon? People were not sure if it’s a joke. Er, I have. Bush said, I met him a couple years ago when I was a governor. Again, people are uncertain; it’s early. They are uncertain how to react. Some flyover with some governors in Gaza and the West Bank, and Bush discusses this. He kind of says to the group, everyone – Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld, the gang – I looked down, it looked pretty bad to me, that whole area. From the sky, I guess. My idea was, if they’re not going to work things out themselves, no way we’re going to help them.
So this is the beginning. But there’s one line in about thirty seconds you’ll hear which is a real zinger: So I think we should just kind of back out of the whole region. Now Colin Powell says: Excuse me, Mr. President, if we pull out of the region, we will lose our honest broker status which we have worked decades to earn at some cost. We as well may unleash Sharon – newly in office at that point – and his inclinations, and that may tear the fabric of the region in ways that will be irreparable. Hmm. This is the first challenge to the new president. Bush listens in on this, he settles back. He’s not a fool, make no mistake. He says: yeah, I understand. But I’ll tell you, Colin, sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things.
That is the Bush Doctrine, my friends. Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things. Now we stand here eight years later and I think we have a good sense of exactly what many shows of force have clarified. My friends have talked about the loss of America’s moral authority. How you go about the very tricky process of regaining that is a thorny dilemma, make no mistake, especially when you are the home of so much assembled military, economic and cultural might as America is. That power has its own sort of reflex models of self-protection. The first thing you have to do is rein it in. It will move on its own course to exercise itself. Power does that.
How do you get it back, as Max talked about? Things we know from our own lives – what happens in your own life? We’ve got a moral compass, each of us, right? When you’re in the doghouse, what do you do? You say, I’m sorry. You say, boy, I messed up here, and I know what I did too. I know what I’ve learned from it and I won’t let that happen again. It is hard for a powerful country to do but it is something that the world is sitting here saying, can they manage that maturity? A country of such might, to be humble? It’s a big question.
I think there is hope across America about the arrival of Barack Obama. In “The Way of the World” I did a lot of reporting, some which I did not use – I thought I would talk about the election, I kind of did not do that. I figured it would be ending as the book came out, it came out in August. But I talked to lots of folks who are right in the shadow, at the edge of Islamic radicalism. The guys you call, 1-800-world jihad. It is like a number you call. I checked in, guys Max knows and everyone knows. I asked them what they thought of the various candidates as things unfolded. It’s fascinating. Think about, that show of force will really clarify things, that Bush Doctrine, what it has wrought – this badly weighted imbalance, force works, coercion over persuasion, the new American model. As I talked to these folks in world jihad, I said, what do you think of these candidates? They were very pumped up about Giuliani, interestingly. Really? Giuliani, you don’t say? What’s behind that? “All for Giuliani.” I said, explain it to me, I’m a neophyte here. Well, he’s angry, that’s good for us. He’s a 9/11 man, they said. He believes in force, force, force. Boots on the ground, giant mechanized military – that’s good for us. Okay, I got it.
When Giuliani tanked, they were quite dispirited. Then Huckabee had a good day in Iowa, remember that? Big day in Iowa. So I got on the phone to world jihad, I checked in with the guys. I said, what do you think of Huckabee? Oh, Huckabee, yeah. I said, help me out here, you’re losing me with Huckabee. Well, he is also a believer in force, they tell me. And he’s a cleric. I said, what? He’s a Christian cleric. You are a theocracy, you won’t admit it; he will admit it for you, it is very good. Okay, now I’m seeing the light of reason.
Then of course at the same moment you have that seminal emergence of Barack Hussein Obama. Oh boy. A bad day on the phone lines with world jihad that day. I couldn’t get the guys off the phone. My wife is calling me for dinner, “Honey, there’s company here!” I say, one more minute. “Oh, it’s bad, very bad, terrible, Obama.” I said, explain. Well, you don’t need me to explain – they all say the same thing. He looks like the world. He knows Islam. His grandfather was a goat herder from Kenya! Oy vey! Half of the world lives on $2 a day or less – that’s two or three generations away from him. One of them said, he may well be a rock star – that was the term he used – for the Muslim moderates of the world if he plays his cards right. And they will crush us – they outnumber us, you know, five or six to one, and they know where we live. I said, really? Yes, he must be stopped.
