Middle East analyst Michael Rubin ’94, GRD ’99 is currently a visiting fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His extensive travels have included extended stays in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and in northern Iraq. In an interview with contributing reporter C. Wallace DeWitt, Rubin addresses what he sees as persistent flaws in America’s foreign policy.
The News: Have we been embarking on a policy of appeasement? What do you think of our foreign policy vis-a-vis the Middle East and the Muslim world?
MR: The only difference between compromise and appeasement is historical retrospect.
Most of the Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans and Sudanese I’ve interviewed in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sudan strongly believe that what we’re doing is appeasement. They cannot imagine why we think that they want to live under these regimes, or why we would act to strengthen them.
One farmer in a city in Iraq near the Iranian border, the day after the smart sanctions proposal was announced, came to me one day while I was having lunch on his farm and said to me, “Why the heck does the United States talk about war crimes of Saddam one day and reward Saddam the next?”
And if this is how the Iraqis are looking at smart sanctions, then the State Department should be ashamed of themselves for pursuing this policy.
The News: What do you think the prospects are of the United States’ invading Iraq?
MR: I would make the metaphor that Iraq is almost like a hornet’s nest, and I know from my conversations [in the Middle East] that this is how many of the regional states and our allies view it.
When you’ve got a hornet’s nest, you’ve got two possible scenarios which are best: one is leave it alone, and the other is to get rid of it. The worst possible thing you can do is to hit it once or twice, stir up all the hornets, and then walk away.
The question with Iraq is not whether they were involved on Sept. 11. The question with Iraq is, do we think they have the capacity, the will and the means to create mass casualties in the United States.
I think they do. The evidence shows they do. And then the issue is, why should we wait and sacrifice another 5,000 innocent lives?
Iraq is a state that has started two wars, and in the space of 10 months they killed 182,000 of their own civilians.
They used chemical weapons against their own civilians. I know because many of my own students were the survivors of this, and they won’t forget the day that their brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers died.
I’m not willing to risk it, I’m not willing to make the same mistake three times.
The News: The pages of the Yale Daily News often feature editorials regarding the sanctions against Iraq and their possible ill effects on innocent Iraqis. What are your thoughts on this?
MR: In the parts of Iraq not controlled by Saddam Hussein, you can have access to the Internet. And I showed some of my Iraqi friends the editorials that were coming from Yale, and their feeling was “Don’t try to do us any favors.”
Many of the activists in the Yale College Council may have been well-intentioned, but were very naive and tended to forget that they’re playing with real people’s lives. They’ve never talked to Iraqis.
Many of the activists, when they do go to Iraq, are carefully escorted, they have to be minded, and the people that they interview are watched by Iraqi security. Sanctions are not to blame for suffering in Iraq. Many people cite the UNICEF report, for example, from 1999 that talks about a half million children who have died.
If they actually look at the report, they will see that it’s not just a UNICEF report, [that] it’s co-authored by the Iraqi government, and [that] it’s using Iraqi Ministry of Health statistics supplied by the Iraqi government — uncritically.
I spoke with U.N. officials when I was in Iraq who acknowledge that the report is hogwash. Even if you wanted to accept that report, there is the question of the September 2000 Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization report, which found that half of all Iraqis are overweight, and the leading causes of adult mortality are heart disease and diabetes.
It’s hard to starve when the U.N. gives every man, woman and child 2,472 calories.
Now even if you don’t want to accept that qualitatively, I lived in a safe haven which isn’t just about Kurds; it’s a place where people are free to speak openly without fear of killing themselves. Now, I [talked] not only to Kurds but to Arabs as well.
No one wanted to live under Saddam Hussein, but under sanctions, they said that mortality had declined in this area. Fertility has increased. Whereas in 1988, 4,006 out of 4,500 villages were destroyed by the Iraqi government, over 2,000 of these have been rebuilt under sanctions.
If you have the same sanctions in the parts of Iraq controlled by Saddam Hussein and in North Iraq, and the North is doing so much better, then the variable that needs the studying isn’t the sanctions, it’s who is implementing them.
And the difference is that Saddam Hussein is implementing them in the South.
The News: As we discover more and more links between the various terrorist organizations of the world, will you be willing to recommend our embarking on a multiple-front war with other states which harbor terrorists, like Iraq, Iran or Syria?
MR: I would strongly advise countries like Iran and Syria, and Iraq, to make amends more than rhetorically during [action against the Taliban].
For example, Iran shelters what many intelligence officers consider the most dangerous terrorist in the world, a gentleman by the name of Imad Mugniyeh, who is responsible, among other things, for a series of bombings against American targets and Jewish targets and hijackings in the 1980s and 1990s.
This is not cooperative in the war against terror. Iran is building a nuclear power plant when they are awash in oil. This is curious.
Syria, recently elected onto the U.N. Security Council with no objection from the United States, hosts more terrorist groups as defined by the State Department than any other country.
Why they should be considered part of our coalition against terror is beyond me. What has happened is that Secretary of State Colin Powell and especially Policy Planning Director Richard Haass have been unable to see the forest for the trees.
In their efforts to build as broad a coalition as possible, they have diluted what it means to be part of this coalition. So countries on the terrorist list like Sudan, like Syria, have been able to conduct business as usual and reap the financial reward.
If I were a country and I wanted something from the United States, the lesson I would learn from American foreign policy is the last thing I want to do is cooperate with the United States.
The News: What kind of government can we hope to establish in Afghanistan?
MR: The key pattern in Afghan history is that no one has wanted to be dominated by people of another group.
Now the problem is you can put the Pashtuns versus the Tajiks, two main ethnic and linguistic groups, but there’s no actual majority in Afghanistan.
The plurality of Afghanistan is Pashtun, but no matter who is in-charge, if you have a strong central government, you’re going to have the majority of people against it.
The News: And the Northern Alliance?
MR: The problem is that the Northern Alliance isn’t just an opposition movement. They were the government from 1992 to 1996. And there’s a reason why they got thrown out of power: they were brutal warlords. Period.
This is why I would very strongly advocate devolving power, real power and control over fiscal resources, to the provincial level [so that] the power at the center is so diffuse that it’s not even worth fighting over.
The News: In interviewing various individuals in the Middle East, what have you found to be the prevailing view of America and Americans?
MR: The average person from Tehran probably likes America for what he sees on “Baywatch.” When it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan, there tends to be an ironic frustration.
Oftentimes on the academic scene we hear complaints that the United States is too imperialistic, always tries to interfere.
What many Afghans and Iraqis say is that the U.S. is all-powerful, [that] they have the sense that the U.S. has a purpose to everything, and that muddling-through is not a problem in Washington. Therefore, the U.S. has the power to effect change and doesn’t.
And so they blame the United States for not being more activist in its foreign policy towards the Middle East.
No matter what the United States does, we are going to be criticized by both sides of the spectrum. We should forget the idea that there’s a panacea, that if the U.S. changes its foreign policy in response to Sept. 11, aside from rewarding the terrorists, it also isn’t going to make the U.S. any less of a target.