So that’s all past. I am going to tell you a few hopeful stories because I have been told to try to be hopeful. We are at the end of our session. And I am hopeful, and these stories are ones that I found after years of search, that improbably lifted my spirits as to where America might go and the world may join us. Follow may not even be the right word, I think it is side by side.
There is a guy in the book, “The Way of the World,” Tom Koenigs. Tom was the UN Special Rep in Afghanistan for a couple years. He left about a year ago. I was with Tom and the guy has gotten around – an older guy, has been in a lot of hotspots. I’m with Tom in Kabul in the UN compound. He is going to be leaving in a couple days, a good time for a guy like me to be standing there with a pad. The place is empty, a big echoing, freezing place. It is his home, of course, but where he has official functions. Tom is talking about the lessons he has learned across this period. It is fascinating. He talks about a steward in the UN compound who is actually and interestingly sort of a tribal chief, though he serves food. What happens is that people come to meet with Tom, they see this guy – I’ll call him Ahmed – and they go, oh goodness, what is he doing here? And they are deferential to the tribal leader, interestingly. They say, who should be serving whom? The tribal leader sort of nods and smiles, thinking, I will be here forever and soon they will all be gone.
Then Tom says, but something happened to me just a few weeks ago. A group of men came, tribal leaders from Pakistan, from the tribal areas right across the border. They came here to the UN compound in Kabul. I said, what do you guys want with me? They all, about twelve of them, sat down at a big baronial table, and the eldest of them – an uneducated man but clearly as bright as they come – said, we were wondering if you could redraw the border. Tom’s like, the what? Redraw it. We are right on the edge, on the Pakistan side, could you redraw it? Tom says, no, I can’t do that. Why would you want that? He says, this old man in his vivid dress, because we are old men and we don’t know how to read. We were sitting around not too long ago and we realized our grandchildren don’t know how to read either. We thought if we were on the Afghanistan side, maybe someone could build us a school. Tom, skeptical chap that he is, says, a school to teach religious study? No, no, we’re good with that. They know plenty of madrassahs. No, so the grandchildren can know the world. No matter what, they would need that. Tom said, I’ll be. Humble? Open yourself up? Don’t be too sure of yourself? He says, they are just old men worried about their grandkids. I like that story. It tells me a lot of things, some of them against my will, about often the meaninglessness of borders in some parts of the world, often arbitrarily drawn borders.
And also about the search for some notion of shared purpose. There are a lot of ideologies out there and there are a lot of national ideas and interests of nations bumping against one another. But a big part of the challenge now in the evermore connected world that we are living in – look, when I’m a teenager, every dusty village is not hooked up with internet and cable. I don’t think Tom Friedman is right, with all due respect; the world is not flat. It is full of peaks and valleys in fact. We are in a peak here. What is flat is the communications signal. Everyone can see everyone else finally, often with clarity as to invidious comparisons. That is an opportunity, if you think about it the right way. What is it that people say, if they could say one thing I share with someone not like me, a better life for my children – that’s a big one. Everyone is in on that. I want to survive. I want some security, I want to keep my belly full and my kids too.
Before I saw Tom, I saw Dan McNeil. He was sort of the Petraeus then in Afghanistan, running ISAF, the Coalition forces. Dan had been educated by his cross-border conversation with Koenigs. You’ve got the military man and the UN rep, they kind of met back-channel over at the UN compound and didn’t tell anyone about it. Tom said, you’ve got to be clear as to what works. Force is not working anywhere in the world. There is no way to hold a territory in this era, this era when individuals can connect up in countless ways and get their hands on the destructive power once reserved for nations, you cannot hold the territory now no matter who you are. How many times have we learned that just in these past few years?
What is interesting is that McNeil says, if we can move Afghanistan from the fifth-poorest country in the world to the fifteenth and get a working government, that would be success – modest. But then we talked about what a military can do in this era. We spent $700 billion on a highly mechanized, twentieth-century military even though the era of armies assembled on borders is over. You know what we talked about? Maybe a thing an army can do is simply protect humanitarian workers who do things of indisputable value and ask nothing in return. That is the key, that last part. The transactional foreign policy that Max was talking about? Bait and switch? I know you need me to save your life but sign here and there. It ruins the whole thing that minute.
How does it look? Think about a model. McNeil and I are talking about it. Petraeus understands this. Think of Kashmir, one example. In 2005 the United States’ approval rating in Pakistan, a fault-line country, is in the teens. The humanitarian armies come from America, they go to the disaster in Kashmir; a week later, the United States is at a 48 percent approval rating. Almost equal to bin Laden. Head to head, it’s really a race then. A few months later, on some bad intelligence – virtually all of our intelligence is bad – we bomb a village in the tribal areas and we kill eighteen people, all innocent people, and we are back down to the teens. Message? There it is.
What happens if your army is there to protect good works? Over time there will be bad days but your intentions will be clear, both word and deed. Consistency. We are here to help, we who have been given a great deal. Potable water, electricity, the kind of drugs you can get at the CVS in a school – that’s what we do, we build things. We are good at that. Part of the maturation of a nation is knowing what you are good at and doing that. The greatest twentieth-century effort (non-military) of the United States? Easy: Marshall Plan. We were not there trying to make the Germans and the Japanese like us. Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima. Of course we wanted a security screen for Europe. No, no, we said it is the right thing to do to rebuild your countries. The key is, we are not going to ask anything in return. Eventually you Germans and you Japanese will believe that we believe in free will. You will bend toward the sunlight, we hope, whenever you decide – you, our peers.
I have been around the world, like our friends, like many of you. This actually works. This is the way you get populations to say, they are a force for good.
Last story, a quickie but a beauty. One of the characters of this book is an incredible young man named Usman Kosa from Pakistan. The pride of Lahore, he went to the Aitcheson School there. It was a British sort of school, blue blazers and all the rest. He comes to America, the pride of Aitcheson, like his sister before him. He goes to a fine American college and he ends up down here working in Washington as an economic consultant. He works two blocks from the White House. He likes to walk to the White House, as a lot of immigrants do. It is a symbol. One day, walking toward the White House in the summer – he keeps his suits at the office, he is in his gym shorts, he’s fooling with his iPod – he is standing in a tricky spot. The gates are opening. Dick Cheney’s limo is pulling out. Usman is fooling with his iPod. A minute later, Usman is taken down by Secret Service and dragged into an interrogation room under the White House. There is one, believe it or not. A harrowing day for our American dreamer – forget American, a dreamer of possibility, human. He spends the next two years trying to restore his faith in some sort of future for himself in this country.
But the key moment is lovely. It is when he goes back to Lahore where he sees his sister he has not seen in a few years. She is also brilliant, went to the London School of Economics. It is a family of Pakistani professionals, police chiefs and government officials. She went on a different path. She is extremely religious. After she graduated from the London School and she is in the religious Muslim community of London, she wears an abaya. Just her eyes is all you can see. Usman is in slacks from Bloomingdale’s. Brother and sister. They argue all night, four hours. It is harrowing, the battle inside of the family of Islam. Her husband is there, also a religious person, a doctor. And their father. It goes on and on.
And then a key moment arrives where Usman says, you know, I was once more religious. Sadiya, his sister, says, I remember, a few years ago, what happened to you? He says, I don’t know what happened, I changed. It’s too much to explain how he changed. He says, I don’t know, maybe I embraced a kernel of doubt and that changed me. Maybe it’s the kind of thing that would keep me from doing the ultimate sorts of acts that passionate intensity and religious certainty sometimes lead to. Sadiya’s husband, the doctor, says, I am certain, I have no doubt, and I am not blowing up things. Osama bin Laden and I are not the same person. It is fierce – Usman backs off. He says, all right, fine. I am just saying that I think over the recent centuries a kernel of doubt has been crucial to human progress. Sadiya, his sister, has not spoken in a half-hour but she cannot resist – she’s brilliant. She says, all right then, how exactly would you define human progress? Usman says, shall we define it together? Let’s try.
Wow. I think that’s really the question. Can we back off of some of our narrow and native interests and figure out ways to define human progress together? It is the challenge that America faces but it is a challenge that the world faces. The way we are going in the miracles of this modern age, when small groups of people can get their hands on the destructive power once reserved for nations, we have really no choice. The question is: if. These are stories of people trying to find the answers, as many people in this room are trying every day. Thank you for coming today. God bless.
Question & Answer:
Michael Ryan: I have a number of questions and I am going to start with the rudest, I guess, first. This is one that questions the credibility of the media: The world wants truth; as the Jack Nicholson character said in “A Few Good Men,” “You can’t handle the truth.” Isn’t politics and media presentation all about spin rather than truth?
Max Rodenbeck: The truth comes out. The role of the media is often contested. The media is always attacked. The media is seen as a monolith by some people but it is a very diverse animal. I think certainly people who work in the media seek the truth. We operate in an environment where there is an increasing sophistication in how to manipulate these things but the manipulation of truth is a very ancient art. I am not quite sure how to address the question actually.
Michael Ryan: I have another one, even ruder, for you. This question is about Al-Jazeera not being fully objective – it asks, why? – when it comes to Iraq. We hardly hear the news from the other side of the story. So a question about truth in general and then a question about Al-Jazeera’s treatment of Iraq.
Ibrahim Helal: Al-Jazeera was kicked out of Iraq in 2004 and then Al-Jazeera English, when we came to presence, we were allowed – Al-Jazeera only – to be back in Iraq, for six months only before we were kicked out again. I have to admit that Al-Jazeera was about to be kicked out before that but during the American supervision of the government in Iraq before the Iraqi government took over officially, we were protected by the American presence. They were smart enough to think Al-Jazeera was very essential to cover Iraq. That is another story.
It is difficult not to be there and to be judged. We are trying. We have a lot of secret correspondents and sources in Iraq. I think the judgment of Al-Jazeera that we are not objective in Iraq is not fair. No one is objective in Iraq. It depends only on how much information you can get and from where, at what moment. I was head of news at Al-Jazeera Arabic before the invasion and we were the only media organization in the Middle East saying that Iraq does not have weapons of mass destruction. And we were right. We were not wrong at the time. We were the only media organization – because most Arab media organizations were against the Iraqi regime. We were not pro the Iraqi regime, we were just telling the truth. We had information about the situation in Iraq that there was no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. During the coverage itself of the war, several times Al-Jazeera was the only source of news reporting conflicting information with Western sources, and we were right. On the other hand we were the first organization to report that Basra had fallen into British hands. When it happened, we did not shy away from saying the truth.
The prism of watching Al-Jazeera as a Middle Eastern organization, they believe Al-Jazeera is part of this dark place in the world – we should get rid of this prism and deal with Al-Jazeera as another media organization, not a Middle Eastern organization.
Michael Ryan: We have another question about how US foreign policy could include Islamic moderates in gaining American credibility in the Middle East when Islamic moderates feel maligned by US foreign policy. I would change that slightly to say, how do you think that the United States can talk to Islamic moderates in regaining credibility?
Ron Suskind: It is no secret. I think the conversation between the US and the Islamic moderates, which are many – there are a billion-plus people in the Islamic world and they are not any one thing, they are many things, just like any people are. Just like people are in America. The key right at the start is going to be these first few months, frankly. It cannot look like business as usual or a great opportunity will be lost. There is no doubt about that. I talk about the conversation with 1-800-world jihad – they are fearful about what Obama might do. The question is, will Obama be able essentially to exercise the kind of force of will to rein in some of America’s traditional and institutional impulses of a vast military-industrial establishment, of a lot of boots on the ground now, of giant interests and forces inside the US government, to clear some area so that we are not having the sort of disintegration where the left hand and the right hand have no idea what the other one is doing. That just does not work. It makes us incoherent in terms of some idea that defines us. That is where we have been up until now.
The fact though is that Obama will probably lead the conversation. I think there is reasonable hope that by virtue of his sort of ontological composition as well as what brings him here, as well as some of the things he has said, that he will get a chance to hit the restart button. People will at the start – not quite as it was after 9/11 but not actually that dissimilar – will say, I’m ready to look anew at the United States.
How does that conversation go? It is a conversation defined, as some of us have talked about up here – all of us really – by a kind of clarity, a kind of humility, a kind of a search, instead of “sit down and shut up and let us tell you what to do and how to be.” It does not work. It works less well now than it did thirty years ago. It will work even less well five years from now. How that is achieved, managed and executed will be a test of leadership and I think in a way of character. In some ways the only match with such awesome might that the United States possesses is being humble. That is something those guys figured out after World War II. They said, that’s the only thing that really balances it. Be a force for good, don’t be transactional, don’t be constantly lecturing them. Yeah, okay, that’s fine, just finish so I can tell you what I really think. Those little things really are the [indiscernible] of the successful dialogue, so you can get to the point eventually.
There is a great model I love, the Jesuits. I’m a Jewish guy but my wife is Catholic and I met these Jesuits. They say, the first thing you do is find something in your opponent’s argument that you can agree with. That is the first step when you are in a potentially tendentious exchange. The idea is that they will trust this enough that they will attempt the same. I think that’s a big part of what is needed. As well as the United States not essentially making it harder, as we have, for the Islamic moderates with some of our pronouncements and actions, which can do nothing else but lead people to believe that the United States is in a battle against Islam. Just step back – it is easier to see the mountain from the plain than when you are climbing it. You get back to the plain, you see the range of mountains clear as a bell. That is part of hopefully the American growth going forward. I have, having spent hour after hour with Islamic moderates around the globe, enormous and earned faith that if they are empowered they can manage to lead. They can. Frankly, just like Usman and Sadiya arguing, there is a kind of clarity and humility that comes from that argument, where you are sitting on the side saying they are going to have to work this out. I can’t do it. I don’t have nearly enough credibility to be in between the two of them, whether it is me or America, but I need to encourage progress as best I can, often subtly, often below the radar and often not with demonstrable action-oriented, ABC kind of dictates. That is part of the key and hopefully it will work.
Max Rodenbeck: I think there is a framework problem with the question, in a sense: how should we deal with moderates? It is a mistake to actually try to separate moderates from whoever else, extremists. Islam, like any religion, is a very broad church – wrong word, but you know. You are talking about a continuous spectrum that goes to very different ends. To try to separate out of that what is a moderate and what is not, is a mistake. I think actually the United States should have a dialogue with every kind of Muslim, including the most extreme.
Ron Suskind: I completely agree with what Max is saying right now. The key was both Sadiya and Usman were in the room together.
Max Rodenbeck: One example of this, you take a very crucial issue like suicide bombing. Who among the Muslim clerics approves or disapproves of suicide bombing? We know that Saudi Arabia is the most conservative heart of conservative Islam. It is actually the Wahhabist, highest religious authorities of Saudi Arabia who have condemned suicide bombing in the most uncertain terms. You often find it is so-called moderate clerics such as Sheikh Qaradawi, unfortunately the Al-Jazeera channel’s guy, who has actually approved of suicide bombings within certain things. It is probably a big mistake to sit and judge who is moderate and who is not. It is not a fruitful way of approaching things.
Ibrahim Helal: I totally agree. It is a big mistake to repeat this word actually, the moderate Islam or modernism in Islam or moderates in the Arab world. It is a misused term. Thanks to the American intervention in the Middle East this term has deteriorated and it is shameful now to label anyone as moderate. It’s like, no, no, I’m not moderate. Let’s face it, it is like reform in the Middle East. Because America used to insist on reform, reform, reform – and now if you talk about reform in the Middle East you are American, you are pro-West.
So I think the framing of dialogue should not be with moderate, it should be with those who represent the society whoever they are – they are moderates, they are Taliban, they are secular, whatever. A good example of dialogue, whether it is secret or open dialogue, is between American government and the Turkish ruling party. I heard a lot of stories. I have been to Istanbul after the approval of the ruling party, after this big case. I was told by many influential Turkish politicians that America interfered to support the ruling party in Turkey because it is moderate – but they did not say moderate. But it is a very representative party because it represents the society. It happens that this party represents society. I think we should encourage more dialogue with those who represent society. In Afghanistan, 80 percent of the land is controlled by Taliban. They represent the society whether we like that or not.
Michael Ryan: That leads into the next general question: to what extent is it possible and prudent to engage in negotiations with the Taliban leadership? What kind of concessions have they made that would make that seem reasonable?
Ibrahim Helal: Again, I mention the word dignity. Thanks to my colleague here, he mentioned the word humble. Part of my paper I was about to read but I avoided talking about this, one of my friends as well talked to me about the American arrogance in the region. This should stop. Dealing with Taliban represents this humble approach to talk with your enemies, to talk to those who represent the real society. Taliban started to make some changes. What they need actually is to gain back their dignity, the dignity for the Afghani people, to stop the indiscriminate killing of the Afghani people. That was the term I heard from some Taliban figures I met in Kabul three months ago. They need to stop the indiscriminate killing and keep their dignity. A shared ground is what we should talk about with them. What they need as well is to rule their places – they are already ruling them but they want to stop the killing. They want to reach an agreement, a similar agreement they reached with the British in Musa Qala before.
So there is a window of hope to talk with the Taliban. They are different Taliban now. Everyone is moving ahead, the Taliban change. Seven years ago they were different from today.
Ron Suskind: I generally am of the mind that there is no one you shouldn’t sit down with. We have sat down over the decades with some very destructive characters. The fact is the downside is not what people say, that you’re giving credibility to monsters – I don’t think it is that at all. In fact it is often the moment where the monsters reveal themselves, if in fact that is the case. What is interesting is how they often cannot resist the hot lights when the lights are on. Fascinating. We were chatting a minute ago about how two of the most noted terrorists were caught – Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Ramzi bin Al Shibh – especially Ramzi bin Al Shibh – they contacted Yosri Fouda, an Al-Jazeera reporter, in 2002, in the spring. They felt neglected. They said, we’re big shots – we planned 9/11. We are in a little safe house in Karachi, let’s get some press. We want our moms to be proud of us for this thing we did, this horrific thing. So Yosri was swept up in the blindfolds and the car drove around so he didn’t know where he was. He met them in this little apartment. They laid it out, how they did 9/11 and what was behind it. He took some shots at them and then he went off. Of course when he got back to Qatar at Al-Jazeera headquarters he told his bosses, and his boss told his boss, and his boss and his boss, until it went up to the Emir. The Emir picked up the phone and called George Tenet. That is how we got the crosshairs on where they were. I kind of like that story.
The fact is once people start moving into these negotiating positions at the table, they often suddenly hand over all sorts of things. As well, you can at least begin the process of saying, all right, what is it that you really want?
Another thing I will say in conclusion on that is I think a lot about our negotiations, so to speak, with the Vietnamese at the end of the Vietnam war. The Vietnamese, North Vietnam, they were evil. They were the worst of the worst. They were villains and monsters. Then the negotiations were completed and 55,000 American soldiers died there, and not too many years later people were vacationing in that region of the world. I have a cousin who is going there this week.
The fact is that people tend to, often against their will, bend towards sunlight. Part of the challenge is whether they can be encouraged to do with all manner of tools in the toolkit.
Wendy Chamberlin is someone who is in this book. She is the kind of sotto voce presence here, cannot be quite as public as she usually is. I just want to say that over the last two years Wendy has been someone who I met with many times. Her path from ambassador to Pakistan to USAID, running many of the good works – school buildings and whatnot in Iraq – to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and then back here to the Middle East Institute, is the kind of journey that Herodotus would say gives you a “Herodotus perch,” where you can see things in their fine detail and their full context. What is interesting is that much of what the Middle East Institute has done in the past year has been defined by Wendy’s search for answers, and I just want to say that it illuminated my path as well – answers improbable but telling, resonant, as to how we can manage to get off the brink, out of the bunker, so that we can have real forward progress. I just wanted to say, maybe people should applaud Wendy here for a second.
Michael Ryan: I was told when I was a young man that you could never go wrong praising your boss, so I guess that’s okay. Thank you. I want to thank everyone once again for coming here. It was grand. I think over the course of today and last night we heard a number of things that resonate with all of us. Some of them are going to be very difficult for a new president to do. We were told by a number of panelists to stick with our principles, to support the rule of law. To not forget an independent judiciary, we heard many times – not just a parliament, not just a leader. Don’t just go with the military, talk to the civilians. Lead by example, look in the mirror, we heard from the last panel. Look at ourselves as Americans. At the same time, don’t give up your principles – but don’t be arrogant when you try to uphold them. Don’t look at quid pro quo as much, don’t look at force so much.
These are all things that in a way sound like clichés but maybe we need to look back at some of those clichés that were clichés long ago and maybe we forgot, and bring them back. I think that was the message of many of our speakers.
I want to thank JF Holsten for his tremendous efforts in putting this together, and the staff and the interns. I want to thank all of you for staying. Thank you very much.